Once there was a young wombat named Benson, who lived in a clean, tidy wombat hole with his mother and his two aunts, Lillibet and Moss.
Aunt Lillibet wanted to make mulberry jelly, so she sent him over to Mr Fenn’s to see if he had any ripe mulberries on his tree. Mr Fenn’s tree was bursting with mulberries, and he let Benson fill his basket up. On the way home, Benson saw Ada, his friend Rodney’s little sister, poking at something under a bush with a sharp stick. It was two tiny little kittens.
“Don’t!” Benson said. He grabbed the stick away from her. “You’ll hurt them!”
“They’re just cats,” Ada said. “Everyone hates cats – they’re cruel and mean.”
Benson said, “They’re just babies. They’re not going to hurt anyone.”
“All cats are bad,” Ada said. “My mother says so.”
Benson said, “I’m not going to let you hurt them, anyway.” He picked them up and put them in his basket and went home.
As soon as Aunt Lillibet saw the kittens, she said, “Cats! Disgusting!”
Aunt Moss said, “Baby kittens! Oh, they’re so sweet!” She picked one up and cuddled it.
Benson’s mother said, “Where did you get them?”
He said, “They were in the bush, and Ada was poking them with a stick.”
“Someone probably didn’t want them, so they dumped them in the bush and left them to die,” his mother said.
Aunt Lillibet said, “You should have left them there.”
Benson was horrified. “You mean, let them die?”
Aunt Lillibet said, “Feral cats are cruel and vicious.”
“Look at them, Lillibet,” said Aunt Moss. “They’re just helpless little animals, like any other animal. You can’t abandon them to die!”
“Cats are cats,” Aunt Lillibet said. “They’re hunters and killers.”
Aunt Moss said, “That’s if they grow up wild in the bush and they don’t know any better. If you look after them properly, I’m sure they’d be perfectly beautiful animals.”
“They’d be cats, and cats are killers,” Aunt Lillibet said. “It’s just what they are.”
Benson’s mother asked him, “What are you going to do about them, Benson?”
“Me?” he said.
“You saved them, so they’re your responsibility,” she said. “They’re very young, so they’ll need feeding every couple of hours if they’re going to survive.”
Benson said, “What? Don’t cats just lap up milk from a saucer?”
“Not when they’re this young,” his mother said. “You’ll need to feed them through the night, too.”
Benson’s eyes opened wide. Night-time was for sleeping.
“Don’t worry, Benson, I’ll help you,” Aunt Moss said.
Benson’s mother said, “You need your sleep, Moss. It’s Benson’s responsibility.”
Benson thought about it. Then he made up his mind. “We can’t just let them die,” he said.
For the next week it felt like all he thought about was kittens: feeding them, cleaning up after them, keeping them warm, mixing up milk for them, and feeding them again. It was very hard work. He couldn’t remember the last time he got to go outside and dig.
Then one morning there was a sharp knock at the door. It was Ada’s mother, Polly, and Aunt Lillibet’s friend, Gordon. Benson was in his room, playing with the kittens, dangling a woolly sock while they tried to jump up and catch it. Gordon’s voice said, “I’ve heard that you’re keeping cats here secretly.”
Benson’s mother said, “It’s no secret. My son rescued some animals who were being mistreated. He brought them home to be looked after.”
Polly said to Gordon, “See? I told you they had cats!”
Gordon said, “Cats are a menace to all native wildlife. They should be taken away and destroyed.”
Benson was listening to them in his room, and his stomach dropped. He felt cold all over.
“Destroyed?” Benson’s mother said.
“Yes, destroyed,” Polly said. “Put down. Killed. They’re vicious killers. My son Rodney was attacked by a cat when he was a baby. It nearly killed him.”
Benson looked at the two tiny little furry bundles. One of them had its head inside the sock, and the other one was trying to climb in too. It was hard to imagine them slinking around, springing out on baby wombats and attacking them.
“I’m sorry Rodney was hurt,” Benson’s mother said.
“Well?” Gordon said. “Where are they?”
Benson’s mother called, “Benson!” He came slowly out of his room, with his eyes down.
Gordon said, “You can hand over those two savage animals right now.”
Benson’s mother asked Gordon, “What will you do with them?”
“The kindest way to put them down is to drown them,” he said. “It’s quick, and they don’t suffer.”
Benson said, “You can’t kill them! They’re just babies!”
“Baby kittens grow up to be killer cats,” Polly said.
“These ones won’t!” Benson insisted.
“There’s no argument, cats don’t belong in the bush,” Gordon said. “Hand them over.”
Benson looked at the two faces, Gordon’s hard and determined, Polly’s angry and upset. He looked at his mother with tears in his eyes and said, “Please?”
His mother looked at him for a long minute, then she said to Gordon, “We’ll take care of it.”
Gordon said, “You’re not going to keep them? You know it can’t be allowed.”
Benson’s mother repeated firmly, “We’ll take care of it,” and she took Gordon and Polly to the door and closed it behind them.
Benson said shakily, “Then we can keep them?”
His mother said, seriously, “Benson, think about what will happen when they start to grow up. What would you do if they caught a bird, or a lizard, and killed it?”
Benson didn’t want to think about it. “But not yet,” he said. “They only drink milk.”
“Benson,” his mother said, looking at him sadly.
He put his head down. He went into his room and put the kittens in their box and gave it to his mother. Then he went and lay down on his bed and cried and cried.
At dinner time when he came out, his mother and Aunt Lillibet and Aunt Moss were in the kitchen.
“Did you get rid of them?” he asked his mother.
Aunt Moss gave a little scream. “The kittens! Oh no! You didn’t!”
Aunt Lillibet said, “It’s good riddance, if you ask me.”
“How can you be so cruel, Lillibet?” cried Aunt Moss. “They’re animals, just like you and me. Poor little things!”
Tears started to well up in Benson’s eyes again.
“Calm down, everyone,” his mother said. “I took the kittens…” Benson put his hands over his ears. He didn’t want to hear what she was saying.
His mother lifted his hands off his ears. “Don’t you trust me?” she said. “I took the kittens to a place where they take care of homeless kittens and find homes for them when they’re big enough.”
“They’re not dead?” Benson said joyfully.
“They’ll be looked after by people who love cats, and the bush animals will be safe too,” she said.
Benson hugged his mother. “Thank you,” he said.