It was 10pm and long past the bedtime of the guinea pig kids. Cutie the guinea pig Alpha had been scrubbing a pellet bowl – why was it that some of his grandchildren couldn’t remember to keep their butts OUTSIDE the bowl while doing the final stages of the digestive business? Unfortunately this was one of his jobs as a responsible leader of the family.
“Spotty, can you remind Chocolate again that his bottom must be pointed to the SOUTH when he does the Number 1 inside his hutch?” said Cutie with a sigh. There was a persistent patch of brown, gluey stuff that he was trying to scrape off with a bit of pine mulch. It was stuck to uneaten pellets and had gone rock hard.
“Sure dear… I can try!” His wife Spotty was packing some meadow hay and carrot sandwiches for the little ones’ lunches tomorrow; Mr Keeper had promised to take them all on a boat trip down the river. They had never been on the water before, so everyone was really excited.
As Cutie finally managed to remove the last bit of yucky goo off the pellet bowl, he suddenly remembered the drinks coupon for the local bar, The Waterhole, that his good friend Bob had sent him for his 4th birthday a few months ago. He could hand it in for a nice cup of any drink he wanted.
Ahhh! Nothing like a nice cup of rodent mead (mead that was safe and delicious for rodents… obviously) in the middle of the night, when your fellows were all curled up in their straw beds and you had the whole night to yourself. And after you’d just spent 30 minutes scraping poo out of pellet bowls.
The Waterhole was a well-hidden, underground bar that the local animals could easily access when they wanted a drink or needed a place to rest (it was also operating as a hotel). It was the perfect place for a guinea pig Alpha who never had his mornings or afternoons to himself, and needed to wind down after a long day of heavy duties such as trimming the lawns, gazing at passing birds for predator warnings, chewing off overhanging fruit tree branches (if he could reach them)… and of course scraping poo off pellet bowls.
Cutie informed Spotty of where he was headed, promised to bring a Cherry Slipty back for her (a popular drink and Spotty’s favourite), before slipping on his coat, grabbing his shoes and taking an underbus (buses that move around in the great network of tunnels between tree roots under most parts of Australia, with entrances cleverly disguised as very large wombat burrows) straight to the door of The Waterhole.
Shivering in the frostiness of the dark tunnel, Cutie hustled towards the great, heavy wooden door ahead of him, clutching his coat like a lifeline. The Waterhole looked like an imposing, olden-day style hotel. It was made of redwood and stone; the windows were slightly dusty but shone with a pleasant warm yellow light. (To humans it just looked like an ancient bottle tree. Some local developer had submitted an application to the council wanting to redevelop the land nearby, but the animals got wind of it and sent a family of rats over to deal with the problem. The developer was still waiting to hear back from the council. The rats family had indigestion for a few days – it was a very thick file – but agreed the sacrifice was worth it.)
Inside the bar, spider webs hung from the rafters and the air smelt pleasantly of intoxicating mead. Candles and torches were lit everywhere, and right in the centre of the enormous room was a U-shaped counter made of redwood, with shelves filled with bottles of meads, wines, fermented fruit juices, Cherry Sliptys and Buffalo Grass drinks. Towards the left side of the counter was a large, old-fashioned brick fireplace that held a lively, crackling fire. To the right was a narrow, spiral staircase that led all the way up the bottle tree to the various accommodation options available at the hotel.
“Ahoy there, good sir!” now called the bartender as Cutie picked his way around the tables of chatting animals towards the counter. It was a packed night. “What might I do you for, eh?”
The platypus manning the bar had short, wiry gray fur. He had small, rectangular spectacles sitting atop his long, black bill, which had small gray braces around the edges (no one knew why). He was also wearing a very odd assortment of clothing and Cutie stared, flabbergasted: “Ah yes hello Tom, may I ask… why you’re wearing….. those things?”
Tom the platypus followed Cutie’s line of vision and realised Cutie was talking about his unusual attire. His baggy T-shirt was covered in purple polka dots and read: “Bad Guyz Rulez”. A wide, lime-green tie was strapped around his neck. He was also wearing a pair of bright, scarlet boxers that were much too big for him and probably should have been held up with suspenders to save him and others from potential embarrassment.
