I was walking slowly, the hot, humid day made the air feel thick and I had given into its languor. I’d turned off the main road, into a side street, lined by of Federation semis with dark brick walls and tiled steps. Looking up, I saw that in the centre of the gable of one of the houses was an insignia, ringed by a white frame.
I stopped to decipher it. As I had suspected, but not fully believed, it was the head of a dog. The dog was in profile, head and neck down to the collar, and wore an expression of obedient patience.
These kinds of houses come as a pair, each a mirror image of its neighbour. So as I walked on to the adjoining house, I looked up to see if it too had a canine mascot.
This house was painted in different colours, burgundy and cream to its neighbour’s green and white. The painter had not stopped there. For when I looked up to see the matching dog in the centre of the circle, I found it to have a new identity.
It is a small thing, but I like to think of these two moments. A century ago the dogs being outlined in the plaster and then, in more recent times, someone up on a ladder holding the brush, putting the finishing touches to the cat’s whiskers, with a feline sense of satisfaction.
On the front page of the newspaper, between the articles about finance and climate, was what appeared to be a more immediate threat: “Feral Pigs Invade Sydney”. The pigs have reached suburbs such as Hurstville and Hunters Hill and are on the move. They’ve swum rivers and crossed roads and they’re coming closer to the city. They have heard that on the most powerful street in Sydney, near the state parliament building, there is an idol in their image.
Il Porcellino is one of five copies of a 16th century Florentian statue of a wild boar which are on display in different locations around the world. Sydney’s Porcellino has been in his position outside Sydney Hospital since 1968. Fittingly for a hospital mascot his nose constantly drips, making Il Porcellino into one of the city’s more unusual fountains. The tip of his snout is kept shiny by the hands of those who rub it for luck as they pass by. For luck enhancement Il Porcellino also guards an oversized piggy bank set in the plinth below, into which people can drop coins to donate to the hospital.
Further along Macquarie Street there is another animal idol. Trim the cat is perched lightly, a front paw aloft and eyes uplifted in an expression of feline attentiveness, on the sandstone window ledge outside the Friend’s Room of the Mitchell Library. On the other side of the window are shelves with hundreds of editions of Don Quixote. But it’s to another adventurer, Matthew Flinders, whom Trim owes his fame. In front of Trim Flinders’ statue looks sternly out towards Macquarie street, grasping a sextant. As well as a colonial hero Flinders was a cat lover. He was so taken with his wily ship’s cat that he wrote a book about Trim’s charms, describing his intelligent physiognomy, his bravery and sure-footedness at sea, and his repertoire of tricks.
As with Il Porcellino Trim has his wild suburban counterparts. Down Foxs Lane in Ashfield one evening, around the corner from the mural of a giant sea dragon on the wall of the fish market, I came across a carpark where cats congregate. A tiny grey kitten was eating a leftover slice of pizza from a box with a motley assortment of other cats assembled around, black and white ones, a ginger, a tabby. They fixed their glares on me and the other people shortcutting through the laneway, warning us to come no closer. These stray cat families prowl the streets after dark, eyes glowing in car headlights, slinking through the cracks in fences and into the drains.
Dogs too have a central city icon. As Trim dwells in the shadow of Flinders’ statue, so does the terrier Islay with Queen Victoria, outside the Queen Victoria building. Pause at the edge of Islay’s wishing well for a few moments and he starts to speak (with John Law’s voice). His abrupt “hello” has startled decades’ worth of unwary tourists and infrequent city visitors who lean up against the fountain. Islay’s domain is a wishing well at the edge of a circular sandstone structure which was constructed to hide the large air vent necessary for the carpark below the Queen Victoria Building. An ornamental grille disguises the vent as a Victorian folly. Islay was Victoria’s favourite dog and his signature trick was to sit up on his hind legs and beg for treats. The Sydney Islay sits in this pose and, via the medium of Laws, he requests we “cast a coin” into the wishing well for the good of deaf and blind children. A moment passes. “Thankyou”, says Islay, then follows up with a few mechanical woofs.
In the days before Islay another more unlikely creature became the guardian of a wishing well. The Australian Museum has in its collection a coelacanth, a prehistoric fish thought to have been extinct until one was discovered in 1938 off the coast of South Africa. The Museum’s preserved specimen dates from the 1960s and became the wishing fish when people started dropping coins into its tank through a crack in the case around it. Eventually the coins discoloured the water and the wishes had to cease, though the coelacanth is still on display and may still grant wishes if people stare into its sunken eyes and imagine their wishes deep out in the ocean.
