Having travelled and lived in other countries where the boundaries between city and rural living blur consistently, I rather liked, at first, the notion that urban and suburban dwellers in the US might be allowed to start keeping chickens. For much of my life I was a city person, and so on a trip to Haiti and waking up in the heart of Port-au-Prince to the sound of a rooster crowing, I thought – of course, this is marvelous. Pigs and goats wandered the streets, and the mixture of life, if not entirely sanitary, was colorful. That is, of course, an entirely first-world way of looking at it. The truth is that in countries like Haiti, keeping animals is survival. I don’t know if they have zoning commissions in Haiti, but I sincerely doubt that HOAs have imposed their fascistic controls onto the quite poverty-stricken residents, to whom painting your house bright blue or orange is a creative statement, not one of rebellion against the requisite ecru.
In Cairo, Egypt, it wasn’t uncommon to see donkeys, camels, and even sheep walking along the city streets. Mind you, the donkeys and camels were working animals, and the sheep were headed to less glorious fates in restaurants. My landlord kept rabbits on the roof of our apartment building – also for food. But the jumble of lives did not disturb.
In Italy dogs accompany their owners into restaurants, shops, and onto trains. I don’t think there is a “pet fee”. Buses in Mexico often have livestock hitching a ride.
So when did America become such an anti-animal place? Oh, we love our pets. Everything-pet is a billion dollar industry in the United States. People will spend thousands of dollars on specialized veterinary care. But regulations for the presence of pets in polite society are strict. “Only service animals allowed.” “No pets.” “Pet fee for hotel stay, $30 and no animals over 40 pounds.” The message: keep your pets to yourself.
Then we have the meat-eating population, about 90%; for the most part they buy their meat wrapped in plastic, sold in large supermarkets. Many have never seen a cow or a pig or a chicken up close. Meat is a commodity; where is it cheapest? Back in early 2020 at the beginning of the Coronavirus epic people freaked out when there were limits in stores on how much meat one could purchase at a time. Costco didn’t have chicken for several months after the initial hoarding rush. I did hear that folks started trying to seek out farmers directly – well now, there is a start to connecting.
A quick aside: about 30 years ago I was working in suburban Virginia. Across the street from my office complex was a small Middle-Eastern store. I went there from time to time to pick up exotic spices and pita bread. One day the owner had just opened the large walk-in refrigerator. Hanging from a hook was an entire lamb, skinned. I gasped and turned away. He asked me, I think condescendingly, “don’t you eat meat, young lady?” I replied, “well yes, I do” (for I did at that time). “Then you ought to know where your meat is coming from.” He was right. I was one of those disconnected meat eaters, shocked at the sight of a hoof, a naked eye, a skinned body. Of dripping blood. Of the reality that hanging there is someone who was alive before; someone that was going to be chopped up into pieces and that someone else was going to eat. I lived at the time in a basement apartment in the city. I had no connections to farms. I’m not sure I’d ever been on a farm. So I was clueless. Utterly uneducated in the ways of ‘eating animals’. I mention this incident because I think it ties into the whole separateness in which we live in this country.
This is why I was happy when I learned that folks would be allowed to start keeping chickens. Hooray, people would learn about real animal smells, they would collect eggs, clean poop – become more connected. They would go to feed stores! They’d meet farmers! Maybe when they visited my farm they would not be upset at the sight of manure, at the natural smells animals produce. Maybe these chickens would be an entrée for them into appreciating farms. Maybe it would make them think more about what they eat and where it comes from. Maybe they’d stop and consider their options – for there are so many, besides eating the beasts who are shrink-wrapped in plastic with bar-codes for your shopping convenience.
I don’t know if any of this has happened. I’d like to think it has.
But there is a really dark side to this backyard chicken keeping business: roosters. Many people opt to buy “sex-linked” chickens – hybrid chickens who have been bred to have distinctive marks as chicks, thus allowing the breeder to select only females to ship off. But wait – statistically, 50% of chickens hatched, anywhere, are going to be boys. Right? So what happens to these sex-linked chickens who are unlucky enough to be male? I’m pretty sure this is not discussed in polite company or around family dinner tables. When people put in their online orders for chicks to come through the US postal services, they expect them to be girls. And then they end up with a rooster or three. What to do?
Any farmer would say to them, “put them in the pot.” Farmers are practical and have learned to just deal. Your run of the mill HOA official is going to say, “get rid of them immediately.” The suburban chicken keeper laments, “but I raised Fluffy from a baby – now what do I do?” What do they do? They call farm animal sanctuaries.
So here are animals who have been brought into the world with the hopes they would not be who they turn out to be. They are raised, loved, and then must be disposed of. It’s a hell of a bad proposition. And it brings to the fore the reality of animal husbandry that farmers have to deal with – on your behalf – daily. “Fluffies” are a luxury. But the real farmers don’t get called. We do.
In fact, we are bombarded by texts, calls, facebook messages, desperate emails, “please please take Fluffy. We’ll pay for his care, we’ll come to visit, we love him so much.” These requests come in every week, sometimes every day. I don’t know one single sanctuary who does not get them. And they make us feel bad. Really bad. Sometimes the cumulative effect is to make one want to just lie down in a dark room and never answer the phone again. Because here we are – the purported last refuge, the only thing preventing Fluffy from being someone’s dinner or being euthanized at the animal shelter. But we can’t. We already have roosters. Lots of them. Lots and lots of them. And while roosters can learn to get along, it’s a balance and bringing even one more in can upset the balance, resulting in fighting and bloodshed. Besides which, if we were to accept every ‘oopsie rooster’ we get asked to take, we’d have hundreds of them. How is this fair to anyone?
