“So much for owning a snake as a pet,” I thought to myself as my hands shook while trying to balance a glass of water in one hand and trying to pet a three-foot corn snake with the other. It’s not that I have some kind of nervous disorder or a deep-rooted snake phobia, but the effort of trying to act brave while the snake writhed in my lap was proving to be quite difficult. With several pairs of eyes (human and otherwise) watching me expectantly, I forced a smile and stroked the beige scales while trying to give the snake an admiring, and decidedly unterrified look.
Afraid to lose sight of the snake in my lap, I momentarily looked up to find Veronique Ahmed brandishing a bright green, slender-bodied whip snake in her hands. Smiling through clenched teeth all I can think of is how much the colour of the snake matches her outfit. Her friend’s son, Zarrar, had placed his baby iguana on his shoulder; meanwhile her own son had come rushing down with a fly in his fly net to feed the Mexican redknee tarantula. Clearly, I was the odd one out here.
I was surrounded by zoophiles and people who religiously watch the National Geographic channel and show absolutely no fear being with creatures that would send many others shrieking from the room.
I had first heard of Veronique from a colleague, who described her as “the French lady who loves and owns a lot of pets.” Being a pet lover myself, I decided to pay her a visit. As I walked through the gates of her large house, I was enthusiastically welcomed by a pack of dogs of all sizes with different hairstyles, who happily and curiously barked and frolicked around me. I contemplated my next move: should I take a step back or allow those four-legged animals to proceed with their greetings? Finally, I reassured myself that they were harmless.
As I walked up the path towards her house, my attention was drawn towards the empty cages in all corners of the house. Except for the birds, all her pets spent their days outside their cage. Far from keeping animals in captivity, she gave her pets an open space to adapt to and make their own. The dogs didn’t mind the cats purring nearby; the geese didn’t mind the hamsters and mice scurrying past them; and the tortoises and hedgehogs shared a shed.
Suddenly the phrase ‘animal kingdom’ took on a whole new meaning. A motley crew of friendly-looking pets surrounded me: two species of porcupines, several Persian and Siamese cats, seven species of tortoises, turtles, red foxes, mice, hamsters, dogs, guinea pigs, rabbits, exotic birds which included African parrots, love birds, peacocks, pigeons, geese, ducks, flightless birds like turkeys, hens and partridges and even fire and redknee tarantulas. A myriad of sounds reached my ears: dogs barked, cats meowed, ducks quacked, pigeons cooed, love birds twittered and turkeys cackled. An animal symphony announced my arrival.
As I later learnt, Veronique has been collecting these pets ever since she moved to Pakistan from France 20 years ago. From the number of species and breeds that were housed there, I gathered that Veronique’s shopping list on foreign trips constituted animals instead of clothes and souvenirs. “I have carried pets in my pockets and in my handbags,” she says sneakily. Her dogs were of the rarest breed, from bulldogs to poodles, and her bunnies were handpicked from Thailand, Malaysia and Japan during the course of her tours. I must admit those bunnies were really cute.
As she spoke about her pets, I could see the love she reflected in her eyes — a love which was reciprocated by them in kind. While I accompanied her on her daily afternoon rounds, her warm greetings were met with assuring replies from her pets. Pepsi, the bulldog puppy, lovingly trotted beside her enjoying her undivided attention. Her favourite puppy, Dolly, ran out of the cage and twirled to tell her she wanted to be dressed up in her mini frock, goggles, shoes and cap and the angry look the snake threw her way convinced her that he wasn’t in the best of moods, after which she tossed an extra cricket at him to brighten him up.
“I cannot see any animal hungry or shelterless,” she says. Seeing a wounded eagle perched on the hedge beside her parked car, blind or otherwise disabled cats sauntering about and bandaged dogs limping along, I felt the truth of her words. These animals meant the world to her and they all deserved to be loved unconditionally. I was so touched by her ‘Edhi of animals’ approach that I instantly picked up one of the blind cats wandering about and gave it one of my rare cuddles.
As we approached the birdcage I heard someone speak. Convinced that neither of us had uttered a word, I heard the voice once again: “Chotu anday nikalo!” As I turned, my gaze landed on a grey parrot who had just imitated his owner’s daily request in a heavy French accent.
As we walked past the bird cages, she informed me that she had learnt the likes and dislikes of her pets over a period of time. “The cricket is a snake’s delicacy, iguanas love cockroaches and mice and flies are a good snack for all,” she uttered in a matter-of-fact manner. She proudly claimed that all her pets relished her homemade snack which comprised dried fruits, seeds and Pedigree dog food that she fed them in the evenings after a heavy lunch and breakfast of boiled chicken.
By the time I had seen all her pets my clothes showcased my trip into the animal kingdom as my white shirt displayed paw marks of all shapes and sizes. I may have started out fearful of some of the animals in Veronique’s pet kingdom, but by the end of my visit, I was so inspired by her passion for pets that I was determined to rush off to her pet shop and pick out one to take home.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, October 2nd, 2011.
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