My Family and Other Animals – Patricia Gillen

Despite what Little Red Riding Hood would have you believe, wolves are among the most loyal of creatures, with their pack at the very core of their existence. Marveling at the rough hides of the wolves at the Highland Wildlife Park, I found myself wondering what it’s like to be a member of a wolfpack. What do wolves do when the alpha dies? They adapt and move on with their lives, promoting from within out of an animal need for survival. Which poses the question – what do humans do?

In 2013, the loss of our alpha left our pack bereft and significantly more vulnerable. As with wolves, a fellow member was forced to take over the alpha’s former duties; in our case, my mum had to take over the roles of two parents. This meant juggling her career with duties around the house, feeding and caring for five unruly children. Matters worsened when my sister was diagnosed with severe mental health problems. What do wolves do when a pack member is injured? On this, we differ. Wolves would leave the weakened member so that the rest of the group still have optimal chances of survival; we stood by our sister, despite it at times bringing the pack and its leader to our knees. Clearly, this was too much for my mum to cope with at once, but how to solve it? More colossal bills and mouths to feed ought to do the trick.

My mum has the most peculiar of addictions. It started 12 years ago, with 4 paws and a mouse problem. Putting the school of goldfish, crocodile tears and fishy burial ground which our garden had become over the years to one side, ‘Sam’ was the first real pet my mum had. We acquired him out of necessity: after seeing one too many mice in our rural Aberdonian home, we piled off, in our growing pack of four-and-a-half, in search of a cat, any cat. My mum never looked back; recently, the addiction has spiraled.

My dad often spoke fondly of his childhood rabbits ‘Starsky and Hutch’, which he, alone, religiously cared for in the small patch of grass which passed for his garden. And so, despite the initial shock of opening the car door one day to find on my seat two rabbits and my sister looking truly happy for the first time in months, it made sense that this should mark my dad’s first birthday since his passing. Naturally, my mum was roped into caring for the unwanted rabbits of Glasgow, with my sister taking this as a sign that she would be willing to ‘foster’ rabbits for a charity. Although wholly inexperienced and unprepared for this duty, she came to realise how truly therapeutic caring for these rabbits could be. At a particularly difficult stage in her life, despite everything else falling to pieces, she could take comfort in knowing that these rabbits would gladly run around in circles, never asking for anything more than the occasional bale of hay. This spawned several, indefinite fosterings of rabbits of every colour, variety and size, most recently, huge (as satirically characterised by my younger brother, ‘mutant’) continental rabbits.

Next came a blessing in disguise, in the form of small, hideous rodents. As normal 16-year-olds are wont to do, my sister spent her free time wandering around Pets at Home. In her extensive hours connecting with animals in a bid to avoid interacting with other humans, she grew particularly fond of the degus. Largely unheard of, and for good reason too: it’s not difficult to imagine why no one wanted to look after those little fists of bedraggled fur. This naturally meant that my sister felt she could relate to them and would not rest (or allow any of us to rest) until she owned at least four. Sleeping – or trying to – directly next door to those smelly, ratty creatures, it’s difficult to see how and why they fit into my home. The important thing is that they do, bringing indescribable joy to my sister and so alas, they are here to stay. That is, as long as the cat and I don’t get our claws into them.

Next, a Facebook page detailing Romanian dogs’ mistreatment brought a scrawny, scruffy hound to our doorstep after one month, thousands of miles and hours of bated breath. This large, but by no means formidable, dog fitted seamlessly into our patchwork quilt of a family: damaged goods, but a survivor all the same. Despite her initial trust issues and lingering fears, much like her wolf ancestors, Ania proved to be a pack animal, acting as though she would protect us all by any means despite her placid nature. This is particularly touching in the case of my mum, whom she too is dependent on. In many ways, Ania’s devotion to my mum is much like that of her former spouse, which may be just what she will need once the birds leave her and the nest behind. Ania seemed to be the missing piece of the puzzle that is our family, bringing us closer together through family walks, which became like some kind of ritual and a cure for just about anything. Around then, I had lost a tremendous amount of weight in an unhealthy amount of time. It honestly felt good to take her lead in my gaunt hands and really think. Here, it became apparent how weak I had become. This realisation was very difficult and confirmed my worst fears: that in some ways I was becoming my sister. Often, I felt I could only turn to the dog for comfort as she stood by me, always there for a good cry.

In 2016, we lost the founding member of our family zoo, Sam. Obviously this differs from losing a family member, but there are similarities. There lies a particular solidarity in sorrow; the loss of a beloved pet is more immediate than that of a family member – you realise sooner how different things will be, as the death of a pet is easier to accept. Sam passing away acted somewhat as a key, opening the door to suppressed emotions about the loss of my dad. To an onlooker, it probably seemed ridiculous how upset we all were after his passing, but to us it made sense and I have come to understand its importance. If your pack has your back, then nothing can truly get to you. My mum and I felt a certain emptiness thereafter, with the cat flap a cruel reminder of the hole in our patched up family. Although my sister was terrified that it would feel like we were desperately trying to replace another member of the pack, but again, after seeing one too many a mouse, we needed a cat and fast.

‘This is the last one and I mean it’ said mum. Even if we had wanted to replace our overweight, geriatric cat, we couldn’t have been further from it in all 3 kilos of ‘Cutiepie.’ After one sleepless night in my room, it was clear that she was no ‘Cutiepie’ but rather a comically small cartoon villain, and so she lost this title and her welcome in my bedroom. Within her first five minutes in the big, wide world, ‘Pepper’ had skillfully decapitated the first of many victims in those deceitful yet dainty paws. (Don’t judge a book by its cover eh?) …but honestly, is it any real surprise that my sister’s leaving the nest to become a vet gained our pack a four-legged replacement?

Zoo: an establishment which maintains a collection of wild animals, typically in a park or gardens, for study, conservation, or display to the public. It now seems strange to think that just a few years ago, you could look at my household without this analogy crossing your mind. Yet madness aside, it turns out that not all wolves can huff, puff and blow your house down – no matter how hard they and fate may try.