Sunday, September 30, 2012


Last week, at the venerable age of nearly nine, our house rabbit Bert passed away as we fussed him.

Not a bad way to go really, when you think about it. Warm, dry, having your ears stroked, with fresh hay, vegetables and bunny treats within easy reach. I wouldn't mind ending my own days like that. He was a good age and, although cataracts and a spot of arthritis had taken their toll, he was still relatively sprightly, meandering round the garden hunting grapes and the occasional dandelion:

We'd known he was on his way out for most of the day and so were a little way prepared for the inevitable, but feeling his tiny body come to a stop with a small tremor and a bit of a stretch was quite the emotional wrench.

If you're not one of the privileged few fortunate enough to have had a house rabbit as a tenant, then you might think I'm being daft, but there you go. Emotions happened. Occasional tears were shed.

But then we've had him through some tough times over the last eight and a half years so perhaps not that surprising after all. He's been a fluffy constant at home through some of the highest peaks we've had, as well as being there through dark times, through those minor tragedies inherent to all of of us during our lives unless we're very, very lucky. Small wonder we will cling to whatever tiny rock, whatever small solace we can. Bert was, I now recall, a living, breathing source of succour and comfort.

Or at the very least a sock-shagging distraction.

Try being depressed with a randy bunny clinging to your Totes Toasties.

When I hear someone is thinking of getting a bunny type critter, I now implore them into making it a  house rabbit. That way, instead of a savage isolated bitey thing in an oft-neglected pen in the garden, they get a socialised, confident, very entertaining companion running circles around you whilst making soft honking sounds, leaping on to the walls and pushing off like a chinchilla in The Martrix, running up and down stairs ten times in a row for no other reason than it seems like the thing to do, or nudging your feet with his nose until you agree to fuss him for forty solid minutes whilst watching the telly.

His official title once our children came along was Officer In Charge Of Animal Appreciation, a duty he carried out with aplomb, supplying many hours of stoic fortitude as our children fussed him the wrong way, tried to pick him up, stuffed his ears into their mouths or pushed him along the floor like a living brush. Never biting, the most he would do when the attention got a little too much was hop off, occasionally showing his displeasure with a loud foot thump.

Bert's final duty was, as with many pets, to be an introduction to death. My five year old son became more aware of the ephemerality of life, that nothing lasts forever and even about the practicalities of being dead. We held a little burial ceremony, gave Bert some of his favourite treats in case there's a bunny Valhalla, wrote his name on the box, said thank you for being such a wonderful pet before burying him next to the lawn he'd frequented on sunny days for most of his life.

Demonstrating his newly acquired grasp of solemnity and respect for dead loved ones, my son turned to me and, in hushed tones, said "Daddy, I've just done a massive farp."

It comes to us all, son. It comes to us all.

And so a week after Bert left us I wanted to look at some photos of him, including the one above which is the last I took. Not to mourn him particularly because he was, at the end of the day, an old rabbit, but maybe as a little reminder that, for most of his time with us he was a bounding, leaping dervish who really did seem to enjoy being alive, to go wherever he pleased, and who fully considered our bed his own:

Sorry, no room for you on here. My stuff's on it.

A friend of mine quoted (perhaps inevitably) from Watership Down, suggesting Bert had been called by Frith and gone to dance with the black rabbit, which was poetry and sympathy in one fell swoop (thanks Jon). In the book, the black rabbit is an allegory for death as the rabbit's constant companion, and I like to think we protected Bert from that. I also feel he was a bit of an agnostic and so prefer the idea of him enjoying frith in the original sense of the word, where it means peacefulness and freedom from molestation.

He won't have his ears tugged by the children again, or have his apple stolen off him by a human toddler, or have his wood shavings piled up on top of him to "keep him warm". He won't be chased around the garden with a toy watering can, won't have a hat put on him and won't be taken to school for Show Your Pet Off day. I'll always admire his fortitude in staying serene in the face of children.

Of course, as a grown up medical professional, I felt that one should let a rabbit BE a rabbit, and would never stoop to such games solely for my entertainment.

Well, almost never.

Good night Bert.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Ant another thing . . .

Some of you may be aware that once, in days of innocence and honest living, I was a pest controller, which is one of those jobs that no-one wants to do but everyone wants to hear about.

I loved it.

So far, we've covered 'roaches, rats and Bonzo, as well as more rats and thermos flasks, but today, allow me to relate a tale of hymenopteran struggle, of the war between human technology and insectoid foe, indomitable creatures of the swarm versus a man in a Ford van. Today, it is the turn of . . .

The Ants!

Sit back dear friends, unless you can't see your monitor so well, in which case sit forward a bit. Not that far forward. You're too close now. Back a bit. A little more. Tilt the screen a bit, out of the sun. Yeah, like that. Now sit in that exact position, and I shall type you a tale.

Jeremy was a boarding student at a college for people with mental health problems. He was about the same age as me, and his psychological make up included having to deal with autism, learning difficulties and a shoddy memory. He was very interested in people, and would bombard the visiting contractor with questions, finally culminating in his succinct interpretation of your place in the universe.

To me, after half an hour of relentless interrogation whilst I worked my way through the entire site checking rodent monitoring boxes, insect execution machines and almost completely pointless wasp traps, he nodded sagely and concluded "God made you with big hands."

I took it as the compliment I think it was meant to be, and the questions moved on to another topic. That of my job.

