All Creatures Great and Small?

I was waiting for a bus when I saw it: the most beautiful ornament in a garden by the bus stop. It was a statue of an eagle, or a falcon, or something like that. Or at least I thought it was a statue – until it swivelled its head and blinked at me.

It turns out that a bird of prey is resident in a seemingly ordinary suburban Derby street. Some people apparently keep the unlikeliest creatures as family pets. And I began to wonder why. Take ferrets. I’ve been told they are affectionate, playful and, contrary to popular belief, fastidiously clean. But even though I’m told that you can take them out for a walk, somehow I can’t imagine ever curling up on the sofa with one. And chipmunks. My cousin Jonathan kept chipmunks, and they were very cute in a Walt Disney way. But they spent most of their days asleep. Which is a common problem with rodents.

When I was ten I longed for a gerbil and was excited beyond all reason when it was my turn to take care of Spike, the class gerbil, for the weekend. Friday evening was fascinating: Spike explored his new surroundings, eyed the goldfish with suspicion, chowed down on his seed, sipped his water, even enjoyed an excursion around the family laundry basket.But, come Saturday morning, Spike took to his tiny straw bed, curled up and went to sleep. And there he stayed until dusk, despite all my attempts to rouse him.And so it continued all weekend. When we went to bed, Spike got up and then kept the whole house awake by running around and around in his exceedingly squeaky wheel. It was such a disappointment. Come Monday morning I’d decided to give gerbil ownership a miss.

Some animals just make better pets than others. I can’t help thinking that there are people who must be disappointed when their pygmy goat starts eating granddad’s prize begonias; or their alligator grows too big for the bathtub. There are some animals that just don’t suit being domesticated. I mean, monitor lizards and geckos for goodness sake – should anything that can lick its own eyeballs really be a family pet? And how anyone can keep a tarantula as a pet is beyond me. As a confirmed arachnophobic, I’m completely unconvinced by one pet shop’s promise that the pink-toe variety is “placid, cute and furry”, particularly once I’d spotted that it was also “fast and agile”. And who in their right mind would want to give a home to a giant hissing cockroach? Anyway, what happens when these exotic creatures escape? You hear about wallabies loose in the Peak District and panthers on Dartmoor. The traffic in my hometown Derby is bad enough without dozens of motorists rubber-necking because hordes of sugar gliders are now swooping low over the Markeaton traffic island.

Personally, I prefer my animal friends to be of the more cuddly variety. As long as I can remember I’ve had cats. You’ll notice I don’t use the word “owned” here, since any cat lover will tell you the first thing you find out about felines is that they belong to no-one but themselves. As they say: “Dogs have owners; cats have staff”. But even cats can cause you extreme embarrassment. My first cat, Angie, was a genuine lady who absolutely refused to do anything remotely undignified. But she was skilled hunter and loved nothing better than showing off her catch to the rest of the pride, particularly if we had guests. A birthday party of mine once descended into chaos when she brought a long-dead field mouse through the cat flap. I don’t think she understood that the high-pitched squeals of my friends were not cries of appreciation...

Cats have distinct personalities, too. Can anyone claim that of stick insects or snakes? Our current feline lodgers, Erin and Gracie, are sisters but couldn’t be more different. They’re charming, sweet as pie, and utterly enchanting. But Gracie’s an adventurer, an explorer who’s always looking for the next thing, the next game, a higher bookcase on which to climb. Her sister is more cautious. While Gracie is the first to greet a visitor, be it a friend, neighbour or the gas man, Erin hangs back, looks on and mulls things over before introducing herself. They do both like to sleep on a fluffy duvet and, as far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing more delightful than being woken up by tickling whiskers and kitten kisses, even if it is a couple of hours earlier than the alarm I set. But that’s what worries me about exotic pets: it’s hard to imagine the owner of a giant African land snail cuddling up for the night with his or her slimy friend. It sounds, quite frankly, rather messy