I come from a long lineage of lunatic pet owners. My maternal aunt had a mongoose whom she trained to follow her to school and back. A maternal uncle tried to teach the cats and dogs in his house to ‘sing’ as a choir. My paternal aunt not only brushed her teeth but also her [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

My father, the pet Pied Piper


I come from a long lineage of lunatic pet owners. My maternal aunt had a mongoose whom she trained to follow her to school and back. A maternal uncle tried to teach the cats and dogs in his house to ‘sing’ as a choir. My paternal aunt not only brushed her teeth but also her dog’s after each meal and cleaned her pet parrot’s bill. My mother used to speak long monologues to our dogs, as she sat outside in the veranda in the afternoons. (The dogs learned to understand a great deal, but I am sure that the neighbours wondered about my mother’s mental heath.)

Dad, however, was the head lunatic of pet owners. His basic premise was that dogs, cats, and any other animal who passed our way, had to be treated like people. So several of our pets learned to eat ice cream, cheeselets, cake . . . and drink coffee. Each morning, our maid would take a tray of bed coffee to our parents, and on the tray was an empty saucer. Dad would pour a bit of his coffee onto the saucer and hold it for the dog (or cat) of the time to lap, while he sipped his coffee. In his latter years, he only ate marmite and sugar on buttered white bread, supplemented with a cup of Ensure, at night. Our cat Dummy (short for Tweedledum) would also devour a sandwich of marmite and bread for dinner, because Dad had taught him to do so.

Just as he believed that people ought not to wander around at night, Dad was worried sick when our cat Dummy, an inveterate roamer, used to go out prowling at night. The solution, much to my mother’s dislike, was to keep a window in their bedroom open at night, so that Dummy could creep in through the grill. Until, of course, Dummy became too fat to squeeze through the grill. Then, he would sit outside the front door and scrape it till my father let him in, which Dad would do in the wee hours of the morning, with perfect equanimity.

My father was a cartographer and artist, who spent much of his time with his neck bent over a map or painting. As a result, by the time he was in his late fifties, he had bad cervical spondylosis. He saw orthopaedic surgeons and physiotherapists, ayurvedic physicians and allopathic physicians; he chugged down Panadol and painkillers till my mother flushed them down the loo. He had a permanent excruciating stiff neck, until Dummy came on the scene. Dummy decided that the best place in the house in which to sleep was Dad’s bed. But he not only hogged the bed, but also hogged Dad’s right calf, which he hugged while stretched out like a sausage along it. Dad, working on the basis that the cat needed comfort more than he did, began, therefore, to sleep on his back, without moving for the whole night. In two weeks, his neck pain had disappeared and he was moving his neck again. In time, both Dummy and Dad would sleep deeply — one purring like a motor bus and the other, snoring. Dad’s neck became better as sleeping on one’s back was what doctors recommended for spondylosis. I often thought that Dad ought to have patented this cure before he died.

Another pet in another era, RolyRanee— a cocker spaniel with a pedigree longer than mine — expected her first litter. A bed of newspapers and old clothes was made in the TV room for the expectant mother but she would have none of it. She followed my father around, dropping puppies like little turds. The solution was that Dad had to sit on the bed made for her, for 12 hours, while she had seven puppies. Any other person would have balked, or at least been irritated or annoyed. Not Dad. He sat serenely, cross legged on the floor, with Roly’s head on his thigh.

P.A. Miththapala and Dolly

Pets always followed Dad, like children followed the Pied Piper. One cat sat in the loo, watching him while Dad attended to his early morning business. Another sat under his chair while he painted. Dummy went one further, draping himself on top of Dad’s drawing table, amidst paint, water and brushes, while Dad painted. Dummy never once upset anything on the table and never walked across a single painting. All of them without exception, followed him round our small garden, each morning, when he examined his plants.
A Pomeranian we once had — regrettably called Fluffy — was a demon when it came to baths. She would wriggle like a proverbial worm and race out of the bathroom, while whoever was attempting to bathe her chased her round the garden. Mum and I racked our brains to come up with a solution. Dad hit upon the perfect answer to the problem. He would stand under the shower in his sarong, holding Fluffy in his arms — and she turned from being a terror in the bath to a perfectly quiescent lady who could be shampooed and scrubbed with impunity. Only Dad would have thought of this.

When I was very little, I remember that we had a pet palm squirrel called Jimmy who had a long cage in the store room. He would eat off our palms and come to the mesh to have his head scratched. One day, a palm civet found him and feasted off him. I wailed when I saw the pitiful remains. Dad, however, solemnly recited part of the funeral service; we sang a hymn and buried Jimmy with pomp and circumstance.

Dad cared for other animals — not only pets. He replaced fledglings who had fallen out of the nest in the nest with great care, and lovingly carried out of the house, on pieces of paper, millipedes and insects.

Dad treated pets and animals like people because he truly believed that all living things had a right to live. He merely extended his stance in relation to people to animals. Just as he was gentle and compassionate to people, so was he to animals. This stance is reflected in many religions.

When a man has pity on all living creatures then only is he noble-Lord Buddha
If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men- St. Francis of Assisi

One is dearest to God who has no enemies among the living beings, who is nonviolent to all creatures-Bhagavad Gita
There is not an animal on the earth, nor a flying creature on two wings, but they are people like unto you.-The Koran
At Dad’s funeral, we sang “All things bright and beautiful, All creatures great and small, All things wise and wonderful: The Lord God made them all.” Our Vicar in his eulogy said, “This is not a hymn usually sung at funerals. But anyone who knew Mith, or who had visited his house, would know how apt this hymn is.”

To my brother and me, this was a lesson Dad demonstrated through his daily actions that has stayed with us through our lives. To me, a conservation biologist, Dad’s tenet was the base on which I forged my career, and the professional stance I have taken for all my adult life: that all living things are interdependent and inter-related.

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