Friday, September 14, 2012

No Pet of Mine

I hate keeping birds in cages. The whole time I was growing up in Oman my mother and I would clash over the sort of pet our family could have. I wanted a hamster, but my mother wouldn't let me have one. I then wanted a cat (I'd called many places that had cats up for adoption but my parents never helped me get beyond that point) but my mother wouldn't allow an animal indoors. So I took to making friends with the neighbourhood alley cats. Over time they figured out where I lived, and one started regularly giving birth in our ground floor balcony. Every 6 months for a few years. I'd bring those kittens inside to play with when they got older. Those were my happiest moments. Kitties playing with me, lounging about in my lap because they trusted me. Because they wanted to play with me. Because we were different animals but we understood each other through our eyes and body language. I miss them. My lap has been empty for so long.

My mother thought the safest pets to get were birds. Over the years we bought single budgerigar pairs - I always got to pick the colour - because we'd heard that they'd lay eggs and have families. We knew other families whose budgies bred like rabbits. And smelled like them too. Now that I think of it, I don't know why it was so important that we have birds that breed and have families and generations. In cages. What was the point? So that it would amuse us? Oh, look, they're like us too!

I never felt attached to our birds. We would bring them home from smelly bird shops in a shoebox that had holes stabbed into them with a knife or scissors. I remember sitting in the back seat of our car with the shoebox in my lap and feeling the birds scraping across the cardboard as they blindly slid around in the dark. Then we'd move them into their cages. Were they supposed to be pleased about that, their brand new cage? I hated seeing them sitting all day long in there. There was no room in there for them to properly fly even; how suffocating would that be, how maddening. I'd wonder how I'd feel if I was made to sit in a cage my whole life, even if I got all the food and water I needed.

I never took ownership of our birds, I left them for my mother to tend to. I'm not the one who put you in that cage, I think I was trying to say, your imprisonment is not on my head. I'd stop by to say hello to them every once in a while though. I liked my cats because they were free, because they didn't make me feel guilty, because they could do what they wanted and come back to me when they needed me.

At least the birds weren't alone. We always bought single pairs, so at least they had each other to talk to. Sometimes they'd chirp so much and for so long that my family would want them to stop, to let us take our afternoon nap in peace. Sometimes they'd chirp all night long, so we'd have to drape a cloth over their cage to put them to sleep. But at least they had each other. I liked it when they talked to each other, I wondered what they were talking about. I always wanted them to have something to talk about. I always wanted them to nibble each other's beaks, it made me happy to see them have each other. They were technically not my pets, but I still felt bad for not setting them free. What would my parents say if I just shook them out of their cages and let them go? We must've had at least 20 birds over the years, and I kept an emotional distance from every one of them.

And they'd always die. They never seemed to lay eggs in our house. It was always the same story. The chirping bird couple would chitter-chatter for a few months, then one day when I would go to say goodmorning or howareyou then I'd find one lying dead on its side at the bottom of the cage. The other bird - the husband/wife, I could never tell - would be sitting quietly in the corner farthest from the dead bird. And it would never sing again. I would feel bad for it and spend more time talking to it, but it never really noticed me. It would just sit there by itself and not move much. Definitely not say much. I'd bring my cats over to meet it; at first the bird would feel frightened and move away into a corner, but over time it learned to not fear my cats even if they were lying sprawled out over its cage.

But it was always a matter of weeks before I found the bird dead too, lying on its side with its eyes shut. Have you ever seen a dead bird? Have you ever held it? It feels light, like it's made of wood chippings and sawdust. I was always surprised everytime I held a dead bird because it felt like it ought to have been heavier. The closed eyelid of a dead bird always looks like it belongs to an old man, a tired old man who is tired of life and tired of blinking and wants to sleep. It's wrinkly, it's thick and thin at the same time. The claws are always curled into a loose tired fist. It looks asleep. It looks too still. Too still.

I hate keeping birds in cages. I hate it. I want them out there, living out their lives, flying wherever they are supposed to go. I don't want them dying on my watch, not on my watch, not on my conscience.

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