Helen Heath

Taking Care of Animals

The poor creature hasn’t been well all week. Now it isn’t moving from the corner of its cage, its breath shallow and its eyes half shut and sticky. Dan’s staying the night in town to go to an early breakfast meeting the next morning. He kisses me as he leaves and says, ‘Just put it in a plastic bag in the freezer while the kids are at school, I'll text you later.’

I pack the kids’ lunches and send them off with a ‘have a good day, I love you’. Looking in on the rat, I see it’s still breathing, its sister curled up against it keeping warm. I put on a load of washing.

This isn’t the first animal to get sick. A few months back one of our chickens sat down and wouldn’t get up, its head flopped to one side, making quiet chicken moans.

All the young families in the neighbourhood walked past the chickens every day on their way to playcentre. They all stopped and talked to the chickens. I’d hear them say, ‘What’s wrong with that chicken, Mummy?’ Something had to be done. It’s the same with the rat.

It’s obviously cruel to leave the rat to die slowly and the surviving rat might be traumatised or, worse, half eat its sister before the kids come home. I get an old tea towel from the hot-water cupboard.

Standing, my head leaning against the cage, I speak to them. ‘Say goodbye to your sister. Say goodbye.’ I pick up the rat, warm and panting, limp in my hand, and wrap it in the cloth. We sit by the fire together. It’s warm, almost too warm. The rat’s breath gets wet and rasping. ‘Maybe I’ll just let you sit here a while,’ I say to the rat and tuck it up like a child in a sleeping bag. It isn’t going anywhere. It’s been cold lately; we’ve had the fire going almost non-stop and extra blankets at night. The freezer just seems too cold.

I get a Ziploc freezer bag and place the rat inside, pulling the last corner of the tea towel over its head and sliding my fingers over the Ziploc. I pat the rat through the plastic and through the tea towel. The plastic bag seems to amplify its breaths, wetter and wetter. How long will it take?

With the chicken I had decided that I should take care of it myself. It didn’t seem fair to ask Dan to kill it just because he was a bloke. I dug a hole and went round to the chicken run. There it sat, moaning gently to itself. The other chickens were ignoring it. It was already dead to them. I picked it up by one leg and carried it around to the hole. I hadn’t thought too far ahead. How do you kill a chicken? I’d been told how to wring a chicken’s neck, you’re supposed to pull and twist, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it with my own hands. I’d heard about chopping off their heads but what if I only maimed it and it turned into a horrific bloody mess? I looked at the chicken in the hole. It moaned quietly. I decided to bury it alive.


I leave the rat by the fire and turn on my laptop in the next room. I check my emails, surf the net, and then it’s time for a cup of tea. Walking through the lounge, I hear huge wet gasps coming from the bag. I put my fingers in my ears and go through to the kitchen, make tea as quickly and loudly as possible then scurry back to the other room. By the time I take my empty cup back to the kitchen the lounge is quiet, the fire has died down. The plastic bag looks slightly inflated with condensation on the inside. I’m not sure if the tea towel is slightly moving or if my eyes are playing tricks on me. I pick up the small bundle and take it into the hallway, it’s cooler out here. I leave the Ziploc shut, imagining opening the bag to hear a small intake of breath.


As the first spade of dirt had hit the dying chicken it had erupted into a flapping, squawking frenzy. I’d dropped the spade and run up the back steps two at a time, shutting the door behind me, only looking out the window half an hour later to see it was still sitting in the hole. It remained there until Dan got home. I told him the sorry tale and asked if he could go and check on it. He was back in a few minutes. ‘So do you think you could put it out of its misery? I asked nervously.

‘Oh yeah,’ he said. ‘I just wrung its neck and buried it, thanks for digging the hole.’ He was unperturbed.


I go to look in on the remaining rat, its little bright eyes like glass beads. ‘Sorry,’ I say. It’s ten past three and the kids will be home any minute. I go back to the hallway and unzip the bag. There is no small intake of breath. I pull out the green, checked tea towel and unwrap it. The rat is now cool to touch. I lay it out ready for viewing.

‘Mum, Mum!’ The kids bang the door and leave a trail of bags, shoes and coats, their voices getting nearer. I go to meet them.

‘I’ve got some sad news, sweethearts.’

‘Is Whiskers dead?’

‘Yes, I’m sorry, darling.’

‘Can I get a kitten now?’

‘Um, maybe, do you want to come and say goodbye?’

We fill up the hallway. ‘Goodbye, Ratty, goodbye, Vanilla, Scratchy, Geronimo Stilton, Whiskers.’

Goodbye, rat of many names.

‘Can I go on the computer now?’

‘Um, I guess so.’

I go to the basement looking for the spade, which I find eventually. Back in the house, Stella finds me. ‘Mum, I'm sad now.’ She has a single tear hanging from her bottom eyelid. ‘I didn’t even cry when Great Aunty Nora died.’

It’s okay, honey,’ I say, rubbing her back, ‘it’s okay, sometimes we cry later. Let’s go put ratty in the garden, okay? Cosmos, can you please pause your game for a few minutes; we're going to have a funeral.’

I dig a small hole by the daphne bush that has some of Nora’s ashes under it. ‘Great Aunty Nora will have a pet now,’ says Stella. I imagine Nora with one hand on her chest and a pained expression on her face, saying, ‘Oh gawd!’ then sucking on her cigarette. The kids pat the earth down, all tucked in.

I look up; the winter sun is low in the sky and everything is golden, like it’s on fire. The leaves of the red hot pokers are waving and waving like they’re trying to get my attention and I notice the air is thick with dust or pollen or tiny insects or a mixture of these things. I close my eyes and when I open them again it is still the same.

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