Friday, June 1, 2012

Recoveries and Losses

We've had quite a bit of trauma at the farm during the past couple of weeks. First of all, Daisy (one of our Saanen-Alpine kids) developed scours--a polite, old-fashioned term farmers use to refer to diarrhea among young livestock. I wasn't too alarmed at first, assuming that something in the kitchen scraps we had tossed them that day had upset her stomachs (she has four, after all--so chances are one or more of them are going to be upset sooner or later!). But when she continued to be sick the next day, I began to get worried. Like many young dairy goat kids, she and her sister, Snowdrop, are scrawny little things, and it didn't look like she could afford to lose much more of her meager substance.

That evening, I called the farmer who'd sold her to us for some advice, and she recommended we give her some Pepto-Bismol, hydrate her as best we could, watch her closely, and call a vet if necessary. "She could die from this, you know," she said at the end of our conversation. G-P ran to the store for the PB and an oral electrolyte solution, and I--seeing as how I had no idea how to dose a goat--did a quick web search. I found what seemed like some decent tips and made the best dosage guess I could. I also tried to clean her up a bit (she was fairly smeared with the stuff by this point, and quickly rubbing it off on the other goats). Unfortunately, this was all for naught; she was still very ill (and filthy) the next morning. Since G-P still wasn't ready to call the vet yet, I had to leave her in this state when I headed out for my Habitat for Humanity volunteer stint around 7:30. I'm afraid I had a hard time concentrating on the paint job I was completing that day, as my mind kept drifting back to Daisy.

Not long before we finished the interior walls, G-P called to tell me he'd decided to call the vet after all--but not for Daisy. Snowdrop, he reported, had collapsed in the pasture and didn't seem able to get up. What?!? I grabbed my keys and headed back home. When I got there, I found both goats lying close together under some shade trees, Daisy still a desperate mess and Snowdrop now shivering and glassy-eyed. Was she in shock? It was hard to tell. I covered her with a folded sheet and sat there with the two of them waiting for the vet to come, contemplating what might have happened. The best we could guess was that she had been bitten by something. We'd seen a very large snapping turtle around the yard and pasture during the previous week. Maybe Daisy had accidentally gotten too close to it. Or could it have been a snake? The bite mark on the inside of her leg wasn't very large.

In any case, "Dr. Bob" arrived in his mobile-medical-unit pickup a little while (it seemed like ages) later. He gave Snowdrop a couple of shots and oral meds, dewormed Daisy, and gave me a fairly dizzying array of instructions on how to administer the liquids and injections he was leaving with us. "You ever given shots before?" he asked. "Well, uh, yeah, about 18 years ago when I worked at an AIDS hospice, but . . ." "Okay--you shouldn't have a problem. Just grab some flesh and push it in."

So I began another new farming adventure: administering medicine to livestock. It really wasn't that hard (except for the time the needle broke apart from the syringe halfway through one of the injection). And it was awfully satisfying to see the effort pay off, as both Daisy and Snowdrop gradually began to recover over the course of the next several days. Dr. Bob returned in less than a week to check up on Daisy and Snowdrop and to do check-ups/vaccinations/deworming on all the goats and Ellie Mae (the donkey) as well. After that visit, I got another round of meds to administer (all orally this time, thank goodness!)--more probiotics for Daisy, antibiotics for both she and Snowdrop, and Iodine to try to clear up Ellie Mae's strange cough. G-P thought all this was a bit much for a few scrawny goats and a farm donkey. So he couldn't help but deliver yet another one of his mini-lectures on Nigerian animal husbandry. "Back in Nigeria we never gave our goats medicines, and they never died," he announced one afternoon. (He later claimed he was going to qualify this statement, but my older sister and her family were here visiting, bore witness, and readily agreed with me that this one deserves a special place in the Annals of Great G-Pisms.)

I was feeling pretty good at this point. Our 40 baby chicks in the brooder seemed to be thriving--eating and drinking greedily and growing by leaps and bounds. Crystal and her chicks seemed happy in the extra barn stall, which we'd equipped with a dog crate (for an extra-safe bed), pine shavings, and food and water. And both Daisy and Snowdrop seemed to be getting back their active, inquisitive, sweet personalities. Maybe they were even gaining a little weight. Ellie Mae's cough persisted, but I wasn't too worried since I knew it might take some time to clear up.