Tom beamed and blushed with pride: “Celebration! The great anniversary of the day we successfully converted the human mead recipe for animal consumption! That’s why we barkeepers don human clothing on this special day! Do you like ‘em? I had three lovely young scorpions bring ‘em in for me. Oi! Stinger, Scuttles, Treacle, c’mere!”
For a moment Cutie saw nothing but what he thought were moving dust balls. Soon it became clear that there were three good-looking, bright-eyed little scorpions standing on the counter. The largest one with a sort of transparent, yellowy-orange colour stepped forward and shook Cutie’s finger with his rather sharp claw. “Good night sir!” He squeaked in a small, high-pitched voice. “Name’s Scuttles. These two are my good pals, Treacle and Stinger.” Treacle was a much smaller scorpion – clearly of a different species – with a dumpy-cream coloured stomach but the rest of him was pitch black. Stinger was even smaller than Treacle and was completely enveloped in black.
“This lot came to me from two different stations,” said Tom the bartender, serving Cutie’s drinks. “Treacle ‘n’ Stinger came from the Mahaouri regions. The trouble there is risin’ house prices, shootin’ up the sky they are. Can’t buy a home, gotta get a job and all the good hunting spots have been dominated. They were hanging on a thread when they came here!”
Cutie squinted down sympathetically at the two little scorpions that were nodding and looking sad and forlorn. “Tommy gave us a job, he’s a nice fella!” said Treacle, smiling gratefully at Tom. “I like this place, but Stinger and me need our own home!”
Cutie felt his heart ache, these poor little things! If only he could offer them a home. Then they could eat well, live a nice life and never need to worry again!
“… Trendula region was Scuttles’ life,” the platypus was saying. “Same problem. No home cave, no food, no job and no money. Came here desperate to at least get a decent funeral. He’s only a baby! Shocked me evil to see such a given up little warrior!”
Scuttles looked mildly embarrassed and smiled shyly. Cutie took his two bottles of drinks and sighed, “I’m sorry buddy! If only I could help….. Wait a moment, I can!!”
Five minutes later Cutie flung out of the bar in excitement, with a bandage on his right front paw. He had got so enthusiastic about his sudden brainwave that he had seized the scorpions and almost snapped Treacle in half. So Treacle had stung him.
“Andwewillbehavingsomuchfuntogetherandyoucangetajoblivehappyandbeabletoeatasmuchasyouwant!” Cutie had babbled excitedly at top speed as he streaked out of the bar, into the tree tunnel, and hopped onto the waiting underbus with the three absolutely bewildered scorpions on his back. He had forgotten to take away his rodent mead and Spotty’s Cherry Slipty.
“Guys!! Guys, guys, guys!” gasped Cutie, racing into Sunny Zoo and waking up half the animals in the house (the other half were nocturnal and were already awake, engaged in a game of cards). “Please welcome Treacle, Stinger and Scuttles to our home!”
"Push Banana, push!" coaxed Spotty the guinea pig. "You can do it!"
Banana the python pushed....
"Go Banana go! Go Banana go!!" cried the guinea pig triplets.
Banana grimaced and pushed harder.....
"You can do it, Banana! Just push a little harder now...." said Mrs Keeper, craning her neck around the huddle of animals and trying to get a better vantage point. "Yup I see the head now.... It's coming out! It's coming out!"
Banana gave one final push............... OUT popped the head!
"YAY!!! You've done it Banana!!!" Everyone clapped and breathed in relief.
With her nose and rest of the head safely out of the dry skin now, Banana continued to rub the rest of her body against one of the rougher branches in her enclosure, while Big Kid helpfully sprayed more warm water on her. Slowly but surely, the rest of her old layer of scales peeled off, turning itself inside out like a worn sock, and a shiny new Banana emerged from the white, shed skin. In the morning sunshine, her melanistic spots glowed and sparkled like diamond-studded rainbows.
"Whew, that was great!" said Banana, glancing at her refreshed body and tail with satisfaction. "Just in time for the beauty pageant the day after tomorrow!"
Banana was of course referring to the Frogs and Reptiles Competition in the annual Royal Easter Show, in which she had been selected as a finalist this year (after pirating Mr Keeper's email to secretly submit her application form). There was a bit of alarm a few days ago when she suddenly turned milky in readiness for a shed - which of course would have zilched her chances of winning any place in the show. But now she was in fact in BEST condition for the show - or as good as her natural genes would have allowed - so a little anxiety paid off in the end!