I don’t know what happens to these poor birds. I do know some of them end up at animal control, because we get those calls, too. I know there are some chicken-specific sanctuaries that can take some in. Sometimes you might find a farmer or two who will take a nice rooster, but most farmers will have one rooster to every dozen or so hens. The statistics don’t look good for those boys.
So what now? Those nice ideas about city and suburban folk getting closer to the land have backfired. Is the answer to petition to allow roosters in the neighborhoods? Well, I think so – a rooster crowing is a nicer sound than a barking dog, and dog barking is perfectly allowable in communities. But it won’t happen. It would be just too OBVIOUS that agriculture has invaded the pristine subdivisions. That isn’t why people live there.
I have no solutions to this problem. But I wish to ask those people who keep backyard chickens to do two things. First: be prepared for a rooster. Think in advance what you will do, and make arrangements. If you do not like the options available to you in this eventuality, then do not keep chickens; roosters will happen. Second, be kind to others. Know that your need to rid yourself of the unwanted crowing rooster puts a terrible strain on shelter and sanctuary workers.
It hurts us to say no.
“There are only so many times you can say no.”
― Bert McCoy
The other day one of our volunteers was being mobbed by an unruly group of large ruminants. A few bystanders were trying to help her get into her truck without incident. We were all having a great deal of trouble. Well — upon further investigation, we found she had made the grave mistake of keeping cookies in her pockets. COOKIES: no wonder. She hurriedly and perhaps somewhat desperately tossed the cookies over the hood of the truck to me, took off down the driveway, and I, literally left holding the bag, made a beeline for the front door, buffeted from side to side by goat bodies, just barely making it to safety while still keeping my shoes on. Cookies are an excellent but powerful tool and must be used with extreme discretion.
Dinner is a completely different story. I, not being all that interested in eating grain and oats, cannot with any honesty say if dinner is less interesting than Mrs. Pastures’ cookies. One can, however, conduct a scientific experiment. Shake a bag of cookies and the entire farm’s population (e.g. several thousand pounds of hooved creatures) will instantly appear at the back door. On the other hand, organizing everyone at dinner time to go to their appointed eating spots is often like putting the wrong end of two magnets together.
Mostly the goats go where they are supposed to, primarily because they will follow anything that looks like it has food in it. Dee Dee Donkey will bray right in my face (primarily to protest that her meal is late, AS ALWAYS) and then head into her little paddock. Salvo the horse will often walk right into his stall. He knows the deal. But there are some rogue characters – and surprisingly they are sheep. I just want to let it be known that the next person who tells me sheep are stupid will be assigned to do evening feedings here.
In order for you to understand what goes on with these sheep, we’ll need to talk about Thomas – as in Thomas you hear about in church. Or not. He wasn’t, I suppose, compared to the other apostles, a truly major character. In fact, you never really hear much about good old Thomas (whose real name was Didymus, but I think you all would agree that Thomas is easier to pronounce). Thomas seemed to be doing a walkabout when Jesus appeared after His resurrection and so Thomas missed all the action. I can relate. I always seem to be meandering about, either literally or mentally and if I’m meant to be somewhere, I’m nearly always late. So I kind of like this guy, Thomas.
Thomas wasn’t quite with the program and so wasn’t there when Jesus came back after his death. Thomas thought that was really pretty unlikely stuff, and needed proof. He was like, “dudes, seeing is believing.” Poor Thomas. People might think he’s sub-par because he would not give his faith without question. I think he is, however, the most real of the apostles because it’s so easy to understand his confusion.
Alas, my sheep, those creatures so lauded in Christianity as being sweet and innocent, are, in reality, untrusting, unbelieving, rude skeptics. They need proof. Every day – not just once in a while but EVERY DAY – we have the same conversation.
Farmer: “It’s dinner time.”
Farmer: “Well, you need to go in here so that I close the gate and serve you your food.”
Sheep: “Where’s the food.”
Farmer: “It’s inside. I’m bringing it now.”
Sheep: “I don’t see any food. I’m not getting locked in someplace when there is no food.”
Farmer: “Trust me, there is food.”
Sheep: “Last time you told me that, the vet showed up.”
Farmer: “That was two months ago.”
Sheep: “WELL? Why don’t you bring the food before you ask me to go get ready to eat? If the food isn’t ready, then I’m not ready to eat.” (mumbles under breath something vaguely profane)
Farmer: “I can’t bring it till you are in the pen.”
Sheep: “I really don’t see what your problem is. Show me the food.”
There is more, much along the same lines. It’s very tiresome. But annoyance all goes away when I see the joy in their eyes upon spotting the magical bucket full of yummy, warm grain. Holy Moly, they make a beeline and by golly, they KNOW that There Is Dinner.
Take it from the sheep: eating is believing.
A fellow farmer friend once told me that she often dreads going out in the morning. “Why is that?” you may ask, innocently perplexed. See, all you city folk think it’s so lovely to live on land, to smell the fresh air, to be surrounded by animals and plants and all the stuff of life. Maybe. Ok, yes. There is nothing better. There is fresh air, there are animals, there are plants, and life teems even when you wish it wouldn’t.
But then there is that problem of going out in the morning.
Too often barely fortified by half a cup of coffee and frequently still in pajamas, we warily wander through the fields and into the barns. We are not admiring the view. We are not enjoying the morning air. We are not communing with nature. We are not petting cute, fuzzy animals. No.
We are looking for bodies.
I challenge any farmer to tell me they don’t do this. Admit it. You look for the bodies, now don’t you? A sleeping beast is enough to send our adrenaline into overdrive. We glance left and right, in the hay feeders (stuck chicken, anyone?), into the water buckets (oh God, who fell in overnight?). We count heads and, not finding everyone, get ourselves worked up into a lather. We brace for the quite decent possibility that someone died overnight, or worse, is lying sick or injured in an inaccessible location, in deep trouble; and we know that this discovery will mean that everything has to stop while we rush for medicine, administer first aid, call the vet, call in reinforcements. And regardless of how we may feel about whatever has happened, you can bet it is going to cost a lot of money.
