Love, death and stray cats

It’s not often that I find myself on same page at Tony Abbott, Australia’s climate change denying PM.  But having exhausted the potential of their previous three word slogans, the conservative government recently moved on to a new one: “Kill the Cats”.  After this week’s events I think I could find some common cause with Tones on this theme.

I know you shouldn’t have favourites but Shyla was my favourite chicken.

She came to our place as a bundle of fluff and managed, uniquely, to survive our enthusiastic but doofus chick rearing.  She was the hen you would trip over at the chookhouse gate, where she would be pacing up and down the second the back door opened.  And then she would follow you round the garden waiting for lovely things like grapes or curlworms or weevil ridden comestibles and if none of those were forthcoming, peck your butt to see if it would make an adequate alternative.  Her response to a human approaching was to squat and jiggle in what I think translates loosely from hen as “ok, you can mount me now”.  Which was faintly disturbing, while at the same time suggested an affection of some strange kind.

And that’s not even mentioning the fact that she was our one reliable layer, producing a daily egg all winter long.

Since she was such a useful, friendly and characterful girl, she was obviously the first choice for a midnight snack when a great big feral cat came visiting our yard in the dead of night this past week.  I don’t want to sound callous but the bloody thing could have taken Snowball the silky bantam – smaller, ancient, more visible in dim lighting, huffy around humans, laying eggs only when the weather and the tides are just right.

But no, it had to grab Shyla, the life and soul of the backyard. The Top Chook took one for the team.

Everyone’s very subdued down in the bottom of the garden now, accepting the indignity of being carried, half-asleep, from their perilous perch on the edge of the fig tree barrel, to secure lodgings in Palm Beach, the long-abandoned vernacular modernist chicken coop.

Shyla was the victim of our hubris – the one who paid the ultimate price of six years without locking the chooks up at night.

So what changed in our suburban ecosystem?  I reckon it’s the departure of the (somewhat annoying) little yappy dog next door.  The neighbours on the other side have a laconic German Shepherd who doesn’t even chase the chooks.  But the yapster would have given a cat a run for its money.  If Tony and cronies want to get rid of feral cats, it’s not red-necks with guns that will do the job.  Scientists reckon the best strategy is to restore the top predators – dingoes.  Based on anecdotal evidence – the death toll in our backyard – I reckon they’re right.

With sufficient vigilance we can protect the chooks but we can’t do much for the bandicoot that still noses its way through the veggie garden at night.  Bandicoots recognise dingoes (and dogs more generally) – they know to avoid them.  In fact, some scientists have argued that this makes dingoes – placentals, only here for 50,000 years or so – natives.  But bandicoots still haven’t figured out cats.

I’m trying to find some positives in the situation.  My latest planting of broad beans has sprouted, magically unmolested.  I could attribute this success to my lavender mulch, or to the carefully secured veggie net, or the cold weather that has probably driven the local rodent population indoors (where we live.  Gulp.)  But perhaps the feral feline took a few rats as a chaser after devouring poor Shyla.  It’s a choice, it seems, eggs or beans.  Not fair!  I want both!

It’s all very sad.  Our eight year old got it right as she sobbed herself to sleep the other night: “you know where there’s someone in your care and you can’t protect them, you feel like there’s a hole in your heart”.  Yeah, babe I do.

I’ve been thinking about another lost lovely one this week.  The twelfth anniversary of our son’s death has just passed us by.  Born, unexpectedly, with a lopsided and innovatively organised brain, he was a bonny baby boy, whose plump little body suffered many seizures and would never really do quite what he wanted.  He had a short but lovely life, that ended suddenly and surprisingly (we shouldn’t really have been surprised) before dawn on on a beautiful winter’s morning, just like these last glorious days.

For a time, during the relentless rumination that followed our sleepy newborn’s diagnosis, I spent a lot of time thinking about stray cats.

Stray cats crapping in our pocket sized backyard.  Stray cats with a payload of toxoplasmosis gondii, “one of the most successful parasites on Earth”.  It inhabits the bodies of around half of the world’s human population, and plenty of other warm blooded animals too, but only reproduces only inside pussycats, emerging to infect other creatures, the parasite transmitted through cysts lurking in its poo.

