I'll never forget her ears. They were so obnoxiously large for such a small creature. She definitely had a touch of Dumbo about her. I cradled this tiny being in my hands and beheld her with awe. My very first pet. Little did I know it at the tender age of six that this would set a precedent for my whole life.
I never thought I would be allowed a pet. My parents always gave the rather lame excuse that my dad was allergic. It just wasn't good enough. Finally, we decided to get some guinea pigs under the strict stipulations that they would be in a hutch kept outside. Dolly was my guinea pig. I was obsessed with her instantly. I spent hours watching her in her hutch as she romped with her slightly shyer hutch-mate, Holly. Dolly was not typically the cutest guinea pig. She grew into her ears eventually but never had the sleek vibe that Holly did. She always looked mildly startled and this, combined with her white fur showed up every speck of dirt, made her appear like she had been dragged through a bush on a daily basis. But boy did she have character. She taught me from a young age to look past aesthetics and value a creature for who they were rather than what they looked like. More than this, she taught me to stand for the underdog that society can shun. A powerful lesson from such a small being.
The pets, of course, did not stop at the guinea pigs. In time we hosted dogs, cats, rabbits, chickens and ducks. I'm sure there was more than one conversation about donkeys. We moved regularly when I was a child so our animal family had to be adapted. We never planned to have a chicken whilst living in a small urban bungalow. Not the most appropriate pet. Katy, however, had other ideas.
When my youngest brother announced that there was a chicken at the door, we all thought he had got confused with the local pigeons. He was young. His insistence was eventually humoured and, to our upmost surprise, there was in fact a chicken at our front door. Bold as brass, it was as it she had been invited. I rapidly got over my surprise and was determined to keep her safe in our home. It was a stormy evening and I couldn't bear the thought of leaving her. A compromise was set to make her a space in the garage, as opposed to giving her my bed which was my preferred option, and leaving the door open to allow her to return where she came from. I barely slept that night and crept to the garage in the early morning light. To my delight she was still there. Settled on her makeshift perch I sat with her until my family woke. By that point, I knew there was no way I could let her go. A chicken coop was bought and Katy settled into the family.
What can I tell you about Katy? I doubt my words will do her justice but I will attempt to convey her in all her glory. These unusual circumstances required a unique chicken. Katy was given daily outings, as I 'walked' her to her favourite spots to stretch her legs. We were always accompanied by our 3 dogs and often one or two of the cats on these walks. I would sit out in all weathers, taking shelter where I could, with my nose in a book as she explored. I never had to worry as our border collie learnt 'Where's Katy?' very early on as he would pointedly stand over her in response. She completely ignored him and was always firmly top dog. I have so many treasured memories of my friend. Her running down the garden with the dogs, eager to keep up with feathers flying. Her determined gaze as I dunked digestives, knowing she would get some even if she had to jump on my lap. Or her peacefulness as she lay in her favourite dust bath as the dappled sun warmed her wings.
I am the person I am because of Katy. Never again will I underestimate an animal just because human society lump them into our meaningless categories. Although chickens are often classed as food, or producers of food, I saw that she had all the intelligence of our 'traditional' pets. Far more, in the case of our Labrador. She was brave, inquisitive, determined, joyful and kind. She taught me that we can decide to be anything we want to be. In her case, that was a dog. I've been so lucky to have lived with so many wonderful animals but Katy will always have her own place in my heart. I will never forget my best friend.
My journey as a wildlife conservationist means that I've been privileged to have close encounters will our wilder creatures. I bore witness to the will-power and pure grit of seabirds as I lived amongst them as a ranger on the isolated Farne Islands (read about this experience here). Their very existence was a fight as they struggled against all odds to raise their chicks. Now, it is capercaillie that I am protecting. The 'horse of the woods' is a species that is all but clinging on. A capercaillie lek, where the males essentially show off to the females, is always a spectacle. However, I have even more admiration for leks that only have one male. These birds have tenacity. Even if no one is watching, he will put on a show. I silently cheer him on and am overcome with joy when I female joins him seemingly from nowhere. The strength of nature is remarkable.
We can all learn from the animals around us. Not everyone has pets or has the opportunity to witness rare wildlife spectacles up close. But animals are everywhere. From the steadfast garden snail to the energetic bumblebee, they are there, we just need to notice them. As our way of life has been knocked on its head this year and we are forced to slow down and stay close to home, my heart has been lightened as people begin to notice their local wildlife. It needs us to notice. It needs us to care. Its the only way they will survive. So take the time to observe your local neighbours and I guarantee you will be a wiser person for it.
It is my turn now. All my life animals have helped me so in turn I will dedicate my life to them. This is a certainty that has grown from the first glace of Dolly's large ears into something that is inevitable My life will change but this essence will remain the same. Its the least I can do.