Our farm is governed under a network of treaties.
The cat, “Pavo,” moved in when the chicken coop was infested by mice. They literally dropped from the rafters. I would set eight traps in the evening, dispose of eight little corpses in the morning, and do the same on the following night. It was messy and depressing. Pavo was an unwanted member of a friend’s household, and we agreed to see if he could live in harmony with a flock of chickens. After a brief training session during which he was convinced that chickens were my special pals and he had better be nice to them, he settled in, and has lived comfortably in the coop ever since.
Pavo’s arrival necessitated another round of negotiations. With the dogs. Most dogs are born with the strong impulse to chase cats. Some dogs, especially the farm variety, carry this instinct to its logical extreme. They kill cats.
Pavo’s previous owners, although they didn’t want to share their house with him, wanted to be reassured that he would prosper in his new home. I couldn’t make that assurance. Dogs can be stubborn about the cat thing, and I was not entirely certain of my ability to negotiate a truce. The dogs and I spent a few minutes with the cat, though, and they seemed to get the idea. The cat was one of my special friends. My friends are their friends. It’s like I’m on the U.N. Security Council for the farm.
The dogs have adopted treaties with all the other livestock as well.
The sheep and the goats are under Security Council protection, of course, but they also have certain nuclear capabilities. Their nuclear arsenals are called “Zero,” and “Beano.” Zero is a nine-year-old mule with canicidal tendencies. That is, he wants to kill all coyotes and dogs. We do not discourage these tendencies. “Beano” is a two-year-old donkey, and she feels pretty much the same way. The two of them have an almost perfect record when it comes to protecting their flocks of sheep and goats.
Only “Mopsa,” the border collie, is allowed in the pastures with the sheep and goats. She likes to practice herding. She’s largely self-taught in this regard. Zero likes to practice, too. He taunts Mopsa, and when she comes within reach he attacks. She’s very quick and so far no serious injuries have occurred. I think Zero is holding back.
A humanitarian passer-by recently stopped at the neighbors’. Explaining that she was concerned about animal rights, she wanted to know whether they were aware that a dog was harrassing the “horse” in the pasture next to their house. They told her that the “horse” was actually a mule, the “harrassment” was more of a game, and that the animals weren’t theirs but that they would let the owner know.
My neighbors are, of course, aware that this game goes on continually for hours every day. They are also aware that the sport seems to entertain both parties.
There are other periodic skirmishes, of course. The ram and the billy goat are undiscriminating when it comes to each other’s species, and so during the breeding season they have to be separated or they butt each other bloody trying to establish dominion over all the females. Zero and Beano periodically chase and nip their flocks, seemingly for fun, but no serious injuries result.
Zero will, if allowed, chase the cattle all day long. He likes to herd them into a corner and then see how close he can get to them. Inching up on them as they stare, nervously. Bucking and kicking when the cows finally panic and scatter. Zero has a great sense of sport. That’s why Zero doesn’t get to share space with the cattle.
The most challenging diplomatic impasse we maintain around here, though, is the Dog/Chicken Accord. Chickens are the world’s most perfect dog toys. They are just the right size. They move in jerky, tantalizing ways. They run, but not too fast. They taste great. They are less filling.
We, however, cannot abide any dog games that involve chickens.
Most of our diplomatic assignnments around here are relatively simple. A harsh dog scolding and a lot of overt affection shown to the cat, for instance, have been enough to prevent dog/cat incidents. To convince a healthy, exuberant dog not to chase, catch, kill or eat a chicken is more difficult, especially when the dog’s field of view is literally swarming with fowl.
The process involves a recently deceased chicken, the dog and the owner. It takes about 15 minutes. E-mail me if you want more specific instructions.
I have a perfect record with my training program. I have trained five dogs to avert their gaze when a chicken walks by. The worst of them took two training sessions (that’s two dead chickens, unfortunately).
Mopsa got her training session just recently. She grew up here on the farm, she’s two years old, and she hadn’t considered killing chickens until last fall. We had two or three fatalities before we figured out that she was our culprit. We thought it might have been the coyotes, but it was “Little Miss Pretty,” instead. She received the training and both her fellow canines — Yuki and Rusty — received refresher courses at the same time just to make sure everyone was on the same page.
Just a few mornings later, while I was making coffee in my bathrobe, I heard the dogs on their porch adjacent to the kitchen fussing with each other. That often means their 50-lb. feeder is empty, so I went out barefoot to fill it. The plastic bin was on its side, and when I lifted it I realized someone had taken up residence in there. Someone about the size of a possum or — worse yet — a skunk. Rattled, I went back inside for a flashlight.
The feed bin has a door the dogs can push aside with their noses, so I took a broom and, training the light on the feed bin, I gingerly pushed the door aside with my broom, poised to evacuate if I discovered an angry skunk in there.
Inside, a sleepy, well-fed hen was resting contentedly on the last few kibbles and bits.
I know the dogs figured this was the ultimate test — their final exam as it were. Not only was the chicken in the feed bin — where they get the stuff they eat for heaven’s sake — but she was eating their food. Dog values would indicate that this was a chicken who deserved to die. This was a chicken just begging to be devoured.
But the dogs deferred to the bizarre, inexplicable value system dictated by their human counterparts, and left Henny Penny alone all night, in the feed bin, eating their food and clucking in her mouth-watering way.
Everybody got a Milk Bone.