“Do you know there’s a dog on the roof of your house?” asked the newspaper man in amazement as he collected the monthly fees.
“Oh, yes. That’s Jessica. She’s surveying her kingdom.”
She was my ‘Baby Girl’. A dog of many names, our kelpie cross. The ‘Dog’ entered our lives unexpectedly. Born to ‘Possum’, a working sheep dog in Nangwarry in the south east of our state, she grew up chewing docked sheep tails. At six weeks she was a tiny bundle of energy when we first met her. Christopher had won a farm holiday in a competition at the local Pet Show. A family holiday to Diamond Swamp, a working farm in the south east of the state saw us head off for a week of adventure in the middle of winter. It was cold. Our accommodation was an old building that had been used as shearers quarters for the men when the sheep were ready to be shorn. It was a spacious, comfortable old farm house really, detached, but close to the host family’s home. Kept warm by a pot belly, it suited our needs perfectly.
A massive old mangle decorated one corner of the lounge. It had been well used in its day. Now it served out its retirement years as a decorative old farm relic. The boys, then aged three and ten, were intrigued by it. Warnings not to touch it made it all the more interesting. Early on Sunday morning, we woke to one of those softly whispered loud conversations kids have when they know you’re not meant to be disturbed. I could hear Marc telling Christopher to put his fingers in between the rollers. Surely not, I thought, he wouldn’t do that! I even looked at TRH, whispering, he wouldn’t, would he? He shrugged and shook his head. All was quiet for a moment. Then an almighty scream fit to wake the dead had us leap out of bed. He had. His fingers were wedged between the rollers. Marc was in tears looking guilty as sin. TRH quickly rolled the fingers out of the mangle hold. I grabbed some ice, wrapped it in a towel, and shoved Christopher’s fingers in it. He screamed non-stop. Loud at the best of times, he was in megaphone mode. It didn’t let up all day. Thankfully his pliable young fingers and bones survived the trauma without serious damage. Our host family disabled the mangle that same day.
A working farm, the jobs for that week included tail docking, castration and vitamin injections. Being a nurse, I got that job. My hospital training had emphasised the importance of sterile technique and minimum discomfort for the patient when administering injections. What I was instructed to do was counter-intuitive to everything I had been taught. Slung over my shoulder was a two litre bag of fluid – the vitamin shot. I had one syringe that was refilled by means of a tube from the stock bag. One needle. For all three hundred odd lambs that were herded to line up for their jab. No swabs. Our host laughed when he saw me delicately massaging each lamb after I had jabbed them. I informed him that I was massaging the site so the bolus of fluid would be better absorbed and the lamb would not experience as much discomfort. He thought that was a hoot, but left me to it. Each one of those lambs got a bit of a rub. I made sure of it.
I had to be quick as next in line was TRH armed with an electric knife and rubber bands. The unsuspecting victim hoisted and helpless on its back on a carousel, legs sticking up in the air, had their tails cut off and the males had a rubber band applied to the testicle sac to cut off blood supply. Eventually it would drop off. By the end of the day his face was covered in splots of blood. The docked tails were thrown into sacks for counting. That’s how they tallied the number of sheep treated. The only dog allowed anywhere near the tails was a tiny little puppy. She wriggled into the middle of the sack and happily munched away. She was so little, she was not able to eat a lot, so the overall count was probably only out of whack by one. That was the first time we met Jessica. She fitted into the palm of my hand.
We were told that tail docking was the lesser of many evils. If left, the sheep would become flyblown, sicken and die. Flies would lay maggots into their rear end, where faecal matter and dirt collected. If caught early enough, the sheep would need drastic treatment and medication to recover. The other option was a practice too horrible to even contemplate. Basically it was the equivalent to rear end scalping. I’m assuming it is now illegal.
The week had been a rip roaring success in many ways. A bush barbecue followed the jabbing, docking, castrating day. The boys had an overnight sleep out in swags with the host family boys who were roughly their age. They learnt to cook sausages on an open fire and sleep under the stars. The host family took them out in the farm ute for night spotting of animals while we had a kid free night out. Christopher got chased by a herd of turkeys which took a fancy to him. He was smaller than they were! Once again, he screamed blue murder and ran as fast as his little legs could carry him to get away from the monstrous birds. We had promised the boys a new pet when our old cat had died. ‘Jessica’ joined our family the minute we saw Dad cuddling her when he thought no-one was looking. She travelled home in the back of the ute inside a cardboard box. Shaken, but not stirred, she survived the trip.
Needing to be kept busy, she found every possible escape route out of our yard when we were not at home. Being a farm dog by breed she was an active young lady. As soon as one hole was closed, she found another. But she was always returned home safe and sound having strayed no farther than the neighbour’s yard.
Jessica took charge of home security. It was her job. And she took it very seriously. Steps at the back of the house leading to the deck of our backyard project, boat building, gave her access to the roof of the house. I’m not sure how she discovered it, but find it she did. The rusting, rickety old veranda roof did not deter her. She climbed over that, up to the top of the roof, then down to the front edge. From this vantage point she had perfect surveillance of the front yard, the cul-de-sac, and neighbours’ yards. She would stand there for hours on guard duty. Passing cars and pedestrians were scrutinised. Warning growls and barks issued. Visitors greeted with excited yips of recognition.
Jessica matured into a gentle and noble lady. Faithful and loving to the end, she graced our home and lives. She lies buried in the yard she kept so secure. A native shrub has been planted in her honour. It too, is called Jessica.
© Raili Tanska