OLA: After more than 40 years of working as an artist in many mediums to promote the lives of native animals, you have now created what could be described as your Magnum Opus: Bilby’s Ring Trilogy – described as suitable for 8 – 10 year olds but let me say it is a most enjoyable read for adults also – what was your intention in writing the trilogy?
Kaye: By the late-1990’s, I had produced the ‘Easter Bilby Picture Book’ for Rabbit Free Australia, it’s sequel ‘Easter Bilby’s Secret’ and the board game then touring quiz game ‘On The Brink On Tour’, for The Federal Department of Environment Canberra.
It occurred to me that the research involved in these and other projects might make the foundation for an Australian native vs feral adventure story. The idea stayed as I produced more environmental projects around Australia until, around 2005, it was time to get serious.
The heroes of the Easter Bilby Books, already known to many younger children, naturally stepped with me – they out of ‘legend’, into ‘real’ contemporary Aussie life. Along with them came my enduring master theme: the threat to Australian native creatures from introduced animals (such as ‘Cat and Fox’ of Easter Bilby ill-fame).
I have always believed in the benefits of including education with entertainment (and the absolute waste when education is missing). I hoped to create a fast-moving adventure tale underlaid with much of the information I had gleaned over the years, about the environmental changes and problems across Australia.
Bilby and his mates embarked on an epic journey, from ‘The Great Red Deserts of the West’ through a representative range of ecosystems and habitats: desert, to pastoral, to farming, to fattening lands, over mountain ranges and ultimately, into ’The Biggest City by the Endless Sea’.
I hope to give readers an over-arching image of what Australia is made up of geographically and ecologically and how the introduction of both domestic and feral animals from other countries has affected our ecosystems, habitats and their inhabitants. I also hope to give a different view (as might be seen by Bilby and other species) of ‘us’ as humans: that most powerful, scary and self-serving of species.
In BILBY’S RING This ranges from Aboriginal hunter-gatherers to the humorous ’Snow’, an indigenous man of The Darling River, to his grandson Tinny and Nessa; two young humans who befriend and save them from close annihilation in ‘The Biggest City’. Through these encounters and the journey of five small threatened species across a continent I hoped to create and epic adventure tale grounded in geographical, ecological and biological information about the on-going dangers to all life in our ‘Great Wide Land’.
OLA: You toured schools when the trilogy was first released – what were some of the memorable occasions with students and teachers?
Kaye: The best way to give an example of ‘memorable occasions’ on the schools tour is perhaps a brief report on the first two schools we visited. The first was a small Public School on the Mitchell Highway between Dubbo and Bourke in NSW – invited there by a Nyngan friend and her cousin who worked at the school.
We arrived to a lovely welcome from the small group of students with their teachers and assistants. I had expected to work hard for an hour plus but instead found myself delightfully entertained by performances (one in Indonesian) based on their reading and study of The BILBY’S RING Trilogy. It was a lovely start to the school’s tours from a great bunch of straight forward, practical bush students, many living on properties.
The next school was in Brisbane, well provisioned, with many wealthy parents. For this hour plus I did work! After the usual introduction to myself, my past work and how I came to write BILBY’S RING, I began reading the first chapter, where Bilby is chased, nearly caught and eaten by Chuditch the quoll; has a brutal fight with a huge buck rabbit who he unintentionally kills and then, to his own surprise, rescues the quoll from choking on the buck rabbit’s carcass.
The bush students had taken blood, punch-ups and rude-mouthed rabbits calmly in their stride. In Brisbane even boys began to squeal and squirm at the first sniff of danger. With the bush students I discussed the best ways to kill feral cats and foxes; with the Brisbane students we discussed the ethics and responsibilities of owning cats and then how the meat, that most of them ate, had to be slaughtered and by whom. (Although Brisbane students squealed and squirmed, when the school librarian asked if they would want to read more there was a unanimous ‘yes!’
When we were speaking earlier you mentioned that quolls make excellent pets. Can you tell us more about those experiments?
I have no personal experience of keeping quolls as pets but have two reports from those who have. An Aboriginal friend’s family acquired an orphaned Northern Quoll kitten when living in the Top End, NT. The friend remembered it as a great little pet, that was trained, as one does with a domestic kitten, not to bite or scratch to damage and it was also toilet trained. As a child, the friend enjoyed it as a pet with her siblings, until the playful little pet ran under ’Nannies’ nightie one night, up and over her bare belly. Then at an age it could fend for itself, the quoll kitten was ‘bushed’.
The other experience of keeping quolls as pets can be read about at www.newsroom.unsw.edu.au/news/science-tech/keeping-australian-native-animals .
Michael Archer, Professor of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences at UNSW, raised a Western Quoll as a pet in the late 1960’s, describing it as: ‘obsessively clean, never failing to use a box of kitty litter for all excretions, dog-like in his love of play throughout his life. Bright and quick to learn, far more affectionate and attentive than a cat….’
I have been told that, due to the demise of Eastern Quolls in Victoria, Victorians can, or could, apply to keep a quoll as a pet, as one would a cat or dog, or keep them for breeding purposes only with no handling as one would a pet.
OLA: Feral cats are a huge issue in Australia and you have been accused of being anti-cat. What exactly is your relationship to felines?
Kaye: I grew up with, on one count ,thirteen farm cats in mid-north South Australia, my first pet being a black and white cat named ‘Mr Whiskers’. Without common knowledge back then about the full impact of feral cats on the environment, on the farm we just took it for granted that they did what they were kept for: reducing the numbers of feral mice, barn rats and sparrows, as well as controlling snakes around the house when we kids were roaming as toddlers. I certainly do not ‘hate’ or even dislike cats and have known cats of great and endearing character. What I am is ‘anti’ roaming cats, whether domestic pets or feral. Despite what many owners would argue, broadly speaking cats cannot help being the killing machines they are designed to be. Our Australian native species simply cannot stand up to the constant onslaught from the millions of feral and domestic roaming cats – throughout every night and every day, throughout ongoing years. I see it as a simple choice: do we want to retain the unique native species endemic to this once-isolated continent or, do we want a country dominated by feral cats and foxes as the apex ground predators? The choice is plainly: one or the other.
OLA: What’s next for Kaye Kessing?
Kaye: As a self-publisher the onus is on me to market and sell this Trilogy that I spent a solid ten years researching, writing, illustrating and producing. Although self-promotion is not the job I am best suited to, it must be an on-going ’next’.
I would love to add sequels to The BILBY’S RING Trilogy – as Bilby, Chuditch, Mala, Numbat and Sticky hone their understanding of humans (both helpful and self-seeking) and the environmental issues facing most native species across Australia since its last great human invasion. As well, the potential and mounting dangers from climate change would have to be investigated.
You can order The BILBY’S RING Trilogy, posters and maps direct from Kaye’s website: