The island of Montreal has lots of squirrels, the island of Newfoundland had none until someone introduced the species in 1963. Mom and dad (and big brother) came to Montreal c. 1949, soon after voting for Confederation.
As a family, we bought our first house in 1959 (coinciding with the family expansion of my birth, and my newly widowed paternal Granny’s arrival). The suburb where we settled, Pointe Claire, had some of the biggest fattest healthiest grey squirrels I have ever seen.
As an infant in our backyard (I suppose this must have been the summer of 1960? perhaps my first few summers?) I am told I was delighted to be playing with multiple squirrels in my playpen. Mom told the story as if the squirrels were so numerous you would have to shoo them away from your house and your children.
Now, I realize I have never heard another story of a baby playing with squirrels (apparently I loved them very much) in Pointe Claire or elsewhere. Since I understand and communicate with animals with much more comfort than I do with my own species, I like to think I called the squirrels to come play with me. I like to imagine my glee. (It would be so cool if I had a first-hand memory.)
No glee for mom, animals worried her – bugs and diseases and bites and rabies. She would NEVER EVER hurt an animal, and would save or help one in need, but she didn’t LIKE them. She hated that a cat would rub against her legs (and of course our later cats loved to do just that), and she hated (and probably feared) actual contact with wild animals.
Granny liked animals. But I later found out that mom’s Aunt Hannah (on her mom’s side) really loved animals. Dogs, cats, goats, every living creature, and in the house too. So there is precedent for my natural inclination.
My godmother was Auntie Mae, her husband – my godfather, Uncle Norman (dad’s cousin). I don’t know how she did it (ie. convinced my mom), but somehow a year or so before she died, Auntie Mae gave us a cat named Smokey. Smokey was young, but not a small kitten. He was a beautiful grey tabby with white markings, and my first pet. There really was no such thing as an “indoor cat” then, and one night Smokey was hit by a car and died. I think it was 1967. February 2 and March 8 both stand out in my head as dates of Smokey’s and Goldy’s (second cat, orange tabby, hit by a car in front of our house, less than one year old) deaths, but I forget which was which. I had really learned about death when mom had to explain to me that Walt Disney died, and I asked if he had any kids. “Uncle Walt” was the perfect father in my imagination. My mom taught me the word “sympathy” that day.
Mom was devastated when Mae passed, as she was “the only one who really listened”. I know it was 1967 because that was my mom’s hell year, the one when so so many people you love die, such that the memory of the year is tainted with death. (My hell year was 1995.) In 1967 with Mae, and Norman, and Jimmy, the boy next door, dying – I learned to recognize the bad news look on my mom’s face when she approached. I wasn’t allowed to see Smokey’s body, and there was no way mom would have allowed a backyard funeral (regardless of season), and so his body was thrown in the garbage.
When I was a little girl I made a decision that I loved all animals, and not just the cute ones, the pets, the ones I knew. I didn’t want dolls – I wanted toy animals – stuffed animals, plastic animals, glass animals – the more realistic, especially in colouring, the happier I was to play with them. It was the 1960s and talk of conservation and endangered species became popular. Ecology was a new word. One day I would announce to my mother that “Today my favourite animal is the rhinoceros”, and the next day I would choose another species. I loved Walt Disney, nature documentaries, books and encyclopedias featuring animals, and especially wildlife guides. I loved to know about habitats, and later developed a love of Linnaean Taxonomy (Latin Nomenclature). I know I am not a speciesist, but I guess I am a classist (as in the taxonomic rank, I certainly prefer Class: Mammalia).
Mom was much more interested in the planet. As a child she found it disturbing to see the black smoke from the train’s smokestack, and the facility with which people dumped garbage into the ocean, although she was too timid to voice her unusual but prescient concerns. She told me she knew even then that air and water were not infinite, even though people acted as though they were. She disliked colour-dyed products, and even worried about the bleach used in recycling. She was concerned about fresh water and what we dumped in our sinks and toilets (beyond the normal unavoidable waste for which they were designed). We had an artificial Christmas tree because it was wrong headed to expect the planet to produce trees essentially to be discarded for no good reason. Pesticides and poisons in cleaning products were ubiquitous, and she knew there would be consequences.
Mom was right about the planet. She foretold the demise of the fisheries in Newfoundland as she saw the capelin (the feeder fish that were so numerous the beaches would be ankle-deep with them during spawning season) diminish drastically in number. She told me people were greedy and making nets with smaller holes such that certain fish species were being caught before maturity. Like the air and the ocean, the fish stocks were not infinite.
She told me of school lessons about the Beothuk peoples of Newfoundland who are officially extinct. The native great auk, and the Newfoundland wolf are extinct as well. Mom also never saw a snake, a skunk, a raccoon, a porcupine, a groundhog or a deer while she was growing up there. The island of Newfoundland has only fourteen indigenous mammals – now there are coyotes, moose, snowshoe hares, mink, shrews, mice, rats, chipmunks, and of course squirrels.
Mom is gone now, but when I was 19 and my seven year old guinea pig Lionel died, I was allowed to have my first and only pet funeral in the backyard of that house in Pointe Claire. I still love animals more than I do most people. I live in the city, where my indoor cats sit at the window and watch the city squirrels do their urban foraging. There are still a lot of fat grey squirrels in Pointe Claire. The baby-boomers are grown up, and most of them are fat and grey now too.