Everyone is encumbered. It’s what ties us to life.
Of course, most days on our bleary-eyed morning outings we find nothing of the sort. Does this make us feel better? Not at all! It’s just one more day’s reprieve. And anyhow, regardless of who may or may not have taken the train out of here overnight, there are still chores to be done, animals to be fed, emails and phone calls to answer, never mind the day job. The good news is that, for today at least, everyone is walking and breathing. An accomplishment.
Because whether you have a few farm pets, or raise animals for their fiber or for their meat, or offer sanctuary to the old and compromised ones, like we do at my farm, the fear and the caring are all the same. The vegan police who look down on anyone who “does” anything with their animals will find this surprising, but in my experience of travelling to farms all along the East Coast, the vast majority of people who have animals living outside in barns and on pasture, whether 2 or 200 or 2000, are solidly tethered to their animals. And every farmer who has had to cope with sudden death or prolonged illness (usually mysterious – illnesses love to be mysterious and un-diagnosable) – each one of us carries a heaviness of resident grief inside. Sort of like a stone in the stomach.
When I moved to this farm, I was free of death’s friendship. I blithely brought in sweet animals to live on this sweet farm, and wow, what a great idea this was. Until I found my beloved Betty the duck ‘s body, sans head. That was the first clue.
And still, I had no idea what I was in for.
I hear stories from my friends that break my heart, stories that are worse than what I’ve dealt with, and I wonder how they keep standing upright. I hear about animals who got themselves in trouble when humans were not around: a little sheep who got its head stuck in a fence and strangled, a goat who climbed a tree, hooked its foot, and hung till it died. I hear about impalements and the ravages of dog packs. I hear about disease and barn fires. And then sometimes a tractor turns over on a farmer. I don’t think life is easy for anyone, no matter where you live or what you do. At some point you are faced with something you are pretty sure you don’t have the strength for. But as far as the daily dose of hyper-vigilance goes, I think farmers might just rank right up there with cops and EMTs and stockbrokers.
Surprising? What about breathing in lovely fresh air and watching sheep gently grazing in the fields whilst you sip lemonade (or, better, a mint julep) on the porch? You jest! Not at our farm. If we want all that, we go to a hotel… or someone else’s farm.
Sometimes, mostly when I visit people who live in condos with really clean wall-to-wall carpeting and central AC, I wonder what it would be like. A life, unencumbered. You know, not wondering if something was goat-proof? Not worrying about the limping sheep or the alpaca losing weight or new cat hiding under the house.
But of course, that is nonsense. Everyone is encumbered. It’s what ties us to life. My own particular flavor just happens to have dirt and earthy smells, chickens wandering into the house, and goats banging on the back door. And death as a regular visitor. The stone in the stomach, the heaviness I hadn’t known before farm life, brings me back to my choice of being a shepherd like a divining rod. Had I never had to usher so many souls into the afterlife, chances are I would be as ungrounded as when I first moved to the country. Vapid and optimistic.
For you see, that stone is also a gift. It gives balance. Maybe it’s my token of membership in the farmers club. “Got granite?” You have to lean into it, swing around with it, feel how it keeps you close to the earth and yet always still standing, like those dolls who bob around but never fall down.
To bring some levity into my life (and to have an excuse to dress in something other than jeans and mudboots) I recently took up swing dancing. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is the balancing of weight – to trust in leaning back against the hand of your partner and to let him lean back against yours. Only when you each let gravity do its thing can you really swing. It feels like flying. That stone in the gut – it’s my dance partner on the farm.
I’ve lost a lot of animals this year – animals who lived here many years, with whom I had really close friendships. Some were quite elderly. Knowing it’s coming makes no difference at all when death arrives, though. At each loss I’ve fretted, “OK this is the time I’m going to fall apart.” I’ve waited for the sadness to overwhelm my ability to carry on. But it didn’t. What happened was that grounding stone swung me around, weight as counterbalance, set my two feet flat on the ground and asked with an impish grin, “do you want to dance again?”
“Life is the dancer and you are the dance.”
I grew up in the city. I don’t even know if guns were allowed in my state, but I do remember when I was about 9, my mother’s doctor was shot on the street by a gunman trying to steal drugs from him, and there then started a big gun control campaign. So maybe. But we never had firearms in our house (that I knew about).
When you move out to the country, guns become a Thing. Upon my arrival here, I wondered if I should know how to shoot a gun – so I took a few classes. I liked the pistol target shooting, although the burst of fire in the first shot I ever took in my life at age 40-something made me shriek. I made up for this serious faux pas by being a pretty damn good shot. The shotgun class was not so much to my liking – I got a big bruise on my shoulder and never could figure out the trajectory of the clay pigeons. It all seemed so pointless. And that was just about the end of my gun career. Nipped in the bud by disenchantment at flying clay and a seriously sore shoulder.
Until my first and most beloved rooster Kramer was taken (and not without a tremendous fight, judging by the trail of feathers that started in my fenced back yard and went well into the woods). I cried and mourned, and then I pulled myself together and drove myself up to a gun store and told the man, “I need to shoot a fox.” He gave me something called a “varmint rifle” which I took home and promptly placed in the closet. I reflected on this closet-living gun for a week or so, and then decided that I needed a dog, not a gun. I mean, who was I kidding? I thought foxes were cute. This began a long and unresolved emotional war of my loves for prey and predator.
