One sunny afternoon when I was thirteen years old, my sister came home carrying two washing baskets taped together to create a sort of cage. She waltzed in, dumped the washing-basket-cage on the coffee table in front of me as I bewilderedly asked ‘what on Earth is that?’ “I bought a duck!” She announced boldly, before promptly leaving the house with a friend, leaving the baby bird behind.
The make shift cage held the baby duck, squawking feebly and flapping it’s tiny wings with energy I assumed could only come from fear. My mum asked me to keep an eye on it, she was outside in the sun entertaining a friend. I was scared of the bird, scared of the noise it was making, its erratic jumps. I thought it would bite me with it’s round, soft bill. A round soft bill that I presumed to be sharp and strong. Not yet.
I’ve always been frightened of animals. People’s pets send me hiding behind sofas (at least, standing behind them) The only creature I can brave is cats. Dogs send me running. Hampsters make me squeal. Rats make me irksome. The only other animal I’ve ever kept were mice; two mice who had eleven babies the day after purchase, and even then I was scared of the big mouse once she was protective of her babies. I know it sounds silly, but I’m even afraid of baby animals. Especially puppies. They run and they nip. So, it was no different for this tiny duck, whose life I had no idea would impact me so.
That first day I kept my hand pressed against the cage, too scared to let him out. He was calm when I sat close, squeaking as soon as I left. The next day, with my sister out again, I let the duck sit near me on the floor. The sister had fed him the grains she was recommended at the pet store, so I didn’t have to worry about feeding. We spread plastic sheeting done in the lounge, and I sat on one end, him the other. He moved closer every time I wasn’t looking, peeking at me from his grey, trusting eyes. I shifted further away when he shifted closer. ‘Don’t bite me’, I pleaded, not trusting the creature to get close.
The third day he was on my lap.
The fourth day he was on my shoulder nestled under my hair, using his little beak to pull it around himself.
No more fear now.
My sister was home by this stage, with a friend, and she wanted to show her friend that the little duck – that she’d decided to name Reggie despite my attempts to convince her to name him ‘Sir Quack’ – would run to her when she called, then follow behind her as she walked. They went outside, placed Reggie in the centre of the lawn, walked to one end of the lawn and crouched, calling out to him. He didn’t move. I walked to the other end of the lawn, feigning interest but knowing what would happen. Little Reggie spotted me and ran squeaking to my feet.
He was now well and truly my baby duck.
My sister stormed off in a huff, but cheered up soon enough. She didn’t mind, not really. She wasn’t there enough and I was. School holidays left me with lots of free time, especially since I was no popular thirteen year old.
After that we were inseparable. We built Reggie an area in the backyard where his bed was an old rabbit hutch for extra protection. However, no matter how well we reinforced the cage he was still able to wriggle free, run over the stone steps, skid to the door and knock. That’s right, he knocked. ‘Let me in!’ he would quack and we always did. He stayed in his bed at night time and woke us up first light.
I taught him to swim. Apparently teaching ducks to swim as young as we did isn’t right, but he learned just the same. He loved the water, I used to carry him around in a bucket filled with water and leaves. Once a scary man tried to come in the yard, and myself, the duck and my friend ran for our lives, me holding the bucket out at arms length trying not to spill anything, more scared for his little soul than my own.
When people came over, he’d spot them coming, jump out of his water or what not, and hide behind my feet. He’d sleep under my legs and nibble my skin. He loved to be held and could run up my body to my shoulder if he wanted. He ate those little flowers that you blow on and the seedy wisps fly away. He demolished snails. He never, ever went to the toilet inside (yes, ducks CAN be house trained!) and we took many a nap together.
I loved the way his feet were too big for his body as he grew taller but not wider. One foot would always be on top of the other and he’d trip. I loved the way his feathers stayed soft even as he grew. I loved the way we discovered he was a she – we renamed him Regina. But I’ll always think of her as a boy, for whatever reason. Perhaps because we were only told of the duck’s gender after he’d left.
Reggie joined a farm. I didn’t want him too, but he was getting big, and we lived in town without a proper yard for a duck. No pond, no other ducks, no more snails to be found.
He died at that farm, only a few days after arriving there.
I was flabbergasted. I irrationally wanted to punch the farmer we’d allowed to take him. They’d said he’d be safe with the other ducks. A fox found him. Can you believe? Broke into a proper duck hutch and never into our makeshift shamble?
I know how silly this will sound, how it all sounds, especially to those who’ve never had a pet. I can’t help it. I really loved that duck, after all, he thought I was his mum. Sigh. I think about scared he must have been when he arrived at that farm.
“Where is my mama?” He would have quacked. Did he try to escape the hutch? Did he try to find our front door to knock on one more time? Did he think I had forgotten him, not loved him anymore?
I know, he’s only a duck, right? But he wasn’t.
I just can’t help but feel guilty, and sad. His last moments of life were spent in fear, unbearable fear and pain.
“Where is my mama?”
I’m so sorry Reggie, if had been up to me, you would have died a very old duck, in my arms.
I recently saw somebody post an RSPCA petition campaigning against duck cruelty http://www.rspca.org.uk/getinvolved/campaigns/farm/ducks – the ducks farmed for meat are denied access to bathing water despite being a water dwelling bird, so every signature helps them gain access.