Knobby the bearded dragon gave her a friendly nudge, "There you go. You don't have to worry any more. I'm sure you will win!"
"Yes you will! Yes you will!" chorused the frogs in comradely support.
By mid-afternoon they were all back again.
"Push little one, push!" coaxed Spotty the guinea pig. "You can do it!"
"Go little one, go! Go little one, go!!" cried the guinea pig triplets.
"You can do it, kid! Just push a little harder now...." said Mrs Keeper, trying to shove her three children AND her husband out of the way without success. "Hey you guys, I can't see anything! If you make me miss it, you won't get any dinner tonight!!"
Marbles the gecko turned around and cocked his head questioningly at Banana next to him, "Do you get this weird sense of deja-vu? Why did all of that sound kind of familiar?"
"Really?" asked Banana. "I don't know. I don't remember anything?"
Suddenly everyone yelled, "YAY!!! You've done it kid!!! There's the first one!!" They all clapped, cheered, and madly shook Mocha and Cappuccino on the wings. Mocha began sobbing loudly, overwhelmed by joy and pride at the hatching of her very first baby.
"Isn't that just the darlingest little baby finch!" exclaimed Ellie the parrot, her eyes shining with god-motherly excitement. She was naturally forgiven for her bias. To almost everyone else, the little thing looked like.... errr... pink naked skin over fragile bones and spindly legs, black dots concealing still closed eyes, and when it opened its beak, no squeak came out.
"Hmm....." Banana thought it reminded her of the pinky mice she used to eat when SHE was a baby, but decided - quite correctly - it was probably not an appropriate time to mention that to her friends. "Just lovely, Mocha and Cap, just lovely! Oh look, there's another one with a cracked shell!!"
"OUCH!" shrieked Baby Kid, as he was shoved out of the way by his sister trying to see better. He fell over one of the guinea pigs, who angrily spat at him, and there was a sudden mad jostle as everyone else tried to take advantage and grab a better spot for the hatching show.
By the end of the day four baby finches had reported to this brand new world, safely tucked under the loving wings of mamma and papa finch. Two more eggs to go, but Mocha and Cap were not worried. It was apparently not uncommon for some eggs to hatch a few days later.
"Mr Keeper!" called Banana, as all the animals gradually dispersed. "Can I have my weekly dinner now please! Thank you very much!"
Sob sob sob, went my python friend Banana.
We knew how much she looked forward to the Royal Easter Show.
She went to all the trouble of stealing Mr Keeper's email and applying for the Frog and Reptile Show.
Which is the reptile equivalent of a beauty pageant, she said.
Now with just 5 days to go, she suddenly turned blue.
She's going into shed!
No chance of winning if I'm all covered in whitey skin and half-blind! she cried.
Big Kid told her not to worry, just concentrate on relaxing.
She would be in time, he assured her.
"And if not??????" she was still sobbing. And I could tell she was itchy too.
"Umm.... We'll cross that bridge when we come to it!" said Big Kid.
Well, with 5 days to go, that bridge sure is coming fast!
"Banana! You have bird mail!" Cutie called from the garden.
How exciting, I loved bird mail! You never knew which of your many friends, relatives and acquaintances might send you a message! Last week we were visited by a rosella, passing on a message from Algae the long-necked turtle living in a dam nearby, telling us he had found not only one but FIVE wives, and the happy couples (or would that be a "pentaple"???) were expecting to lay a hundred or so eggs all up by next month. Then he told us so far he had already collected twenty-three more species of algae from his new home, and gave us each of their scientific names; but since the rosella couldn't remember more than a couple of syllables, the names were so extremely garbled not even Mrs Keeper could make them out.
The rosella was going back to the dam later in the day, and was happy to take our reply back to Algae. We told him about the finches' own eggs, and asked how long it would take for HIS little bubs to hatch? Then he sent an answer back via a mynah, and so on and so forth, so that was pretty fun. But the bird mail today couldn't have been from Algae, because Algae usually directed his mail to everyone at the Sunny Zoo, not just to me.
