I’ve been thinking lately about the company of animals. Not as in a company set up by animals – although that would be cool – but about spending time with animals.
Last night, Mum and I went to see the film Kedi. It’s a documentary about the street cats of Istanbul going about their daily lives. I’m a cat-lover, and I think most of the audience was too, judging by overheard mentions of ‘fur-babies’ in the ACMI lobby, so obviously I was charmed by the cats and their antics. But I particularly loved the way caring for the street cats brought out a child-like quality in people. A tough-looking Turkish fisherman scratching a cat around its ears and cooing to it like a baby. A waiter in a posh-looking delicatessen sneaking bits of smoked turkey and Emmental cheese out to the local stray. People seemed to become especially gentle, especially kind, around these cats. One worker in a clothes shop said that when the local cat came and lay in her store, it ‘soaked up her negative energy’.
The company of animals does that. No matter how shitty a day I’ve had, no matter how I’m feeling about myself, coming home to Neo will always make me feel better. He doesn’t care what I have or haven’t achieved that day. He doesn’t care how much money I make, whether I’m meeting my professional goals, how many words I’ve managed to write. All he wants is a tin of disgusting minced chicken or salmon loaf + someone to curl up on. In return for that, he soaks up my negativity like a sea sponge and replaces it with a sense that things will all be alright. It’s like that episode of The West Wing, when President Bartlett and his middle daughter Ellie are fighting about firing the Surgeon-General. “I don’t know how to make you happy, Dad,” she says to him in the Oval Office. “For that you’ve got to ask Liz or Zoe.” Liz and Zoe are his other daughters. At the end of the episode, they haven’t made up, and Ellie is still mad at him. They are sitting together watching a movie, and Bartlett leans over. “All you ever had to do to make me happy was come home at the end of the day,” he says.
Over in Sri Lanka, I missed Neo, of course, but I was surrounded by various other creatures. I was staying in a cabin in a garden, and every morning a water monitor would stroll along the bank eating ants. Once I saw it shoot up a palm tree and then fall to the ground, a small lizard in its mouth, which it swallowed whole (and possibly still alive) in front of me. There were rats living in the ceiling above the bed, which I found strangely comforting. One morning, I walked sleepily into the bathroom and was about to sit on the toilet when I saw a rat in the water of the toilet bowl, its little nose sticking up into the air. It must have fallen in in the night. My kindly Buddhist hosts created a ramp for it to crawl out, and released it into the forest.
There were two dogs at the house: Pinky the German Shepherd and Heide the Rhodesian Ridgeback. Sometimes they would come and lie next to me while I wrote. In the heat of the day, Pinky would wade into the river and just stand there up to her knees, cooling off. One day, I returned home from a trip to town and found Pinky lying forlornly on the porch. “Her leg’s broken,” my host told me. “She can’t walk properly.” Apparently a local woman had decided Pinky was a threat and thrown a rock at her, injuring her leg. My heart broke for her. How could someone do that?
Back in Melbourne, while I’m not surrounded by the hum of insects, by fireflies and marauding lizards and rats in the loo, I notice the animals around me. Cockatoos screeching and chasing each other between high rise buildings. The fat possum that sneaks into our kitchen and steals bananas. Wattlebirds. Lorikeets. Seagulls. And a black cat who’s afraid of loud noises and likes to lick, and sit on, plastic bags. I need humans too, of course, but there’s something to be said for the company of animals.