Dec 3, 2007

Cordelia Mabel Marks

Cordelia Mabel Marks
June 13, 1991 - December 3, 2007
Loyal Unto Death

Cordelia Mabel was the first dog I ever owned on my own as an adult and one of the all-time best dogs ever born. When Griffin was two I decided it would be nice to have a family dog so we headed to a local shelter to see what they had to offer. Among all the young and adult dogs were three little black puppies just a few weeks old, one of which had a cloudy eye and was believed to have sight issues. The little damaged puppy chose us before we even had the chance to crouch down to greet the litter. She came right over and jumped onto David's lap, gave him a sloppy kiss and our hearts were instantly stolen. On the ride home with our new child she was named Cordelia (the Mabel came later when she was such a naughty little dog she needed a middle name for emphasis when she was scolded). Cordelia: King Lear's youngest daughter, faithful and loyal until death.

Puppy issues aside (she ate rugs, furniture and even a pair of expensive leather florsheim shoes which didn't go over so well) she quickly became a second child to us and she thought so too. When David, Griffin and I would go for a hike and Griffin, who was barely three at the time, became weary and asked to be carried, Cordelia would too. And there we'd be, our small family of four: David carrying Griffin and me carrying Cordelia who was far heavier than a child but as David flatly refused to "carry a dog on a hike. How ridiculous is that? She's a dog" I did because I couldn't bear to see her begging to be picked up and whimpering when it was refused. After all, Griffin had been picked up, so why shouldn't she? She saw no difference between herself and our son. To her she was another child of ours. If Griffin had a sliced apple as a snack, I would give Cordelia an apple as well. The first time I did this, Griffin's apple was peeled, sliced and put in a little dish for him and Cordelia's was unpeeled and set on the floor. Cordelia flatly refused to eat hers. She looked at hers, then at Griffin's, then at hers, then at me and back through again and again. After asking her why she wasn't eating her apple, I finally figured out what she was telling me. I peeled hers, sliced it like Griffin's and put it in an identical dish and she sat happily with him and they ate their apples together. I never made that mistake again.

When Griffin was tiny and would dance when he heard anything that even remotely sounded like music (as most toddlers will), Cordelia would run over to him, stand on her hind legs, and throw her front legs around his neck and dance with him: she'd sway if he swayed , she'd perform dance steps if he did. In the beginning she was far taller than he, towering over his head as she led him around the floor on her hind legs, fully embracing his little body. But as Griffin got older and grew taller, those years were marked by how much taller he had become than Cordelia, until even on her hind legs she barely reached his waist. What a lovely way to mark the passage of time with a boy and his dog.

She learned to speak, almost too well. She was a startlingly good mimic of what she was hearing, and even though she often sounded like Astro on the old Jetson's cartoon when she spoke, speak she did. She even picked up a couple of very naughty words which when she would say them would have people laughing until they cried. And as she's a big fan of his, my mother taught Cordelia to say "Elvis" plain as could be. If she saw you with a treat in your hand, it didn't matter what the snack was for, or who it was for, she would sit and begin to go through her vast repertoire of words, without prompt, hoping to win the food.

She was a wonderful watchdog, protecting her family and her home. She alerted us once to a robbery in progress on our property one night many years ago, as well as when a carpenter working on a nearby construction site broke into our home through the kitchen door to gain access to our cellar to turn on our outside water source so the crew might steal it for mixing plaster. I was upstairs at the time and her incessant, violent barking brought me downstairs to see what was happening. She so intimidated the man, and even tried to bite him, that he panicked and crawled out through the bulkhead rather than attempt to come back through a house he had clearly thought was unoccupied during the midday hours. But the dog who hated intruders loved to have company come to visit. From a solitary friend dropping in for a short visit to a house full of dinner guests, Cordelia was in her element, mingling and soaking up the attention. When my uncle, the animal raising and animal loving cowboy who I hadn't seen in over a decade came from Arizona to visit, I told him not to worry, Cordelia loves everybody. Moments after he settled in she pinned him on the couch in the living room, teeth bared, mouth foaming, until we dragged her from the room and locked her upstairs in a bedroom, where she stayed for the remainder of his visit. Go figure. She may not have always been the best judge of character, but she certainly stuck to her convictions.

She suffered from anxiety and fear aggression her entire life, which made it difficult to take her out in public, especially in large crowds. In spite of this, everyone she did meet thought she was absolutely adorable. We must have heard "look at that adorable face! What a sweet face!" a million times during her life. It was the same wherever we went. Everyone wanted to love her, and that was as it should be, given her very unloved and unwanted start in this world. And she had so much love to give herself. From that first moment at the shelter when she chose David, she was full of kisses and hugs. Especially for David. When we lived within walking distance of the train station we would often walk in the evenings to meet David's train from the city and as soon as all the people began to disembark, she would jump up and down on her hind legs trying to see David in the crowd, and when she did finally spot him, would squeal the most horrible, loud, shrieks of joy at the sight of him (those same screeches that would have shoppers looking at us like we were torturing our dog when one of us would leave her in the car to run into a store- you could hear Cordelia wailing from inside the shop, even when the car windows were up and closed- a deafening noise that would not end until you were safely back in the car with her). Everyone at the train station would walk by us laughing and shaking their heads at the howling, hopping dog but we didn't care because we found daddy. From that point in her life on, she always loved trains probably because she associated them with David. We would frequently walk the tracks and when a train came by she would jump on her hind legs and bark joyfully until it passed and if David was with us, she'd then jump on him in happiness. Trains and daddy were love.

