Pet Travel Tuesday
Destination: Cook Islands
Book: An Island to Oneself (1966) by Tom Neale.
By Pamela Douglas Webster
(NOTE: See more thoughts about fantasy and desert islands at Pamela’s site, Something Wagging This Way Comes.)
New Zealander Tom Neale wanted to test his ability to live alone on an island. In his mid-50s, he was finally ready.
Surprisingly his greatest trials came not from the elements or from surviving with only what he brought to the island, salvaged, or built himself.
Instead, Neale was tested by the animals with whom he shared the island–the feline companions he brought with him, the feral pigs who threatened his garden, the chickens he redomesticated, and the duck he befriended despite himself.
Most of Neale’s jobs on the island related to feeding himself and his two cats.
The island did not have enough food to sustain the cats through their own hunting so Neale “caught fish for the damn cats” each night. But, as he wrote in his journal, he “would not have been without them for the world.”
The island’s existing animals presented other challenges.
Pigs that had been brought to the island by the watchers had thrived without predators. They chewed the roots of the young coconuts Neale relied on. And they continually rooted through the garden of fresh vegetables Neale cultivated.
Neale decided to hunt the pigs and graphically described the horror of something he didn’t want to do but felt forced into for his survival. The experience of spear hunting the pigs was so distasteful he was unable to butcher the pigs and instead buried them.
The feral chickens were stubbornly independent but much less dangerous.
The thought of fresh eggs appealed to Neale, but the chickens hid their clutches of eggs in nests impossible to find. So he decided to teach them that he could be their source of food.
He built a chicken pen for them but the chickens resisted moving in until Neale discovered an old transmission. It made a perfect dinner bell. The reinforcement of the bell was the final step in training the chickens to make their homes in the new pen where Neale could simply collect their eggs each day.
The chicken’s eggs helped Neale eat the varied diet he craved, but it wasn’t enough. He rapidly went through the foodstuffs he brought to the island.
And his boredom with the island’s offerings and his increasing craving for animal flesh challenged his will power and made him directly confront the question, pet or meat?
One day Neale found an exhausted duck on the beach. She must have flown many miles to arrive at the remote island. With little thought he started to feed her. Soon she was taking food directly from his hand.
Neale was not sentimental about animals. But his increasing affection for the duck surprised him.
“I didn’t then–I never will–credit birds and animals with human feelings, but somehow that duck seemed to have crept into a rather different category. It was the only living thing which had come to the island and had become a friend during the stay.”
But his desire for friendship with a new creature was threatened by his baser instincts. As Neale ran out of protein, he found himself depressed and desperate.
Feeling the conflict, Neale stopped hand feeding the duck. He doubted he could resist his increasing impulse to grab her by the neck. Eventually she flew off never to return.
Is here anyone who has never fantasized about lying on a tropical beach with their dog or cat by their side? Drinking coconut water? Gathering sea urchins for dinner?
An Island to Oneself gives plenty of material for fantasy. But it also describes a back-breaking life full of loneliness and self-doubt.
There’s no such thing as a life alone because humans must form relationships. And in Tom Neale’s case, those relationships were with the only animals in his life.
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Photo credits: Raratonga streetscape is by David Holt and the Cook Island Lagoon is by Hector Garcia. Both are used under a Creative Commons license. Click the image to learn more about the photographers. To see photos of Suwarrow and Tom Neale, visit the tribute site at private islands online.