Jeremy decided he liked it and immediately promoted himself to Assistant On-Site Pest Control Technician, which involved following me around the college site, taking great interest in the equipment, asking lots (and lots, and lots) of questions before completely failing to store many of the answers in his slightly faulty memory. Still, he was enjoyable company and I would let him carry the more innocuous of my equipment after discovering from his Mum that he had a penchant for eating new things.

Eating your stock isn't necessarily a hindrance to the modern professional, if you're a baker or prostitute maybe, but not great for a mammalian pest controller carrying stuff designed to kill mammals.

One Summer, back in '95 I think, the college became a recruiting ground for ants. Ooh, black as the ace of spades they were. Ruthless, cunning, and utterly intent on achieving their own aims and objectives. In desperation (and perhaps because their contract included ant treatments) the staff at the college put the call out, and I arrived, tooled up, bag in hand and sprayer on back, to have a ganzy.

They were everywhere.

A combination of weather, poor hygiene and  presumably some sort of tactical genius Ant general had allowed them to inundate the kitchens, the common rooms, the dormitories and patio areas. Jeremy appeared, utterly excited and overjoyed by the challenge, pointing at every ant on every surface and telling me what species it was.




Once more unto the breach, I thought wearily (as it was nearly lunch time and I hadn't eaten since ten) and primed my spray tank with the customary hilarious wrist action.

Jeremy offered his services, and I accepted. An ally would be helpful, and he had a box of Quality Street I was willing for him to share. I explained that the ants were probably being attracted to sweet food at this time of the year, and that they would be particularly interested in sugar. Recalling Jeremy's less that perfect memory, I reiterated that sugar was the key issue here as spillages were common at the college. This was the nineties when everyone took sugar in their tea.


We used hygiene, poisons, even proofing. We lifted many slabs adjacent to the buildings and waged terrible war against the ants. The carnage was considerable. So . . . many . . . deaths. The silent screams, the twitching legs and startled compound eyes, the collateral woodlice. It was shock and awe, to a limited value of shocking awesomeness.

You might laugh, but  you weren't there man!

You weren't there.

And then, suddenly, after a few visits, peace broke out. We had won.

But at what price?

Bare ant trails in the gardens. Morsels of food abandoned twixt kitchen and mound. Silent, echoing chambers 'neath patios where once a multitude of inhabitants crawled.

The peacefulness . . . of DEATH!

That's right. Of DEATH!

But that's what I was paid nine grand a year for. The ants competed with us for resources and we competed back, a natural, brutal dance that echoed down the millennia. For the moment,we were winning, although I was well aware that this was just a battle, not the war. The ants were smart, in their own way, and had achieved increasing levels of immunity by cleverly dying in such large numbers that only the resistant ones were left to breed.

Cunning bastards.

I left a report, with advice on preventing a resurgence, and indicated I'd be back in a month to follow up but wasn't expecting anything too exacting. I shook hands with Jeremy and away I went, chewing on one of the long yellow toffees that he wouldn't have eaten anyway, congratulating myself on a job well undertaken.

Oh, how prideful the pride that comes before the fall. How eggy the facial egg. How unpalatable the words that must be eaten. Also, the hat. For, a few short weeks later, on my follow up visit, they were back.

If OMG had been invented, I would totally have said it.

The trails were alive once again. The kitchens re-infested, the morsels of food scavenged and fed to the next generation underground. I'm sure there were even tiny celebratory mariachi bands and raucous pool parties, but my memory of this is a little hazy. It could've just been miniature piƱatas.

"But . . . how . . .?" I stammered, thinking of all the work we'd put in. I walked in a daze into the kitchen, barely stopping to put my white trilby on, and immediately, the cause became apparent.

There was grit under my feet.

I knelt, drew my finger over the tiles, and brought it to my eye, to my nose, then to my tongue. My head snapped up as I spat out the residue.


Good shit too. Tate and Lyle.

But with this half answer, only more questions arose. I still had no idea why there was so much S around. The kitchen staff told me they were having to mop three times a day but it wasn't enough, simply dissolving to leave a crystalline layer of sucrose in the corners which the ants adored. You could tell by the minuscule guitars and fireworks.

"Ants!" came a familiar voice, from outside the kitchen. "Ants!"

"Jeremy?" I shouted, "Have you seen all this sug . . ." I stopped and stared as he walked in, a spring in his step and a grin on his fizzog.

In his left hand, a huge bag of sugar was open like a small paper sack containing many granules. I watched in dawning realisation and subsequently dawning horror as Jeremy's right hand dipped in, grabbed a handful and send it scattering across the floor in graceful, horizontal parabolas, a rain of goodness for the enemy, veritable manna from heaven.

"Jer . . ." I whispered, but my voice cracked like some sort of embryo-carrying device made of calcium dropped from a height, "Jeremy. What . . . have . . . you . . . done?"

He walked past me, pushing through the chain curtains of the kitchen door to go out into the garden patio. "I've been controlling them." He practically sang. "Like you told me. I've been controlling them. With sugar."

He strolled across the paving slabs of the patio, generously spreading ant-food over a wide area, a striding god providing for all. Tiny sombreros whizzed into the air, thrown by the ants in their unbridled joy. Possibly.

I fell to my knees in front of the herbaceous borders, and raised my clawed hands to the sky. "Why?" I implored the uncaring cosmos, "It's nearly lunchtime!"

Sighing, I got to my feet, gently prized the sugar away from Jeremy's grasp and went to get my sprayer, it's silver sides reflecting my own grim determination to do what had to be done.

"Ants!" Jeremy pointed out, following me.

"Yes mate." I agreed. "Ants."