We had some silly ritual games we played together from puppyhood. When she was very small and still had a pink puppy belly, she had on her tummy a nearly perfect map of the United States in white (it's still there under all that fur), and I would tell her to show me her belly. When she would lay down and turn her tummy upwards, I'd rub it and tell her what an intelligent girl she was as she had the whole United States on her belly. She'd get up and squeal and jump around me. She also liked to play the "piggy toe game" which consisted of me trying to put my feet on her feet, while she put hers on mine and she would try to play bite my feet to get them off of hers. While this game was fun, it was slightly less fun for my mother when Cordelia began to enjoy sleeping at the foot of my mother's bed. When my mother would move her feet in the night to get comfortable, and her feet would bump into the dog's feet, Cordelia, thinking the game was on, would bite her feet in a bid to win. That was the end of the piggy toe game until she was too physically feeble to get up on the bed, yet all those years later, she remembered the game when I began to play it once again.

She had her brushes with death, as anyone would if they lived as long as she had: the vet who performed her spaying lost her on the operating table but managed to miraculously resuscitate her, the day she slipped out the front door, before we could catch her, to chase a dog walking down the other side of the street only to be hit by a car in front of our home, horribly, right before our eyes and get right up with only a handful of bruises, or the time she got into over a pound of chocolate and ate the entire thing, foil wrappers and all and survived with only an upset stomach.

Cordelia Mabel lived a very long, very rich life full of joys and sorrows, good times and some not so good times, but always, always with absolute love. She loved us, her people, unconditionally and with a pure heart, and we loved her the same. To those people who abandoned her at that shelter so many years ago: thank you. Your indifference and selfishness gave us the greatest gift we could have ever been given. She was exceptionally intelligent, had a silly sense of humor and was an absolutely beautiful soul carried in a furry black body for longer than most dogs dream of living. She was a joy to be a companion to, as she was a joy to be my companion. And she was a joy to be our companion and best friend to all of us in the Marks house. Cordelia Mabel: faithful dog, faithful family member, faithful friend, unto death.

You are missed today. You will always be missed. You will always be loved with all our hearts, where you will be carried in the warmest embrace of love until the day we meet again. Bye bye for now, beautiful dog.

Nov 27, 2007

Doing the Turkey Trot

With my ducks and chickens all over the yard, you'd think I'd get my bird-lust out of my system and not be at all interested when wild birds stop by for a spell, but you'd be wrong. While I do enjoy song birds and crows (I'd love to have a pet crow like Uncle Billy in It's A Wonderful Life, who my husband is quick to point out is a) a drunk who nearly ruined George Bailey's business and life, and is b) a fictional character besides), it's the more exotic wild birds I can't get enough of. Maybe because I don't get to see them so often, they remain an exciting novelty.

We've had a flock of wild turkeys who've been passing through our yard fairly frequently. Living on such a busy street, I'm always afraid that one or more of them isn't going to make it from the woods across the street over to our yard, but make it they always do (which is no small feat given the fact that turkeys are not the brightest birds in the world). No wild turkey pancakes in the road yet, thank god.

The other day my cat snuck outside and when this happens, if you wait patiently enough, it becomes fairly easy to find her. All it takes is listening for the wildlife that's going berserk nearby. If I give her a few minutes to find something interesting to stalk, then she's easily grab-able. Squirrels loudly scolding, birds freaking out en masse at the top of a group of trees, or should she escape after dark, moles squealing in the grass like tiny pigs going to slaughter, there you'll find Maia Louise basking in the chaos she has wrought. Sure enough, the ruckus in the woods behind my next door neighbor's house led me right to her and while I was picking my way through the underbrush to get to her, I saw a small gray shadow moving off to my right. I stood very still and sure enough, it was one of the wild turkeys. A few steps more and I had to freeze again for another wild turkey followed by several turkey chicks. I was thrilled to know that two of the original flock had splintered off and were raising their family in the safety of the woods back there. When the turkeys saw me they beat quite a hasty retreat further into the swamp, putting as much distance as they possibly could between them, myself, and my delinquent cat.

What a lovely discovery, and just in time for the Thanksgiving season. How wonderful to have turkeys out in our yard to celebrate the day. Gobble, gobble.

Nov 15, 2007

Edison Jack: One Savvy Chihuahua

This is Edison Jack, my new best friend. It's common knowledge that chihuahuas are very intelligent little dogs and Edison is no exception. He has an incredible fashion sense that has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that he wears sweaters on chilly days to curb the Little Dog Shivers (which makes sense because David truly hates the fact that Edison occasionally wears clothing as he says that dogs who are forced to wear clothing have their poor little doggie dignity destroyed which I don't mind just as long as said clothing keeps Edison snuggly warm while undermining his sense of self esteem). No, Edison can tell when my choice of clothing is not up to snuff.

As an artist who spends a great deal of time outside of normal society (read: alone and making stuff up in my head) I don't need to dress unless I'm venturing out into the world, a physical act that doesn't happen every day, and so I spend a great deal of my time in either old sweats or flannel jammie pants and tee shirts. But when I do choose to put on a public face, I put on "real" clothes, or as I like to call them, "my big boy pants". At first when I would be getting ready to go out into the big, bad world, Edison would simply watch me getting dressed and grabbing my bag and it wasn't until I headed to the door that he realized "Oh shit! We're going somewhere today!" And it wasn't long before just the trucking out of my big leather bag signaled a car ride. Now, even before the bag comes into play, he knows when we're going somewhere simply by the fact that I'm putting on real clothes. When the schlubby old jammies come off and jeans or a skirt go on, he goes nuts and runs to the door in ever widening circles.

How sad it is that even my dog can tell that I'm a complete pig when in the privacy of my own home. Yet I find it interesting that even a dog can recognize a decent outfit for what it's worth, which is more than quite a few humans can do.

May 14, 2007

Baby Turtle Orphan

Our house used to sit all by itself in the middle of a big field until a builder bought all the land around us and built a bunch of ugly houses, and in doing so, drastically changed the way our property drains after a heavy rain. Each time it rains for more than an afternoon of showers the water from the surrounding properties runs down the street, down our driveway, and forms some pretty substantial pools on our back lawn that only my ducks could love (and believe me, they do). And given that it's been raining like a bastard here, we've had more than our share of water come flooding down our driveway. Only this time, it carried a tiny surprise with it.