These city animal idols in their frozen bronze postures, or preserved in the museum, are safely contained. Their real counterparts are less predictable. Sydney, like many cities, sustains an uneasy relationship with its creatures. Some are celebrated while others are despised. The problem creatures are often those that highlight human intervention and will never have a commemorative statue in their honour. Commonly these are the introduced species: rats, myna birds, pigeons, rabbits and foxes. Others are native creatures pushed out of their habitats, such as the ibis, which has found in the urban environment and its rubbish bins a replacement for the inner NSW wetlands that were once their breeding grounds. Resolutely unpopular, ibis stalk through Hyde Park, stealing sandwiches, alarming picnickers, and being photographed by the tourists who haven’t yet learnt that it’s not the done thing to admire the “tip turkeys”.
In a vacant lot beside the Reading Cinemas on Parramatta Road in Auburn a crowd of ibis have taken over a low, wide, shrub, and turned it into a nest. Ibis are good at finding these kinds of leftover spaces. This is a corner where no person would think to go, at the edge of the cinema carpark, next to the concrete channel that is Haslam’s Creek, and across from the Toohey’s brewery with its weird water tower poking up above the factory buildings like a concrete mushroom. The ibis spend all day here, honking and shuffling their wings while the traffic roars past. Though the nest could seem temporary against the drab aesthetics of the built environment surrounding it, perhaps it is the other way around. Sydney is in fact the province of the ibis, who will outsmart the factories and the highways and always find a place for their nests.
Animal stories in Sydney are often tales of encroachment, of animals ended up where humans don’t want them to be. A dead whale washed up in the Newport ocean pool, escaped water buffalo charging along King Street, western Sydney’s elusive panther, the large, black cat-like beast of which there are regular sightings but never any conclusive enough to determine what this creature might actually be. Possums thunder over roofs, sounding like clumsy burglars. Brush turkeys alarm north shore gardeners by emerging from the bushland, raking the ground with their large claws on their path towards destruction of careful landscaping.
Despite attempts to control the more unruly creatures – feral pig shooting parties, poisoned carrots for the wild rabbits, golf buggies rigged up with speakers to play industrial noises to move on colonies of flying foxes – Sydney’s animals aren’t so easily tamed.
The suburbs are a vast zoo, overrun with animals. Bears lurk on the sides of old theatres turned furniture warehouses, or advertise real estate.
The western suburbs panther may be elusive, but there are city corners on which big cats lurk.
Elephants are mostly found in parks and playgrounds, like this trio found in the Sir Joseph Banks Pleasure Gardens in Botany, which also includes some terrifying apes.
Elephants also occasionally stop by tea houses for refreshment. The Robur elephant, on loan from Wirth’s Circus, made a tour of Robur tea rooms in the 1930s, including the Bussell Brothers store on Anzac Parade in Maroubra and the city rooms at 695 George Street. Here the creature was posed with a giant teacup and some slightly nervous companions.
Wild animals are often encountered without the security of their circus trainers standing by with a stick. This Petersham garden has something a little fiercer than the usual small stone lions that guard the front gate . A lion and a tiger snarl at any who dare approach them and their prey.
Although animal encounters in Sydney often occur when creatures intervene in the human realm, there are a few places that are animals’ domain. The various zoos and wildlife parks around Sydney are the sanctioned versions of these places but here and there, as with the ibis nests, the animals have chosen where they want to be. Behind the Cumberland Hospital and alongside the Parramatta River exists a colony of grey-headed flying foxes. They hang in the branches of the pine trees and eucalypts, chittering and clucking, looking down with black, beady eyes.
I walk quietly down to the water’s edge. The river is shallow here, and a concrete weir spans it like a path of stepping stones. It’s a weekday afternoon and no other people are around. The flying foxes are a strange kind of company. There are thousands of them in constant sound and movement, and every so often one takes flight, stretching its leathery, translucent wings. It’s a surprise to find this kind of place in a city. It’s not unmarked by human presence; nowhere in Sydney is. But it is a place from where the human world momentarily recedes.
Flying foxes are a familiar sight on summer nights when they set out across Sydney just after sunset. Their black shapes look as if pieces of shadow have detached from the dark and are slowly moving across the sky. Sometimes I pick out one of the black bat shapes and watch it until it disappears from my view. Although it is beyond my vision I know it continues to travel, above and across the houses and gardens, the roads and factories, the cars stopped at traffic lights and the people sitting on their back steps smoking, the stray cats out exploring and the possums in the trees, over everything that makes up the city.