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.
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