Last Sunday morning my husband was returning from an errand and as he got out of the car, called me over from tending the duck flock to come see what he'd found upon stepping out of the car: an impossibly tiny baby snapping turtle, no bigger than a quarter: golden yellow belly, sharp little claws and an unbelievably little pointy snout. As Sunday was the first dry day in many, and quite warm, the little turtle was horribly dry and barely moving. I couldn't wait to hold him, but while David examined him, I called Griffin to come outside to see the little guy before we let him go.

David carried him down to the small marsh behind our house and setting him gently on a twig that rested half on the shore and half on the water's surface, we watched and waited. He didn't move at all, so we decided to go about our business and leave him be for a bit. Maybe he'd find the courage to move into the water once he was alone.

I then walked up the street and back down it from where the water usually originates during heavy rains, just to be sure that there weren't any other baby turtles who had been stranded in the deluge, but both the road and my neighbors' yards were empty. About ten minutes later as I was returning to my own yard, I realized that in the excitement of setting him free, I had completely forgotten to take a minute to hold him before we set him free. I dashed back to the water's edge, but the twig was empty and the little turtle was nowhere to be seen (of course, a head that tiny could never be seen poking above the surface anyways). I was both sad and glad. I wish I'd had the chance to hold him, but I'm so happy to have a beautiful turtle living and growing in our wetland back there. I've checked to see if I can spot him several times since that first day, but with no luck yet. Soon he'll be bigger and then maybe I'll be able to see him swimming and sunning out there. I can't wait!

May 9, 2007

The Beauty of Nature in My Own Backyard

Living with a wetland behind my house has its advantages. It has its disadvantages too, like a cellar that floods when it rains for days on end, an often funky "swamp stink" during the hottest days of summer, and a lot of mud on the banks and thus on your feet when you stray too far from the back lawn. There is, however, a tremendous amount of wildlife that lives just a stone's throw from my back door.

Every spring and summer wild mallards set up their household back there. They always come up to the barn to visit my domestic ducks, sauntering cockily around the pens, stealing the odd tidbits from my birds, and generally causing a great ruckus when my own ducks go territorially berserk.

Two weeks ago I discovered a female groundhog has been digging a burrow and a nest back there. She's simply adorable to watch: ambling about stuffing bits of grasses and leaves for bedding material into her chubby cheeks, shifting them about with her front paws to make room for a few more pieces of grass, stopping here and there for this and that. And always stopping every couple of steps to adjust her treasures with those little feet. One afternoon we spent a good half hour calmly watching each other with tremendous interest before we both went about our own business once again.

There's a great blue heron that flies overhead several times a day, but never lands close enough for me to get a good, long look at it. The wetland extends for quite a ways and as the beautiful bird seems to live more towards the other end of it, I never get to see it land. I do, however, love the way herons carry their long, graceful legs straight out behind them while they're flying, feet held daintily together.

I also love the sound of the hundreds of peepers out there come nightfall, chirping away in their attempts to find a mate. The rhythm of their calls is a wonderful way to be lulled to sleep. I only wish the deer who use the wetland nightly for a watering hole would stop eating my hemlocks. Tasty as they might be, my trees now look like crap no matter what angle you view them from. But all in all, everything else out there is as close to perfection as you could want.

May 8, 2007

Eye Poppin' Puppies

I remember a time in the not too distant past when and if two purebred dogs bumped uglies and made a half-breed baby, it was called a mutt and if you bought one, you probably paid all of $50 for your un-pedigreed pet. So when did two purebreds fucking and making that same little mutt become something chic?

True, not every cross bred dog is considered fancy enough to deserve the moniker of "designer dog". For example, my own dog who is half Black Labrador Retriever and half German Shepherd. Now if she were half Lab and half Poodle and was a puppy and not a senior citizen, she'd be worth far more than the $50 she cost me at a shelter back in 1991. About a couple of thousand dollars or so more.

Here are some of the top designer dogs:
1. Labrador Retriever and Poodle ( the Labradoodle)
2. Maltese and Poodle (the Maltipoo)
3. Cocker Spaniel and Poodle (the Cockapoo)
4. Schnauzer and Poodle (the Schnoodle)
5. Yorkshire Terrier and Poodle (the Yorkipoo)

Apparently anything you can get to fuck with a Poodle is currently all the rage as a cool pet. Does anyone else think this is insane? And how difficult was it to convince a highly gullible public that's always hungry for the next big thing that will make them the envy of all their friends to believe that this shit was the next big thing? Obviously not very, because people are stupid. I'll give it up for the breeders though, because this is one very lucrative new industry.

I read in the National Geographic News that there are potential problems with people just throwing purebred dogs together and mating them indiscriminately. No kidding. My favorite quotes came from Beverly Manners, a 30-year veteran breeder of German Shepherds and a licensed dog show judge. She says that not all hybrids are a good idea and that "unfortunately the designer dog phenomenon has unleashed a surge of amateur breeders who lack credentials and genetics expertise." She says that there needs to be an educated match. Take a moment to consider this: "Crossing a pug with a Pekingese, for example, could produce disastrous consequences. Both breeds have eyes that easily pop out of the socket to rest on the cheek. Surgery is required to fix the injury, often at the cost of the dogs' sight. Breeding the two could yield a dog that literally has its eyes falling out," Manners says. Yummy. (Props to for these quotes by the way).

Bottom line. A mutt is a mutt is a mutt, no matter how you look at it and all these dogs are mutts, no matter what cute little name you want to call them and anyone paying more than the couple of hundred bucks they'd be donating to a shelter today for the privilege of owning a crossbreed is a fool. A fool with a ridiculously expensive dog. A dog whose eyes hopefully won't fall out.