Derry was the first of many truly remarkable livestock guardian dogs who have called my farm home. He was a Maremma. I drove 12 hours north to pick him up; his owners had left for Australia the day before and tied him to the barn, trusting me to actually show up to get him. He was big and hairy and stinky and panted in my ear for the 12 hour ride south, and we became best friends. Derry really knew his job. I don’t know if there is any such thing as “training” a livestock guardian dog – they seem to be just born with it (or not). He patrolled the fence and went after anything that was not supposed to be here, including the occasional hapless pet whose owner didn’t realize would NOT have a good time on our farm. No harm done, but Derry was a serious dog. I nearly broke his heart when once I ended up in the hospital and he didn’t know if I was coming back. And he surely broke mine when he had a stroke and died at age 10.
Fairly soon after Derry settled in here, I returned the varmint rifle. They wouldn’t take the ammo back; God only knows where it is now. But it was an odd sensation, taking back this gun: I was brought up short at the invisible but impenetrable wall between city-bred and country-bred. Part of me felt like a failure (“no, I am not going to shoot any living thing no matter what kind of mischief it is up to”) and the other part of me felt as though I’d figured out the most organic way possible to handle my predator problem.
Everyone around here has guns. They shoot them off quite a lot. I yell curse words, because, I guess at heart, I really dislike guns. Maybe it comes from my mother’s murdered doctor and the grief I witnessed. Maybe it’s because I have seen an awful lot of organic death, and I see no need to actually cause it myself. Maybe it’s because they are loud, and disturb and scare the animals. Or, maybe, just maybe, it’s because I am a wuss. But while I mull this over, I have, as it happens, acquired some new guns. Quite a lot of them, in fact.
You see —- it’s the goats’ fault. Anyone passing by during morning or evening feeding time will hear a long string of curses like to turn your hair white. “No, no no, get away you xz(*&$&!*. Goddamit, get off of me, *&^*!*%$” It’s a problem. It’s enough to ruin your mood for the day. It’s enough to want to hide in the house and pretend one doesn’t really have chores to do. Being something of an observer of animals, however, I know that there is one, and one thing only, that will deter a goat from molesting you: water.
So in the spirit of bravery and just getting on with things, I am now armed, daily, with tiny plastic water guns when I go out to do the feeding and by golly, they work. I’m not sure what the long term psychological effects will be on the goats, but I have a fairly strong confidence that instead of having hurt feelings, or realizing “aw well, there’s no point to bothering her anymore” they will now start plotting how to remove the gun from my person.
My next tools: a tiny holster and a water reloader. Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!
It’s not too hard to figure out that it’s easier to keep an apartment nice and tidy than it is a farmhouse. I used to have an apartment. Now I have a farmhouse. We could end the story right here, because I’ve given away the punch line. Or have I?
Now, I’ve seen some aberrant farm households that display clean, debris-free oriental rugs and polished floors, spotless bathrooms, and no veterinary detritus, no evidence of animal bodily functions, or, in fact, no trace at all of the outside (aside from cut flowers in a crystal vase). Some of these households even have dogs inside, which confounds me. Who are these clean dogs? Who are these clean people? How is that they have no grit, gunk, mud, muck, hay, straw, feed pellets, or, last but not least, someone’s poop inside their house? I’ll bet these folks can wake up the morning and walk around barefoot without even putting on their glasses.
The other night as I fed the woodstove that heats my house, I contemplated the dog door. Neatly cut into my storm door, it’s a late sleeper’s dream but it sure lets in the cold air. It occurred to me that I live half outside most of the time, or perhaps more accurately, the outside intrudes into my house nearly all of the time.
I think farm life is something that just happens to you. Like a car accident. Or marriage.
How did this happen? I don’t think I even like the outdoors that much (dating sites might ask, “are you outdoorsy?” “Goodness no”, I would respond). See, I do not like dirt. I do not like sleeping on the ground or peeing in the bushes. I’ve only camped twice in my life and it was because I was in a remote place of a foreign country where there were no hotels and I was out of transportation and options. It was very uncomfortable. I remember every detail of these ordeals including the outhouse in the middle of the Egyptian desert with a hole in the ground, no door, and a camel out back.
As farm life progresses, as farm life is wont to do, I’ve discovered quite a lot that, had I known better, I might still be an apartment dweller, happily drinking cappuccino, wearing clean shoes and going to films on the weekend. Instead, I’ve found I have an ever evolving list of unpleasantnesses in this thing called “farm life”, way beyond mere dirt.
For instance – I do not like the unknown bumps (gravel? goat pellets?) that always seem to be getting between foot and boot. I do not like the persistent tiny pieces of grit in my bed that cause me to toss and turn and flap at the sheets endlessly like an inelegant Princess and the Pea. I do not like the seasonal insects who take up uninvited residence in my house – at least one species for each season (I guess they don’t want me to feel lonely). I do not like those bits of itchy straw that make their way down my shirt and are awful and embarrassing (“excuse me while I sweep out my bra”), and more than once I’ve had to stick a finger dipped in perfume up my nose so as to avoid a gag-inducing smell. Really, it is all most decidedly disagreeable.
You armchair nature lovers, I’m here to tell you that the outdoors is simply not so nice.
So – how did I get here?
I’m not going to give the prosaic version of, “well, you know, I had this vision…” No. People with visions still have clean apartments and get to go to the movies on the weekend. I think farm life is something that just happens to you. Like a car accident. Or marriage.
So those sweet days of making curtains and polishing knick-knacks, purchasing lovely rugs that you are quite sure no one will ever pee on, actually having a choice of nice clothing to put on instead of “which jeans look the least dirty” – those days are gone and, honestly, the notion of keeping house seems a funny concept. If the dishes are done and the bathroom will not be condemned by the health department, and, at the end of the day I am rewarded with some sitting down time, preferably in front of the fire, preferably with a book and some cocoa, then life is good.
