More dog and a couple of frogs

We need to build a gate in the back yard. This is a difficulty. Bill started building a side gate when Ella was a baby. For complicated reasons he never finished it and given that Ella, like her sisters before her, was not a wanderer, it never became a problem not to have one.

The plan is to use the nearly completed gate, that stands against one wall in Bill’s workshop. But to install the gate, which needs additional pickets down either side, we need to dig ditches for the foundations of the gateposts and to paint the whole thing once completed.

Bill never does things by halves. He has so little time. Most weekends he’s so tired he only wants to potter, so I worry that this gate might not happen, though something has to happen. Without a gate the dog cannot live in the back yard. Without a gate for the backyard, the dog has to live indoors.

We lock him up at night or when no one’s home in the small bathroom upstairs but he cannot live forever in an upstairs bathroom. The rest of the day when someone is there to supervise him, he runs around the house chewing up computer cords, socks and shoes and whatever else he can get his jaws around. We need to get him outdoors.

Millie and Nick began to build Ralph a kennel but that too seems to have stalled. My suspicion is that Ralph will live indoors for too long and that in time it will become almost too difficult to get him to live outside.

How we have changed. The first cat this family ever owned, a cat for Tessa when she was seven, a cat we named Tillie, became what we then called an outside cat. None of your pets indoors, in those days. Now they all live indoors. They sleep on beds, in hallways and over heat vents, on freshly folded washing. I’m sick of picking their fur off black clothes. But isn’t that the way of it, with aging we mellow. Our old standards subside. Besides I cannot see so well these days, without glasses. So the mess becomes a blur and our priorities shift.

Yesterday Millie took Ralph unexpectedly to the vet. He had lept off the bed when he first caught sight of her in the evening and fell heavily on one side. He started to yelp and limped around. By the time Millie reached the vet , Ralph was fine. No broken bones, just a fright and maybe some bruising. The vet then took the opportunity to go through the list of pets they have included in their registry. Some six rabbits – Fern, CCS, Huggle Pots to name a few, as well as Tillie. All are now long gone. Millie said she felt like a murderer or a negligent pet owner as she declared that each in turn was dead.

I once wrote a story about our pets, focusing on the two frogs, Doris and Picasso.

Here’s an early draft:

The frog’s name is Picasso. He’s a boy. We used to have a girl named Doris but she died. Tragically. One day she produced a long line of eggs, little jelly eyes, that somehow stuck to her rear end instead of dropping onto the surface of the water below for hatching. At first I’d thought the eggs were frog poo, all mixed up with bits of gravel from the base of the tank. I was wrong.

Over the next few weeks Doris lost her shiny green complexion. She no longer leapt high to catch the crickets we tipped live into the tank each evening. She lost weight.
We took her to a vet who specialises in reptiles.
“It’s not frog shit,” he said. “It’s her reproductive organs. She’s a sick frog.” He was pulling at the sticky stuff at Doris’ rear end. “There’s nothing I can do. She’s too far gone. We’ll have to euthenase her.” I watched as the vet drew up a needle longer than Doris’s tiny body and injected a thin stream of liquid. Her body caved in on itself and instantly she shrunk. I took the lifeless frog home for burial.

“It’s the kindest way,” the vet had said. He’s a reptilian specialist. He can operate on lizards no longer than a finger. “But I’ve never yet managed to anaesthetize a frog.”

A year later I bring Picasso to the vet. We adopted him to replace Doris. No more girl frogs. We figured with two boys there’d be no possibility of reproductive backfire.

But now Picasso’s sick. He’s been getting thinner. The fine bone at the end of his spine is jutting out in a way it never did before and there are dark raised spots along his skin. He’s lost his bright green sparkle and turned into a darker green. Frogs change colour to reflect their temperature, the darker the green, the colder they are. Picasso’s cold all the time now even on the few 40 degree days we’ve been having lately.