Apr 19, 2007

Getting My Goat

I'd love to have goats. If I did get them, I'd love to own some black and white spotty pygmy goats. Those little guys are absolutely adorable. I had a friend who sadly passed away in 2003 who was a huge fan of goats. He told me that when he was young he didn't have a great many friends and as such, was often lonely. He did, however, have a pet goat, and when he'd come home from school in the afternoon, he'd grab a snack and both he and his goat would go up to his bedroom and watch TV together and share the snack. Very sad, yet very sweet all the same.

It was a couple of years before he died that my friend attempted to persuade David that it was essential that I have goats. I needed goats, he'd say. He told David that it would be charming for me to raise goats and thus spin my own yarn from their wool, and playing on my husband's great love for it, make my own delectable goat cheese. David's counter argument to this was to say that we could a) buy wool sweaters and socks made by someone else whenever we wanted new ones, and b) we could either buy ready-made goat cheese at our local market or if we were so inclined, could still make our own goat cheese from goat's milk bought in a carton from that same local market. Either way, all arguments concluded the same way. Goat related products could be easily had without what my friend considered the essential ingredient missing from our lives: the goats. Thank you very much.

Goats are gentle, comical, affectionate and intelligent creatures. They are simply a delight to be around. However, after giving this much thought, (both before and since my friend's death), I have come to the conclusion that I think I just like the idea of owning goats, not the actual practice of keeping said goats, which is a far less romantic reality. Goats are dirty little animals who require extensive and time-consuming grooming. And to be honest, they smell rather vile. I have also taken into consideration the fact that by no stretch of the imagination could I ever be considered a "morning person," thus making milking time for my prospective goats something of a problem. Me, up before the sun to gather their precious cheese-making milk? I think not. Now, if pygmy goats could be bred to happily and routinely shovel their own shit and smell like roses (or at the very least not nearly so nasty as they do now), that would be a nice start. But the real clincher for me would be the invention of a self-milking goat. I could go out to the barn around brunch time to visit my spotty little friends and they'd have their milk in buckets all ready for me. How much more perfect could it get?

Throughout our many years together, David has often waxed lyrical on his dream of retiring to the country (most likely in the hills of Vermont) to a small farm and raising a large flock of sheep. But that's another story entirely.

Apr 16, 2007

Dog Shows

I love dog shows although, surprisingly, I have never been to one in the flesh. I once went to a cat show with my mother and Griffin, but I only managed to last about 45 minutes in there before my allergies went into overdrive and I had to leave in order to not die from suffocation and killer hives. Having one cat at home is bad enough on the old respiratory system but hundreds and hundreds of them in one big room? I thought I wasn't going to make it out the door alive. But since I'm not allergic to dogs in any way, shape or form, I'm desperate to go to a dog show. The problem is, no one I know is as into dogs as I am and without a buddy, I've never gone. What fun is there in going alone?

My biggest dog show thrill of the year is watching Westminster in February (me and about a jillion other people). Valentines Day? Chocolates? The love of my life? Who needs any of those when there is a two night parade of perfect and near-perfect canines parading through my TV room! I adore the toy group and the terrier group more than anything. I like to critique the dogs and talk endlessly about the dogs and drive everyone around me up a wall about the dogs. I almost always peg who is going to win each group and sometimes even the Best In Show dog and it's almost never the dog that I would have chosen were I the judge. In fact, my favorite breeds almost never place at all in their groups. Doesn't matter to me though, I get a rush out of watching them and hoping that maybe next year, just maybe, one of my favorites will win.

It also gives me the chance to live vicariously through others who actually own my favorite little dog breeds. I spend those two nights imagining that one day I'll own the dog of my dreams, just like the ones on TV (but not worth nearly that amount of cash, thank you very much). And if I went to a dog show in person, I'd be able to see all the breed groups competing as well, something you don't get to see on TV. Just imagine: dozens of min pins, or pugs, or toy manchester terriers, or chihuahuas, or toy smooth coat fox terriers all in one place at one time. I would be in tiny dog heaven and no one could bring me down. I can't think of a more perfect way to spend a weekend. And with a few dog shows coming up this summer in my area, I'm definitely going to go to at least one. Someone I know must love me enough to want to see me happy for one afternoon and will consent to go with me...Right?

Apr 9, 2007


Last night I saw my first rat that wasn't little and white and in a glass box in a pet store. It would have been loads better if it hadn't been dead. We were sitting in traffic at a red light when my husband pointed it out on the side of the road where it appeared to be rooting around in the grass behind the curb. Its bum and pink tail were in the road as if it were standing on its hind legs and it's front legs and head were bent over the curb and into the grass. There was some discussion between David and Griffin as to exactly what type of animal it was as it was very large, but I knew right away it was a rat. Rattus Norvegicus, the Norway or brown rat. I was all excited until I realized that it wasn't moving (my husband said, "Honey, it's dead. Either that or it's digging around in there really, really slowly." But hey, cut me some slack, it was nearly dark and visibility was waning fast). Still, it was my first sighting and it has to stand for something. I have always loved rats. They're amazingly intelligent and clean little animals. Extraordinary at adapting and surviving. They've also always been at the top of my "honey can I get a....?" list of potential pets for at least twenty years. I love the documentary that the Discovery Channel runs about rats every now and then. I've seen it a dozen times and it still thrills me whenever they re-run it. One of the best books I've ever read about them is RATS: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants by Robert Sullivan, which is chock-a-block full of everything you'd ever want to know about the darling little creatures and then some. And anyone who knows me, knows that rats and one of my other favorite topics ironically enough go together hand-in-hand: plague. It doesn't get better than this. Here's hoping that the next time I'm lucky enough to see a real, honest to god street rat in person, it'll be alive and kicking. Maybe I should move into a dumpster in a back alley somewhere behind a busy restaurant?
Rat photo courtesy of What a cutie!

