catsI’m allergic to cats, and not just in the “sniffle-sniffle” way. On more than one occasion I have ended up in the emergency room with life-threatening asthma attacks after unexpected exposure to cats at close range. I had a cat when I growing up — a male tabby named Calico — and itched (when I wasn’t itching) to have a cat in my life. Not enough to kill myself, but an awful lot regardless.

A chance encounter with an episode of Martha Stewart’s show gave me a glimmer of hope. Siberian cats, her guest told her, were hypo-allergenic, meaning some proportion of people with allergies would be able to tolerate them well enough to live with them. I checked it out, and it was largely true: Some Siberian cats may be low enough in their allergen levels that people with mild to moderate allergies might be OK with them. (I put all those conditions in that sentence on purpose. Beware anyone who tells you anything more definitive.)

I found a nice, honest couple in Oregon who bred Siberians specifically for the low-allergen market (Lundberg Siberians), and finally for the first time in my life, I had cats. My first Siberian was Clara, whom I never found after she got outside one day. Ilario (a/k/a The Big Orange Kitteh, or T-BOK) and Mariposa (a/k/a Mari, and both pictured here) have been with me for a few years now. My allergies tolerate them for the most part (assuming I take all my meds), and I enjoy sharing my life and my home with them.

But they will be the last two cats I ever own. In part, that’s because the cost of kittens who test in the low or extra low allergen levels has increased many times since I bought Ilario, far above my means but the seemingly what the market will bear. But really, as much as I love my two cats, I hate litter boxes so much that I would not consider cats again after TBOK and Mari die.

I could tell you the partial truth, which is that even if I wear a mask I get a mild asthma attack every day when I scoop the boxes. Yes, it’s true: The cats don’t bother my allergies, but the dust from the litter and airborne particulate from their waste does. On that grounds alone, I know I’d be justified in calling the cat experiment over when these two are no longer around.

But the bigger truth is that I hate, hate, hate cleaning litter boxes. I would rather scrub the toilet, muck the stalls and pastures or pick up behind my dogs with a plastic bag over my hand than I would scoop the litter boxes. The only thing worse is cleaning out chicken coops, and I certainly don’t have to do that every day.

Yes, I know: There are automatic litter boxes. Won’t help me, because you still have to empty them, and cat waste makes me gag. (Might help with the breathing issues while scooping, though).

There are many things in this world that I’ve dealt with that would prompt gagging, vomiting or worse in many, many people — but haven’t bothered me all that much once I’d dealt with them enough to get more or less used to them.

Those litter boxes, though? I know many people scoop without problems, but I am not among them. Every day when I scoop it’s the same reaction, and that hasn’t changed over the years.

When these two are gone — and that’s many year away, I hope — the litter boxes will be gone forever. No more indoor cats for me, and given my very bad luck with barn cats (three gone in two year’s time), no more of those either.

I guess I’ll go back to being catless for the rest of my life.

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bernBernadette was a “training duck,” used to teach hunting dogs how to do their work. But she turned out too mean for the puppies we were training six years ago last October, so she was put in a cat carrier out of sight of the dogs.

I felt she’d earned a live of leisure after facing down puppies four times her size, or maybe I just respected her take-no-prisoners attitude. After I got home, I called the trainer and told her that if the duck we’d named “The Mean Duck” would get along with my chickens, she could join my flock.

She did, and she did. And while to this day she has never liked nor trusted me we long ago came to terms of truce: I stopped trying to pick her up, and she stopped trying to bite me.

I named her Bernadette, because of her bravery. Read the rest of this entry »

IMG_2564In a little more than a month I’ll be having surgery to fix a back problem. I’m really looking forward to it: I didn’t move onto this little property with the idea that I wouldn’t be able to be an active part of life here. But the surgery has pushed me to do something I haven’t wanted to do: I’m sending Haggin away, perhaps forever.

This is very difficult decision for me.

Haggin came to me after his career as a racehorse fell apart along with his fetlocks. When I first met him he could barely walk; a year later he was still in padded shoes. He went through so much Bute that I figured I’d lose him to the side effects. But slowly, gradually, he got better. Much, much better. Late summer of 2013, I had someone staying for a while who was a pretty good trainer, and she worked with him. He did really well. There were three horses here at the time, two of them she was training for sale.

She left, they left. And Haggin was left bored, sad and lonely. Read the rest of this entry »

supplementsAbout a year ago, I stopped being a freelance writer when I was offered a really good job working for a pet health insurance company. The job offer was different from anything I’d done before: Instead of writing about pets for pet-owners, I would be writing about medicine, economics and small business for veterinarians, veterinary students, practice managers and veterinary technicians.

I liked that proposition. Over the years (17 books and a syndicated column a week for a couple of decades) I had explained how to get a cat to use the litter box or a dog to take a pill about as many ways as it was possible to do so. I had grown to love veterinary medicine, and I liked pushing myself to handle the business and economics topics. It wasn’t that big a jump: I’d worked on the business desk at The Sacramento Bee earlier in my writing/editing career.

