Friday, January 10, 2020


This story is about Ben, a beautiful German Shepherd who came into my life over thirty years ago.  Ben was a failed guard dog.  He’d undergone some rather suspect training to guard a reclamation yard at night and hadn’t shown that steely personality needed to strike fear into the hearts of would be thieves. 

As I mentioned Ben’s training was highly suspect.  He arrived at my mother’s house as a very nervous, anxious to please, but not sure of his welcome two year old dog.  Before that he’d failed to make the grade as a guard dog and then been passed on to my father, who found Ben to be far too much of a woos for his tastes.  Ben was then passed on to my mother.  My mother had a dreadful record with training animals, they tended to walk all over her (sometimes literally) and a dog as big as Ben, who’d found he liked this new relaxed way of living and took shameful advantage of it, ultimately became too much for my mother and sisters to handle.  I was asked if I could find a good home for him.

I felt dreadfully sorry for Ben, but with Aasta, my Old English Sheepdog and Buffy, the Whippet, I couldn’t talk Graeme into adopting a German Shepherd whom Graeme had seen on his worst behaviour.  I knew Ben responded to obedience training – he behaved well for my father after all, but finding him a home where he’d quickly learn that he was loved, but had to behave himself was a bit daunting.  Until I looked over the fence towards my neighbours.  They had had German Shepherds in the past, and preferred that breed to any other.  Sonja was a very matter of fact person and Bert, standing and 6’ 4” (this was pre-metric days but converts to 1.9 metres for those modern readers), tended to command everyone’s respect.  I made the offer and Sonja was quick to say yes.

Graeme and I picked Ben up from my mother’s home and embarked on the hour’s drive to our place.  Ben sat up in the back of the station wagon and enjoyed the sights while I lectured him on the behaviour expected in his new life.  Ben listened with half an ear, but I got the feeling that he was enjoying the ride, while plotting more misdeeds when he got back home.  Things took a scary turn for Ben when we moved out of the suburbs and into the rural area close to our five acre home at The Oaks near Camden.  There was Ben, admiring the scenery and wondering where all the houses had gone when he spotted some huge creatures with horns just a few yards from where he was sitting in the car.  Thankfully they disappeared quickly, so he tried to forget all about them but more and more of these worrying looking monsters kept appearing.  I could almost hear Ben thinking, “Where are these people taking me?  I know my behaviour has slipped a bit lately, but surely they aren’t going to feed me to these monsters!”  Ben slowly, so as not to draw attention to himself, sank down until he was below the level of the window.  Things improved greatly after that.  He couldn’t see the horned monsters and he was pretty sure they couldn’t see him.

We arrived home and I took Ben to meet his new family.  Ben behaved politely (I think the cows had duly chastened him for a while), gave himself a tour of Sonja’s five acres, came inside and noted the most comfortable places for a big dog to rest, quickly found out that big dogs rested on the floor in this house, not anywhere they pleased as in his old home.  With a philosophical air Ben walked in the circle so many dogs require before settling down and found a comfortable spot of the fluffy mat. 

When I said goodbye to Ben, he was inclined to follow me, likely in the hope that I would return him to his home where he reigned supreme.  I explained to him that he belonged to Sonja, and with quick presence of mind, Sonja offered him some food in the kitchen while I made my escape.  Thus a love affair began to blossom.  Ben quickly learned what was and was not acceptable behaviour and Sonja fell in love with this gorgeous boy who was always a bit of a scamp.  If Ben did backslide and misbehave in some way, he was scolded straight away.  Ben would then retire to the bathroom, sit in the corner and refuse to look at or talk to anyone until he got over his sulks.  Occasionally when I visited there’d be no sign of a large German Shepherd and Sonja would simply point towards the bathroom door, standing ajar, with the sight of Ben, face to the wall, ignoring us all.   Ben would come out and socialise eventually, letting Sonja know she was forgiven, but it has to be said that Ben’s behaviour quickly improved and he did his best to be a good boy for his new family.

Ben loved following Bert around the five acres, chatting with my two dogs through the fence, studiously ignoring the goats (another horned breed he previously had no idea existed and if it was up to him just wouldn’t exist) and generally enjoyed his new life, despite the enforced rules about things like stealing food, getting up on furniture and pulling on leads when out walking (Bert and Sonja proved to be opposed to all these previous past times of Ben’s).

Ben seemed to remember his guard dog training very sketchily and never showed any tendency to reprise those lessons until one day when Sonja was very ill.  Sonja was experiencing a great deal of pain and felt very off on this day.  I was out shopping so she couldn’t call on me for help.  Because Sonja was in such pain and felt so ill she rang our local doctor and described her symptoms rather than trying to drive into the town.  Marvin, the doctor, said he had a room full of patients but would come out and see her as soon as he was free.  Tragically Sonja knew there was little use calling the ambulance in the days before GPS.  During a medical emergency a few years before this it had taken over an hour for the ambulance to find her house, so as Sonja’s condition worsened and there was no sign of Marvin, Sonja rang Bert at work.  Bert came straight home, saw that Sonja was really in a bad way and put her in the car and took her to hospital – just in time as it turned out, Sonja had an ectopic pregnancy and her fallopian tube had burst.  She was taken to surgery and Bert settled in to a very worrying wait.  Sonja, who obviously had bigger problems on her mind, hadn’t mentioned that Marvin intended coming out to see her, so Bert was completely unaware Marvin needed to be told where Sonja was.

