Weird best friends
When all sorts of unusual creatures claw their way into your heart…
Platteland folk often come across some unusual animals. Some even develop a close bond with creatures that would normally be destined for the dinner table, marvelling at in their idiosyncrasies and mourning them when they die. Alan Duggan learns about fowls with attitude, lovable donkeys, bearded dragons and a zebra who thinks he’s something else.
When I was five years old and utterly trusting, my parents presented me with a pet lamb. I loved it to distraction, ignoring the fact that it did little but stare blankly into the distance and deposit little round pellets with the regularity of Trump tweets.
We lived in a cottage with no electricity on a sprawling estate near Nelspruit, a wonderful place where venomous snakes flourished, the locals brewed a potent version of umqombothi, and parents lied to their children about the mysterious disappearance of sweet little lambs that grew up to become damn nuisances.
I’d like to think that my woolly friend wandered off to join a freedom-loving sheep commune, but more likely I ate him with mint sauce, carrots and roast potatoes. So it goes. >
MEET MY FRIEND Felicity Collen. Hands-on owner of a home renovation company in Cape Town, she’s an interesting amalgam of urban savvy and rural common sense. Felicity grew up in Kimberley, Northern Cape, with a family who believed in doing things for themselves. Her father taught her mechanical skills – at the age of five, she knew which spanners to hand him when he worked on his vehicles – and later, when the Collens acquired a farm near Douglas, she was instructed in the fine art of ethical slaughter.
This is not as contradictory as it may sound. When I interviewed her for an article two years ago, Felicity explained the principle: “If I’m visiting the farm and an animal has been shot, I’m part of the process. I will use every [expletive] part of that animal. For me, that’s ethical. I could never shoot an animal, but I respect it.”
It may come as a surprise – at least, to city slickers who assume that all livestock farmers are heartless killers – to learn that Felicity and her family love animals. Her brother Johnny, a farmer in the Douglas district, describes his very real affection for a calf (now a very large cow), a foal (since grown into a beautiful stallion) and a chicken that enjoys sitting on people’s laps and will “never, ever end up on the dinner table”.
A farmer’s relationship with their animals is very difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t been there, Johnny asserts. “For a small-scale commercial farmer, every day is a new adventure.
“The first animal I shot was a sick cow whose stomach had dried up during a hard winter. I was very young when my dad passed me the rifle and walked away. Today I understand why he did it; he just didn’t have the heart. When you produce something that is destined to be eaten at some stage, you can only do your best to treat that animal as kindly as possible.”
But, as Johnny tells it, kindness and sentiment are not the same thing. “Don’t get me wrong: if an animal is unproductive or aggressive for no good reason, I will have it slaughtered without delay.”
So his best friend is… a cow?
Then there’s Moo. “About seven years ago, I found a newborn calf alongside my fence on the neighbour’s side,” Johnny recalls. “It was December, the temperature was in the high 30s, and this little thing had been left behind when
the cows were moved to fresh grazing. I hauled her over the fence and called her owner, who said I could keep her.
“Today that sunburnt little calf is queen of the herd. She has given me a girl calf every year and her firstborn calf, Minny Moo, had twins in the last calving season. She still lets me hug her and even sit on her, and comes over for a sweet when she sees me. She will never leave this farm.”
Another much-loved member of the Collen menagerie is Minnimus, a pony rescued by Johnny when it was a foal. “He had been cut up badly in a fence, and so small that I was able to pick him up and tie him to the cattle rails with a length of rope. Today he is my mom’s special boy, grown into a stunning little stallion. He serves no purpose other than looking handsome and getting my mom to spoil him. And that is also fine!”
Enter Chicken Filly, another of Johnny’s favourites. “I got her as a buddy for an Egyptian goose chick I’d found on the road. They both did very well, but the goose unfortunately flew over the fence and predators caught him. Filly became broody, so I got her some eggs to sit on and we ended up with six little chicks running around the yard. She still sits on our laps – she’s a lovely girl.”
Inevitably, some animal stories end sadly. “I had a Shetland pony called Ponienjan [little pony] for about 20 years,” Johnny recalls. “She was old when I got her, so I guess she must have been about 40 at the end. She fell ill, so I brought her home and put her on soft feed. She ate and drank, but her body started to fail her. Late one afternoon, after being fed, she lay down beside the gate to her camp. As I walked by, she neighed softly, so I walked over and sat on the ground beside her. She put her head on my lap and died.
“Every day I get to see the good, the bad and sometimes the heartbreaking side of farming. But then there are moments like the one this afternoon, when I went to check on my dams and saw a couple of newborn calves with their white faces and wobbly knees. I just had to smile and wonder, how do their moms keep them that clean? I wouldn’t swap this life for the world.”
How to train your dragon
It goes without saying that dragons are mythical creatures – and yes, that includes the one supposedly slain by St George. However, there are a few real animals that look disconcertingly similar to the fire-breathers of yore, among them a reptile known as a bearded dragon, or Pogona vitticeps.
Melissa Kondaridis and her son, Elia, are mildly besotted with their pet,