May 2011

Essays

Beastly travels

By Sonya Hartnett
Hungry raccoons. © Bettmann / Corbis
Animal-watching abroad

I was 21 when I first went to London, and impoverished, as a travelling kid usually is. Soon enough I would be afflicted by that fragile homesickness that preyed upon the traveller in those days when the planet was still big. I liked travelling – that floating sense of being no one, the ultimate untouchable stranger. But being a stranger, particularly a broke stranger, can be wearying, and I missed home; I missed, particularly, the pets I’d left behind. To see a cat on a sill or a dog outside a pub sent a pang through me. To run a hand over the head of an English dog was to feel, for a moment, the silkiness of my own dog’s brow. Soon I was searching for a glimpse of an animal, any animal, both for that comforting moment of recognition and because people are the same everywhere, but animals are not.

In Kensington Gardens I fed squirrels, and ate lunch beside Hyde Park’s riding track. In Harrods I admired the food hall, as you must, but my true destination was the pet shop. I remember being disappointed by it. Set in a corner of the highest floor, the department was poky and smelt but there were baby hamsters the shape and colour of acorns, and dew-eyed, velvety chinchillas, a kind of glamorous rat. Distressingly, there was also a sulphur-crested cockatoo on a perch. He had a view overlooking roads and the lowslung sky, and I wondered how long he’d been forced to stare at it. His wings were clipped and stress had driven him to pull feathers from his chest. Tears leaked from me the instant I saw him – tears for a creature who was much further from home than I was and much more deeply alone.

I have been to an odd assortment of countries in the two decades since that trip, more often going where I am sent than where I would choose; spotting beasts, particularly beasts that are rarely, if ever, seen in Australia, has become a habitual pursuit. Indeed, as a traveller I am frequently unimpressed by the glories of nature and the achievements of humankind: the Alps left me cold, Stonehenge was a rock, Titian looks the same in a book as on a wall and the Black Forest is hardly even gloomy. I have shrugged off Leonardo and the Eiffel Tower, Anne Frank’s attic and the Great Wall but point out an American blue jay or a Canadian moose to me, a Maine Coon in Boston or a Tibetan Mastiff in Taiwan, and the entire journey becomes worthwhile.

I remember Arlington National Cemetery not so much for the graves of the Kennedys as for the way the woodpeckers would, like polite road-workers, pause their jackhammering when pedestrians walked by. The best thing I’ve done in England was visit an owl sanctuary, where some of the birds were the size of children. In Sweden there was a trio of elk by the roadside; apparently, it’s rare to see wild elk anywhere except on a plate, and this gift of a sighting made me love the country even more. On the other hand, I can’t forgive Vancouver for never granting me the sight of a raccoon, though I’ve visited that coon-infested city twice. Pompeii’s population is frozen in its horrible final moments – I couldn’t wrench my gaze from the poignant plaster dog. The markets of Beijing are dazzling, piled with jade and peculiar antiquities, but what I wanted to buy were the crickets in their delicate cages and the tiny turtles trying incessantly and uselessly to escape the bowls that confined them.

My dog Shilo is spoilt and when I travel my most pressing need is to purchase and return home with a toy that will meet his exacting standards – not too big, not too gangly, not made of plastic. To this end I have visited pet shops on five continents. In some places such shops aren’t easy to find, and the hunt becomes desperate – even famous. In pet shop–sparse Calgary for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Husky Oil heard about the husky waiting expectantly in Melbourne and sent to my hotel a range of the company’s promotional toys. In Shanghai, pet shops are equally scarce, although teacup-sized purebred puppies are offered for sale on street corners, passed from shrieking girl to smirking guy throughout the night. After days of searching, I finally found a pet shop there, only to discover it sold nothing but cat food.

In contrast, Washington – a city where the canines all seemed to be mongrels – had a four-storey shop devoted to dog toys. One entire wall was given over to beautiful replicas of American wildlife. It seemed peculiar that the nation’s dogs were being encouraged to chomp the nation’s fauna but nonetheless I bought Shilo an opossum. For reasons unknown, a library in central Stockholm has a tank full of piranhas – the quest took me to the suburbs, where the pet shops, being Swedishly careful and broadminded, sold bumper stickers warning “Hund I Bil” (dog in car). In animal-loving London, there’s a pet shop on seemingly every corner. In Battersea, I bought a fuzzy, fat ball that laughed when shaken. The flight home was bumpy and the ball chortled disturbingly in my hand luggage all the way back to Melbourne.

In Kuta, monkeys chained by the neck sit on pedestals in the blazing sun. Cats are thin and scurfy. Some dogs are pets but most are virtually wild and regarded as harshly as vermin. Bali is no place for seeking out pet shops. Here, instead, in Shilo’s name I gave $100 to the Dog Adoption and Rehabilitation Centre in Ubud. Each Christmas since, he’s received an email saying dogs are still living desperately in Bali: would Shilo Hartnett care to donate again, anything, any small or large amount he can spare?

Sonya Hartnett
Sonya Hartnett is the acclaimed author of Thursday's Child, Sleeping Dogs, Of a Boy and The Midnight Zoo. She won the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award for children's literature in 2008.

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