Testing , testing. Ahem. Well. This is day one of my audio diary, kept at the request of the Natural History Museum’s Adopt-a-Dodo Home Stay program. I arrived this morning as directed, reported to the staff entrance, where I showed my passport and official letter and was led down to the Dodo enclosure.
How utterly thrilling to encounter a real live Dodo! Eight of them, in fact, created by means of DNA extraction. It is worth noting that the Dodos I observed appeared cheerful and well-fed.
Though somewhat less attractive and a great deal larger than I expected.
I’d like to begin this journey by saying how uniquely privileged I feel to have been chosen by your curators over the many well-qualified applicants I’m certain will have applied, and I solemnly undertake to care for my Dodo with the utmost responsibility and respect over the period of the home-stay.
The Adopt-a-Dodo program was designed to give every member of this miraculously revived and much-wronged species a pleasant place to stay while their living quarters undergo extensive refurbishment. When finished, the new Dodo enclosures will imitate the animal’s original habitat in the Mauritius rainforest. Before the poor unfortunate creatures were deforested and hunted to extinction by sailors in 1662 of course.
Despite the fact that I was not one of the actual persons involved in this shameful episode, I hope it will not seem grandiose here to apologise on behalf of homo sapiens for any and all senseless brutality perpetrated upon this noble beast. I would like to think that this opportunity to Adopt-A-Dodo will help assuage some of the guilt I have carried, ever since becoming interested in the plight of the Dodo as a child --- and possibly even to make some modest amends.
My first experience with an actual Dodo was quite remarkable.
Having seen the museum’s painted Dodo and dodo skeleton upon many occasions, I perhaps should have known what to expect from my first encounter, but a large, screeching bird with an enormous razor-sharp bill naturally has an unexpected presence. I might just mention in passing that the excellent and widely admired portrait of a dodo painted from life in 1625 by Roelandt Savery strikes me now as somewhat….flattering.
All credit to the Natural History Museum, my dodo came with his own padded carrying case on wheels, and seemed quite comfortable on the taxi ride back to Wembley. Dr Sarah Westerling, the curator who accompanied me to help with the handover, seemed pleased that I’d followed her instructions so meticulously, and my Dodo settled in immediately to his comfy shed in the back garden, kicking and scuffling the bale of straw and shredded newspaper bedding into a cozy heap. After a quick snack of mixed nuts and fresh fruit, my Dodo hunkered down almost immediately to doze.
A few papers needed signing, after which Dr Westerling departed, with a final reminder to telephone at any time, day or night, in case of problems. Although I anticipate none, this reassured me and, having triple checked that my Dodo was sleeping quietly and comfortably in the refashioned tool shed, I took myself off to mine own comfy nest on the first floor of number 59 Spragg Lane and bedded down for the night with Heathcliff purring contentedly at my feet.
End of day one.
The unusual nature of the Dodo homestay project has required a degree of secrecy on the part of participants. If friends or neighbours enquire about the new creature in the shed, Dr Westerling suggests a simple story about babysitting a friend’s turkey for a week, perhaps a smallholder who’s been called away suddenly on urgent business. I have practiced this story in private and am now able to recite it with total conviction.
My Dodo passed a quiet night and seemed pleased to see me and my pannier full of nuts and fruits when I opened the shed door and released him into the garden. After several minutes of intense eating, he looked up, stared, and nudged me in an interested manner with his beak.
I feel certain that we will become fast friends.
Museum protocol encouraged me to speak with my charge, to acclimatize him to the human voice, but not having been provided with any manner of script, I invited my Dodo into the lounge and attempted to keep the conversation as natural and easy as possible, enquiring after his health and digestion, making some frankly inadequate apologies to him for my ancestors’ treatment of his progenitors, and so on.
I feel that our relationship would founder under the moral weight of too much guilt, so suggested to him that we draw a line under the whole extinction episode, accept that much wrong had been committed, and that on behalf of the human race, I would step up to the plate and admit full culpability.
His response was hard to gauge. There appeared to be a slight narrowing of the eye followed by a shift in body posture. He seemed suddenly larger. Perhaps an illusion based on the puffing out of feathers? After a moment Dodo turned and, to my horror, removed every scrap of stuffing from the sofa and matching recliner.
I count to ten and remind myself that my Dodo is a wild animal with a long and perfectly justified historical grudge. Patience must ever be the watchword.
When he had finished destroying the furniture, I lured him back to his shed with the promise of a large pineapple, tossed it in through the door and bolted it firmly.
I am not a person who enjoys discord, and find myself somewhat shaken by this latest encounter. However, after a refreshing nap with Heathcliff and a trip to the greengrocer for more fruit, I am restored once more to my state of natural optimism.