Recently there’s been a pop science fascination with the consequences of toxoplasmosis infection.  While (most of the many many) infected people are asymptomatic, researchers have found that rats with the parasite become risk takers.  Losing their natural fear of cats, some even become attracted to the scent of their predator (not coincidentally, the parasite’s host).  Humans with toxo, too, seems to have somewhat different personalities than those without.  This idea, that humans – philosophers and planet conquerers – might have our very selves shaped by a single celled organism, disturbs and fascinates us.

If you are unlucky enough to be infected for the first time in the early weeks of pregnancy, your baby can be born with congenital toxoplasmosis, with possible serious consequences for the child’s health.  Toxo can cause problems with vision and hearing, seizures and intellectual disability.  Which is why I found myself thinking so long and hard, a decade or so ago, about my lack of gardening gloves and the roaming neighbourhood moggies.

In the end, my ruminations about infected cat shit went nowhere, like the dwelling upon dioxins from the incinerated corpses of foot-and-mouth infected cows that filled the air that year, or my endless Googling on the chromosonal origins of pachygyria (“Come back if you have another one with the same thing” the genetic counsellor suggested.  We were floored.  Although not quite so amazed as when she asked us, the Scotsman and the Australian, if we were cousins)

Very very occasionally Tony Abbott, MP, is accidentally right: sometimes shit just happens.

How do we make sense of these things, the deaths of our beloved children and the untimely demise of our pet chickens?  How are they connected, the miraculous germination of broadbeans and the midnight movements of predators?  The passing of parasites and personality traits from rats to cats to cat lovers?  The hidden life of the soil and the secrets in our bloodstream that can elate us and destroy us, often at the very same time?

Tonight on Chicken TV: Roost Swap

The chooks have abandoned Palm Beach, my upcycled mid-century vernacular modernist masterpiece of a hen house.  Its retro roof line and evocative beach-shack colour scheme wouldn’t look out of place on the cover of  Vogue Living with Chickens but it seems these days, our girls feel out of place inside it.  I feel the overwhelming sadness of an artist doomed to be underappreciated during their own lifetime.

Of course, the veterans never saw the appeal of the coop: Andy Ninja unswervingly committed to her lonely position on top of the chicken dome; Snowball, after enduring wearying attentions during Andy’s “cock of the roost” phase, shifted to an exposed position on the rim of a half-barrel.

At first I blamed Treasure the uppity Light Sussex, throwing her weight around.  During our recent holiday, she took up a new role as “Her Indoors”. Friends and neighbours, promised eggs as a quid pro quo for keeping the flock fed and watered, went away empty handed. Treasure kept prying eyes away from her crowd-sourced egg stash with fluffed up feathers and force of personality.

Queen Treasure was enjoying plenty of wing room in the nesting box the first night Luna, Shyla and Abbey decided to perch next to a Snowball by the brown turkey fig.  However, by the following evening, she’d followed the crowd, and Palm Beach, with its rakish verandah, striking use of organic forms for perching purposes and innovative aquarium-lid clerestory window, stood empty and unloved.

I’d like to console myself that this move is not so much a rejection of my design ideas as an embrace of one of the garden’s many “outdoor rooms”.  But before concluding that the chooks’ change of roost simply expresses a seasonally appropriate relish of al-fresco napping, I thought I should eliminate alternative explanations.  Like an infestation of red mites: the bed bugs of the chicken world.

I can now report that the henhouse is now cleaner than my kitchen, with the deployment of a bottle of bleach and a rarely sighted scrubbing brush.  The organic credentials of my garden may have taken a dent but hopefully the chookhouse has had a detox.  The mantra of “form follows function” does come in handy when you need to hose chickenshit out your modernist masterwork – though this is not a feature frequently noted in Australian Architecture magazine.  In the process I believe I may have made a breakthrough in the quest for an eco-friendly alternative to concrete: a mixture of sugar cane straw, wood ash and a small quantity of egg yolk, carefully cured under a sequence of chicken bottoms, makes a substance that could not be moved by a jack-hammer.

I hope the chooks were keeping a close eye on my efforts to pest-proof their home, since the tomorrow’s weather forecast, predicted with 95% confidence, is for rain. If there’s anything more humiliating than spending your Sunday on your hands and knees scrubbing a nestbox, it’s standing in a puddle during a downpour trying to persuade a group of saturated chickens of the merits of functionalist architecture.