Apr 3, 2007

Four Horses and a Front Yard

Had I been up earlier than usual the other morning, I would have had a front row seat to a very cool show that played out in my front yard. Apparently, three draft horses and a small donkey got loose and had made good their escape from the Massachusetts Lancers stables that are located just up the street from my house. The four fugitives wandered down to my house where they spent some time grazing on my lawn, took a stroll over to a neighbor's house and checked out the woods behind his place, and then returned to my house where they stood half in the street and half on my property, thoroughly holding up traffic while they considered their next move. After giving it some thought, they chose to meander up the street in the opposite direction where they were caught by the stable hands a short while later. I was really bummed when my mother told me that they were on my property long enough to have kept her from getting out of my driveway for at least ten minutes while they dithered about. I love horses and I would have been out there, even in my jammies, petting them and feeding them (and just maybe, hiding them so they could visit longer!). Instead, all I got was the story from someone who got to enjoy it while it was actually happening, a torn up lawn, and a whole mess of very deep hoof prints left by my four visitors. That'll teach me to be lazy and sleep in.

Mar 27, 2007

The Barnyard Bully

Things have taken a nasty little turn here in our otherwise idyllic lives. Seems I have a chicken with a murderous streak in her. Ruby Pauline has always been high strung and nervous, much more so than any of the other birds in the flock, and while she can be somewhat aggressive (it's a characteristic of her breed), I never expected it to turn as ugly as it has this week. It also doesn't help that she's a freak of nature: she's easily twice the size and nearly four times the weight of what nature says she "should" be, and by far the biggest bird we have. To say she's gargantuan wouldn't be an exaggeration.

So it goes without saying, that on a routine trip out to the barn, I was devastated to find my favorite little hen (and I mean the "little" description in the literal sense: she's only a sixth of Ruby's size) ripped to shreds and half alive in a corner. Feathers ripped out, comb torn, one eye damaged, bloody and tightly shut, and half her head scalped and blackish purple with bruising. I brought her into the house and cleaned her up and then Griffin and I set up a cage indoors and brought in her best friend from the barn to keep her company while she mended.

On closer inspection, it was discovered that Ruby's head and beak were generously covered with dried blood. Now, while this would appear to be all the evidence one would need to convict, it really isn't. Flock mentality is such that when one bird does something, those of a like mind will join in (kind of like an English soccer riot, if you will). So while it is most likely that Ruby was the perpetrator given the bloody face and predisposition to being bitchy, it wasn't definite. Until a couple of hours later that same day when I caught her on top of another smaller bird attempting to rip the back of that bird's skull off.

So now what do I do? Griffin was all for giving Ruby a dose of her own medicine, but that wouldn't be very humane, now, would it? I thought about removing her from the flock for a couple of weeks and then reintroducing her as if she were a "new" bird, thereby knocking her to the bottom of the peck order. But given her penchant for bullying and inflicting pain on those smaller than her, it would only be a matter of time before she stomped, pecked and dragged her way back to the top of the heap and that wouldn't solve anything. I could try to find her a new home, but there's two things wrong with this option. First, even though I'm not very fond of Ruby and I certainly don't like the way she does business, she does have sentimental value, however misplaced it might be. You see, as a tiny chick she was a gift from a very dear friend who passed shortly after he gave her to me and as such she triggers very, very fond memories for me. And second, what kind of person would I be if I gave someone else a hen that I know will eventually start beating the shit of their beloved birds? I don't think I'm that much of an asshole.

So today it was pointed out to me that I still have two more options. I could debeak Ruby. This is what the major chicken people do, like Perdue, where you cut off the point on the top half of a chicken's beak to prevent them from doing any damage when they peck. The chicken industry does this so they can squeeze as many birds as they possibly can into a very small area and when the birds inevitably become stressed from living in such conditions, they can't really hurt one another when they start to attack each other because their beaks have been disfigured. I don't eat big business chicken for this very reason, so I certainly wouldn't engage in this practice with one of my own birds. My other option, and while it's not permanent is still somewhat mean, is to put what are known as "peepers" on her. This is a little blindfold that looks a lot like the sleep masks women always wore in 1950's and 1960's movies (but without the ruffles and lace). It works like the blinders trainers put on racehorses, limiting vision and therefore any aggressive tendencies the animal might be unable to control. I'm not sure I like the idea of having a hen wandering around with an eye mask on, but what else can I do? A hen in drunken goggles who can't hurt anyone anymore is better than any of the other alternatives, all of which perpetuate violence in some way, be it Ruby committing the act, or me committing it on her.

Still, I have a little time to ruminate on all of this as my favorite little hen (why is it always the favorites who die or become injured? Why do the birds we merely tolerate live on and on and on without incident?) will be recovering for some time and is not going to be reintroduced to the flock anytime soon. Gentle force-feeding is on the menu today and everyday until she can eat on her own once again. And why is it that I somehow always end up with chickens in my house every few months? It isn't as though I enjoy having them in here because, contrary to what my family thinks (and would bet money on), I don't. It just looks like I do. In a perfect world, all my birds would be best pals, would live to ripe old age with nary an injury or illness and my house would stay clean and poultry-free. And none of my birds would have to suffer the indignity of wearing goo-goo-goggles to keep them on the straight and narrow.

Mar 19, 2007

An ALMOST Happy Birthday!

I've always been one of those people who can't walk into a pet shop (okay, so those went the way of the dinosaurs for the most part, and even though those faceless corporate pet supermarkets are a poor substitute, it's pretty much all we have nowadays) and think, "I want one of those, and those, and those." I do it every time I go. But it was my grandmother who had the "cool-animal-gotta-have-it-affliction" worse than I have ever had.