As I threw myself into the new job, I put this blog on hold. I really just didn’t feel like writing for the hell of it any more. A couple months ago I helped a friend get her blog rolling, and I started to realize that I was missing writing for my own pleasure. The new job had leveled off to the point where I had free time after work, which is something free-lance writers never seem to have.  If you’re not writing, you’re selling your writing. With freelancing it’s all such a big scramble to write more and more, while dealing with the fear that someday no one will pay you to write anything.

And then, of course, you’d be living in your car.

Having a “day job” again ended that worry, for the most part. All these months later, I am now starting to have my head fill up with things I want to write about. Guess I needed to water table to rise before I went back to the well. Read the rest of this entry »

Ifeathers‘d like to say it got easier, watching my friend pull a sharpened knife across the neck of a turkey, waiting as the bird’s consciousness drain just behind, and then just ahead, of the blood flow. But it never really did.

No doubt you can get pretty callous when you work in an industrial slaughterhouse, when the speed of killing and dismemberment leaves little time for regret, or even thought itself. But thinking is something you have lots of time for when you spend months raising your own meat, and that’s even true when you spend a beautiful autumn afternoon helping to kill, pluck and butcher a small flock of birds you don’t really know.

It takes three people combined about 30 minutes per bird, and that’s if you’re really staying focused on the task. Plenty of time to think about life and death as you go through the routine: Catching a bird from the stall you put them in the night before. Putting him or her upside-down in a traffic cone you’ve hung from eaves of the barn. Severing the artery in the neck with one swift, bold stroke. Standing as respectful witness as the bird dies (this is actually, thankfully, the swiftest part of the procedure, just a second or two in duration). Waiting for the death throes to end. Plunging the carcass into 155 degree water to loosen the feathers, then plucking, butchering, packaging and freezing.

Then back to the stall for the next bird.

I know many people don’t name their meat animals, seemingly to spare them some of the emotions when it’s time to slaughter. But honestly it does not matter if you name them or not, since when you’re raising your own food in such small numbers you come to know one bird or animal from another, never more so than when you’re ending their lives. Their lives pass not in front of their eyes, but in front of yours. I didn’t know this flock that well, but I’d seen them a few times since they first arrived as fluffy babies on the farm. That was enough to remove their anonymity: They were individuals to me, just as much as if they had been named.

The friend who pulled the blade across their necks apologized to each bird before she did so. Her thank you a second later was the last thing each bird ever heard.

I also always say “I’m sorry” and “thank you.” I would bet that’s not uncommon. Read the rest of this entry »

BigAlI did not want a rooster. And really, I still don’t. When I first looked at the house almost two years ago, the property had a resident rooster. He attacked my real estate agent, taking a chunk out of his khakis (but fortunately not his leg). On subsequent visits to the place, I brought a poultry hook so that I could prevent further incidents. When the sale closed, Mr. Rooster Man (his real name) moved next door along with the two horses who’d been boarded here, all of them belonging to a person who took an near-instant dislike for me, for reasons best not explained. (Other people were largely responsible, and it wasn’t anyone’s finest moment, mine included.’Nuff said.)

When I lived in plain ol’ suburbia, I had chickens. Where I lived, hens were allowed if you had a single-family residence on a minimum lot of a quarter-acre, which I did. I maintained a flock of about 10 chickens for four or five years before moving to this house, where “AG-RES” zoning made roosters (goats, sheep, cattle, horses) allowable.

Twice before I’d raised “female” chicks who turned out to be roosters. One died in the jaws of my chicken-killing retriever, the late McKenzie, and the other one I rehomed to my friend’s farm. But the fact is that it didn’t matter what I thought about having a rooster where I used to live, because they were not allowed by zoning, period. My neighbor, who’d taken up chickens about the same time I did, was not as fortunate. She seemed to get about 30 percent males out of chicks purported to be “95 percent” sexed as females. She rehomed hers as well, but it wasn’t easy: The feed store where she’d bought her chicks suggested turning them loose in a nearby town, or dropping them on the American River Parkway for the coyotes to eat. Or, quite sensibly, killing them for food. She did none of that, but her roosters-to-hens ratio was so bad that she stopped raising chicks. Last I heard, she was just letting her hens live out their roosterless lives.

The first spring I was here I was too busy to raise chicks. Last spring was the first chance I had, and I went a little overboard at the feed store. By the time summer came around I had 22 chickens, or about a dozen more than I’d brought over from the old house. By July, it was apparent by the dawn serenade that one of those “shes” was a he. Wouldn’t you know it: It was the “just one more” chick I’d pulled from the Ameraucana tray at the feed store. The chick had caught my eye because of the markings, and yes, that chick grew up to be a striking rooster, now named Aloysius or just plain Big Al.

Good-looking he may be, but welcome he is not. Read the rest of this entry »

Fall at RBF

Some pictures from the last couple of weeks.

