HAZEL Swift hasn’t always been preoccupied with animal welfare. Once she was just a young woman in love with love and life.
She tells you a story of the time her brothers put her name down for the Miss Inverloch Beauty Contest. “The Inverloch Carnival used to be really big,” she says. “They had dodgem cars, sideshows, boxing, a greasy pole off the jetty ...” And the biggest attraction of all ─ the beauty contest.
It was 1948 and Hazel was 24. “I came down from Korumburra for the day in the old truck.
The roads were gravel. You’d be covered in dust.” She thinks she changed for the contest in her boyfriend’s car.
She remembers the details as if it were yesterday. Her swimsuit cost five guineas, a week’s wages. “It was white sharkskin, one piece. I bought it in Melbourne.” She made it through two heats to the finals, fifth place and a prize of bookends and silk stockings.
Married to George, raising their boys and trying to make ends meet on their share farm at Arawata, she came into close contact with animals.
She’ll tell you she used to be as blasé as everyone else about where meat came from. What changed her was the day they sent a day-old calf to the abattoirs. George was lifting their calf gently onto the cart when a second farmer picked up his tottering day-old by the ears and legs and flung it on board. Hazel hasn’t touched meat since that day. “Everything’s done for human convenience,” she says shaking her head.
The practice of docking cow tails distresses her. “I’ve been hit in the face many times by a shitty tail,” she says, “but you dock its tail and it’s helpless against flies and insects.” Equally, she hates to see dogs on chains.
During her 17 years working at Pine Lodge in Inverloch she developed other loyalties. Originally a grand private hotel, Pine Lodge had seen better days by the time Hazel worked there. “But I loved it,” she says. “I loved the lounges with their polished boards and scatter rugs, the ballroom, the old fireplaces.” She polished all the furniture by hand, waited on tables, ironed. Her loyalty, to the place and to its owner, Calvert Wyeth, was total.
The winners: “This one on the far right was bright yellow, the girl Evans from Wonthaggi. She came first. She got a bike and a cup.” Fifth along is Hazel, holding her own prize of bookends and silk stockings.
George and Hazel Swift at the Inverloch Carnival.
Hazel Swift was a familiar figure on her old Whyalla Star bicycle with her cat, Red, riding on her shoulder.
Mr Wyeth maintained a strict decorum across the establishment. While guests no longer dressed for dinner and ordered from a menu in French, courtesies were always observed. “It was always Mr Wyeth and Mrs Swift even after 17 years. He always believed people should be treated with respect and not with familiarity.”
In her last four years there, she worked in the garden. “It suited me because George had got really sick and I like hard work and being my own boss,” she says. She gave that garden her all. She loved it so much, she says, she would have done it for nothing.
One spring, with her first tulip for the season under threat from a small Wyeth grandchild on a tricycle, she spoke in measured tones. “ Would you mind not riding your trike down this path? You might tip over and damage my garden.”
“It’s not your garden,” retorted the child. “It’s my grandfather’s.”
“It’s your grandfather’s and my garden,” she replied firmly.”Now bugger off!”
Then 27 years ago, something happened that turned this deeply compassionate woman into an activist. She turned her gaze onto what few people choose to see: the magnitude of the destructiveness and destruction of homeless cats. She saw they were reviled, maltreated and killed (36,000 euthanased every year in Victoria) because of a failure of responsibility of their human masters, and she couldn’t turn away.
“You can’t blame the cat or the tiger for being a cat or a tiger. It’s just the way they are,” she says.
Over the years she’s found homes for hundreds of moggies and paid for countless desexings. For years she raised money by making jewellery from shells she’d collected. She made $400 for South Gippsland Animal Aid one year, $600 in another. Like other members of local Animal Aid branches, Hazel knows caring for cats is an expensive business. “I once worked out that over nine years I’d spent $10,000. I just don’t count anymore.”
But Hazel is tired. “It’s exhausting,” she says. “You lobby a politician and then just as you’re beginning to have an impact, he moves on and you’ve got to start all over again.”
For 28 years, Hazel and, later, Animal Aid have been lobbying Bass Coast Shire Council to make desexing of cats compulsory, with exceptions for breeders.
Finally, this year, the matter came before the council. It seemed that finally the long-awaited local law was to be passed. But, in a bitter blow to the campaigners, the matter was shelved.
Hazel’s had more than her share of grief and hard work; her health is poor and the uphill climb is looking steeper. “There’s so much I want to do and so little time to do it,” she says.
But good things, extraordinary things, happen. At her 90th birthday party this year, she instructed: No gifts, flowers or cards, but donations to Animal Aid welcome. She was thinking, perhaps $400? Her friends gave $1425.
Shoulders back, still beautiful, totally loyal, she’s soldiering on. “I try to remember to walk straight. No-one wants to hear your blinking troubles, do they?”
November 22, 2013
I enjoyed Gill's article about Hazel Swift. What a pity the council shelved the compulsory desexing of cats.When I compare the pampered existence of my furry companions over the past 43 years with the misery of those unwanted moggies, I find it hard to understand their decision.
Heather Tobias, Wonthaggi
November 17, 2013
Loved Gill Heal's piece on Hazel Swift. Keep up the outstanding work.