Meanwhile, back at the farm … 

Marvin finished his surgery hours and headed out to check on Sonja.  He knocked on the door but there was no answer.  Sonja’s car was parked near the house so he was sure she hadn’t gone anywhere.  When he knocked again and there was no answer he tried the door.  It was unlocked so he went inside to check that Sonja wasn’t lying unconscious somewhere.  Ben greeted him at the door, and despite never having met Marvin before, greeted him like an old friend, wagged his tail furiously and welcomed Marvin to his home.  Ben, remembering the duties that fall to all good hosts, followed Marvin as he conducted a room to room search.  Ben wagged his tail some more and behaved as if Marvin was a long lost friend.  Marvin was allowed, even encouraged, to check out each room and Ben even helped by nudging open some doors himself.  All this lulled Marvin into what turned out to be a false sense of security.

Having established that Sonja wasn’t home and there was no more he could do, Marvin headed for the back door.  Suddenly, without warning, Ben channelled his old guard dog training days.  He stood between Marvin and the door and with a display that would have made his horrible trainers proud, showed his very impressive set of teeth and emitted a low growl.  Ben was clearly saying, “You want to look around the house – that’s fine, I’ll show you all you want to see.  Oh, you want to leave?  I don’ think so!”  Marvin, not surprisingly took a few steps back and Ben immediately became the happy host once again.  Each and every attempt to leave however was met with the same show of teeth and low growl from Ben.

Marvin finally had the brilliant idea to see if Sonja had been admitted to hospital.  He was put through to Bert (these were pre-mobile phone days so communications were a bit more complicated).  Marvin described his plight to Bert and Bert advised Marvin to make himself a cup of coffee, sit down and relax until Bert could get home and set him free.

When Bert arrived home, Marvin made a quick exit.  Ben was perfectly willing to let him go now that Bert was here and could check Marvin out to make sure he hadn’t lifted the family silver.  Bert, after a word or two to Ben about the correct way to treat unexpected visitors, returned to the hospital and Sonja made a complete recovery.  The story of Ben taking Marvin prisoner soon percolated through The Oaks and many had a good laugh at the poor doctor’s expense.  Ben remained unrepentant, but was never again called on to play host when Bert and Sonja weren’t home.

Saturday, January 04, 2020

Summer With The Menagerie

How are you all faring in this heat - well those of you who live in Australia that is?  It's predicted to top 45 degrees Celsius here today (that's 113 degrees Fahrenheit for those who haven't converted to metric).  We've had more than a week of very hot days here and caring for the residents of Spring Rock is very time consuming I can tell you.  I spend most hot days catering to the various needs of the menagerie, trying to keep them as comfortable as possible.  

I have draped 90% shade cloth over the aviary for Hedwig and Hermes.  They are also kept cool with a honey bucket filled with frozen water, once the ice melts I swap it out for another bucket  (these mini buckets take up a good deal of room in the freezer).  At first Hedwig objected to me putting the little bucket up where she and Hermes perch and threatened to knock it onto the cage floor, just to show me she wasn't in favour of anything new in her aviary.  She made her objections felt rather loudly until she moved in to throw the bucket off her feed bin where she was sitting.  It didn't take long for her to realise just how good it felt to cuddle up to a bucket of ice.  I could see her debating which course to follow - continue to object because this was something new in the aviary and Hedwig is decidedly anti new things, or accept the ice bucket and enjoy the coolness.  She now makes room for the buckets when I change them over.

Hedwig and Hermes enjoying munching on a stalk of mint in the shade provided by the shadecloth.

Brown snakes are also a consideration in summer on Spring Rock - not that I provide relief from the heat for them of course.  Graeme has found them drinking water out of our fish pond, up in the chook yard and, much more commonly, in the aviary.  All but two of our dams are dry and most of the dams in the district are also dry so finding water at snake level is getting to be a challenge for the snakes in the area.  The water is in a trough on the ground in the aviary because we have Snowball and Cinders, two silky roosters, in residence there as well as the galahs.  There are also a few mouse holes leading into the aviary - despite our efforts to get rid of them - which also attract the snakes who don't mind finding a snack as well as a drink when they visit.  Thankfully the visiting snakes have never shown any interest in the roosters, who assume the characteristics of fluffy statues while the snake moves around the aviary floor.  Galahs have a special "There's A Snake!!  There's A Snake!!" warning screech they use for no other purpose, so we always know when one visits.  Graeme puts on his heavy duty gum boots, grabs our snake deterrer and goes into battle.  So far this year we've had five snakes visit the aviary, two visit the fish pond and one up near the chook yard. It keeps me on my toes when I'm out and about tending to hot members of the outside animal population.

