Boating with unusual pets

Created on 04/11/2016

Following on from our blogs about boating with dogs and cats earlier in the year, we have found a number of stories about boating with more unusual boating companions…

Napoleon Bunnyparte by Sarah Henshaw

Our 57ft narrowboat is home to a lop-eared rabbit named Napoleon Bunnyparte. He has free range of the boat, with an open hutch midships that he uses as a toilet and where we place his food and water.

Photo: Napoleon Bunnyparte in his open plan hutch on board the Book Barge. Photo by Sarah Henshaw

When we moved aboard three years ago, I initially worried he’d miss the space (and courtyard) he’d enjoyed when we lived in a house. However, I didn’t count on the compensatory closeness narrowboat living affords. Rabbits are sociable animals and they rather like having a human around. Napoleon definitely enjoys this proximity. The boat is open plan and he seems to revel in the lack of privacy and close quarters where my husband and I sometimes struggle.

Photo: Napoleon Bunnyparte. Photo by Sarah Henshaw

Problems arise because the boat also occasionally doubles as a bookshop. Having a rabbit here puts stock and potential sales in constant jeopardy. He has a taste for expensive antiquarian book spines and an unpredictable bladder.  On the flip side, he’s occasionally rather brilliant customer-luring collateral.  When we were permanently moored at Barton Marina on the Trent & Mersey Canal, his ear-washing routine earned Napoleon a dedicated fan base of under-5s, who visited the shop regularly to ‘awww’ over him, parents (and their purses) in tow.

Travels with Thomas by Bob Wheal

What is a narrow boat? It's slow, ponderous, sometimes unpredictable, has a certain charm, and you need a licence.

So what's the best pet to have on board? Why obviously a tortoise, which shares many of the same attributes (except you only need a licence to sell a tortoise, not to keep one).

Photo: Thomas the Tortoise, photo by Bob Wheal

Thomas came into our family by pretending to be a speed bump as my wife, Johanna, cycled to work one evening. Of course, we took it in temporarily to see if it was claimed. No one did, and that temporary stay turned the tortoise into a somewhat longer term house guest - so far 46 years and still counting.

Thomas came with us when we bought our first narrow boat. Sometimes it was a tussle to see whether the cats (kittens, really) or Thomas would take up most of our attention. Generally the cats won.

Of course the tortoise, being a patient creature, outlived all other pets and is now a firm feature of our cruising escapades.

After the 10th or so time we were asked "how old is he?" we prepared a FAQs sheet and displayed it on his box (box = refuge, mobile tortoise carrier, bath, and bedroom). Frequent questions include "how old is he? How long have you had him?  Does he hibernate? (yes) - What, he hibernates in a fridge!! (yes, it's more controllable than a box in the loft/garage/shed, and - you can't get them now can you? (yes, you can).

Children sometimes ask "is it real?" When a callow youth posed the same question it was too tempting to reply "no, it's clockwork".  However the jest rebounded when my response met with a blank stare and the query "what's that?". Next time I'll answer "no, but the batteries are really tiny".

Thomas holidays with us on top of our boat. He feasts on Plantain from Heywood, Clover from Stratford, and Dandelion from Stoke Bruerne (CRT: how dare you cut it back just so the canal bank looks pretty?). In short, he benefits from a wide variety of canal side vegetation, as well as seeing the sights of the canal system.

Photo: Thomas the Tortoise at Fazeley Junction photo by Bob Wheal

Early on we realised that a donation pot strategically placed by Thomas's pen would raise much appreciated funds for canal restoration. The most Thomas has raised was over £240 in a single trip, all for the benefit of the Wendover Arm Trust. Thomas is by default a true Wendover Arm Tortoise.

Pity then that after returning home from that trip and donating the donations, Thomas was unwell and cost us over £300 in vets bills...

A tortoise is a fascinating creature, basically unchanged since the days of the dinosaur. However he still showed a capacity for surprise. One vet's visit resulted in the diagnosis that 'he' was egg bound.

Better change his name to Thomasina...

Snowy the Hamster by Peter (aged 11)

Hamsters are sociable animals, and taking them with you on a family boat holiday can be better than leaving them behind to be fed by a neighbour, if space allows on board for the cage.Photo: Snowy the Hamster.  However small your boat you can probably find room for a hamster and its house. Photo by Alison Smedley

Peter, aged 11, misses his hamster when the family go away boating, and definitely prefers it when circumstances and transport arrangements allow for Snowy to come too.  Here are Peter’s thoughts: 

“I love taking Snowy, my hamster, boating with us, because it’s so much nicer for her and me than leaving her at home. 

“On our unconverted historic working boat I sleep in the hold, and so does Snowy.  I have a tent for my sleeping bag and keeping all my books in, and Snowy’s whole cage goes in a tin bath.  This means that if she escapes out of her cage (which she does sometimes at home) she can’t get lost in the hold. 

“When we got her as a young hamster I named her Snowy because she is mostly white, but when she’s been playing in the coal she doesn’t look very snowy any more. 

“This summer we had a new boat to go boating on, which Snowy enjoyed even more as we could put her out on the front deck to enjoy the view.  Although she never escaped out of the cage into the tin bath on the other boat, this time she escaped twice!  But both times we found her as the cabin is quite small and fortunately she couldn’t jump up the step into the engine room where she would have got very oily.Photo: Snowy the Boating Hamster takes the air on the front deck. Photo by Alison Smedley 

“Snowy is pretty well travelled for a hamster – so far she has been boating on about 12 different waterways including the tidal Thames!“

Paddy the Boating Bunny by Kerry Dainty

Most Rabbits lead fairly uneventful lives. They are born, become fluffy, go to a pet shop and get sold as cute gifts for children.  Not Paddy the Boating Bunny, however, who has had an eventful life since being chosen as a companion by Kerry, who tells us more:  

Paddy’s first boating experiences were on a boat I was helping with at the time; big Woolwich Aldgate. Paddy's accommodation was in the hold with me then.