I remember when I was really little back in the 60's, back when pet shops had some of the most amazing offerings you could imagine. You know, all those fun animals that are now endangered, or protected or just plain dangerous, that you used to be able to take home with you without needing to know a damn thing about how to care for it, or how to protect yourself and your loved ones? Every breed of monkey known to man and a few chimpanzees as well, baby alligators and crocodiles, even a few really exotic animals, like wallabees and koalas, and even the coati mundi my grandmother bought for me on one of my earlier birthdays. Lest you mistakenly think that I had to be the coolest kid in my neighborhood, let me assure you, I never even got to touch the furry little thing. Nope, not even for a minute. In fact, I never even got the thing out of its cage, let alone out of the shop.

My mother, grandmother and I had been out shopping when we stopped in a pet shop in, I believe, Braintree. My mother is of the belief that we had just previously eaten lunch and my grandmother, who was by no means a heavyweight when it came to drinking, probably had had a couple and thus had gotten the idea to buy me the most unusual gift going. I remember my grandmother and I walking around the shop looking at the tiny spider monkeys while my mother went off alone to admire god only knows what, since she really has never been much of an animal person save for cats. It was then that my grandma and I saw the baby coati mundi and as I was immediately taken with its adorable stripey tail and pointy snout, she whipped out her checkbook and promptly bought the thing for me. I must have then run and found my mother and lead her to the cage where my gift was being removed for transport home.

I don't remember the actual act of finding my mother, but I very clearly remember her scream upon standing before the cage that contained the coati and being told that it belonged to me. She said, "There is no way that thing is coming home with us. I will not have anything that nasty climbing up my cabinets and all over my furniture. Who knows what diseases this thing carries (although given the plethora of weird animals in pet stores at that time, I don't think potential disease was ever really an issue until much later). You absolutely can not have this." And then she turned to my grandmother and said, "Miriam, get your money back right now." My grandmother and I were both very disappointed, but my mother's word was final (and really kinda scary).

I was very sad to not have been able to have it live with us, especially since learning that among other things, the coati mundi is an extremely vocal animal with a lot of "snorts, grunts, screams, whines and chatters." Frankly, owning a coati mundi would have rocked, regardless of what my mother thought. And one final thought: I have absolutely no memory of what my grandmother ended up getting me for that birthday. It certainly wasn't as cool as her first gift to me that year.

Mar 13, 2007

Has This Duck Been Eating Spanish Fly?

Phinaeus Taft is a very strange little duck. Like a great many of our ducklings, he was born too early in the season to be outside because of the cold, and as such, he was hatched in the warmth of our kitchen by a chicken hen (as a general rule, duck hens make not only lousy mothers, but frequently dangerous ones as well, as anyone who raises ducks can attest to). I always try to use the same little Silkie hen as she's not only reliable (a chicken who decides as she's grown bored with doing nothing but sitting for a month, she's entitled to pop permanently off the nest just a day before the scheduled hatch is a bad thing), but is a doting and gentle mother to the babies, be they chicken or duck. And it's also normal for the young ducklings to have a bit of an identity crisis when they first go out to live with the ducks. It usually takes a few months before they no longer want to be with their "mother" and the other chickens, but eventually they all give up on being permanently with mommy and even actually enjoy being active members of the duck flock. Having a young duck who is overly friendly with me isn't unusual as they've spent so much time with me during those first few weeks in the room in which I spend such a great portion of my day. It really is inevitable. However, there's friendly and then there's too friendly. And I would say that, without question, Phinaeus is way too friendly.

As we're approaching his first birthday, he not only should have long ago given up his fixation with the chicken hens (he hasn't. He spends hours and hours a day watching them and pacing up and down the divider wall between the ducks and the chickens and then immediately joins the chickens when they're allowed to mingle with the ducks), but also should have gotten less close to me as he's spent more time out in the barn. And with mating season here, he should certainly be pairing off with a duck, instead of trying to get with me. Seems young Phinaeus thinks I'm his hen. Seriously. He struts right over to me when he sees me, jockeying for my exclusive attention and will even physically push the other drakes away from me, biting them as he sees fit. He "talks" to me nonstop, to the point where he actually becomes hoarse and then loses his voice entirely. He routinely chases and attacks my son, whom Phinaeus apparently thinks is a potential rival for my affections (yup, this just gets creepier and creepier), and when he thinks he finally has me to himself, he does his ritual mating dance around me in a circle. As this has been going on since last fall, I had asked a respected breeder at that time what she made of this behavior and she told me, aside from never having ever heard of such a thing, "He'll either outgrow it by spring, or this situation will get really interesting." Chalk one up for the latter.

Every day I'm hoping the little duck hen who is smitten to pieces with him and follows him everywhere, even mingling with the chickens herself to be close to him, will finally catch Phinaeus' eye (female ducks are the ones who choose to pair off with a mate, not the boys choosing the girls) and that he'll finally see what a little charmer Babette Fleur is. So far, no luck. I frankly haven't a clue what do to. I continue to be as gentle and kind an owner to Phinaeus as I am to all the other birds and animals here, but I also try not to encourage the creepy mating madness, nor the hostility towards Griffin. Short of that, I'm stumped. I can however, safely say that while he is short, dark and handsome, Phinaeus is most definitely not only not my type, he isn't exactly my species either. Love can be such a cruel thing.

Mar 10, 2007

Boris and Tallulah

These are the first two chickens I bought years ago when I started in poultry. That's Boris Q on the left and Tallulah Jane on the right. They weren't exactly what I was looking for when I went out to buy my first pair, but when I saw them, my mind was made up. The conditions they were being kept in were deplorable: overcrowding to the point where none of the chickens could even turn their heads, the males were feather-picked to baldness due to stress-related aggression, they were bone thin, starving and dehydrated, and little Boris had a broken leg, most likely from his previous owner having stepped on him while trying to make his way through the inhumane clog of chickens in the pen where they were being kept. I chose Boris because he was the only cockerel who didn't try to attack me when I picked him up, and Tallulah because I had never seen a chicken who at four months old was still nearly chick sized. The two became instantly inseparable and remained so for the rest of their lives together.