I glided out the backdoor into the yard, and saw that Cutie was chatting to a peregrine falcon. Wow, a falcon! Must have been a long-distance message - we didn't get these often! Normally falcons and guinea pigs - or snakes for that matter - didn't get on too well, seeing as they were quite a bit higher than us in the food pyramid. But the Natural Kingdom Rules dictated that all this predator-and-prey business was postponed for the purposes of bird mail, as predator birds, generally more powerful and capable of travelling longer distances, had such an important role to play. The predator birds themselves were more than happy to comply with this rule; most of them were very honourable creatures, and took their part in the bird mail system very seriously, so even helpless little rodents like the guinea pigs could receive their messages from faraway friends with a complete peace of mind.
Seeing my approach, the elegant peregrine falcon straightened and fixed his eagle eyes on me (a bit unnerving actually). His voice was higher in pitch than I expected, a little scratchy, but very self-assured: "Greetings, I am here as a bird mail messenger, so you need have no fear. Are you Banana the Spotted Python of Sunny Zoo?"
"Yes, I am," I replied, keeping my respectful distance. That was instinct. Just in case, you know. Not that anyone had ever been eaten or even attacked in the history of bird mail, as far as I was aware.
"I am pleased to convey a message from Miss Monster the Reticulated Python, from Room 21 of the Australian Reptile Park," said the peregrine falcon.
Ah, my lovely friend Monster from the Central Coast! We met once last year, when I went with our human employees to the Reptile Park for a family day trip, and we really hit it off, even though she came from the family of the world's largest pythons, while I came from one of the smallest. She lived in an enclosure - not terribly big, compared to my own comfortable house at the Sunny Zoo - but she was quite satisfied with her lot, and enjoyed soaking in her private pond and watching all the visitors.
"Miss Monster would like to invite you to see her at the Reptile Park today, as she would be out and about on her inaugural weighing ceremony," continued the falcon.
"Err, just out of curiosity..." interrupted Cutie, who was blatantly eavesdropping. "I thought Monster lives in an enclosure? How did she manage to meet you and give you the message?"
The falcon turned his head regally in Cutie's direction, and to his credit Cutie only took an almost imperceptible step backwards. "Cockroach mail," replied the falcon simply.
"Ah, okay!" said Cutie, his curiosity satisfied.
I would certainly love to catch up with Monster again, but it was quite a journey to the Reptile Park, and I wouldn't be able to make it without one of the human employees giving me a lift by car. "Are you going back to the Park, sir?" I asked.
"Not in time for the weighing," said the falcon, shaking out his shoulders and getting ready to leave. "Miss Monster does not expect an affirmative reply. She says she will see you when she sees you."
I nodded, "Thank you, sir. Please give her my love when you return, and let her know if I don't manage to see her today, I will certainly go visit soon. Have a safe flight, sir!"
The falcon inclined his head towards me one last time, and with an enormous sweep of his amazing wings he was off. Cutie and I watched silently as he soared into the blue sky, seeming to hang suspended for a few seconds, and then the tiny dot of his figure disappeared. Phew! I didn't even realise I had been holding my breath all the time while he was here!
"Scary guy," remarked Cutie, before wandering off with a blade of grass in his mouth.
As it turned out Mr Keeper was not busy today, and was able to drive me to the Reptile Park. Big Kid wanted to come with us too, as he was a big fan of all snakes, but he had an assessment at school and Mr Keeper would not let him skip class. Mr Keeper promised to take good photos and video on the camera for him. I also promised to give his love to Monster.
During the hour-long car ride I had a quick nap, and Mr Keeper woke me up when we arrived. Since it was a Tuesday there were not as many visitors, but there were some camera crews and reporters. Looked like Monster would be on TV! Mr Keeper's family had annual passes to the Reptile Park and knew many of the staff members, and he now approached one of them to ask what was happening. After a brief discussion, she suggested that he take up a good photographing position next to the camera crew and just follow those people around, but make sure to stay behind the camera line for safety.
Before long we (well, I in Mr Keeper's backpack) and the reporters were all called in to the section of the Park called the Lost World, so that we could see Monster being carried out of her enclosure by five zookeeping staff. While she was still inside she couldn't hear me, but as soon as she came out into the open grounds, I called to her from Mr Keeper's backpack in our special serpentine language, "Monster! Monster, it's me, Banana!"
