To say I love animals would be the understatement of the century. My life has revolved around them since our beloved Persian Cat helped me learn to walk by voluntarily lending his tail as a tow-rope. And once up and about, my first solo adventure, at 18 months, was off to the middle of the Stock Horse Stallion’s paddock, much to the terror of Mum and Dad, who each thought I was safely with the other at the time! Luckily, the big, normally dangerous equine took to me the same way as had the cat, and put his great head down so I could tow him cheerfully along by his forelock, over to the gate to greet my quaking parents.
Next I learnt to catch the biggest of the semi-wild Cashmere Bucks for their vaccinations, and ride that part-Arab everyone said was too dangerous. In the 80s, before subdivisions became popular, the land surrounding Kingbilli was wild and free, and wherever I roamed, all I saw were wombats, kangaroos and everything in between. It was a terrific life – for me, anyway. In hindsight, I don’t know how Mum and Dad coped… but perhaps as I was trailed everywhere by a pack of ten Old English Sheepdogs, it wasn’t so difficult to pinpoint my location!
Still, terror probably was a fairly standard state of mind for my poor parents, as since goat-farming failed to satisfy my urge to save the planet, once I had my licence I toured the district at all hours, rescuing every injured or orphaned native animal possible, including venomous snakes. To their immense credit, the only line my parents drew was I couldn’t bring said venomous snakes home to join the rising numbers of kangaroos, wallabies, possums and wombats chewing their way through the Homestead.
(Though I did have an injured Eastern Brown named Wilfred in my bathroom for a few weeks, and 6 orphaned Copperheads in a tupperware container on my bedside table, but I didn’t tell Mum).
Perhaps to my folks’ relief, my spare moments were devoted to being a consummate nerd. After completing all schooling at home, I moved onto to University predominantly via distance-education, with the exception of intensive weeks here and there doing lab- or field-work. My goal was to collect enough zoological and behavioural qualifications to become a zookeeper at Healesville Sanctuary, which I eventually achieved in 2009.
Sadly, after 7 years of wildlife rescue, endless environmental committees, the Black Saturday Bushfires, and a year of zookeeping, the fragile world of Australian Wildlife had taken its toll, and I realised I needed to work with animals with longer average life-expectancies.
I’d accumulated too many injuries from horses over the years to want to pursue that line professionally, and couldn’t face any other form of farming whereby animals risked ending their days prematurely in an abattoir. And certainly the llamas didn’t require a huge amount of my time! They’re about the most low-maintenance animals I’ve ever met. Sure, between their long necks and my remaining horses’ big behinds, I spent plenty of hours mending fences… meanwhile my 21st birthday present from Dad was a chainsaw.
But still, a girl needs a challenge to go alongside the daily workout.
Then in August 2010 a new man entered my life: Fergal, the Dobermann. And whilst my elderly Border Collie rolled her eyes and returned to bed, and my Chihuahua officially divorced me and went to live with my parents … I felt as if a light had come on. I’d already adored working with the Dingoes at Healesville, and training daily with Ferg was the most fun I’d had in years. By November, we’d already graduated to the Demo Team at the local obedience club, and I’d leapt at the new excuse to go “back to school” and enrolled with the National Dog Trainers Federation for their highly respected Certificate III, to help me mentally rearrange my existing B.Sc. into doggy language.
At the same time I hung up my steel-capped boots at the zoo and was offered a job at Animal Aid, a large pet shelter at Coldstream, with in-house vet clinic and grooming salon. I’d volunteered there for a few months helping grooming and vet staff handle aggressive dogs (after Dingoes, venomous snakes and 6-foot kangaroos, angry Shih Tzus didn’t worry me much), and it turned out my life spent shearing goats and Old English Sheepdogs gave me an affinity for grooming – so the boss handed me some clippers and set me on another learning curve.
I became fascinated with working with aggressive dogs. The new Dangerous Dog laws had just come into force in Victoria, and owning a growing Dobermann who could part crowds wherever we went; and watching the cold shoulder owners of problematic dogs received from many obedience clubs… I don’t know – maybe it was the snake-catcher in me: I must have a thing for underdogs with big teeth and bad reputations! – I wanted to be someone to whom people in that situation could turn when everyone else insisted their dog was a dead end.
So at the end of November 2011, I founded In The Pink Dog Behaviour Consultancy, with big Fergie-boy as the logo. The name “In The Pink” came to me whilst sitting at the lights on Dorset Rd one morning whilst Fergal licked my left ear on our way to some doggy event. People had always teased me for owning too much pink clothing… so why not make a living out of it?
By mid-2012, clients were lining up, and the local vet clinic approached me to become their new nurse – much easier than commuting to Coldstream! So that was perfect: and being in the clinic part-time gave my clients extra-confidence about my ability to monitor the physical as well as mental health of their pets. Admittedly, it was a running joke between me and the vet “who paid whom more” at the end of each financial year, as our crazy collection of critters here at Kingbilli have always kept her almost as busy as they do me… but still, we made a good team.