But it doesn’t always work out that way. The other night I was called out of my cocoa-sipping stupor into the cold and windy night to examine a wound on Nicole our Great Pyrenees dog. I grabbed the mini clippers, iodine, nolvasan, hydrogen peroxide, gauze, flushing tube, Baytril, Rimadyl, and I shaved and flushed and cleaned. In the dark, by the light of a headlamp, wind whipping around. Worrisome. Uncomfortable. A bit nasty. Done treating, I headed back inside and Nicole scampered off, happy for the cookie reward and for being left alone to do her job (or to find a cozy spot to nap, more likely!). Suddenly I felt warmed by something other than the woodstove. It struck me that I was not remotely put out by this interlude, and, in fact, I was glad to be able to do it. Glad I was here. Glad I had the tools. After all, I had just ‘tended to my flock’. And, by God, no one had died (we set the bar somewhat low on farms). By the bye, Nicole is fine now.
I left all the veterinary detritus on the kitchen table, that sturdy piece of furniture serving as grand central station in any farmhouse. I might need it again soon. I was dirty and cold, my hands covered in things we won’t discuss, and I felt … great.
So that’s how I got here. That’s why I stay. Good housekeeping be damned.
Till next time,
My dog Sullivan is a big black lab mixed with something. He’s a good dog but he has a few problems; mostly, he’s old. There seems to be a lot of that going around these days. And being old, he doesn’t always get a lot of warning when he has to poop. A few weeks ago he made it just outside the dog door and pooped on the welcome mat. Then it rained. The mat is ridged and so while poop pickup was not particularly convenient even with the nicely formed specimen, once it rained, of course, the poop became a fecal splat, deeply ingrained in the ridges of the mat. This was now a Project. The hose hookup at the house is not completely functional and last I checked, someone had scavenged the hose and used it elsewhere on the farm. So the pile stayed there.
Every day since that poop was deposited on my front step I managed to navigate around it. Folks coming to help do morning and evening feedings entered the front door and also navigated around it. With recent rains it increased its real estate and someone, most likely Sullivan, walked through it and spread it onto the concrete steps as well. Nothing that a good hosing down with some soap would not fix. But that required locating a hose, dragging it through an elderberry-filled jungle of the front yard, hooking it up to the somewhat crooked spigot, getting all the kinks out of the house, and actually washing it down. At most a 15 minute task. Instead of doing this, I and everyone else entering the house continued to walk around the pile. The accumulated energy of actively ignoring that pile was probably enough to scrub and repaint the front steps and put up window boxes. But so many of our piles are like that, aren’t they. And I still don’t have window boxes.
Some people clear their piles the moment they appear. I think these people are almost certainly descendants of aliens. They probably also don’t need coffee in the morning. Me — I seem to be a magnet for piles. I don’t ordinarily leave dog poop in my midst, I’ll admit, but I always seem to have an inordinate share of other Life Piles: laundry, overdue library books, bills, boxes for recycling, bags of chicken feed, veterinary detritus, duct tape, and, of course, Sullivan’s occasional indiscretions on the front porch.
Eventually I did locate a hose. I waded through the tangle of the front yard, hooked the hose up, and, with admittedly a great deal of cursing, worked out all the kinks so it would spurt water. I cleaned the heck out of that front porch. It felt good. I then went on to vacuum the house, do four loads of laundry, wash windows, clear the kitchen table of bills and dog biscuits and old tools, pay bills, check email, and generally become frighteningly efficient. For a few hours.
Now I’m back to normal, thank goodness. Sullivan continues to poop on the front porch when his old man intestines tell him to, but that’s OK. I’ve figured out that I don’t have to turn into superwoman to have a porch that people can walk on without fear of icky shoes. I’ve also been giving Sullivan a lot more hugs lately. He’s really old and he has bad breath but his ears are so silky and his head so regal and fine, and he follows me everywhere I go in the house, just to be close. He is a bit dotty, and sometimes forgets where he was going. He stands in the hallway and blocks traffic, and looks in wonderment at all the humans streaming around him, so busy busy busy all the time. His appetite is waning, but he has developed a taste for McDonald’s breakfast biscuits. He has some trouble getting up and down, but he still chooses the softest dog beds in the house. He doesn’t bark much anymore, and I rather miss that loud acknowledgement, but he still goes out to the front porch to greet me every time I get home. And if I have to clean up a pile or two in exchange for all that, well … hand me the hose.
I have a confession to make. Well, it’s not really mine alone, but the incident is certainly a blight on my family’s reputation in the animal kingdom. When I was very young and already an avid animal lover, we had a cat named Fluffy. She was a Siamese and somewhat high strung. I loved Fluffy – I loved all animals, and I especially loved cats. Cats, cats, cats! But according to my parents, she scratched my face while I was sleeping. More than once. I remember not caring at all, an insouciance that has certainly carried through to the present day. But my parents were overprotective and they ‘got rid of her’. They probably didn’t use those words; at least I hope they didn’t. They told me she went to live on a farm somewhere…. I don’t think I bought that explanation, even then. They eventually replaced her with a sweet Calico cat named Alice who lived with us until she was 20 years old. All pets thenceforth were kept for their entire natural lives. I might have had something to do with that – I’m not sure – but I did develop a loud voice for animals early on in life.