She heard me and swung her head around to give me a joyous grin - click, click, went a few of the cameras, and afterwards this moment became a photo in one of the local newspapers with the headline: "Nightmare Monster that Can Swallow You Whole!" Humans were not very good at interpreting animal expressions, I found, and tended to become quite illogical at the sight of some sharp teeth.
As her five minions struggled under her weight, Monster relaxed over their shoulders and asked how I and everyone else at the Sunny Zoo were. She loved hearing about our life at the Sunny Zoo, but said she wouldn't really want to leave the Reptile Park and live alone - after all, bi-monthly goats were a bit difficult to come by if you didn't have the right connections. I gave her updates about our family - the finches and their eggs, for example, and Algae the turtle, and oh yes, greetings from Big Kid.
The five minions huffed and puffed their way down the winding path, where five scales had been set up outside the Tasmanian Devil enclosure. "I'll be just a minute!" called Monster, as she continued to lounge over the humans' shoulders, turning her neck this way and that for the cameras. She was weighed by the five zookeepers standing on a scale each, then calling out the numbers on the scale - minus their own individual weights, I guessed. Someone added the numbers up on a calculator.
"Wow, you're 53 kilograms!" I remarked to Monster, very impressed.
"Not bad for my age," she said modestly. "I think I'll do some more climbing exercises when I get home, muscle would help me weigh heavier you know. Don't want to be all fat!"
I thought she looked fantastic already, and doubted she had an ounce of fat on her long, glistening body. Now someone else had brought out a length of string, and the humans were trying to hold it out along Monster's length to try measure it. After some struggles - keeping hold of a heavy portion of serpent while grabbing a piece of string apparently took more coordination than one might have expected - the humans eventually managed to stretch out the string from (close to) Monster's mouth to the tip of her tail. Then the length of the string itself had to be measured with a measuring tape.
"5.28 metres!" exclaimed one of the zookeepers, sounding pleased.
"Is that long for reticulated pythons?" I asked Monster. "I'm only about 80 centimetres!"
"Not bad for my age," she said again, very modestly, but she looked quite pleased. "Actually I feel a skin shedding coming on. I'll probably be a bit longer by next month. Tim says I'm still young and have a good chance of becoming the longest snake in Australia, if not the world one day!"
Wow, imagine that! She would be an international celebrity and might even be in the human Guiness World of Records! I told her she must eat more; she assured me that she had a professional dietician in charge of calculating her calories, making sure she gained length without too much unnecessary girth. And an outdoor excursion like this gave her some entertainment (as well as a chance to catch up with friends, although the humans didn't know this) so that she wouldn't be too bored in the enclosure.
All too soon the measuring process was over, all the camera crew had taken proper photographs with Monster, and sadly it was already time for Monster to head home. "Come visit again soon, Banana!" said Monster as her human minions got into comfortable lifting positions again. "You know where to find me!" she grinned.
I loved Monster, she had such a cheerful and positive personality, and was so easy to talk to. Well, the Reptile Park was one of the Keeper family's favourite places, since there were so many animals to visit, hilarious presentations from Mick the Head Ranger (I enjoyed his talks last time, although the guinea pig triplets didn't appreciate his guinea pig jokes), and lots of playground equipment for Little Kid and Baby Kid. Big Kid was bound to want to visit again soon, and I would just hitch a ride with them!
"Cutie! Can I speak to you for a second?"
Oops, that's Mrs Keeper again. And she's holding up a succulent pot and waving it at me, which is not a good sign. I pretend I haven't heard, and contemplate various possible escape routes: into Middle Island? Under the flower steps? Behind the succulent bush? Oh wait, better not remind her about more succulents.... oops, too late!
"Cutie!" she's already in front of me, bending down to stare me in the eyes, "Look at THIS! I thought we've already talked about this last week?"
Obediently I look into the pot. And don't see anything, which is a relief. "I don't see anything here, Mrs Keeper. What am I supposed to look at?"
"That's precisely the point!" exclaims Mrs Keeper, in a tone that somehow has my fur stand on end, "There was a pot full of sedum jelly beans in here YESTERDAY! Now there's NONE! How do you explain that?"
So that's what the triplets were doing in that corner this morning! Oh dear....
