I gave my beauty and my youth to men. I am going to give my wisdom and experience to animals.
- Brigitte Bardot
I have not always loved dogs. I used to only love art. That was my main love. But things changed when I met Farnsworth.
My partner Matt and I had driven up to Buff Point, on the Central Coast of NSW, to meet his pet dog called Farnsworth. He was staying at a friend’s place until my partner found new digs. Poor Farnsworth, a middle-aged basset hound, was not having a great time; a larger dog called Shadow dominated the yard and Farnsworth was always in the background, being small, and third in line. We arrived at night, when our friends were asleep. We snuck out to the back garden placing Shadow swiftly inside: Matt wanted us to see Farnsworth in peace. The night was warm and black. A strange looking short dog placed his chin on my leg. I patted his small, narrow, bony head. It was Farnsworth and I fell in love like a mother does. He was so vulnerable.
This love changed my life, our lives. His smell was beautiful, his fur was all over me. This big, big love made me feel a deep connection to him and other animals. According to an old friend, this is when I ‘lost it’ and went crazy and somehow fundamentally changed. Personally, I think loving Farnsworth made me grow up. I finally loved another living being more than myself. The change was chemical. Farnsworth taught me how to love, care and attend much more to the animals in the world.
Emotionally, things had started going wrong (or right?) for me in the summer of 2014. I noticed it happening at , the off-lead dog park I made at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (acca). A curator — an old acquaintance of mine — walked into the dog park with two elegantly dressed overseas curators who were in Melbourne to see the sights and meet some ‘key artists’ (usually recommended by the curator at Gertrude Contemporary or another VIP). As I watered the hired plants, sweaty and frazzled in thirty degree heat, these three coolly surveyed me. ‘Have you seen D_____?’, asked the female. ‘I want to introduce him to G_____and F____’. ‘I was meant to meet him around now at the Malthouse.’ ‘I don’t know. No, I don’t think I have.’ The three wandered off and I stood there feeling vaguely crap. Why was I not important enough to meet? Why did I not ever get a gig when I meet up with those overseas types (not often, granted). I must suck and be somehow crap after ten years of toil, exhibiting and performing. These feelings increased the next day when a gallery director was supposed to meet me at to discuss the donation of the dog kennels acca had constructed. He was a no-show and did not bother to contact me. Normal events (or not an unlikely incident), I know. But these thoughts occurred to me: ‘What the fuck am I doing this for? Why the fuck am I an artist? Who even cares?’
These were frightening questions, and I could not unthink them. They began to niggle in the back of my mind, manifesting first as flippant comments to friends about the actual value of art, and/or the joke of my failed career as a statement of fact. It was as if every bad experience I had gone through in the art world had been quietly chipping away at my confidence and my identity. I had not noticed it. But it was like a tap that would not stop dripping — rejections, snide comments, blog posts, things people said that got back to me — they were like drips that eventually wear the surface beneath down. A psychologist would call this ‘professional burnout’.
In my many hours of listless internet escapism, I developed a fixation with Brigitte Bardot. She exited the movie industry at thirty-nine years of age (my age) and said famously, ‘I gave my youth and my beauty to men. I am going to give my wisdom and experience to men.’ Except for the beauty bit, I felt like I completely understood her. Exhausted, she had withdrawn from the world of superficial appearances and moved into a place where only kindness and love mattered. In the 1970s, Bardot created an animal sanctuary in the south of France and rescued animals. To this day, she wears simple farm clothes and gumboots, smokes and does not care what anyone thinks. Although she does have some vile opinions, I can not help but admire the way she has had the bottle to commit her life to animals. She has campaigned tirelessly and saved many lives. She has turned her pain into love. Maybe I could do the same, in a smaller way?
I had moved to Sydney in early 2015. Away from friends and family, I watched — an American motorcycle crime drama — every day to pass the time. A larger bunch of art rejections had trickled in than usual. Art had started feeling like a fruitless pursuit: I felt I wasn’t getting anywhere and, on top of this, I was not selling work. Attending exhibition openings had always been hard and boring. I had stopped going to them altogether in Melbourne and carried on this way in Sydney. My absence just enhanced my sense of disconnection, but I was never very good at openings because I was shy. There were nights I shed bitter tears, regretting my decision to be an artist — something I had never done before or even imagined was possible. Despite this, I felt I had more to contribute to the world than my own sense of failure.