To be fair, my parents were (Fluffy aside), in fact, real animal lovers: picking up strays, adopting from the shelter, donating often to animal causes, helping people out who had animals and could not take care of them. We had an epileptic black lab named Peppy whom they fished out of a dumpster when she was just a puppy, a deaf Irish Wolfhound named Daisy who only loved my father and had a peculiar look on her face her whole, strange, soundless life, and a dear, dear Great Dane named Orrie who, when she died of the bloat, took a piece of my mother’s soul with her. My folks gave great vet care to our animals and let our pets sleep in my bed (the real litmus test, I think!). I was an only child and I’m pretty sure our dogs and cats were my brothers and sisters. It was a good way to grow up. I’ve never understood why people feel they need to wait till their children are older to get pets. It’s not as though a 12 year old will contribute any more to the care of the animal than a 2 year old (no, seriously) – and why not get 10 years of extra furry snuggle time in there? Children who grow up with pets are usually much less likely to be afraid of animals, to develop a more robust immune system (think: where EXACTLY has that tongue been?….), and to experience a whole different realm of species interaction that enriches, amuses, and engenders compassion.
Amazingly, one of the top reasons cited for giving up an animal is “we’re going to have a baby.” Wow – shouldn’t it be the reverse? “Honey, let’s get a dog for our new baby so they can grow up together.” Those who work on the receiving end of unwanted animals (rescue groups, animal shelters, sanctuaries like Star Gazing Farm) hear many stunning reasons that people no longer want to have an animal in their lives anymore. On the hit parade: “we are moving”, “he sheds”, “we got a kitten and the older cat doesn’t like her”, “my kids aren’t interested anymore”, “we don’t have any time for him” , “my new boyfriend doesn’t like dogs”, “she’s getting too old”. Then there are the simply heartless ones like “we just bought a new sofa and he doesn’t match.” Yes, someone really said that.
Star Gazing Farm receives a large volume of requests every week to take in animals. Many times there is much sadness in this – people’s life circumstances have changed, and they do not want to part with their animals but cannot find any other solution. On the other hand, I get some emails that read like this: “we have some unwanted roosters – can we bring them to you today?” Oh dear, it makes one wonder just what those roosters did to find themselves out of favor …. Now, if we took every animal in, we’d soon be broke and living under the 14th street bridge. So, “no” is unhappily often the response. I try to talk with people about what is really going on. Sometimes it’s possible to help people figure out ways to solve the current issues with their animal – a sturdier fence, separating someone who is causing trouble, changing the diet, getting a companion for a lonely animal. But sometimes it’s a matter of illness, accident, home foreclosure, divorce, even domestic abuse in which case placements need to be found, sometimes quite quickly. Moreover, the local animal control agencies call us when they pick up strays or have seized farm animals in a cruelty case. Just as a bizarre fact, we got calls about 3 separate stray pigs last month. Pigs were apparently on the move.
It’s to be expected that there will always be a great shuffling around of animals and part of what my farm and so many animal groups do is to assist in these matters. I will say though … it really hurts my heart when I hear: “I need to get rid of my animals.”
I wish, at least, that people would change their language, for, surely, doesn’t language shape our thoughts? Instead of saying “I need to get rid of Fluffy”, how about:
The reality is the same: Fluffy has to go. But I do think the way we think about and verbally express this re-location of Fluffy matters. It may make the difference between placing Fluffy in a loving home or unwittingly letting her be sold to a lab, to be used in dog fight practices, or to be even more neglected than she was to begin with. ‘Getting rid’ of something implies worthlessness. And I very much doubt that Fluffy is worthless. None of them are worthless. If we could all work on the way we frame an unfortunate situation (animals are about to be parted from their human friends), we would not hurt our animals’ feelings quite so much.
For, they do, you know, understand. Just ask the animals at our farm.
For those of us a bit up in years and knee-deep in the matters of bottle feeding lambs, shoveling manure, paying bills, and wondering where the next arthritic pain might arise, the romantic aspects of Valentine’s Day are pretty much lost on us. That’s not to say that we have an (albeit) murky memory of such things. And that we don’t applaud the incredible optimism of those who do find love before, after, around or merely on this day. And that we certainly wouldn’t eschew a box of chocolates or some flowers … But love takes on a different meaning for some of us, after all the kissing has been done.
That is to say that receiving a snort from a goat or a woolly greeting from a sheep now delights us just as much as Tall, Dark, and Handsome once did.
The other day I saw our alpaca Marguerite tearing down the driveway in pursuit of Nicole the Great Pyrenees who was desperately trying to get away from her. Marguerite swung her neck in absolute delight, “look Ma, no hands!” The unexpected gives me more joy than any night out at the movies ever did.
Let’s be honest here – ever since I found several dozen kindred souls at an “Anti-Valentine’s Day” party, where there was a Cupid piñata and a 4 hour playlist that included such hits as “Love Stinks” and “Tainted Love”, I’ve had a different appreciation for this day. And I assiduously avoid it. Until now.
This year I just have the feeling that everyone might benefit from indulging in a few mushy feelings. Forget and wine and roses: let’s talk about animals.
Raise your hands, now – how many of you actually can’t get to sleep at night until your dog or cat is snugly in bed with you? How many of you have had to toss your partner onto the couch because “there are too many bodies for this bed”? Who among you would rather hang out with your friends’ pets at a party than try to meet new folks? I thought so. So take it up a notch or three and you might just land on a farm.
Over time the house has hosted (sometime inadvertently) goats, sheep, turkeys, roosters, rabbits, and a pig – not to mention a host of wild creatures who make their way inside, sometimes on the feline express. While this would not really put us in the running for “House Beautiful”, it’s a good way to live. We like each other’s company and while we all had different parents, we can all agree on one thing: we find deep meaning in cookies (except Gruff the sheep who is obviously very confused about life). Every evening there are knocks on the back door – first from Dee Dee Donkey who slams it with her front hooves, then Angel the sheep who head-butts it . Then eventually I hear the gathering sounds of the dinner crowd: Waldo the pig grunting, baaing, mooing, barking, and the occasional swear word. Mostly they want cookies. Molasses cookies, ginger snaps, Fig Newtons (but not the generic: brand name only, please!). I think I can speak for everyone in saying that there can never be too many cookies in life.
