Story telling from Australia
No, mine isn’t either. She’s adorable. Love her to bits. But the distinction between family pet and feral animal is not always clear.
My travels this week took me to Durham Downs, the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the Kidman cattle empire, where I met the hard working manager, Jon Cobb, his equally hard-working partner (in life and work), Michelle, and three of their four children. Durham Downs Station is in a remote part of southwest Queensland, a vast property of wild beauty intersected by Cooper’s Creek.
Michelle showed me around the well-tended homestead and pointed to a break in the wire fence of the chook yard, where a feral cat had squirmed its way in. She found it asleep one morning, its distended belly full of chicken, its front paw resting on one of the carcasses. That marked the end of fresh eggs for the family, which is a problem when the nearest supermarket is several hundred kilometres away. Estimates suggest there could be as many as 14 million feral cats in Australia, some of them weighing 15 kilos – up to four times the size of a domesticated cat. They threaten livestock as well as native animals.
There are feral dogs to contend with too. Michelle is a dog lover, from England originally, and she was devastated when a python killed the family’s pet puppy, but she and Jon have to be more pragmatic when it comes to wild dogs. They pose a serious threat to the welfare of young cattle, and if there’s one thing I’ve learnt on my travels it’s that Australian farmers, graziers and pastoralists like Jon and Michelle care about their animals. When drought hits, as it so often does in Australia, most reports focus on loss of revenue, not the harm it causes to animals. The impact on the bottom line matters, of course it does, but the hard working people I’ve interviewed are just as concerned about the well being of their sheep and cattle. Animal welfare matters to them.
I spotted a female dingo trotting through the camp at Moomba when we touched down in the Stzrelecki Desert, then another at the edge of the airstrip. Lithe creatures, as beautiful as horses to my eye, they’re undeniably wild. It’s a far cry from England where I grew up, although dogs off the leash in rural areas there do attack sheep (you don’t have to be a dingo to enjoy the taste of fresh meat). Farmers are legally allowed to shoot them. It’s the same in Australia where they regularly shoot and bait wild dogs.
Some farmers use other dogs to protect their flock, such as at Dunluce Station. These ‘guardian’ dogs ward off dingoes and help keep the flock safe: one breed of dog, working to keep another at bay. It’s an intriguing thought.
Our dingo/kelpie cross is a treasured family pet, but that didn’t stop her killing the chooks when they got out of their pen, just like a friend’s Labrador puppy did when he broke into their chook pen and ran amok. Most dogs are capable of it. When I walk Maggie in the bush around Broken Hill she trots ahead, sniffing the ground, and I make sure we’re nowhere near sheep. I sometimes wonder if a grazier might have her in his sights. You never know.
Cats and dogs can be loveable family pets, or they can be wild feral animals; it depends how you raise them from a young age, and how you treat them.
Come to think of it, we humans aren’t that different.