I‘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.
This day I was a plucker, not a killer, but I have killed in the past. I have never killed more than a single bird or two at a time — never a flock. Most times the killing I do is to end the suffering of a dying chicken, either after a predator has mortally wounded her or because she is old, sick and miserable. There was no benefit to the birds in their deaths this day: On Monday they were a flock of healthy turkeys in the pasture, and on Tuesday they were holiday dinners in stand-up freezer.
My friend and I talked a little as we plucked about hunting some birds, and raising others to kill. We are not bloodthirsty, and the killing is the hardest part of what we do. But we know that the animals and birds we eat live normal lives. “Self-actualized,” said my friend, by which she meant they lived doing what is normal for them to do: Move freely in a flock or a herd of their peers, eating what they are supposed to eat. Unlike their cousins in industrialized meat-growing operations, they do not suffer every moment of their lives; unlike their wild relations, they do not die in fear and pain in the jaws of a predator.
For our birds, life is good until it is not, and then it is over.
When people ask me how I could do what I did, that’s what I tell them. And then I remind them that if you are going to be alive, other animals are going to die to make that possible. The best you can do is make more of their lives better, and their deaths swift and without fear. That’s true even if you never eat meat at all: If you live, other animals will die. They will die in the fields where your food is harvested, the corn or the soy. They will die because of habitat lost to the places where you live, drive, work or stop for coffee, or the fields committed to the monoculture crops that are processed into the foods you eat.
I know where meat comes from, and what it truly costs. That’s how I could do what I did. And why I will do it again.
I will be back to my friend’s house soon to claim one of those birds from her freezer. This Thanksgiving the prayers of gratitude I offer will include him, not in abstraction but in memory of the day I pulled the feathers from his body, still warm from the life that had already drained away.
Image: Heading home with a reminder of the afternoon, the tail feathers of a royal palm turkey.
I 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.
When Mr. Rooster Man moved next door, I didn’t miss him much. Mostly because it was as if he’d never left: He’d claimed a corner of his new yard that was right under the bedroom windows of my house. Although I got use to his racket, guests always complained. Some even offered, somewhat jokingly, to remove the foul fowl. Eventually, something got him, a raccoon, or maybe a coyote, and we all slept better for it. I expressed my condolences to those who loved him, but I myself did not regret his death a bit.
As for Big Al, he isn’t an attack rooster. His crowing isn’t all that bad, and he’s gorgeous. These all work in his favor, as does the fact that he’s not all that beastly towards the hens and seems to have a beneficial impact on the volume of egg production (which is about seven dozen a week, and yes, we eat a lot of eggs and give a lot away, too). In the spring, I’ll let some of the green and blue eggs hatch out for more Ameraucanas (love those green- and blue-shelled eggs), so he he’ll earn his keep a little. What happens when half of those chicks start crowing? I’m really not opposed to the Chicken Soup Solution. I’ve done it before, and I’ll do it again. Big Al has the edge on survival, thanks to his status as Rooster No. 1.
For now, I’m allowing Al to keep his head. Emphasis on “for now.” If the crowing becomes annoying or he becomes dangerous, all the good looks in the world won’t save him.
I knew the property 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.
I had done all I could do: I was prepared for rain and mud, and praying for a winter without a concentrated series of water-heavy storms that would flood the pasture.
But then one of those things you never plan for happened. In my case, I ended up with a roommate who is an accomplished horse-trainer, and she decided to work on the horses while she was living here for a couple months. Since the rainy season was still months away, I brought over another friend’s horse who needed to have some refresher training before sale, the third kinda-stall being just fine in dry weather. As all three horses started shaping up beautifully under the daily training, I started looking to sell not only my friend’s horse (Casper) but also my Kentucky Mountain Horse (River). With those two gone, I could afford to board Haggin somewhere dryer for the winter, leaving nothing to chance.
River and Casper went out on trials last week. River now appears to be sold, and I hope Casper will soon pass muster for a final sale as well. As for Haggin, he’s not for sale, but the wonderful training my friend put on him while she was living here means his possibilities have become much broader as well. He has come a long way from his status as a broken “pasture pet” of an ex-racehorse. Although he’s still too tall and too fast for me to ride, he has become sound enough that he’ll be going out on a trial as as a low-level show and lesson horse.
