My family and other (wild) animals

While my upbringing was not exactly ‘Cider with Rosie’, it was semi-rural enough to give me an appreciation of the natural world. Consequently, it strikes me as ironic that it took a move to the Portuguese capital to bring me even closer to nature. As it turns out, I’ve rarely needed to leave the house in order to commune with a wide array of fauna since moving to Lisbon. Who knew?

Although I envisage my post-retirement self accompanied by a sweet and diminutive canine companion, a pet of any description is out of the question for the time being. As I frequently affirm to students and acquaintances alike, the 11 and 8 year-old monkeys in my care mean that I currently have quite enough on my plate and they’re barely house-trained as it is. Sadly, the children (my 8 year-old in particular) don’t fully grasp why our busy existence would be incompatible with welcoming a furry friend into our lives. For now, my daughter consoles herself with an impressive collection of cuddly toys, which she refers to as her children and my netos (grandchildren).

The root of Monkey Number Two’s longing goes back to the time when we volunteered/were pressurised into taking care of the nursery school rabbit several years ago. I was anxious about this undertaking at the time, not least because Flocky herself was a quaking bag of nerves. This was no doubt brought about by the constant upheaval she experienced due to being moved from household to household every weekend while the school was closed, not to mention the less-than-calm atmosphere a room full of 3 to 5 year-olds surely engendered during the week. We therefore tried to make her stay as comfortable as possible and her first visit passed off without incident, despite being aware that the weight of responsibility I felt to keep her alive was on a par with the panic I’d experienced when bringing our first newborn home from hospital.

Sadly, Flocky’s second visitation didn’t go quite as well as the first. Inexplicably, she’d metamorphosed from cute, nervous fluff-ball into one wild-eyed angry bunny. Clearly, doing the social rounds was wearing very thin for her. On this occasion, she set about creating a trail of destruction in her wake, most notably chewing her way through the corners of a number of my husband’s prized motorcycle vintage magazine collection, issues of which dated back to the 1950s. Added to which, she obviously hadn’t ever heard the expression “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you”, as she also attempted to chomp away at our fingers on several occasions. This time, she came, she left and I wasn’t sorry to say goodbye. A while later we got wind of her demise; I regret to say that my overriding sentiment was one of relief that it hadn’t happened on our watch.

As it is, we content ourselves with the guest appearances made by an assortment of creatures in our lives. A lizard has taken up long-term residence on our terrace: we’ve named him George. For a short period last year, a tiny mouse joined George on the terrace and we named him Michael. Michael has since vanished, which again I’m secretly relieved about due to my aversion, bordering on phobic, to all things “ratty”.

Not all the creatures that have tried to insinuate themselves into our lives have been as unobtrusive and considerate as George, who pretty much keeps himself to himself. During the sweltering heat of high summer, the occasional cockroach attempts to seek refuge in the relative cool of our apartment, an unsavoury by-product of city living in a warm climate. Their blind, prehistoric scuttling repulses me, although my methods of dispatching them have become much more ruthless and efficient over the years. My first encounter with a Portuguese cockroach in the middle of one night in the early days saw me perform an ineffective rain dance in a state of undress over the creepy-crawly while wielding a wooden meat tenderiser. It probably goes without saying that all this succeeded in doing was to warn the intruder of imminent danger, which sent it sprinting off in the opposite direction. These days, I employ stealth and appropriately heavy footwear, usually resulting in a more desirable outcome.

In fact, it’s true to say that very few animal invasions would perturb me on the the home front nowadays. My husband once disturbed a pigeon that had wandered into the homestead; his shout of surprise led the bird to flap wildly and gave rise to what was presumably a fear-induced bowel movement (by the pigeon, not my husband). Chasing the pooping pigeon out of our apartment in these conditions was no easy task, although eventually achieved by my husband, in spite of a gymnastically comedic slip-and-slide manoeuvre precipitated by the avian excreta.

On another occasion, a night spent at my parents-in-law’s house involved sharing our bedroom with a bat that had decided to set up camp there. It obstinately refused to comply with all attempts at removal, alternating between looming ominously in a corner in full vampire mode, interspersed with the occasional circular swoop over our heads as we lay in bed. Obviously it wasn’t the best night’s sleep we’ve ever had and we were only able to tempt the nocturnal house guest to a bid for freedom once dawn had broken.

These trials pale into comparison after experiencing the stuff my nightmares are made of a number of years ago. Enjoying an evening on the terrace, I took a break to use the bathroom. Any parent of young children will sympathise with the frequency with which you end up flushing the toilet long after your children have used it, which is what I thought I was doing at first. The muscular, brown object in the bowl resolutely stayed put after one flush and just as I was about to attempt a second, the double-flusher twitched and it dawned on me that I was staring at a long ratty tail. Suffice it to say that several buckets of water and panic-stricken flushing ensued in order to send the rodent back into the sewers, from whence it came. Still nervous, we weighted the toilet seat down with two large, heavy stones that night, while trying to banish images of murderous rats leaping out of our water closet from our minds. It made the night with our batty friend seem quite cosy in comparison.

I’m happy to report that recent weeks have not seen any further invasive entries via our terrace, unless you count the descent of intimate apparel from our upstairs neighbours’ washing lines – but that’s an altogether different story.

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