Sitting in the lounge room every day, the internet and social media had taken over my psyche. It soon dawned on me that homeless dogs in crisis were real. Real lives existed just beyond my laptop screen. What was I doing sitting at home, staring at Facebook? What a non-reality I lived in — it was time to leave this place and enter the physical world, where people and animals lived and died, real shit happened, and events unfolded in real time.
I saw an ad on seek.com about volunteering as a Foster Care Coordinator for Maggie’s Rescue, an inner west no-kill, organisation in Marrickville. Eight hours a week: the job sounded reasonable. Maggie’s had no shelter; instead, all the animals lived in foster homes and were adopted out via promotion on Facebook and Instagram. I signed up and before I knew it, I was in deep. I began regularly doing home-checks — a sort of interview where you ascertain whether the person is capable of fostering without flipping out. Most people are great with cats, but dogs can be extremely challenging. I caught the train all over Sydney doing home-checks, and it proved to be a good way for me to get to know the layout of the city. In terms of foster carers, I found the best ones were generally mothers. They seemed to be used to responsibility, organised, unfazed by bodily fluids, good at administering medication, and coped when things were a little bit stressful. I also met some great folks who were wonderful carers who continue to be my friends. Within six months I found myself ‘Head of Dogs’ for the rescue. This position enabled me to take dogs straight from the pounds and place them directly into foster care. However the pressure increased. The role was 24/7 and there was only one of me. I did not drive and I was not as dog savvy as some. I was responsible for dog selection, dog foster care coordinating and pretty much everything dog related. If I picked the wrong dog, the perennial question of where they would go was seared on my soul because, in truth, there was nowhere.
Rescuing a dog from a pound appears simple. A dog is a dog, and just needs food, a bed and a walk, I thought. But the truth is, rescuing a dog is like a box of chocolates. Mostly, it is a wonderful thing. But you don’t know anything about the animal or why it was surrendered, nor is the pound likely to provide much information. The dog may have behavioural problems, it may be aggressive towards other dogs or people, or it may have health problems. I rescued dogs on instinct, because I am not a trained behaviourist. The dogs I rescued I had to envision finding a loving home: kind of like talent spotting, I had to believe in them. The easiest dogs to rehome were the small fluffy ones. Even if they bite — which smaller dogs are more prone to do — most rescues will take the gamble and accept them. Big, strong dogs were less appealing to rescues. Frequently, it was the big dogs and the staffies left sitting on the urgent list at the pounds, such as at Renbury Farm in the outer west of Sydney.
I love big dogs. And I tried to make sure Maggie’s Rescue had a steady flow. My favourite big dog rescue is the tale of Mudflap and Enid. I saw Mudflap on the Renbury Farm Facebook page. Renbury Farm pound is well known in rescue circles because they kill animals every fortnight if they have not been adopted or reclaimed.
According to Muddy’s profile, he had three days left until euthanasia. I could see from his photo that he was a large brindle bloodhound mix — maybe a mastiff cross bloodhound? Renbury Farm had named him ‘William’, and I knew I had to rescue him. I love bloodhounds and they are very rare in Australia — It felt like destiny! I caught the train to Renbury Farm (an epic two hour trip into the deep west, wandering down country highways and getting tooted at by truckies) and there I met William — aka Mudflap. William was giant, Great Dane sized, and so friendly. Over fifty kilos, he sniffed the ground just the way you would imagine a bloodhound would and had a wonderfully goofy demeanour. He also had the ‘psycho eye’ as Matt and I laughingly called it: a glowing amber gaze which made him look lit up from within. The woman who worked at Renbury said William was bonded with Serena — a smaller staffy mix who had clearly recently been a mummy — and they inferred that it would be cruel to let William go without Serena. Maybe Serena was William’s mummy, I thought to myself.
So it looked like Matt and I were rescuing two dogs. We would put them in the backyard and keep them separate from Farnsworth and Biggie (our other dogs) who could use the front yard instead. They would be fine sleeping outside at night because it was summer. Three days later, Matt drove out to Renbury to get them. He managed to wrangle them into the back of the Volvo and get them to the vet for desexing and vaccination. How he did that, I will never know.
Honestly, he could have ended up with a bite, but so much about rescue depends on bloody-minded determination in the face of reality, and in that way it has a lot in common with making art. Matt named William ‘Mudflap’ and Serena ‘Enid’.