Around the same time as this, the family boat Linnet was undergoing serious restoration at Malkins Bank. When we went up to help on the work, so did Paddy. His accommodation was the galley then; over the sink, as he was going through the stage of spraying urine when he was annoyed, when he was happy, and over anything that he considered his property.  After one incident involving a very happy leap-about bunny, and the unpainted back-cabin, he was moved to the kitchen.

When the time came for Linnet to go home, Paddy journeyed with her. On the roof during the day, getting off to help me with the locks, and at night he was back over the sink.  This became the standard procedure for his boating, with the exception of the sink bit as he grew out of weeing everywhere.

Photo: Paddy the boating bunny. Photo by Kerry Dainty

Linnet doesn't move very often, so his boating became rather limited when Aldgate no longer needed my assistance, and Paddy had to be content with just living on a boat.

I met my beloved though, and he owns Ariel. In the year or so of first working Ariel, based in Manchester, while living on Linnet moored near Rugby, I couldn't bring Paddy with me. He didn't have any gear on board, and the business wasn't stable enough to lavish time on him even if he had been set up on the boat.  This changed though.

The work is routine enough and Ariel was visiting Linnet, allowing me to load her with bunny gear. When Ariel pulled away from Linnet to go back North, Paddy was in his play-pen on the fore deck.

He enjoyed his trip to Manchester; during the day he either bopped about in his hay filled play-pen or rode in a basket on the hatch, and at night he was on the side bed in a cat crate known as 'the slammer'.  

One time, Paddy was on the roof as we were going along, and I got the polishing gear out for the brasses. He came up and sniffed the cloth, before grabbing it and hopping away to his basket. I wrestled the cloth away and he came back out to see if he could get it back, when he spotted the (closed) brasso tin. He bopped up for a sniff and investigation, and it fell over. He retreated, then came back out for another look, knocked it over and ran away again.

Thinking that would be the end of it, I opened the tin and started polishing, when  he came back out and knocked the tin over, and then started pushing it around the roof with his nose. I picked up the tin, scolded the bunny and went back to it, when he came back out and did it again, this time pushing the tin right over the edge into the water.  He was shut in the basket after that for a time out.

He teases dogs deliberately. When he’s in the playpen, if he smells a dog coming he’ll bop over to the edge of the pen and wait. The dog will naturally come over for a sniff, and when it jams its nose at the bunny’s bum, he whips around and nips them.

We terrified a passing hire boat who thought we were plucking him for dinner. Paddy moults heavily and the easiest way to get rid of the worst of the fluff is to gently pull it from the coat. A boat passed us as we were mid grooming and promptly steered into a tree looking over their shoulder and crying out “Oh my God, they were plucking live rabbit!”

Photo: Paddy the boating bunny. Photo by Kerry Dainty

He tried to give Liam a heart attack – we were going down Stoke locks and I left Paddy on board with Liam while I did the locks. Realising that Liam was distracted, he tried to steal some of his tea and Liam shooed him away. Paddy responded by stamping and hiding behind the basket, between the Buckby cans. Liam looked down and there was no rabbit - cue cries of hysteria, boat being thrown out of gear etc. 

I looked down and could see the exactly where Paddy was, and I swear he winked at me! I told Liam, who extracted the bunny with a curse and shut him in the basked for the rest of the locks.

The poor boats passing must have thought there was a truly vicious monster in the basket, as he spent the entire run down the locks, growling stamping and rocking the basket about so much that one of the buckby cans nearly 'took a look'.

Boating Bunny Top Tips from Kerry

Teach your bunny to wear a harness - safety is as vital as exercise, and when Paddy is on the roof is always clipped onto the chimney just in case of accidents.  A ‘vest type’ harness is best for this purpose, as it encases more of the bunny if (God forbid) he fell off the boat.

For walking and exercise, the harness made by RJUK (Rabbit Jumping UK) is the best one, as it’s designed for bunnies doing showjumping, and is naturally more robust!

Basic commands – Bunnies are easy to train, just like dogs. Favourite treat, command, reward and they get the message very quickly. Paddy has a range of commands (flatten – bunny squashes down on the roof, useful for bridges, stay, come here, etc.)

Invest in a good quality playpen – you can buy specific bunny play pens from most pet shops. Get a nice big one, with high sides. Bunny can have grass time when you moor up, and passing humans/dogs can look but not touch.

Bunny proof the boat – this is an obvious one, but Paddy and his predecessor both adored shredding ropes,  and Paddy has a thing about brasso tins and polishing cloths. If he can get to the tin, he will knock it over and roll it about, and he will grab the cloth and run off with it. I learned this to my cost.

Get a roof basket – If bunny is on the roof with you, you need a basket of some description for him to retreat to when it rains/he’s feeling grumpy because you wont share your tea/has stolen a brasso cloth. I use a cat basket with a door as then he can be shut in it for safety when the boat is working/when someone else is steering through locks

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Have you ever taken an unusual pet boating? We would love to hear from you! Please get in touch by contacting the website team.

Tags: How-to Guides, Boating