A horseless winter

I knew the haggin0929property had a “drainage issue” when I bought it. The sellers told me, and my neighbor told me. The day my offer was accepted, in December of 2011, I went out to celebrate finally buying my own small piece of rural property by standing in the ankle-deep mud of my new pasture. Yeah, it was bad, but … well, Mud Season is one of the two known to all horse-owners, Fly Season being the other. The pasture was still ankle-deep in mud when I closed in February of 2012, but again, if you have horses, you’ll have mud. I bought a pair of Muck Boots in preparation for last winter, but thought everything would be fine otherwise.

In December of 2012, it rained for five days straight, and the pasture was under water — it was, in effect, a lake — for the better part of two months. Even then, it could have been worse: Had it rained a little harder for a little longer, my barn would have flooded. But the rain stopped just in time, so I had two dry stalls for the horses and the $3,000 worth of hay stayed dry so I could feed them. But I knew I had been lucky, and couldn’t rely on luck again. For this year, I needed a short-term solution. A longer-term solution — fixing the drainage issue — would have to wait until I have money to afford it.

The first step was getting down to two horses, because the barn has only two stalls, and the third “stall” is a makeshift affair that doesn’t shelter much — it faces into the wind — and floods with the pasture. On short notice last December, reducing the “herd” meant giving up my very best (in terms of training, conformation, markings and temperament) horse, Patrick. I was lucky to be able to donate him to the Sacramento Police Department, where Officer Patrick now has several arrests under his cinch and a fan club.

That left River, my Kentucky Mountain Horse, and Haggin, my off-track Thoroughbred. At the beginning of summer, I started thinking about how to prepare for another wet winter with the two of them. In late summer, I had my hay shipment stacked on double pallets, so even if water got into the barn there might be a chance to save my hay. I had a “curtain” made from a tarp added to the front of the barn (the original barn doors disappeared heaven-knows-when) to protect the hay from wind-blown rain. I started getting load after load of wood chips dumped in the stalls, on the pasture’s lowest spots and on a “road” from the house to barn. Fortunately, one of my neighbors owns a tree company, and he and his crew are happy to empty their trucks at the end of a day of trimming and chipping — for free. I’ve been taking all they’ll give me, and as long as the pasture is dry enough for them to drive onto I’ll take more. Read the rest of this entry »

I didn’t bottle-raise the two Nigerian Dwarf does born here in February because I didn’t want goats who followed me everywhere. Instead, my plan was to let their mom raise them, taking less milk so she had enough for them. Then I watched as she slowly taught them to eat more on their own and less from her. I think she was getting pretty tired of nursing, to be honest.

The doelings were not afraid of me, by any means. But they really wanted very little to do with me. Looking for that happy medium, on Monday I pulled the two girls and put them in a small pen not far from their mother. This did not go over well:

After a day piteous non-stop sobbing on the part of the doelings and the mother, I switched them, putting mom in the new area and putting the babies back in the are where they were raised. That seemed to work much better for all. Then I started teaching the youngsters to associate me with food, and at the same time started milking the mom while giving her lots of yummy grain.

Five days later, things are going pretty well. Mom is patient and content while I milk her, and although she still cries for her babies, things are winding down on her end. She has been through this before, after all. And the doelings have gone from eating sweet treats near me, to eating out of my hand, to eating while being held in my lap.

We getting there. And I think I’m going to keep both of the doelings. They’re very nice kids.

I don’t anything in any organized fashion, and I think I’m getting worse as I get older. Actually, I know I am, because I’m aware that I’m gradually, finally starting to think of my way of doing things not as “better” or “worse” than some person I imagine to be a perfect paragon of organization but as simply … the way I do things. With no efforts to reform, I’m just going with the flow as much as I can.

This spring, the way I’m doing things is to put 30 bales of straw on their sides in my front yard, add soaker hoses, fertilizer and plants and say, “this is just fine.” There’s a big “L” in the middle what could be called a “lawn,” but really is just a swath of moles and green weeds. That’s the “L” to the right, and that parts done. Next will be putting the rest of the bales along the fenceline, to take advantage of the sunny location while using the chain link to support the vegetables and flowers.

I don’t know how it’s all going to turn out. At the last place I had raised beds, but making this place inhabitable took more time and more money than I anticipated. Raised beds are out of the question for this year. Next year, maybe. Or maybe not.  I snorked up an article on straw bale gardening in the New York Times, download the scanned an e-book and called the feed store for the bales, which they delivered. Maybe this is the kind of gardening that will work for me: Short Attention Span Gardening.

No plans to wax poetic about garden from me, nor do I intend to keep meticulous notes. I planted willy-nilly, vegetables and flowers, and I’ll see what comes up. The first four tomato plants are the ones the Russians gave me in exchange for my horse manure. Everything else is nursery starters or seeds … melons, beans, squash and peppers. Sunflowers and other flowering annuals went in where the soaker hose drips water on bare ground.

I’m looking forward to seeing how it all turns out. And at the end of the season I’ll cut the balling cord and spread the straw across the lawn to feed the soil and slow the weeds. Next year? I don’t know, and I’m not thinking that far ahead.

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