It became apparent fairly quickly that Boris was more than just physically sub par from his previous mistreatment. He never crowed. He had seizures. He had trouble remembering how to get in and out of the barn, he wouldn't eat unless you put him directly in front of the food, and he didn't scratch and graze the way a normal chicken or rooster will when out and about in the yard. And always, Tallulah was right there, just like a mother hen with her little chick, pointing out tiny morsels in the grass to him, guiding him out of the forsythia hedge when he wandered in and panicked, unable to find his way back out again. The two of them would stand for hours, doing nothing at all.

People told me to kill Boris, that providing daily care for such a bird was a waste of time. He couldn't be bred (I never saw him hump anything out there anyways, not once), he cost money that was never recouped in any way, he was useless. And while this may have all been true, he had had such a horrific start to his life, there was no way I wasn't going to give him a happy home for as long as he lived. Pets are not expendable because they aren't perfect. Besides his rather lengthy list of flaws, he really was a truly beautiful bird to behold. Two pounds of soft, lush and beautifully colored feathers. And the gentlest rooster to ever walk this earth. But Boris aside, a great many times I also wondered if Tallulah might be as slow as him in some ways. She didn't dash about like my other hens. If you wanted to pick her up, like Boris, all you needed to do was simply walk over to her and lift her. She never joined the other hens in the flock, but simply stood there looking vaguely about, usually next to Boris, never more than a few feet away from him. She laid only a handful of eggs in her lifetime. She was very quiet; no cackling, no shrill calls ever came from her mouth save for one time. Her life was slow and dull.

When Boris became ill and we thought he was going to die, the two had to be separated while he underwent treatment. From out in the barn came the most desperate and mournful crying throughout the night. The next day, despite doctors orders, I moved Tallulah into the recovery cage with Boris and she immediately quieted back down. Surprisingly, Boris would live another three years and when his time came, Tallulah was with him, standing right beside him as he breathed his last, ever the quiet and stoic hen.

And then the most amazing thing happened. A few days after his death, when Tallulah knew she no longer needed to stay near poor, little special-needs Boris, she came alive. She was finally free to be the hen she might have been without her burden. She ran about, she scratched, she clucked, she got into little fights with the other hens. She was a chicken at long last. Clearly she had felt it was her duty to keep him safe, and it was her chicken kind of love for him that kept her loyal in spite of what was clearly a very depressing way of life for her. Her sudden transformation was startling yet exhilarating to behold. And little Tallulah Jane got be and act like a real hen for almost a year and a half before she too passed in old age.

She was a very special bird, and when people have said to me upon observing a bird at a swap meet or a show, "They're just birds. They have no feelings or brains," I sometimes tell them I beg to differ and relate my story. Sometimes I just walk away, but always I'm reminded of my two unusual chickens: the one who needed such desperate help and the one who was always there to give it to him unconditionally throughout her exceptional life.

Mar 7, 2007

But Can't A Girl Look?

As I've mentioned before, having an old dog really sucks. Almost everyone in my family keeps telling me to have her put down because she's become little more than a four-legged hairy lump who shits all over the house indiscriminately, but I can't do that. I simply can't, with any semblance of a conscience, kill an animal simply because it's become an inconvenience to me, or because that animal is no longer "fun". She isn't in any pain, she isn't unhappy, she simply exists in a way that no longer has much to do with me or anyone else in this family, save for her brief happiness at greeting me when I come home from outside the house. And so she lives on.

But it still really does suck. And considering that I've had a very good long time since my dog began her decline to ponder how much I wish I had a "fun" dog, the waiting for her final demise makes it even harder. I often feel very guilty about my daydreaming of the puppy I will own once poor old Cordelia has shuffled off this mortal coil, yet I can't quite seem to stop my wishful thinking. I find myself regularly shopping through the lists of available puppies at shelters in my area and become wildly ecstatic when I see that one of the dogs "of my dreams" is available right now. Chihuahuas, Min Pins, toy Jack Russells, Pugs. Inevitably, I become very depressed when reality sinks in again and I glance down at my sweet old girl lying at my feet. I know there is no way I could ever bring home a new little bundle while she's still here with me. After all, that would be the ultimate betrayal, wouldn't it?

I've been doing this for months, and I can't seem to stop myself. Every weekend I manage to find a dog I could adore were I to go and bring it home, but last weekend was the worst. I saw a nine month old Min Pin up for adoption at the Mass Humane Society and I thought, "How perfect! A tiny purebred dog, still a baby yet housebroken, and in need of a family. And the $200 donation fee would go to the Humane Society and help other homeless dogs and cats" (it turns out after the fact, rather horribly, that this little dog was stolen from the pound late Sunday afternoon when thieves cut through the fence and made off with him, so I hope, hope, hope he's with a loving family and not being abused by monsters somewhere). I was so happy for all of ten minutes, until I realized once again, that there was no way I could do this to my beloved Cordelia. In fact, I became so depressed, I cried. I know that sounds silly, but having a canine companion is very important to me. A vital part of my being, if you will, and having a dog who can neither see nor hear me very well, who can no longer go everywhere I go and who interacts with me very little in her fog of dementia, simply doesn't fill the need I have for the doggie friend that inhabits my world. At this point, save for those blissful moments of homecoming, I am little more than a home health aide to my old friend, meeting her needs until such time as they can't be met any longer.