Meanwhile, surprise surprise, I went “back to school” for the umpteenth time to study Post-Graduate Canine Science an ANU, and spent a year researching aggression, with some dingo-trapping on the side … in between instructing at a few dog clubs, where I met my husband, Simon; and competing in Obedience with Big Ferg as well my second Dobe, Seamus.
Then to my astonishment, after a while, I found I missed grooming! I’d only been doing basic trims at Animal Aid, but having come across another trainer-come-groomer who actually competed in grooming (a possibility which was certainly news to me!), I joined a few groups on good ol’ Facebook and discovered the wide world of dog grooming was far grander and more exciting than I had ever imagined. There were so many tools, techniques and incredible skills of which I’d never heard, let alone witnessed, and the results were nothing short of incredible! This wasn’t just about cutting a dog’s hair… this was art. Using the dog’s coat to hide conformation flaws and accentuate its best features – well, not very different from my morning attempts at hair and makeup! I confess, I was shocked how much it appealed to me – it was far from “Saving the Planet”… but it sure was FUN!!
Long story short (could that be a grooming pun?), it became In The Pink Dog Grooming Salon and Behaviour Consultancy, and today I’m what they call a Certified Master Groomer… one of just 30 in Australia, out of thousands of groomers nationwide. It’s rather special, being the highest level of accreditation a groomer can achieve – but yes, I know, it’s still all about cutting dog hair!
But, it’s great to love one’s job – and there are none of the tears involved in the world of wildlife rescue or captive care. And, as the kids and grandkids of the wildlife I rescued and rehabilitated still live happily ever after at Kingbilli… I’m not without native friends.
More importantly, finally settling myself down grooming and training dogs here at home instead of flitting about the globe chasing everything from bandicoots to anacondas, or spending hours cloistered in the city with grumpy academics, terrifying liberationists and Midnight Oil frontmen who would refer to me as “babe”… I was perfectly poised for Simon and I to open the next, and most exciting chapter of our lives, which would make all my past exploits fade into insignificance…
There are no words to describe the joy of sharing life with our little man, Daniel James Covington, born in September 2014 … but every parent will know what I mean. He is bliss, it’s that simple. Whenever I look at him, I am reminded of Mary Poppins’ tape measure – at the mark for her height, it read “Practically Perfect in Every Way”. That’s my boy.
I recommenced grooming dogs when he was 6 weeks old, and got back into farm-work shortly thereafter. All with him either at my side in his father’s or grandmother’s arms, or more often that not, strapped to my chest in padded harness. Hence, before he could walk, he knew how to mend a fence, catch a horse, herd llamas or groom a dog, and before he could talk, he knew every one of our tools by name and could fetch any upon request.
Now of course, he can both walk and talk, and tells us how to do everything instead. And God Help Us if We’re Doing it Wrong.
Tall, strong, gloriously handsome (and he knows it), he is a master of charm itself, and can calmly argue his way – quite sophisticatedly – in or out of anything he chooses. In fact, on the rare occasion Simon or I win an argument – or successfully answer a question without it being followed by an additional “Why?”… we feel quite proud of ourselves.
And I have never seen my own parents having such fun.
But perhaps even more special… is watching Daniel with plants and animals. His first great love was trees – from just a few days old, he was fascinated by them – and now all things feathered, furred and otherwise have been added to the list.
I’ll never forget the day one of my dear little Shetlands, Missy, who obviously had a dreadful start to life and was terrified of people, approached someone voluntarily for a pat for the first time… and it was Dan.
As soon as he could crawl he was out feeding the llamas with Gramps, wiggling boldly along on his muddy knees amongst 20 of them whilst they ate their brekky – not a care in the world and not a moment of risk.
The Black Swan family follows him about the paddock, 40kg Wombats sit down like dogs next to him, Hawkeye the Shetland foal tries to climb on his pedal kart with him… and every time a Black or White Cockatoo squarks overhead Daniel insists they’re saying hello especially to him… and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s right.
He spends hours gardening with Granny and Gramps, and never forgets the location or status of a single plant. He tells our volunteers how to rake bed edges correctly, and keeps a sharp eye on my pruning forays lest I should be about to take too much off.
And then there is Daniel and Seamus.
Whilst my darling, treasured BooBoo (Fergal) did know and love Daniel for nearly 3 years, he left us, heartbreakingly, long before his time. Seamus, however, became Daniel’s devoted dog the day he realised I was pregnant. Formerly terrified of children – he would spend the duration of any child’s visit to our cottage hiding under a bush (big, scary Dobermann that he is). So understandably, we worried what we would face when introducing a child of our own. We needn’t have.
Never have I seen a boy and his pet more beautifully bonded – more perfectly compatible – than Daniel and Seamus. Some days it is like having twins… terrific for them, maybe not always for us! But beautiful just the same. Everywhere Daniel goes, Seamus goes too, and like my childhood Old English Sheepdogs… he protects him with his life.
So at last, I realise, in case I didn’t know before, what a wonderful life it is, growing up on Kingbilli. And now, just as I did thirty years ago, I watch Daniel share it with each new visitor who comes through the gate, leading them off on little adventures, spreading the love of every magical rural sight, sound and smell with every step. If everyone could love Mother Nature as much as he does, the world would surely be a better place.