Now, some more organized farmers may find our methods here alarming – not the cookies; all sensible farmers know the value of cookies – but the fact that all the animal species live together as one big group. Our guys: they love it. The different opinions provide an endless source of conversation, and they’ve all somehow, some way, worked out ways to get along. Afternoons during naptime, if I’m not having my own lie-down (clarification: this is an age-old civilized European tradition and has nothing to do with being, feeling, or looking a bit worse for wear), I will find the animals sacked out together: Mehitabel the donkey in “her” spot (and don’t mess with her spot), Newman Goat and Dee Dee Donkey quietly discussing the BBC news in the corner, Rachel, Bart, and Madison the sheep lined up against the back wall, Louisa the llama, and Waldo the pig, with Mr. Pickles the rooster sitting on his rotund form.
I can’t explain it, and I don’t want to even try. It just is. And it’s beautiful. And it speaks volumes of love, tolerance, acceptance, and a willingness to just get along.
So this Valentine’s Day I’d like to ask you to show your love to the animals. Don’t bother with the chocolate (unless it’s European and involves hazelnuts). Leave the flowers where they are growing. Instead, participate in the joy of this funny little, humble farm in Boyds, Maryland. Whether you visit in person or remotely through words and pictures, I think you can grab (wait now ….) some good, positive feelings, straighten out your mood for the day, let the bad news in the world roll off your back; know that there is a group of animals here who hold out for peace. We shall always strive to be a peaceable kingdom. Won’t you join us?
“The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.
And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.“
—Isaiah 11: 6-7
As a lover of language, I frequently get my panties in a twist when words are appropriated and used for purposes other than their intent, linguistic origin disrespected. I recognize deep curmudgeonly tendencies in my reactionism. Be that as it may, sometimes upon deeper examination of some words (except the word “impact” used as a verb which I will vehemently battle till the end of my days), I often find an interesting meandering path of vocabulary evolution. To wit, I’ve been recently pondering the word “concierge”. Think about this word for a moment – doesn’t it connote elegance, style, protection, a luxury apartment building in, say, the 16th arrondissement in Paris? A handsome gentleman wearing a gold-braided uniform welcoming you with “Bonjour madame”…. Sigh. Now, in recent years the word has been usurped by the medical profession which has coined the “Concierge doctors”, an utterly irritating misuse of this term. But I digress.
The truth is that the word concierge comes from the Latin conservus (“fellow slave”) which puts an entirely different light on the whole thing, don’t you think? But that is one of those strange, byzantine paths of language whereby the original meaning is entirely turned around. For concierges, contrary to being enslaved, are Gods in their own little worlds.
Hélas, I have little experience with the 16th arronidissment of Paris, but I lived in Cairo for a year back in my youth, and there were concierges everywhere. We learned to fear and respect these guys; I’m convinced they and the taxi drivers ran the entire city. In Cairo the concierges are called “bawwaab” (bawwaabi, plural, and you’d better think of them in the plural since the vast majority of Cairo residences housing some 7 million people are apartment buildings and them’s a lot of bawwaabis).
Bawwaab البواب means literally “he of the door” or the “door doer” or more concisely, “gatekeeper”. Being a bawwaab is a pearl of a job. First of all, you get a place to live. That’s a big deal. Second, bawwaabis know everything, and I mean everything, about their tenants. Want to sneak in a lover, a quart of liquor, or have a new television installed? Got to go through the bawaab. If he doesn’t want your lover or liquor or TV to pass through his doors, guess what.
These guys (and they are guys) usually have a room right off the entrance of the building, or sometimes an apartment in the basement – but in my experience, they mostly hang out on cots right near the front door 24/7. Protecting their throne. They are more effective than security cameras.
Now, I suspect that had I better understood the art of baksheesh بقشيش (“tip” – we will not refer to the word “bribe” as it would be indelicate) I might have found navigating Cairo a bit less tedious. Some of my male friends lived in an apartment building with not one, but two bawwaabis, one of them enormous and frightening. Phones in Cairo were not in abundance in those days (I was lucky enough to have one, but I had to shake it up and down several times before getting a dial tone), and any attempts to go up to my friends’ flat even for a brief word were blocked, physically and, perhaps more importantly, morally by this impressive man. Strangely, though, there was a riotous New year’s Eve party at their apartment that I never could figure out – replete with music blasting from the Romantics, large quantities of bad beer, and at least a dozen females, it was a recipe for infidel cavorting. I strongly suspect heavy baksheesh was involved.
Things are honestly not so different here in Boyds (minus the New Year’s parties). My farm has a few bawwaabi and I can tell you, they are worth their weight in gold. I think the US should adopt this form of social monitoring and we would all live cleaner lives.
At my farm, no one gets in or out without my bawwabis’ notice. They alternately walk the perimeter and sit up front watching the farm’s comings and goings at all times. They are not named Abdul or Samir or Hassan – they are Nicole and Henry and Sam, though Sam is not sure it’s entirely his job and sometimes goes up to the neighbors to indulge in a bit of Vodka and pickles (we’re an international crowd out here).
