Picking fruit, packing vegetables, slaving away on a farm in extreme heat losing my body weight in sweat each day; what I had expected to be doing to earn my second year visa, the type of work you’d only do if you’re a backpacker and you have to. I did not expect to be blessed with 50 odd labradoodle puppies pining to see me every morning! We turned up for our ‘housekeeping and gardening’ job and it turned out to be kennel assistant positions in a labradoodle breeding kennel, classed as rural work by calling itself a ‘puppy farm’, and a five star one at that. It’s far from any image conjured by ‘puppy farm’ though; the mothers are treated like princesses, and the puppies get more attention than most babies!
Everyone was jealous, friends and family at home and more so the friends out here in Oz doing more usual rural work. Thoroughly a cat person, all I could think was ‘I hate dogs’ this is a living hell for me, I don’t deserve to have landed this job. I also don’t want any slobbering tongues near my face and I certainly don’t wan any poo on my bare hands! Two weeks in and how wrong I realise I was, no dog will ever replace my cat at home, but sit me amid a mob of puppies and leave me there any day, I’m even beginning to like the mums! I can’t wait each morning to wade into room 3 and be bombarded by 12 six week old pups desperate for attention, falling over themselves to be closer to you, nipping at my socks and weighing my feet down as I try to walk. They’re one furry, writhing mass marbled apricot, chocolate, black and cream pulsating around my legs, but once they calm down and morph into individual dogs again they all gain distinct personalities, it’s not easy to pick favourites.
Our boss, an obese South African lady, is a total head case however and somehow manages to be a miserable bitch despite being surrounded by puppies each and every day (they live in and around the rooms and garden of her home). My first day was a list of things I’m never, ever, to even think about doing; don’t you ever get this sink wet (by all means use the tap, but if water touches the basin, you don’t want to know what kind of hell will break loose): never put milk into a bowl before water; don’t even think about using the red hot water bottles before the beige: do not allow any water down the plug hole, it must all go into a stinking bucket, no matter what it’s been used to clean. Oh and she sits in her office listening to the water pipes to ensure we aren’t turning the tape on too many times then glides through the house of silently sliding doors to appear behind us and startle us with a surprise reprimand for not being sufficiently water conscious.
Hand feeding Daisy’s 3 week old puppies their first ever meal was my introductory task to the job. The bowl of raw kangaroo meet was repulsive, I couldn’t believe I was expected to put my bare fingers into it to mix it with hot water and then to offer it to the tiny palm sizes pups. This is now one of my favourite jobs, and if I’d known what else I would be expected to touch later on I would have leapt at this opportunity much more enthusiastically. Cho and I sterilised our hands and settled down in Daisy’s pen with three chocolate and two black puppies, barely able to see yet they blundered around on stubby legs, toppling over whenever they decided to change direction. We took one each and cradled them as we first wiped the liquid from the meat onto their mouths to give them a taste for it then moved onto small chunks of the meat itself. Their minute tongues rasped at my finger, not sure what to do with my offering. It takes a fair bit of skill to manover the meat into a position where they will actually get it into their mouths, a skill I was slow to master; I fed one pup to Cho’s four.
These pups, now almost 5 weeks old, are barrel bellied and career around at the sound of your voice when its meal time, gorging from their bowl as soon as it’s put down. With broad shoulders and ruffles of fur around their necks, they remind me of miniature lions, practicing out their barks and growls like little Simba, working on his roar! They try to wrap their tiny jaws around an elbow or an ankle and it won’t be long now before their teeth become little needles that give a sharp shock when they catch you. Although they’re moved into their own room now, cavernous for their size, Daisy visits them three times a day, but at 5 weeks old she’ll be sent home this week and that will be the last they see of their mum. Three weeks later they will have more than quadrupled in size, making Ground Zero (the pen for the oldest pups) a veritable war zone to try and cross, and will be ready to head out to their new families.
Ground Zeros’ most recent inhabitants have just left, but not before I had to shampoo and polish them, hunting out any pooey bums, sticky eyes and clumps of dirt entangled fur. Trying to wash a 6kg puppy is not easy, they hate it, pawing at my clothes and face or trying to clamber up the sink wall, I was drenched in suds by number 6. At least I didn’t have the job of drying them, howls of terror commenced with the noise of the hair dryer, desperate claws on wood followed by howls of human pain when those claws inevitably meet skin.
Puppy number 7, a big bruiser with marbled blue eyes and floppy lion paws missed out on his bath, being picked up later in the week, not with the rest of his siblings. He has been following Kelly and I around the house winging for attention since his siblings left. Now moved in with the mums he’s learnt a lesson or two and has calmed down with no one small to bully, he’ll collapse into your legs begging for a tummy rub and the moment you’re his height he’ll go for a face lick rather than an ankle gnaw. It’s hard to fall in love with each puppy and then watch them leave, but comforting to know that there is a waiting list long enough that no puppy from here, the only labradoodle breeder in WA, will go without a family.
The flip side to the job is the constant cleaning, the shovelling of poo and battling with leg fulls of pups to get anywhere. The puppies bowl around their rooms, scattering kibble, poo and wee all over the floors (not to mention all over themselves) which makes a cement like concoction, not easy to remove each day. I’ve shoved thermometers up dogs bums, washed placenta from towels, tails and then my own hands and knelt in wee. We return home stinking of kangaroo meat, streaked with shit where puppies with pooey bums and paws have leapt onto us, spattered with chalky white worming medicine that the young dogs try to spit out each morning and harassed by flies. This last week the March flies have appeared to harass us, so long as you can hear them you’re fine; they’ve landed on you if they’ve gone silent. Working with full trousers and sleeves down in 38 degrees I was sweat drenched and red faced, but thought I was safe from their needle like proboscises. Apparently they can bite through clothes just as vigorously as bare skin, the pain doesn’t last like a mosquitos itch but it’s enough to make you drop whatever you’re holding in shock, hopefully not a puppy!!
The progression from office job in England, to no job, to this has been abrupt, my arms and legs are feeling it; there’s certainly no urgent need for our diamond tree exercises. Between puppy caring and cleaning rooms at the Kingsley there’s little time for anything else other than sleep; good thing there’s not much to miss out on in Manjimup!