It was 2am and I woke to howling in the yard — it was ear-splitting. Bloodhounds have the loudest howls and bays in the dog world. We had rats in the yard and Muddy was baying at them — and then Enid was chiming in. I went outside to put the dogs back to sleep. They curled up on the purple faux fur underneath the verandah while I rubbed their backs before passing out like little children in the dark. This happened on average three times a night for a month. Neither myself, nor my neighbours, slept during that time.
In truth, Mudflap was a big jerk. He was extremely pushy with Enid and had not been socialised with other dogs at all. He used to eat Enid’s food first, so she could not even get a bite in, and then moved on to his own — but only if he felt like it. Enid was one of the most gentle and submissive dogs around and got along wonderfully with other dogs. Together the two were Jekyll and Hyde, and they quickly got to work decimating our garden. I do not know why, but all the ‘troubled kid’ dogs I have fostered love digging up plants and chewing off leaves. They can turn a yard inside out within a few hours. Every morning they would race around the yard at full speed. I could hear the thundering of paws and snorts from my bed. I was always terrified Muddy or Enid would crash into the house or the gate and injure themselves. But they never did, or if they did, it didn’t hurt them too much. The garden has never fully grown back.
But the 2 a.m. barking was driving us slowly insane. I had tried to introduce Mudflap to Farnsworth and Biggie with the hopes of integrating the pack and bringing them all inside to sleep at night but it had not gone well. Farnsworth and Muddy got into a scuffle, the fools both thought they were boss (there is only one boss, and that’s Farnsworth). Muddy could injure or even kill Farnsworth with his strength, so I knew I had to find another foster home for Muddy: one with no other dogs. A wonderful new carer called Scott said he would foster Muddy, so off Muddy went to posh Rozelle to live a life of luxury on the couch. Scott used to walk the streets with Muddy and I am sure everyone would have been terrified. While Muddy was at Scott’s he continued on his trail of destruction: he ate Scott’s housemate’s designer glasses; almost ran through their glass door; stole items from around the house and hid them in his blanket; scuffed their polished wooden parquet floor; and barked at every stranger he met. A tough case to rehome!
According to Renbury Farm, Muddy and Enid were dumped in a state forest together. There had been multiple sightings until the council ranger managed to catch them. Muddy was a particularly resistant charge and had thrashed about like an alligator. It made sense. While Enid coped a lot better with the transition into suburban life with my two dogs, Muddy had struggled as an only dog in Rozelle. He was afraid of unfamiliar people and big noises scared him. Indeed, he was likely bred by someone out west to be a ‘pig dog’. Some rural and semi-rurally located people breed these dogs — usually Bull Arabs or Wolfhound mixes — to track and kill wild boar. Hunting dogs are classified as ‘dangerous dogs’ and are technically unable to be rehomed legally, however there is a thriving trade on Gumtree and other sites for these dogs. Muddy was no hunter, but he was a scary looking dog who happened to be frightened of the world — not a good combination. Eventually, we called in the dog specialist Nathan Williams, who spent four hours with Scott and Muddy, teaching Scott how to encourage Muddy to be confident rather than afraid. But how to rehome him? Not many people want a big (albeit charming), scary looking dog.
While Scott and I chewed our nails wondering how we would find Muddy a home, I received a Facebook message from a young woman keen to bring her mum down to meet him. She described herself and her mum as ‘dog people’. This sounded good. No unrealistic expectations. They came down the very next day to meet Muddy. Of course he barked at them and refused to be patted for a whole hour. But they wanted to give him a chance and returned the next weekend. Amazingly, he remembered them and greeted them! Muddy had a very good memory. The weekend after, they took him home to the Central Coast. To this day he is very happy in his new home with Booma, the resident pointer. Plus, Muddy’s de-sex has kicked in and he has stopped being such a jerk.
After some months living happily alongside Farnsworth and Biggie, Enid was also adopted by a lovely woman in Panania who owned Drools Dog Grooming and who already owned a Renbury dog called Boris. Boris and Enid get along like a house on fire — and Enid is very happy.
During my time with Maggie’s Rescue, we rescued around fifty dogs. I fostered three or four. Every dog had a story, and I loved them all. I assisted the foster carers who worked with me to rehome the dogs, and I promoted the dogs online. Late last year I was offered a job at Animal Welfare League NSW and resigned from Maggie’s. Now I promote shelter animals online and share their stories. I love it. I still make art, and am currently working on some large drawings of Farnsworth.