An edited version of this post appeared in The Big Issue in 2012
In the early hours of Saturday morning, on the way home after a satisfying evening of footy and live music, the car in front of you hits a cat. Before you know it you’re out of the car and running back towards the little shape on the road. She looks so tiny sitting there stunned on her haunches in the middle of the left-hand lane of Riversale Road. If a car came round the bend now it would collect her. You hope, in the quick but slowed-down seconds before you scoop her up, that nothing is broken.
It takes 15 minutes to reach the emergency animal hospital. You and your partner continue to slurp ginger beer and cola Slurpees even while you begin to feel a woozy part of you is stuck behind, still sitting on the road. You have put the kitten on the ground at your feet, thinking that maybe she will feel safer down there. You swear you detect a little purr at one point. She is obviously someone’s pet, a pretty grey and white tabby with a flea collar round her neck with a couple of bells on it. A few minutes before you reach the hospital the shock sets in and she leans forward and vomits a tuna casserole right into the open arms of your handbag.
The man on night shift buzzes you in and directs you in an Irish brogue to sign a form, and as quickly as she came she is out of your arms and off through the double swinging doors. Before you leave you go to the bathroom to clean up. You use paper towel to wipe off the trail of shit that is smeared down your right arm. You don’t know what to do with it, and you push it into the sinkhole through wadded up paper. There is a red blotch on your arm where you didn’t even feel the scratch.
You think of other countries in the world that do not even have 24-hour emergency hospitals open for humans, let alone pets, and you feel a complicated mix of luckiness and guilt. You – and the cat – are here by virtue of a cosmic incomprehensibility, a karmic lotto plonking you down in one of the richest countries on earth.
The next morning you call up the animal hospital. She’s doing well on some morphine, has been walking round on all fours and smooching, the woman on the phone says. Luckily just battered and bruised. She’s at the RSPCA now. The microchip in her left ear has identified her owners, who have been called.
A happy ending. You feel so good for having stopped, a Samaritan. Your love for humanity bubbles. You wonder if the karmic balance of rescuing the cat has altered at all your murdering of the mice.
You have always thought that if you were an actor and needed to cry on cue, all you would need to do is think of your dog dying and the tears would swell without the need to appeal to a surreptitious jar of Vicks VapoRub.
The mice have been rustling every night for months. They’ve begun leaving holes nibbled in the bottom of things in the pantry, so that you have to throw away almost-full packets of pasta, bags of nuts and raisins. A telltale hole develops in the thick plastic bottom of the 20-kilo bag of sunflower seed that feeds the rainbow lorikeets, king parrots and rosellas. You begin to smell the musty miceness as soon as you walk through the front door, as you sit on the couch in the evenings.
They have been living in the roof and getting into the pantry via the space that Anthony has now boarded up with a new piece of Bunnings plyboard. You feel a little mean cutting off their easy access. You have cartoonic visions of them standing, hands folded across their chests, deeply put out, the way you would be if you moved specially to an area for a particularly amazing Thai restaurant only to have them board up three weeks after you move in and go somewhere else.
Except it’s been a little longer than three weeks. The night after Anthony boards up their direct route you stand near the pantry and hear them, scrabbling and crying in the walls.
When you are 17 you cannot bear the thought of eating animals any more. The chops on your plate rear up on their hind legs to accuse you and refuse to lie down and be chops. “We are lambs,” they insist, and you lose your appetite and become a vegetarian for an entire year. One Sunday morning, nursing a hangover, your desire for a Big Mac overshadows everything else, and so ends your full-blown vegetarianism, but not your distaste.
You are a selectively hypocritical murderer who loves some animals, kills others and –even worse – eats yet others. Who goes to the supermarket and buys minced-up cows to feed to the kookaburras that come visiting on the railing. You buy chicken that is flatpacked in plastic so that if you want, you can pretend that chicken is blubs of white stuff, not a bird that squawks with a beak and makes cool brrrrrr noises and lays eggs and has chicks and feels terror when it’s killed. You think that if we were all forced to kill whatever meat before we eat it, My Kitchen Rules would have a very different menu.
You hoped very fervently that boarding up the pantry would make the mice think twice, and go and live somewhere else where it’s not your responsibility to deal with them. But the next night they have managed to find the long way into the pantry, and that rustling noise starts up again, fills you with despair and anger.
The next time you are in the supermarket you buy some Ratsak. Well, actually, Anthony makes the executive decision, but really that just makes you a handballing selectively hypocritical murderer, because even though it feels distressing to you, you are leaving it sitting on the conveyor belt. You don’t say, for example, “Hey, how about a bunch of ethical mousetraps instead, that I will personally take outside and release into the wild seeing I’m the one who is freaking out about this?” Nope, you don’t. Instead you stand in line at the checkout reading the packet instructions and feeling dread in your guts.
“How are you today?” the Fresh Food girl says to you by way of introduction. “Horrible,” you want to say, and, because you are feeling guilty like a handballing, selectively hypocritical murderer should, you begin running off at the mouth in a nervous blather as she bags up your stuff.
“What if,” you say, “some weird radiation thing happens in the future, and mice grow bigger and humans grow smaller? Do you think they’re going to look kindly on this? I don’t think so. And we’ll deserve it. It will be karma.”
She smiles and says the necessary things, that mice in kitchens need to be disposed of, but that doesn't make poisoning them right though, does it?
Sometimes you leave old fruit out on the decking for the couple of possums that come by each night. It does not escape your notice that possums are rather like giant mice and it is only by virtue of their larger size that you are
feeding them instead of killing them..
The few days after the Ratsak is laid there is increased activity in the roof. You don’t know which is worse – the accusatory scrabblings or the eerie silence that descends a few days later when truly not a creature is stirring all through the house. Especially not the mice, because they are up in the roof, dead. And it may seem like such a small and inconsequential thing when you look at the suffering of the rest of the world, but it still makes you cry because they suffered. And what separated those mice in the end was an “s” – on the wrong side of the complicated fence that separates pets from pests.