My husband has now forbidden me to look at the little dogs. He says he can't understand why I put myself through the pain of seeing all the available little puppies out there when I know I won't get one until Cordelia is gone. I tell him that it starts out making me very happy to see all those lovely little dogs waiting to be chosen for their forever homes, and being able to imagine myself owning one or two of them, and it's only after the fact that it makes me sad. He says that because the sadness inevitably always follows the initial happiness, I should know better than to look at all, and that it's just stupid to put myself through this over and over again. I know he's right but I just can't stop. As the years roll by with Cordelia living on and on, yet becoming less and less of a viable pet, I grow more anxious for the day when I'll be able to shop for a new friend for real, not just in my mind. I'm more than ready, yet desperately trying to keep strong my patience and my love for my long-time companion. She's been a magnificent dog, and I cherish the 16 years we've spent together, but one of us has grown very lonely these days and it's been a long time coming.

Jan 10, 2007

Noodles and Melvin

Our first spring in our new house was spent clearing the land behind our outbuildings and making a nice field for gardens, grass and the beautiful birch trees growing beside the wetlands we have back there. The clearing of the land necessitated felling several very tall and very ugly evergreen trees that at forty feet tall and without any foliage for the first two-thirds of their trunks looked as though they belonged in the pages of a Dr. Seuss book and definitely not in our yard. My husband had carefully checked all the debris and nests in the trees and found them all to be empty before felling the branches they rested on. Except one. A large mangy nest he had picked through and then proceeded to cut its branch proved upon hitting the ground to not have been entirely empty. When it hit earth, its four tiny inhabitants were thrown in as many directions: tiny baby squirrels huddled on their bellies in shock and fear. My husband kept saying that he had checked so carefully, and that he felt just terrible and would feed the babies and care for them himself as he was responsible for this turn of events. Uh-huh.

It was apparent from looking at them that they had been abandoned by their mother, who most likely had been killed by a passing motorist, as our road is dotted year round with the flattened, dehydrated bodies of squirrels who neglected to look both ways before crossing. The babies' tiny bodies were so thin, and they were all so weak, it was obvious they hadn't eaten for some time. I filled a small box with bedding from the chicken barn and buried the babies in it for warmth, and then I called a family friend who has been a wildlife rescuer and would know what to do next. She wasn't home but her husband was and while I was at the time thankful for his advice, the words of 'wisdom' he provided would ultimately prove fatal for two of the four little ones.

At his word, I went to the grocery store and purchased a couple of cans of evaporated milk and a set of eyedroppers and began to try to feed the tiny squirrels. None would eat. I tried countless times through the afternoon and that night to get them to feed, with no luck. Even forcing their tiny mouths open and squirting little bits of milk into their throats couldn't save them. After near constant attempts to get the babies to eat throughout the following day, and after two of them passed away late that next afternoon, I once again called our friend in a frantic attempt to save the remaining two who were barely clinging to life. "Not evaporated milk!" she yelled. "You must get puppy or kitten replacement milk. And not an eye dropper. You need the smallest baby bottle you can find, preferably one for very small animals, like a gerbil bottle." And off I went again, this time to our nearest Petco, hoping that this would be the miracle to save those two little squirrels. And it was. But it wasn't easy. I spent more hours trying to get the little ones to feed, and to his credit, my husband gave it a shot as well. When we were finally about to give up and let nature take its course, as she most likely would have anyways in that abandoned tree without our ever knowing it, the babies began to drink. And drink they did.

And then Monday morning rolled around and off my husband went to his office, leaving me in charge of hourly feedings. At first, I'll admit, it was fun to feed the babies. Holding little gray squirrels who themselves held the little bottle with their impossibly tiny front feet, their big black liquid eyes watching me while they sucked, their long fuzzy tails curled around my hand. All was bliss for the first few weeks, tiring as it was to be feeding two newborns around the clock, while my husband worked, or slept, or watched TV to unwind, never giving the squirrels much more than a cursory thought. But then the little squirrels, fortified with puppy milk, began to test their mettle. They spit at me, they bit with very sharp little teeth, they grabbed the tiny bottle from my hand. I spent a great deal of time washing my bloody hands and wiping warm, sticky puppy milk from the babies who would wind up covered from head to toe in it at every feeding, as well as cleaning squirrel urine off my hands and forearms. And it seemed that feeding time not only made the little ones pee, but also turned them on as well. I grew tried of feeding two little boy squirrels who would, without fail, get a tiny boner while I held them to feed them. Fun stuff. And where was the man who swore he'd take responsibility for this mess? Not feeding these animals, that's for sure.

Finally, after a few months, the little boys grew big enough to be weaned from the milk and then eventually set free in the yard, though they still required me to provide them with supplemental food. My son named them Noodles and Melvin and while Noodles moved on to a new territory fairly quickly, Melvin stayed with us for quite some time, living in the old, empty chicken house on our land. Even when he became too big to fit through the small hole in the siding that allowed him access to the inside of the building, and even after tearing off three-quarters of his tail when he tried in vain to squeeze his fat ass (and it was fat, trust me, these guys were well looked after) through that too-small hole, he refused to go. But finally, as with everything in this life, all good things must come to an end, and Melvin's reign did just that. Whether he was killed somewhere while off on a daily jaunt, or whether a bigger, more aggressive squirrel stole his territory from him and drove him off, the following spring he was gone. I know not what became of him, save for the fact that he most definitely wasn't one of the gray pancakes in the streets around our home. His unique bob-tail would have given his corpse away.

And my husband, who after those first few moments of feeling badly for what he had wrought, and never gave it much more thought, managed to do the same thing once again this summer while removing an old foundation on one of our outbuildings. Same story, different rodents. This time though, I was not at all successful in saving a family of tiny pink baby field mice found scattered with their once cozy little nest among the rubble. They were just too tiny and wouldn't eat. I think maybe the next time my husband does demolition on our property, I should be there to check out the situation before he commences destruction. At least I can be ready with a box and some food.
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