There is a side effect to running a pet zoo. There is one task that I can’t always get a good grip on. One that’s a lot more complicated than caring for animals, trickier than struggling with Shulman the crazy duck, harder than cleaning out the chicken coops and more draining than trying to fight a pasteurella epidemia. I’m talking about dealing with people.
I love it when children come to visit. I love the delight on their faces when they are stroking the bunnies, feeding the chickens or watching the ducks splash in the pond. I love that they go crazy with excitement for gathering eggs, cleaning the pond or raking leaves. Even if it doesn’t really help.
There is just one problem: I’m not very good at bossing them around. I need someone to be there – a teacher, a parent, to do the discipline stuff. I start having a mild anxiety attack when I find myself alone with a group of children. I know all the kids that visit by name, many of them are friends of my children, or children of my friends. I love them. I’m just not very effective setting limits. There was a time that certain kids always started digging holes in the ground, because I let them do it once, and I had the hardest time making it clear that this was not supposed to be happening regularly.
I am not always very good at dealing with grown-up humans, either. Most of the time, I am a very nice and friendly person. Except when I am being a hissing, spitting fury. There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground. I can be lovely and patient to difficult people for ages, then suddenly lose it and shout at them like a mad fishwife. This causes some people to walk all over me for ages, then take major offense when I finally explode at them.
Our pet zoo has a lock and a key. Only people from the kibbutz know where the key is. It is supposed to be a secret. Except that people feel totally entitled to tell their friends from town where the key is and to let themselves in whenever they want. This has led to slightly bizarre situations, like people I don’t know asking me authoritively to lock up after me and explaining me where to put the key. I don’t really know how to handle these situations. Most of the time, these people are nice, quiet and considerate, so I don’t really mind they are there or have a valid reason to kick them out. And to be strictly truthful, I have also told some of my friends where the key is.
The problems arise when people are not quiet and considerate. I have encountered unbelievable actions by total strangers. There was the time that someone vaguely connected to the kibbutz took it upon himself to anonymously bring animals to the pet zoo, assuming that I’d be grateful. I have found two muscovy ducks, a huge white hen and even a family of hamsters dumped in the pet zoo. For months, I wondeted who on earth would do such a thing, until I encountered he man’s little son by chance, who proudly told me of all the animals his father brought to the pet zoo, to “help the girl get started, or she’d never manage.” I boiled at this for ages, swearing to give the guy a good talking-to, but never really had the courage to do this. As far as I know, he is still feeling smug and self-satisfied about it. Chauvinist bastard.
Then there was the time when I found four little girls in the rabbit cage, putting hairslides into the poor lionheads’ fur. Or the time when a couple of girls had decided to give the baby bunnies a bath, because “they were dirty”. I tell you – little girls are the ones you have to watch out for. They are driven by a manic desire to dress animals up and make them pretty. I know all about it, I was a little girl once. There was no greater pleasure for me than brushing horses’ coats and braiding their hair like My Little Ponies. I still don’t know how the riding school people put up with me.
Anyway – what brought this on? Another mildly bizarre situation I had to deal with today and on and off for months now. There is a woman with a 13 year old autistic son who visits the pet zoo regularly. She lives in town and works with one of my neighbours, who apparently told her she could visit whenever she wanted. So that’s what she’s been doing.
The first time I met them, I found the boy crouched on the floor in one of the chicken coops, staring unblinkingly at something hidden in a corner. Closer investigation showed that it was one of my recently acquired hens, who had taken refuge behind the nest boxes. She was absolutely terrified. If she could have shaken with fear, she would have. I asked the boy’s mum what was going on. “He’s trying to get her to come out,” she told me. “He’s very good with animals, you know. Very patient.”
It didn’t look like that to me at all. I suggested he leave the hen alone and she would come out in her own good time. He ignored me. At some point, the mother succeeded in getting him out if the coop. She planted him in the rabbit cage with a head of cabbage, and he started tearing off leaves and throwing it to the bunnies. Fair enough. I left them to it.
Half an hour later, I noticed something weird seemed to be happening. It was getting late and the chickens wanted to go into the coops to start the drawn-out battle of Who Sleeps Where. Only they couldn’t go in, because the doors were closed. I opened them, they went in. A bit later, they were out again and the doors were closed. I opened them again, they went in again. This repeated itself a few times, until I realised the autistic boy kept shooing the chickens out of their sleeping quarters and closing the doors, so they couldn’t go back in.
I asked the mother not to let him do that – the chickens needed to go to bed. “He wants them to go out,” she explained.
“OK,” I countered, “but they want to go in, and it’s their coop.”
“It’s all right,” she said mildly, “I will open the doors again later.”
I wasn’t very happy about this, but wasn’t sure how to insist she stop him. He was easily her size and he totally ignored anything I said to him. I waited until they left, then opened the coop doors again, hoping these people wouldn’t be back.
But they were. They come almost every week. And every single time, the boy insists on chasing the chickens out of their coops and closing the doors. I had another few unsuccessful tries to stop him doing this. My husband tried. My friend S. tried. Nothing could make the boy stop closing the doors, or convince the mother to make him stop closing the doors.
Today, my patience finally reached its limit. I found them in the pet zoo again, coop doors closed, chickens hovering outside anxiously. I felt the familiar, blind fury start to burn in the pit of my stomach. It made me stalk up to the woman, make her end her phone call and demand that they open the doors right now, or leave and never come back again. I had no time to listen to her explanation (“But he wants them to go out”) – all I wanted to do was make her listen to my sermon, that I let her visit for free out of the goodness of my heart, but that I wasn’t putting up with this for one moment longer. No, I don’t care that he’s special needs. I will be special needs soon if this goes on. Just who did she think she was? On and on. Then I told them to leave because I wanted to lock up and take the key with me. They went. Tails between their legs. “Say thank you for letting us visit,” the woman tried, but the boy wasn’t having it. Why break a habit of ignoring me, I suppose.
I hate not being nice. It gives me a nasty feeling. It stays with me for a long time. But sometimes you have to be a bitch. Just because otherwise, your animals will be left out in the cold.
(Just to end on a good note: I had to share some of these photos of kibbutz kids with you. Because let’s be fair, they are adorable.)