Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
The animals on my farm enjoy a good life: free range, fresh air, sunshine, plenty of food, and humane treatment. I care for them, and in return they care for me. The chickens provide eggs and meat. The goats provide brush control, meat, and fertilizer for the garden as well as a fair amount of entertainment. The bees provide honey, wax, and pollination. The cat keeps the mice out of the barn, and the dogs keep away predators. Sounds like the peaceable kingdom, right? Well not quite.
I like to quote Gene Logsdon regarding farm animals. In Gene Everlasting, he says, “We raise our farm animals with loving care, grow quite fond of them, put our lives at risk to save theirs if necessary, and then we kill and eat them.” So there’s that — the farmer who eats her animals. And then sometimes, there’s the animals that turn on one another.
Recently, I spent one month incubating 10 eggs on the kitchen countertop, another month caring for the newly hatched chicks in the brooder, and a third month caring for them on their own partitioned-off side of the main chicken coop. When they were 2 months old, I started letting them out with the big girls to free range during the day. Even though I locked them up every night, they immediately started disappearing!
One day as I was out in the yard, a few of the older hens hopped the fence and began scratching around in the yard near the dogs. The dogs, Dixie, a beagle/foxhound mix, and Bud, an Italian mastiff, ignored the hens as usual. When the dogs are not in the house sucked up against the wood stove, they are in the yard and are quite used to the chickens and guinea hens. Soon some of the half-grown chicks squeezed through the fence and fluttered after the hens, hoping to get some of whatever goodies the hens had found.
Then as I watched, Bud walked over, snatched up a chick, and started chomping, right under my nose. I was horrified! Dixie saw what was happening, looked at me just as guiltily as if she were the one chomping on my chick, and immediately slunk away to hide from what surely was coming. However, Bud just kept chomping away nonchalantly, as if I’d just given him a new chew toy.
I ran over too late to save the chick but in time to catch him with a mouthful of half-chewed bird and in time to rain down on him a fair amount of wrath and un-grandmotherly language as I removed what was left of the bird from his jaws. He looked surprised and then forlorn (and yes, a dog does have these expressions). Although this wasn’t his first offense, it had been years since he’d killed a chicken.
I’d tried a bevy of things to break him back then. Tying a dead hen to his collar had not worked because I hadn’t caught him killing the hen. He loved having the foul thing flopping about his neck, even managing to get a bite of it now and then and rolling in the smell. The stench was unbearable for the rest of us and we were truly punished. But when I finally caught him red-pawed, feathers in his mouth, the shock of my displeasure and a couple of hard swats had cured him of killing my hens — until now.
So I assumed he’d learned his lesson this time too. Surely he’d learned that these little erratically moving nuggets were actually my hens too and off limits to him — problem solved. After all, he really is 100 pounds of well-muscled sweetness and just loves to please me.
Well I was dead wrong. One evening I returned from town well after dark and closed up the chicken coop before going in for the night. In the morning when I opened the coop door, all the adult hens paraded out to start their day, but no chicks? I looked in the coop--no sign of them. I went back and looked around the yard and found little chicken feathers scattered all around the house and in the flower beds. The “sweet” monster dog Bud had been at it again and I was livid!
But I could only look helplessly at Bud as he wagged his tail and looked back at me with those big soulful brown eyes. I couldn’t punish him now — he wouldn’t have a clue about why. What was I going to do with him? I thought of childhood stories like Where the Red Fern Grows and The Yearling, stories in which children’s pets had to be shot to save the farm families’ food supplies.
With a grocery store a few miles away, I was in no danger of starving and I couldn’t shoot him, but I didn’t want an animal around that was going to kill and maim my other animals. So I did what people do in these more modern times, I posted his picture on a local Facebook trading site as well as my own Facebook page and offered him up “free to a good home.”
Wow, did I get blowback from that! Later in the day, when I checked the Facebook trading site, I was shocked at all the criticism I was getting. Apparently chicken-killing and maiming aren’t good enough reasons to re-home (that’s what I’m supposed to call it I was informed, re-homing) a dog. And didn’t I know that offering him up for free like that would only attract people who wanted to use him to fight or as a “bait dog” for a fight? Well, no, it really never occurred to me that people who would do such a thing exist.
At first, I tried to ignore the uproar, but then I got a little snarky over the whole matter. I posted this cheeky comment, “Well gee, maybe it would be kinder to have him put to sleep?”
When I checked the Facebook site again the next day, it was full of dressing-down comments, advice on breaking dogs of killing hens (mostly tying dead birds around their necks), but no offers to take his chicken-killing butt into their homes.
I replied with a not-so-kindly comment about how all these Facebook commenters were out of touch with the realities of farm life and were probably the same folks who were getting salmonella from kissing their backyard chickens and then discarding them in animal shelters when things got real. Within 5 minutes, the site moderator took down my post and threatened to ban me from the site forever.
Appropriately chastised, I sat down to think about what to do about my Bud problem. I offered to trade him to my daughter for my 17-month-old granddaughter, who has just learned to hit and is driving her mother crazy. I told my daughter that we could both re-home our problem causers and know that they would be well loved. She considered it for a minute. But I am already softening and beginning to hope that no one will offer to take Bud.
I think I’ll remove his picture from my own Facebook page as well. Maybe he can sport a muzzle whenever he’s outside in the yard with any new batch of chicks, at least until they’re full grown? OK, Bud, one more pardon for you…or maybe only parole.
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