I mentioned the rabbit we looked after when the owners were on holiday, in the last blog and that got me thinking about some of the pets that we kept whilst we lived at Lawrence Avenue and Gipton Wood Crescent. Families, such as ours, kept a variety of pets and since these times public attitudes and feelings have changed. This is one area that I feel the world, at least in the Western world, has changed for the better.
In my childhood in the 1950s and 60s, it was not unusual for tortoises to be kept as pets, a practice that has now almost disappeared. Clearly, tortoises were not native to the cold climates of England and whilst they seemed quite happy to live in the garden, eating dandelions and lettuce, they were challenged during the colder months of the year. Blue Peter, on television, used to keep a tortoise and they wrote its name on its shell with white paint and it would appear as a regular until it was Autumn and then they would have a big session on how to care for one over Winter. The original one on Blue Peter was called Fred and it lived from 1963 to 79. This seem a fair age, but in reality, the Mediterranean tortoise should live to about 90 and many can go beyond this age. In time it was recognised that the Blue Peter one wasn’t a boy at all and they added an ‘A’ and Fred became Freda.
Winter meant putting them in a box filled with straw and placing them in the loft of the house, where it was expected that they would hibernate until Spring. We had three tortoises when we were still in Lawrence Avenue and they were lovely creatures that seemed content to do little but eat. We had Hector, Horace and a little one that we called Penny. They were slow moving, but they could still get around the garden if you didn’t watch out for them. The hard, shiny shells were beautiful and they couldn’t have been very old. Penny was so small it must have been very young. It was bought from a pet shop, probably the one at Harehills, next to the café across from Varley’s toy shop. Pet Shops were very different from today. It was not seen as cruel to buy pets and I think the change in attitude to the one we have nowadays is a major improvement. Dogs, rabbits, kittens and even exotic pets could be bought with little fuss. We decided we wanted a tortoise and so we just went and bought one. There was no check on whether you knew how to look after them.
It is often thought a good thing for children to have pets in their lives, but I am not so sure. My experience has been that children very quickly tire of them once the initial enthusiasm has waned and it is left to the adults to deal with the care, the cleaning and the ensuring they come to no harm. The more exotic pets such as tortoises, were not bred in the UK. They were imported from their natural habitat of Greece. Apparently boatloads of tortoises, piled up in baskets, arrived on the docks and then transported to pet shops. The local fauna numbers must have been devastated, but we didn’t know and I am not sure we would have cared in the way we would today.
The first tortoise, Horace, arrived at our house in Summer and it was kept in a box inside the house with water and food and when we could we would take it into the garden where it seemed very happy to roam and would munch on the few flowers there were. A little pen of chicken-wire was set up so it could roam safely, after it had made a mad dash to escape the garden and search for more interesting pastures in the neighbouring garden. My dad also made it a small wooden house where it would be safe from cats etc. I was fascinated by the way it could disappear into its shell and then reappear when tempted by a tasty piece of greenery. The small plates on its legs and neck made it a living dinosaur as far as I was concerned and there were no boys who didn’t love dinosaurs.
Blue Peter would indicate the time for preparing for hibernation and we would get it ready by collecting a stout box, straw and newspaper. The poor thing was placed in the box and it must have wondered what was happening. It was then taken into the loft by my dad and left to its own devices for the Winter. Now this seems fine in theory and in the Blue Peter world where, ‘Here is one I prepared earlier’, ensured they never failed. Viewers would not have known whether Freda (Fred) was the same as the one seen from previous year. (Am being cynical?) Well theirs seemed to survive for quite a long time, but certainly not as long as it would have done in the wild in its natural habitat, but ours managed a year or two before one year we all forgot poor Horace. It was well into Spring when we remembered and, of course, the poor thing had come out of hibernation and died, probably of thirst. This must have happened all around the UK. It would only take a mild spell and they would come out of hibernation and unless the families checked they would have met the same fate as ours. After three attempts to care for the wonderfully delightful creatures we finally called it a day. We would never willingly have hurt any of our pets, but ignorance at the time meant that animals suffered at the hands of well meaning families.
The lesson my brothers and I took from the pets we had, and other children do, is that life has an end. The upset one feels at the loss of a pet is quite genuine and even as an adult, heart-breaking. At various times and in both our houses animals were laid to rest in the flowerbeds and sometimes marked with a little cross and a few words of sadness.
This may interest some:
In our garden here in Perth Western Australia we have a wide range of birds that come into the garden and we feed them with wild bird seeds. Six months ago one of the pair of Peewits appeared with a stick attached to its leg. The poor thing was quite restricted as a thin stick, about ten inches long had somehow become entangled to one of her feet. She was quite tame and would come within a yard or two of us, but would not come close enough for us to grab her. My youngest son, was quite concerned and set traps using a linen basket to try and ensnare Sticky so that we could get the stick and binding removed. His first attempt seemed a great success until he realised that he had caught Sticky’s mate. We were worried that cats or other predators might take her, but she appeared every day and seemed to manage, even if barely. We were even more determined to keep her fed and my son continued his traps, with string and basket but, despite getting close, he never managed to catch Sticky.
Weeks passed and Sticky became a bit of a celebrity in the area. The neighbours also tried to capture her, but to no avail. One day, after a few months, we noticed that Sticky was stickless. She was free! On closer inspection we realised that Sticky had lost two of her toes. The blood supply must have been cut off and eventually the toes and stick came free.
You will be pleased to know that Sticky is now thriving and despite a strange gait and limited perching alternatives she seems to be managing well. She has put on weight and her plumage seems sleeker. The short video below is Sticky this last week. It was shot using a phone.