Mrs Keeper points to another pot on the ground, too heavy to hold up: "And this one? All these huernias nicely chewed in half? Whoever did it must have got a stomachache!"
Err, that was me, but she would have to pull out all my teeth before I would admit that. The huernias were actually quite nice. And I didn't get a stomachache either.
Mrs Keeper glares at me in exasperation: "Come on Cutie, do you guys know how much these plants are worth?? Some of them are collectors' succulents, and actually cost a lot of money! You can't just keep eating them like that!"
A lot of money? My brain suddenly kicks into gear, and in a split second I go from Cutie the laid-back guinea pig to Cutie the Guinea Pig Alpha, the carer of all animals at Sunny Zoo. Since I was the one who suggested everyone escape with me, I would always feel responsible for their welfare. Making sure we earn enough to make our freedom sustainable is one of my top priorities, and will always remain so. Therefore, anything that involves "a lot of money" deserves my attention and requires further investigation.
"How much money are we talking about?" I inquire cautiously. Mrs Keeper shows me a receipt, and very deliberately points to the item named "huernia aspera". "Oh... I see..."
The numbers quickly turn themselves over in my head. We have a yard... we have Mrs Keeper who clearly knows about succulents, and who already spends so much time growing them... and we have a website with a store function...
I make a decision. "Okay Mrs Keeper, I have an idea, and I think you'll like it. We're going to grow more succulents at Sunny Zoo!"
"Huh?" her eyes become really round. "What do you mean? I'm not going to grow more succulents if you guys are just going to eat them for dinner! And morning tea and afternoon snack! Probably supper too, if you weren't already in bed by that time!"
I grin guiltily; she certainly knows us! "No, I mean we'll grow more succulents and sell them! To earn money for Sunny Zoo! So of course we won't eat them any more... or at least we'll try to remember not to eat them."
Mrs Keeper still looks sceptical, so we manage to find Mr Keeper, who is in the process of cleaning our bus, the Star Ferry (he usually takes Knobby the bearded dragon with him, who is very useful for cleaning up any cockroaches and other unwanted insects that may have turned up). I run the idea past Mr Keeper, we discuss the possible set-up for a succulent nursery, and look back over the budgets to see how we can fund it.
So in the end, Mrs Keeper is given the go-ahead to obtain more succulent plants, and I warn the other guinea pigs against eating our inventory. I don't have much hope of their listening to me though, especially on the subject of food. I wouldn't even trust myself!
So I've told Mr Keeper to make sure he gets raised beds and raised shelves!
I like to sunbathe in the garden. But autumn is very tricky.
Sometimes there's sun, so I get my UV.
But sometimes it's cold, when there's a cloud.
I'm thinking maybe I should brumate soon.
That means I go to sleep a lot and don't eat. Not quite hibernation, but sort of.
The human employees worry that I might not ever wake up.
Hmm, I worry too. I've never done it before.
Anyway, I'll see.
When I was basking on my rock this morning, a blue tongue lizard appeared.
Mr Keeper found him walking in through the garage.
He hurt his legs falling off a tree, he said. Trying to escape a cat.
There's just no end to these roaming cat tragedies.
So he came to our house, since word got around FLIP Headquarters are here.
He said he wouldn't trouble our human employees.
He's happy to just help himself to snails in our backyard.
Mrs Keeper was happy about that. Snails bred like mad after the rains. And ate her succulents.
We chatted for a while.
Then he walked off to look for snails.
And I went back to basking.
"Good morning you little cuties..... how are we today? You are looking bright and smiley, aren't you! Yes it's going to be a lovely sunny day, you would love that! Oh hello didn't see you there, little one, you must have arrived last night! Anyone want a drink?"
That's Mrs Keeper, our human employee. And no, she's not talking to her three kids, if that's what you're thinking. She's actually talking to her succulent PLANTS! Since we guinea pigs are out on the lawn so much, we see her talk to her succulents all the time. Frankly, it's a bit freaky. She wasn't like this when we hired her a few years ago!
Plants are for eating, yes? For us guinea pigs it's pretty straight forward. Maple leaves taste sweet, lemon tree leaves smell yummy, meadow hay helps grind down our teeth, and carrots are crunchy. And succulent plants? Well, they are juicy AND crunchy, that's why they're called succulents!
