They have creatures

by Alissa

Friday at the playground, I met a dad from New Zealand. He was here in Ontario to visit his wife’s family. He wore a Canada flag t-shirt.

As an American living in Canada, I like to hear about how people understand national identity. The best definition for Canada that I’ve heard to date came from my old boss in Vancouver:

“Canada is a land of open spaces and open minds.”

But usually, these definitions come in ‘nots’, i.e. ‘We’re not American.’

I asked Mr. Canada, as a New Zealander, if he could give me frank assessment of Australia.

New Zealand and Canada seem to have some neighbour angst in common. It’s kind of endearing, really.

As we strolled past the llamas, he gathered his thoughts and said,”They’re typically full of themselves, arrogant, boastful. We think of Australia as the America of the southern hemisphere.”

My daughter split for the rabbits, so I ducked away without bothering to mention that I’m American.

A minute later, rounding the rabbit enclosure from the other direction, he looked at me with his head tilted, eyes narrowed, and said, “They have creatures.”

Ominous pause.

“Poisonous spiders. Poisonous snakes. Poisonous jelly fish.”

Apparently, it’s not all cuddly wombats and wallabies. For some sobering stats on the world’s most venomous snakes, check this out. 20 of the top 25 share a continent with our new home. From this table, New Zealand seems like a much safer bet–but don’t be fooled. We all know they have armies of orcs.

And there are fewer poisonous snakes in Australia than there might have been. Lady Jane Franklin (married to the NW Passage Franklin), as first lady of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), started a popular campaign that Hughes writes about in ‘The Fatal Shore’: “On learning that the island was infested with snakes, she offered convicts a shilling a head for them, hoping to de-herpetize Van Diemen’s land altogether.” They cancelled the program when L600 it threatened to drain the treasury.

But the word on the playground stirred one of my low-grade Australia anxieties: just how common are all these exotic fauna? Will every day yield an encounter with a marsupial? What do I do if a jelly fish stings Octavia at the beach? Does the media portray a proportional representation of antipodal species? I suspect the density of wombats in children’s books is higher than in real life, but have no way to confirm this. The BBC Wild Down Under documentary we’ve been watching is teeming with radically fecund animal and insect populations. One cockatoo is enough to make me uncomfortable. Thousands of them swirling and squawking and pooping at once makes me want to take refuge somewhere sterile and cool and distant. Like a suburban European mall, without a pet shop, in winter.

Ace looked some of these creatures up before going on his interview. Mostly, he is terrified of spiders. When we lived in Vancouver, I killed the black widow we found together on the back porch. I had to delete the (admittedly quite creepy) spider song from our Raffi playlist. After reading up on the Huntsman, Sydney funnel-web and Redback, he said, “If I see any at the hotel, we just won’t move there.”

It was clean. We’re going.