I've always admired the self sufficiency or my four gold fish.  They go about their days requiring very little attention and keeping the pond mosquito wriggler free, but in this heat the fish pond needs constant topping up with precious tank water.  We placed the pond in the shade of a Kurrajong tree and added a spreading waterlily plant but, unless the snakes are drinking an awful lot of water, evaporation is still causing the pond water level to dip dramatically on a daily basis.  The four resident fish look a bit panicked if I don't keep the water topped up and the pump spaying oxygenated water back into the pond each day.

Venus, now a fully integrated member of the menagerie, needs to be brought inside over and over again.   She's one of those cats that believe the other side of a closed door is the best place to be, so I keep having to check that she's inside and if she's not I call her in to enjoy the air cooler.  The other three cats are self caring and find the coolest spot that isn't in the kitchen, which is usually inhabited by the puppies.  As the cats all feel these cooler spots around the house are on the floor somewhere I have to be careful not to step on a recumbent cat as I go about my daily chores.

 Venus lying so there is maximum tummy exposure to the cool air coming out of our air cooler duct.

 Nefertiti thinking, "It's far too hot.  Mum needs to turn down the sun."

Tristan, who has become an old, dignified man, lying within range of the cool air but not too close to Venus.

Another favourite spot for Venus is on my computer desk batting at my hand as I move the mouse around when using the computer - slows me down a bit, I can tell you.

The chooks and drakes have the best spot on the farm on hot days, but I need to keep the water up to them and try to convince them all that under the big pine tree is cooler than out and about in the yard.  If I let them out they'd all go and scratch around and most likely give themselves heat stroke.  So I listen to their complaints but keep the gate firmly shut.

The puppies of course are inside - sporting their new bibs and lying on the kitchen floor under an air cooler duct.  Aslan, in an effort to gain maximum coolness lies on the tiles with his tongue lolling out soaking up the cool.  Cleo is usually found in a very unladylike pose on her back with all four legs splayed wide allowing maximum tummy exposure to the cool air.  Both puppies manage to take up most of the kitchen floor and navigating between the refrigerator and kitchen sink is always fraught with danger.  Asking one or other of them to move out of the way is often counterproductive.  Cleo will roll over when asked, but she keeps her legs out straight and often manages to collect my legs on the way.  If I'm not near the kitchen counter or close enough to some other well grounded object I'm likely to be felled like a tree that's just met a chainsaw.  If I land on Cleo things get even more fraught.  As I've mentioned before, Cleo believes her head should always be at a lower level than mine so if I fall to the floor she is galvanised into action to get her head under mine.  This is somewhat counterproductive to my getting up off the floor.  

Aslan and Cleo enjoying the air cooler duct directly above Cleo's head.

Aslan is inclined to wander over at times like this and, in typical Saint Bernard fashion, offer to help.  These offers are accompanied by long strings of drool as he puts his face up close to mine to see if there is anything he can do in this situation.  There isn't, but he always asks.

The ferrets haven't been outside in weeks.  It's either a case of too hot or too much smoke from the various catastrophic bushfires raging through the east coast of Australia - or both.  The ferrets have their four tiered palace in the family room, filled with hammocks, tunnels, lots of water and food and towelling sleeping bags these days so inside in the cage isn't as bad as it sounds.  They also get to socialise with the puppies and with me when I'm in the kitchen so life is interesting enough for them.   

Freya and Eris in their ferret palace.

Thankfully I don't have to make cooling down provisions for Edna The Echidna who has visited my garden four times that we know of.  Cleo objects strongly and barks her head off until I go outside and lock her and Aslan up so the poor little spiky creature doesn't get a migraine.  I have been wondering why she keeps coming back to my yard - it couldn't be just to destroy another area of my garden surely?  Two days ago I discovered that she's building a burrow along our house yard back fence.  Graeme has fortified it against the puppies, but that won't stop Cleo barking if she notices Edna is at home.  I can see many disturbed nights while Edna is in residence.  She has chosen a spot right near where large black ants gather around the Kurrajong tree collecting sap so she's well provided with food.  Hopefully she will raise lots of little puggles in her burrow.  I now count her as part of the menagerie, despite Graeme's objections. 

Edna's new home along my garden's back fence.  It's a work in progress at the moment but she's working away diligently and is should be finished soon.

So, that's how I spend my summer days.  Most of the menagerie seem to hold me responsible for whatever type of weather we are having.  None of them like the heat and as it's my fault it's so hot, it is obviously up to me to see to each and every pet's needs cooling down wise.  No wonder I feel exhausted at the end of a summer's day.