These are working dogs. Livestock guardian dogs. Big, white, fluffy, smiling, cute, huggable, and utterly lethal to predators. Travel anywhere in farmland and you will see these big white dogs dotting the countryside. Laying down. Taking a sunbath. Stretched out and utterly relaxed. On vacation. “My God, they’re all asleep at the wheel”, a casual observer might say. You of little faith, you have not seen a slumbering LGD rise up in a millisecond to address an issue with tiger-like ferocity. Beware, ye foxes and skunks and groundhogs and uninvited UPS trucks. These dogs have no interest in humans they do not know, other than their ability to dole out treats (baksheesh, anyone?). Unless a human were to enter the property sporting a shotgun or evil intent, the dogs could not be less curious. This has led to great frustration on the part of those visitors who desperately want to pet the big white fluffy cute huggable dogs. But when it comes to keeping animals out who might harm their chickens or ducks or sheep or goats or alpcas or horses or emus or any other creature that is tasty to a carnivore,they transcend the cute and show who they really are: fierce protectors.
There has been a lot of talk in our nation recently about working class people. I am working class, and so are my dogs. I feel no more enslaved to work than they do, although I have heard some say it is, indeed, as the Latin would have us believe, slavery to make an animal work. “How can you enslave an animal so?” I counter with, and what would you have them do? Ignore thousands of years of genetics, instincts and primitive knowledge and make them sit on the couch with you to watch NCIS? There are leisure dogs (there are 2, in fact, residing inside my house) who quite like NCIS. But a true working dog whose every molecule is programmed to do a specific thing is ill suited to the domestic life. Work is a biological imperative. Border collies herd. If they are not given sheep, they round up the neighborhood kids. Hounds, alas, are hunting dogs and if they are not out with Guys with Guns, then they work on eliminating the neighborhood’s squirrel population. Livestock guardian dogs are concierge dogs. They are the bawwaabis of the farming world. They live to watch, listen, and protect.
But here is the thing. Late at night, where in the darkness all I can see are white dogs like spotlights gracefully moving about, things change. Night softens the shadows and the quiet brings into relief natures’ sounds. Ancient as great white wolves, these dogs circle each other , leap up, bumping each other, snorting and grunting and growling with pleasure. First one starts, and then the next, and they twist and turn, smile and snap, splay paws on the ground and jump to the side, asking me to do the same. Once, just once, Sam lets out a long, heart-wrenching, high-pitched howl. I twist my torso around one way and the next, inelegantly following them, and under the cold December moon I am allowed to join the White Dog Night Dance. They are no longer bawwabis, and I am no longer just a farmer.
‘Till next time,
“To run with the wolf was to run in the shadows, the dark ray of life, survival and instinct. A fierceness that was both proud and lonely, a tearing, a howling, a hunger and thirst. Blessed are they who hunger and thirst. A strength that would die fighting, kicking, screaming, that wouldn’t stop until the last breath had been wrung from its body. The will to take one’s place in the world. To say ‘I am here.’ To say ‘I am.’”
― O.R. Melling
“His arrival detonated two sheepdogs that began barking even before they emerged at a dead run from behind the garage.”
― Anita Shreve
In these times of long, long political discussions, campaigning and elections, post-elections campaigning, protests, post-mortem essays, and all the rest — I offer you a tale about cows. Yes, cows. “Really? The country is in a state of immense change and she wants to talk about bovines???” Read on, my fellow Americans, if you wish to be enlightened.
The other night my farm held an evening event to honor our hard-working volunteers. We built a bonfire, roasted marshmallows, ate good home-cooked food and, as the kids would say, “chilled” (literally, brrr!). The kids drank cider and the parents drank wine, and we all stared into the fire as humans have done for thousands of years. Mr. Newman Goat got a beer (Guinness, his favorite), and the sheep ate pumpkins. Nicole and Henry, clad in their best white fluffy dog coats, watched over all of us from a distance as if to make sure we were all OK. Sam, as usual, hid under the porch. Great protective skills, that dog has. The kids took their parents on private, moonlit tours to meet their favorite animals. There was no music, no entertainment, no games – just enjoyment of what is.
I, myself, was simply grateful to sit down for a change and rest my (increasingly old) bones by the fire. There was a brief moment of upset when Brandy entered the scene and produced an immense cow pie right at the entrance, which someone promptly stepped in. But she then laid down and we settled back into our firelit reveries. And then … and then … the Great White-horned Beast appeared on the crest of the hill. “Oooh, ahhh”, the parents echoed. Heads turned and cameras flashed. “How lovely,” said one, “how majestic,” cried another. A young volunteer said, flatly, “he smells the marshmallows”. Out of the mouths of babes, as they say.
Sure enough, after a moment of calm and stately magnificence, the 2000 pound Bullwinkle came lumbering down the hill, heading straight for our little group. “Oooh, ahhh” exclaimed the parents. “OH NO!” cried the young volunteers who jumped to their feet waving their arms as Bullwinkle tossed his massive head back and forth in sheer bovine excitement, aiming right for the fire pit, Brandy in close pursuit. The kids were probably thinking of squashed parents, while I was thinking of scorched hooves and vet bills.
As one body, we rose to our feet, young people simultaneously waving the large black beasts away from danger and parents away from the large black beasts.
I love that the kids who work at Star Gazing Farm are so grounded in reality. I love that they protect both of their loved ones: parents AND cows. There is no enemy, simply the good of all. Sometimes, when you work with rescuing animals, you can feel rather down about humanity. “How could anyone DO that to an animal,” you hear yourself lamenting over and over again. But these young folks are, to me, the essence of what can be and is great about people. Watch these kids in action and you know that we have a future of men and women who not only care, but put their caring into actions.
Sometimes groups and affiliations are built out of self-interest, greed, and other nasty human traits, but sometimes – not often, I give you, but sometimes – they are formed out of sheer common sense. The evening the bovines came to the bonfire will be one which we’ll look back upon and say, “the Cow Party rules!” Kids, go forth and vote.
“Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them”
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry,
Til next time,