Picasso is a green tree frog from the rain tree forests in Queensland. Here in Melbourne we need a special home, a glass fish tank lined with gravel, a heat mat attached below to keep the temperature tropical and a UV light to emulate the sun’s rays. Finally we need a frog licence from Fisheries and Wildlife that costs $35.00 a year, a fee that increases regularly because green tree frogs are protected.
The vet diagnoses a severe case of gravel ingestion. It seems whenever Picasso swallows a cricket, he takes in a piece of gravel with it, and for some reason he hasn’t managed to shit the stones out. Now he has a belly full. At least a third of his body weight in stones, like the wolf in one version of Red Riding Hood. The Hunter cuts him open, frees Grandma and Red Riding Hood then replaces her with large round stones from the riverbed. Then he restitches Mr Wolf who wakes up to the most awful bellyache.

The vet prescribes a dose of laxative, caramel flavoured. He’s convinced that frogs love the taste. At least Picasso takes it in. He has no choice really. The vet has his mouth prised open with a metal stick and is shovelling in the stuff, brown and gluey, much like melted caramel.
“As long as he doesn’t vomit it back up, the laxative might help to shift the gravel.” It’s our only hope,” the vet says. “Put him in a separate container tonight otherwise you won’t know whether or not he’s passed any stones.” He hands back the frog and his assistant hands me the bill.

I don’t mean to harp on money but tree frogs in captivity are expensive, at least the ones you buy here in Melbourne. They fetch at least $150.00 from specialist pet shops plus the annual licence fee and all the bits and pieces. It has been suggested to me more than once that I should announce on the status sheet that we send to the Department of Fisheries and Wild life each year that both frogs have died. I don’t suppose they expect you to keep up your licence fee for dead frogs. Still I’m too honest for that.

All in all you have to be responsible to keep frogs. And the vet will tell you as he tells me in no uncertain terms how bad I am at handling frogs. I put Doris in a shoe box. Frogs don’t travel well in cardboard boxes. “Cardboard burns their skin,” the vet says, in a way that suggests I should have known all along. An ice-cream tub would be better. “Always wet your hands first and leave them wet when handling your frog’” the vet tells me wetting his own hands under the tap. “Otherwise frogs are surprisingly strong.” “We’ve had one of ours for four years,” I tell the vet. I don’t want him thinking I’m a complete incompetent. After all we’ve managed to keep them this long. But all the while I’m trying to think back. How long is it since I last cleaned out the tank. And the sight of the burden of keeping the animals clean I’m afraid I can’t distinguish one from the other. At least I couldn’t before Picasso got sick. Now it’s easy. He’s the skinny one.

All of this happened some five or more years ago. Life rolls on, for some of us at least.

Long live Ralph, the dog.


The cats are unsettled. They do not understand this strange new creature in the house. So far Ralph has managed, it would seem, not to notice them, though yesterday when he went over to the cat bowls, no cats in sight, he must have caught a whiff of them. Sniff, sniff on the floor around the bowls and Ralph let out a few puppy dog growls rearing back from the empty bowls.

It must be instinctive. I think of all the cartoons and stories about the antipathy between cats and dogs; cats and dogs, like siblings, like brothers and sisters. They fight like cats and dogs, we say. I think it was one of my mother’s expressions.

It is as if we have a new baby in the house. Bill is still not convinced of the dog’s name. He wants to call him Towser. To Bill, all dogs are Towsers. I find the uncertainty of naming the puppy unsettling. I am reminded of those parents who are unable to decide upon a name for their babies, months after the birth. It seems to me it must impact on your personality, your sense of your self, your ultimate identity for the rest of your life. As if your parents in the first instance could not decide for themselves basic things about you. As if perhaps they were looking for the perfect name, to name the perfect baby, who of course does not exist.

If all dogs are Towsers, then our dog deserves a name of his own. Still, I too would like to call him Towser, though Ralph suits just fine. After all we once called a cat Pickles and another Tillie. We once called our rabbits, Muncheros and CCs after particular brands of corn chips and another the obvious, Peter. We once called our mice, Flora and Alexander and that’s only the beginning. We once called a green tree frog, Picasso.

These animals once belonged to individual daughter’s but over the passage of time they have blended in to become part of the folklore of this family. Our memories of them reflect the changes we’ve made. Once our cats were not even allowed inside, now they share our beds. Even our little dog has made it inside, at least for the time.

How much more tolerant we have become with age.