We’re hand-rearing a lamb. He is the latest immigrant to our household, joining two cats and two dogs.
The first to come is the elder cat. She arrived on our kitchen windowsill (left there by a local rogue with a fecund cat of his own) at Christmas 2004. We call her Miss Bickel, in honour of her impersonation of Travis Bickel in the final shot of “Taxi Driver”, that quick flick of the eyes, the head snapping to some tiny movement. She is our native inhabitant in the animal community and she shows it.
She has absolutely no time for intruders, and has demonstrated her disdain and hostility to each of the succeeding animals to arrive here. Nowadays she sleeps on her own smelly pillowcase in a point of vantage that keeps her out of the common crowd, while able to take a swipe at them if they annoy her or get to close. Interestingly, in this ridiculously extended metaphor, she is black and white.
She was followed by the second cat, called Jack because he has only one eye. Miss Bickel reluctantly allowed this intrusion, and goes so far now as to eat at a common bowl with him, and they can be seen occasionally touching noses as they pass in the grounds. Jack is fat, more or less blind but adequately equipped with his other senses to get around OK. He is entirely tolerant, happy to be touched or licked or even butted by the dogs and lamb.
The next arrival was the first of the dogs. Miss Bickel disappeared for a week before coming home, hissing, lashing out (but not contacting) with her claws, before retreating to the highest cupboard top in the kitchen, and glaring down at this invader. Michael Benson, known as Mikey, is half Jack Russell terrier and half Labrador (admittedly, a conjunction it is hard to visualise), an Asiatic golden brown and built like a tank, long and strong, a fast runner who is determined to catch a bird in flight one day (we doubt it).
After a week we realised we had a choice between getting his twin brother or losing all of our shoes, so we duly brought home Benjamin Benson, known as Benji, a small terrier (more terrier than Mikey) with some Collie blood and so deeply black that for the first few weeks we kept stepping on him if he was lying in shadow.
These two are very happy together and at ease with the world. Jack soon took to sleeping in a huddle with one or other or both of them.
Miss Bickel skulked around, killed small creatures in the garden and scowled at everyone. She enjoyed certain privileges involving our laps in front of the television, and our bed in the morning. This seemed to satisfy her need to feel privileged as the original native.
But then came the lamb. I won’t explain the whole story but we ended up responsible for saving him from an early death and then, as the Cheyenne say, if you save a life you become responsible for it for the duration. He is called Holly because the German teenager who found him while strolling on our land thought he was a she. Miss Bickel gave up coming into the sitting room in the evening, confronted as she now was by two dogs and a lamb taking up all the space in front of the fire. Jack was happy to find a space in this melée.
Holly has grown up with the dogs for brothers, and me as his mother, since I was feeding him for those crucial first ten days (my wife was away visiting one of our daughters). For those first few weeks he slept with one or both of them in their basket in the kitchen, or in front of the fire in the sitting room, and followed them around outside. Now he sleeps outside (there are limits to our tolerance of lamb pee and poo. Sheep don’t housetrain) and mostly spends his days grazing around the house. The routine is to wake me with a few baas outside my window (we have learnt a lot about the language of sheep, there is a broad range of sounds for different requests), join in the frenzy of breakfast feeding time, and then rest for a while in the basket for old times’ sake while I have my breakfast and start writing (he’s there now, ruminating, mouth churning away on regurgitated grass).
Holly is probably the one who has made the most adjustment to his native nature in order to fit in with the community he has joined. He is mainly sheep, but he likes the breakfast association, and if, for instance, the dogs go running and barking to the gate at the noise of a car and he happens to be nearby, he’ll run after them. Sometimes we all go for a walk together. Yesterday when they were all in the kitchen, all three confronted a visitor who came to the door. As far as the community goes, while dogs and cats are well aware of each other and have been for millennia, they don’t generally mix with sheep, so Holly is the most alien of them, and they have variously reacted to that challenge. Holly has tried to be as doggy as he can but is happy being a sheep in his own little world most of the time. Miss Bickel is definitely a cat and wants us all to know it, the dogs are dogs, more concerned with their pointless hunts than anything anyone else is doing, and Jack doesn’t think about such matters, just sleeps.
The dogs want to be friends with everyone. They are utterly indiscriminate, though they’re ready to sound vicious and their play can turn quite horrifying sometimes, they’re a couple of fighters. But their hearts are in the right place. Benji stares at Miss Bickel if he can, challenging her to come and play. It seems he will never give up though clearly she offers no hope of ever doing so.
Jack is like someone who came to these islands with the Vikings. A different strain, if you like, but so much a part of the house as to feel secure and unthreatened by any change so long as he gets his two square meals a day and the chance to sleep on the chairs.
And then there is our native, Miss Bickel, indifferently hostile to everyone. She is our racist. There is something almost pure about such hostility and suspicion. It makes no distinction, is not unduly aggressive, just that “them darkies” attitude to anyone basically, who is not a black and white cat. She gives the least attention to Holly. She seems to think he is too outrageous even to react to him. She doesn’t even turn her head if he passes.
Why is difference such an issue? It is becoming the main point of contest and the weakest flank of the Stay campaign in the UK referendum. It is a constant of American social news, in fact, the ghetto-isation of America is its saddest and most confounding failure as a society. A Texan pal once said to me “America is a melting pot… Full of rocks”. But the world is becoming that. There does not seem to be a country that isn’t “dealing with” immigrants. Statistics have proven over and over again that immigrants are a net gain in any economy. The entire history of Britain is based on first immigration from the rest of Europe, and then emigration to the farthest corners of the earth. Without this movement of people there would be no America, no Australia. (I’m not arguing the rights and wrongs of this. Anyone who does should consider whether it is perhaps time we forget all that bad stuff and focus on the world we live in now, however it was formed).
We’ve come a long way since it was a surprise to find another community living in the next valley. The internet and the ubiquity of media in the world means there are no cultural surprises left. You know what the varied peoples of the world look like, and if you have watched any documentary report from some distant land for more than five minutes you’ll know that, as said before in this occasional blog, the vast majority of human beings like to love and laugh; are kind to each other; are curious about the world in varying degrees; and work and eat and sleep. We all have our unique priorities, our occupations and hobbies, our lifestyles, and our luck in love and work, but our basic needs and desires are very similar.
And this much we have in common, as do the animals in my home. We all want to get on with our lives in peace, at liberty to be ourselves without interference from ruthless idiots with weapons or overweening governments. May that day come..