In one of those “you can’t make up stuff like this” the barn where he’ll be going — Gold Country Equestrian Center — is the one where I learned to ride, some 30 years ago. Still owned by the same family, in fact.
Haggin is not for sale — I love that horse. But I think he’ll be happier being ridden regularly, and I know he’ll be happy and healthier not standing in water. He leaves for the new barn on Wednesday, and I will be horse-free here for the time being. I may offer my two stalls to a neighbor who’s willing to chance that this winter will not be as bad as the last one, but if I do, she’ll be caring for her own horses. I’ll be at the gate with carrots and apples, and feeding/mucking in a pinch. But this winter? I’m taking it off from horse care, thank you very much. Horse-riding? We’ll see. I’m much braver a rider on Haggin in an arena than on the trails around here, and I may be taking lessons again where he’s being boarded.
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.
An ideal equine officer is unfazed by the sound of train whistles, the chaos of large public events, the blasts of boom boxes or the crackle of bullets or fireworks. He must be capable of quickly moving through crowds, creating barriers and pushing criminal suspects into a position of submission when called to do so.
Patrick, tan and white with a blond mane that sparkles in the sunshine, excels on all fronts, [Officer Kate] McLoughlin said.
Patrick’s personality, in particular, “puts a smile on people’s faces,” she said, including one suspect who, as McLoughlin was interviewing him, lost his can of King Cobra malt liquor when Patrick snatched it from his hands to try to drink it.
“He’s got the kind of personality and spirit that you just can’t train into a horse,” McLoughlin said.
True that! But King Cobra? Patrick, really! Here, he drank Guinness.
Two weeks after my pasture flooded, I still have standing water, two pools about 20-30 feet across and couple inches deep. The twice-daily slog to the barn is trying, as the mud sucks at my boots and plays with my balance. The biggest concern of all, though, once I realized I wasn’t losing $3,000 worth of hay to rising water, was the health of the horses. They needed to get out of the mud.
I have picked their hooves and rotated them through the higher and dryer back yard every day, but the problem at night remained: I have two dry stalls and one flooded one, lots of gooey mud — and three horses. One of the horses had to be re-homed, so that meant: Which one was most sellable? Which one did I like riding? Which ones had other options?
All answers pointed to Patrick, my 9-year-old Spotted Saddle Horse, as the horse who was going to leave. He’s the best horse I have, well-trained, smart, good-looking and with great feet, conformation and health. But he’s too much horse for me under saddle, and our relationship as horse and rider had become more strained as I became less and less able to earn and maintain his respect. He was never dangerous or unkind — he’s bright, friendly and playful — but his energy, intelligence and boldness meant I could never relax on the trail.
The quieter, shorter and frankly more boring Rebel was a much better ride for anxious older rider I had, at almost 55, suddenly become. And the third horse, my trashed ex-racer Haggin? Total sweetie, but more of a pet than a ride because of track injuries. And even when sound, he’s also too much horse for me as a rider, although my friend Ann rides him when she can.
As I prepared to sell Patrick to the best possible home, my friend and trainer Alana Henley of Sunfire Equestrian mentioned that she thought the Sacramento Police Department’s mounted unit was looking for a very special horse, and that mine might be perfect. She knows what it takes: She used to be a Sacramento PD mounted police officer. She called, and last Friday, two officers came over to look informally, and two days ago, the unit did, in uniform. The next day Patrick passed the veterinary check at Loomis Basin, and he officially went to the police barn as an officer in training. It will be 60 days before I know if he’ll “stick” or come back, but there’s no downside for me or for him: Two months of great care, dry footing and good training. Being a police horse is a great life for on outgoing, confidant horse, with constant attention from the officers, volunteers and public. If he doesn’t make the grade, he’ll be even more appealing to potential new owners.
It’s the second time I’ve tried to find a new career for him (although it’s the first time the career has meant his leaving me for good) and I think this time, if he passes, he’ll be great at the work. Arena work as a hunter-jumper didn’t suit him (although he loves jumping!) but being out all day seeing the world? It’s perfect for him. The police officers think so, too, and they’re very picky about the horses they try in their program. Today I visited him after his first full day in training, and got a glowing report, very promising.