So it's really weird that Mrs Keeper collects so many different types of succulent plants - and I mean HUNDREDS - and refuses to let us eat them. It's not as if SHE ate them either, so from our perspective that's a total waste of valuable resources. She puts them on top of garden steps, wooden trolleys, even hangs them off the fence, just so we can't get at them.
Well, we're not going to be foiled by a little bit of height! As I always tell my children and grandchildren: "If you can't reach a leaf, stand up on your hind legs. If you still can't get it, come back tomorrow!" Never give up, that's my motto!
"Oh there you are, Cutie, do you have a moment?" Mrs Keeper suddenly notices me. She picks up a pot containing some flowery-looking plants and has a solemn look on her face.
"Yes sure, Mrs Keeper!" I say, "Pardon me for talking with my mouth full of grass. What's up?"
"Look at this, Cutie!" She thrusts the flower pot towards me.
"Oh gee thanks, Mrs Keeper, that's very kind of you!" I grin, sniffing the pointy green leaves, opening my mouth and preparing to take a bite, always happy to receive free food.
"NO!!!!!" The pot is suddenly whisked away from my teeth, and I stare at the empty space before me with some confusion. "It's not for you to EAT, Cutie! Actually that's what I want to talk to you about. Look at my poor aeonium, SIX of her leaves have already been chewed off! And look at the bite marks on this other echeveria baby next to it! I only left this pot on the ground for TWO minutes!"
I take a closer look - she is right. Half of the flowery looking thing is missing, and I'm afraid I know who the culprit is. I must make a point to talk to Chocolate later; he is a true connoisseur of all garden plants and will be able to tell us whether that flowery thing is worth eating. Yesterday he even took a bite out of the new cactus Mrs Keeper has just bought (a prickly pear cactus, Big Kid tells us), and unfortunately Spotty is still helping to pull out tons of its little prickly pin-like hairs from his lips. Thanks to Chocolate, I'm giving THAT one a miss.
"Err I didn't do it, Mrs Keeper!" Which is true on this occasion, luckily.
"Well, whoever DID do it...." She stares at me suspiciously, "Can you tell them NOT to do it again?"
I nod helpfully. Knowing full well that any food-related instructions I give my kids and grandkids will fall on deaf ears.
"Because if I see these bite marks on my babies again....." Mrs Keeper stares harder, in a more threatening manner.
"If you see these bite marks again....?" I take a step back.
"I will plant a row of prickly pears all around your hutches!!!"
Monday: One egg.
Tuesday: Two eggs.
Wednesday: Three eggs.
Thursday: Four eggs.
Friday: Five eggs.
Saturday: Six eggs.
Sunday: No more carefree life for Mocha and Cappuccino! Now taking turns sitting on eggs!
"Oh sure, I once did a TAFE Diploma on turtle matchmaking," said Mrs Keeper.
Mr Keeper was mildly surprised, "Really?" You never knew with Mrs Keeper, she was a serial learning addict and did courses on all sorts of odd things. Like Russian. And tatting.
"NOT!" Mrs Keeper sighed, and took a closer look at the long-necked turtle, whose name turned out to be... Algae. He said he liked the stuff and enjoyed collecting different types. Not that anyone else could tell. But this struck a chord with Mrs Keeper, who also collected succulent plants and could therefore appreciate the mentality of a fellow madcap collector. So she was determined to help him find what he was looking for: a girlfriend!
They were still in the garden enjoying the sunshine, but most of the guinea pigs had lost interest and wandered off to play or nap or eat. The finches carried on nest building with Ellie's assistance; she was very good at chewing uncooperative stalks of hay into compliance. Banana, Marbles and the frogs all went back to bed, so only Knobby the bearded dragon and Spotty the guinea pig were left for the brain-storming session.
Mr Keeper suggested, "What about St Ferris Park nearby? They have lots of ponds, and I remember Big Kid saw turtles there."
They all thought it was a great idea, but just in case, Mrs Keeper brought out her tablet and searched the St Ferris Park website for information about the ponds. "Habitat of many Macquarie river turtles? Would that work?"
Algae drew back his long neck rapidly in alarm, "Oh no! They are vicious creatures, those short-necked river turtles with pointy beaks! Great big bullies, we don't get on with them."