Then, on Memorial Day, when our family went out to a hardware store to get materials for closing in the extra coop for the rapidly growing chicks, we had another visit from a predator. We have no idea what it was, but it got both Autumn and Libre. Unfortunately, it was Segi who found the body of Autumn (her own beloved hen) in the woods by the house. She was shocked and devastated--sobbing and running into my arms, so discombobulated that she couldn't let go yet wouldn't let me hold her. We never found a trace of Libre. Now we had only one chicken left out of the first ten we started with last fall: Crystal, Simi's hen.

Little did we guess that she would soon be gone as well. The next morning, around 11 or so, the girls came running into the front yard to interrupt my flower planting and tell me I had to come to the barn NOW. Two of the Rhode Island Reds were missing, as was Crystal. "Her baby chicks are huddling together in a corner of the crate!" Simi exclaimed. I was once again not overly alarmed. I assumed Crystal had finally left her babies for a few moments to get some fresh air, and the Reds were probably just hiding in one of the stalls of the barn. After all, this couldn't be happening again. But Crystal wasn't out getting fresh air. And the Reds were nowhere to be seen. They were gone. Vanished. The only sign we could find of any of them was a small pile of Rhode Island Red feathers on the ground outside the stall Crystal had been in. It must have been more than one animal. And it/they must have been quiet and fast. (We'd been in the yard planting for quite a while and hadn't heard anything we registered as unusual.) Whatever it/they was/were evidently managed to scale stall walls and hop in to get Crystal, and then scale the walls again to retreat--without leaving a single sign of its/their presence. Could a pack coyotes do that? Or foxes? Raccoons? Weasels????

I was stunned. How could we lose five chickens in two days without hearing or seeing a thing? And, more importantly: What were we going to do now? Were we going to have to give up completely our commitment to letting our animals live free range? The false sense of security I'd had since we bought Ellie Mae a few weeks ago was now gone--especially once I found her shortly after the attack cowering with the goats in her stall, obviously shaken and scared. Poor dear. G-P was less than sympathetic, of course. "What was the point of buying a donkey if she's not going to guard anything? Even in broad daylight?" he wanted to know. "But she did," I countered, a little more meekly than usual. "She was probably in there protecting the goats. And one of the surviving Reds was also in the stall with her, crouched down underneath her tummy." G-P was not impressed.

For the first time since we started putting together our little farm last fall, I'm feeling discouraged. And very tired. It has been really important to us to let our animals live as freely and naturally as possible. Our insistence on free ranging them has not been so much for practical reasons as for ideological--or rather, ethical--ones. We believe that if people are going to keep animals in order to exploit the products and services they provide us, we should treat them as well as possible and let them live as free a life as possible. We have seen allowing them to free-range as an essential part of following our principles. But it's evidently not going to work--at least not within our budget and alongside our other priorities. (We can't afford to make the fence around the barnyard and pasture fully predator-proof, at least not at this stage in our lives. Even if we could, there are probably too many trees hanging over it, allowing predators like raccoons to drop into the barnyard no matter what kind of fence we put up. And G-P is decidedly against buying a trained guard dog to pick up where Ellie Mae seems to be leaving off. (He's allergic to them, and their barking drives him nuts.)

So we're going to spend most of the weekend ahead trying to finish closing in with welded wire that extra stall in the barn (for the 40 baby chicks that will soon be too big for the brooder) and constructing a 6-foot covered run off of the coop. I'm lobbying for making the run as big as possible. But it will still be a small, artificial space compared to the openness our chickens--most of whom are now gone--have enjoyed before. (We'll plan to let them out in the pasture for at least a couple of hours a day, when we can keep a close eye on them.) I'll continue to hope we can figure something else out, but for now, we will follow the Scottish proverb, "better bend than break.," and grieve with Maya Angelou . . .

The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
of things unknown but longed for still
and his tune is heard on the distant hill
for the caged bird sings of freedom.

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.

(excerpt from "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings")

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