When dodo next emerges from the shed, squeezing through the door with difficulty, he shoves me with the now unmistakable “I’m hungry” gesture.
We are still an hour or two off lunch, but I haven’t the heart to deny him a little extra snack of kiwi, melon, pineapple, mango, papaya, mixed berries, peanuts, hazelnuts, brazil nuts and sunflower seeds. He scrabbles it up at once and I smile inwardly, knowing that despite a rough patch here and there, man and beast are well on the way to mutual understanding.
Later I initiate a game of fetch, but Dodo declines to participate, merely staring at me, blinking slowly.
The day ended relatively peacefully.
A bit bleary this morning. Dodo indulged in clamorous beak clacking at frequent intervals throughout the night. I got up to pet him, thinking perhaps he was lonely, then brought him in and tucked him up in the guest room, but his incessant shrieking wail suggested that nothing would do but more food.
Adding to the terrible noise was a pounding on the front door from Mr Bluitt at number 61 accompanied by threats to call out the RSPCA and/or police if nothing was done about the noise.
“You and your turkey both belong in an asylum!” he shouted.
Uncharitably, I felt.
If only I could reveal the true nature of my mystery guest.
Dodo has devoured a week’s supply of fruit and nuts in three days. I am proud of how large and sturdy he has become under my care.
Heathcliff avoids him.
Dodo and I are both somewhat tired and irritable today. When deprived of food for more than an hour or two, he adopts a threatening aspect, unless I am misinterpreting his body language.
Fascinatingly, he has added a new verbal expression to his beak clacks – a sort of howling that brings to mind the savage slaughter of a large farm animal.
I have tried various songs to calm my savage beast -- Kumbaya, Away in a Manger and Leonard Cohen’s greatest hits, to no avail.
Have also undergone a great deal of soul searching, wondering whether I was perhaps a bit hasty in accepting responsibility for the entire extinction of the species, however theoretically. I have attempted to discuss and reframe the historical context of the event with my Dodo -- without, it must be said, much luck.
The howling continues. Mr Bluitt at number 61 has threatened to contact his solicitor.
Left urgent telephone message for Dr Westerling.
Dr Westerling rang at 9AM, sounding rattled. I have the impression that mine is not the only Adopt-A-Dodo-home-stay situation encountering a rough patch.
She apologised that her visit will not be until Thursday given the unexpected workload, and wonders if I can hold out till then, mentioning in strictest confidence that one person has already withdrawn from the program while another is currently receiving emergency medical treatment at St Mary’s hospital. Reassuringly, the prognosis is excellent.
I wonder whether to suggest that next time, perhaps a bit of chicken or Chaffinch DNA might be added to the mix in order to improve the Dodo’s temper and mitigate its tendency to hold a grudge. I’m not clear on the precise mechanism of de-extinction, so perhaps should leave such musings to the scientists.
Just a thought.
Despite hourly feedings throughout the night, Dodo lunged most aggressively when released from his shed this morning. I find myself thinking less charitable thoughts about my charge than previously, and must remember that being born of extracted DNA must be a most disorientating experience, one bound to lead to behavioural issues down the line.
Thank heavens for extra thick waders and Wellington boots, both now slashed to ribbons.
Very…….tired. Police arrived at 3 am, alerted by neighbours. Am unable to dispute accusations that Dodo sounds nothing like a turkey.
Sent police away with promise that noise will abate. Have taken to dumping a week’s worth of food at a time into the shed, which now appears to fits my Dodo rather like last year’s school uniform.
Dr Westerling phoned after lunch. We shared a little laugh about unseasonal weather. Ashamed to report that, once begun, I could not seem to stop laughing. On the end of the line, Dr Westerling began to sob. Dodo joined in with loud honking, while dental students tenants at number 57 blasted Motorhead out of speakers aimed directly at my garden.
Slipped an apology written on a postcard under their door but found it returned through letterbox accompanied by severed chicken head.
Desperate for sleep. Dodo has eaten every scrap of food in the house.
Have not seen Heathcliff in two days and fear the worst.
Barricaded into bedroom.
Dr Westerling telephoned again, sounding increasingly unwell. It is clear to me now that she will not come.
Jolted awake from nightmare involving Godzilla and Wembley Stadium.
Day and night are as one.
Have managed to scrawl a few last notes to friends and loved ones on telephone notepad.
Can hear Dodo snacking on conservatory bamboo furniture next door.
Have not eaten or slept since Tuesday.
Sinking into final darkness, experience brief flash of guilty compassion for Mauritian sailors.
Perhaps more misunderstood than previously thought.
Long sound of crackly tape running.