Well, that was that. They went back to the drawing board but sadly didn't get anywhere. They simply couldn't think of anywhere that might be a long-necked turtle hangout. After some time - quite some time actually, enough to fit lunch into it, and Algae had a piece of the classy barramundi fish that Mrs Keeper happened to be defrosting for dinner - Mrs Keeper had a brainwave! (The full stomach must have helped.)
"I know!" said Mrs Keeper excitedly, "I'll write a post on our local Facebook group, and see if anyone else knows about long-necked turtles! If it's breeding season, someone's bound to have seen lots of your buddies somewhere!" Indeed, when they logged onto the page and scrolled down, there was a post reminding people to slow down because someone already saw five turtles crossing a busy road - in one morning! And three squashed ones.... which Mrs Keeper refrained from reading out to Algae. "Goodness, looks like you have a lot of competition for your gal, Algae! All right, let's see..."
Mrs Keeper thought for a moment and then typed: "Hi people! We found an exhausted long-necked turtle outside our garage door. Would like to help it along to its breeding ground. Anyone know where the local long-necker bachelors hang out? Thanks!" She pressed SEND. "Now we wait!"
They didn't have to wait long. Within an hour a lady named Inga responded with a comment: "We have a dam and long neck turtles living in it. If you can't find anywhere else, you can bring it here." When Mrs Keeper sent her a private message, she clarified: "We have lots of turtles and see them wandering around the garden, looking to lay eggs!"
That sounded like Turtle Heaven!!! The one that Algae didn't have to die first to get into, that is. "Yippee, I think we've found your new home!" Mrs Keeper grinned at the turtle next to her, who was excitedly shaking Knobby and Spotty's paws. The ladies exchanged a few more private messages, Mrs Keeper wrote down the address, and arranged to drop Algae off at 6pm after Little Kid finished her jazz dance lesson.
Everyone wanted to go and say goodbye, so Mr Keeper had to drive their double-decker bus, Star Ferry. Inga and her two little boys were flabbergasted to see such a large send-off delegation, but soon recovered and led the way down to the dam. Ther guinea pigs had to be called back from the tempting long grasses: "There are red-bellied black snakes around! Sorry, my husband hasn't finished the mowing yet!"
It was the most enormous private dam they had ever seen, beautifully landscaped and as Inga described earlier, surrounded by flowing lawns where turtles would undoubtedly find plenty of nesting spots. The property actually backed onto a corner of the national park, which was probably why there were so many turtles here in the first place.
Big Kid carried Algae, and everyone climbed down the rocks to the edge of the dam. "Bye bye Algae, we'll miss you!" sniffed Spotty.
"Yes, we'll be thinking of you, Algae!" said Mrs Keeper, giving the back of his shell a gentle pat. "I'll be surprised if you didn't have a girlfriend by the weekend!"
"Thank you so much, everyone!" Algae blinked off the tears in his eyes, "I can't believe that I almost died this morning, and now I'm here, in this amazing place! I will never forget you all at the Sunny Zoo! Waaaaaaaaah!!"
"There now, there now..." said Spotty soothingly. All the animals shook paws with the turtle again, until Chocolate the guinea pig slipped (or was pushed by one of his siblings) and fell into the water and had to be fished out with a swimming pool net.
Finally Algae was ready to go. After one last wave to his friends, he tested the water with a webbed foot, then paddled down into the dark green depths of the dam. A minute later he came back up again: "Wow you won't believe it, I just saw this group of nice ladies down by the most stunning patch of Cladophora algae! Do you think I should talk to the ladies first or get the algae?"
They all laughed. "Go talk to the ladies first!" said Mrs Keeper firmly. "The algae will still be there tomorrow!"
Eventually they said their (really) final goodbyes, thanked Inga profusely for her generosity, and Algae sank down into his new home, promising to keep in touch by bird mail.
"Well, that was a great job!" said Mr Keeper, as they drove away in the Star Ferry bus. "Are you sure you didn't do a turtle matchmaking course, dear?"
"Maybe I should run one," Mrs Keeper rolled her eyes. "There's probably a market for it every March!"
The Sunny Zoo
The animals at the Sunny Zoo enjoy their many freedoms, including having access to the Internet and a blog.
(C) The Sunny Zoo 陽光動物園 2017