He’s also had a head start! The place where I boarded him when he first arrived was adjacent to trails that wound through a wooded area notorious for quick sex. The men turn up in cars at the park that caps the trail system, and hook up with each other, or, occasionally, hookers, and head into the brush. Some of them apparently bring in reading material, to judge by what we found on the trail one day. The same area has homeless folks, some of whom behave in very unpredictable ways. We saw a lot of very strange behavior on those trails, and Patrick handled it all with grace and tolerance.
I just couldn’t be happier with this turn of events, and I’ll be holding my breath and keeping my fingers crossed that he gets through the training — it’s high bar! — and becomes Officer Patrick of the Sacramento Police Department. He’s also be a trend-setter, a horse of a different color for the force entirely: All the other police horses are solid-color horses. With his natural bling, he’ll really stand out!
Meanwhile, back at RBF, I have two dry stalls and two horses, plus the help of a young woman who lives around the corner and works as a veterinary technician. She’s 29 and a good horse-trainer, and she helps me a few hours a week with all the heavy lifting and stall cleaning. Winter? We’ll get through it. As long as the levee doesn’t break, that is.
Top image: Patrick, clean, last spring at RBF. Middle image: Patrick at the Sac PD barn, first day in training. Learning to wait is an important part of police horse work: There’s a lot of standing around for these equine officers. Lower image: Leftover porn stash on the trail, ho-hum.
So who’s here? Three dogs: McKenzie (still fighting cancer but running out of time), Faith and NED the puppy. Two cats, Ilario and Mariposa. Two horses, Haggin and Rebel. Two Nigerian dwarf dairy goats, Bayberry (mine) and Blossom (loaner). Two ducks, Bernadette and ABBA. And 13 chickens, none named.
I haven’t written about the goats yet (that’s Bayberry on the left, with my friend Susan Fox, a noted artist) since I wrote about the goat I ended up not getting. The reason? Sugar Maple would have needed milking all winter, twice a day, and I’m just learning. I figured learning to care for goats was enough of a Step 1.
But not long after, Joyful Hearts had a goat I thought would be a perfect fit: Bayberry. She’s older, more experienced at being handled and is easy to milk when the time arrives. She was also being sold as potentially pregnant, due in the spring. Perfect.
Because goats need companions, I asked my friend Xan of Flyway Farm to loan me one of hers for the winter, and she agreed. Which is how I came to have one goat and one loaner goat here at RBF.
Meet Ned, the first Sheltie puppy I have had in my life since 1986, when I brought Andy home from the breeder. (Drew was almost five years old when I adopted him.) I had been researching breeders for months and had planned for a tri-colored boy puppy from an earlier litter, but that didn’t work out. I had hoped for the puppy to overlap with Drew, but that didn’t happen, either: They missed each other by a couple of weeks.
I flew to Minnesota to get him about three weeks ago, and brought him back in a soft-sided carrier stowed by my feet in the first-class cabin. I wouldn’t use my miles to upgrade for me, but for a puppy? You bet! He was a great little traveler and has shown himself to be a marvelous little puppy every day since. He’s smart, bold and learns quickly.
He makes me smile every day.
His name stands for “No Evidence of Disease,” which is abbreviated as NED on my dog McKenzie’s monthly chemotherapy report card. In just the few months since McKenzie was diagnosed with soft-tissue sarcoma, these three letters have been my favorites.
Welcome, little NED.
Image by Eric Christensen
Almost all the fencing has been upgraded now, with safe, secure areas for the chickens and ducks, the two goats who’ll be here soon and, of course, the horses. There’s an escape hatch in the main pasture gate that’s kept open while I’m out, so the dogs (even the little one goes out now) can get out of the way of the horses immediately if they need to. (Picture at above, with Tony.) Tony the Foster Racehorse will be going back to the trainer’s barn, and so will Haggin, my own Off-Track-Thoroughbred. Haggin’s recovery from life-threatening racing injuries has been nothing less than miraculous, and it may well be that he’ll end up as someone else’s horse. (With me retaining return rights to protect him from some awful future fate.)
The fact is, he feels so good these days that I don’t feel safe on him. He’s fine for a confident beginner in the arena, or any intermediate rider on the trail, but I still have such a fear of speed and of falling, and he wants to move those glorious muscles of his, floating over the ground gracefully and beautifully — but a little alarmingly swift for me. I had planned for him to be a pasture pet, given his off-track prognosis, but I think he can do better now. Time will tell what we can arrange for him. I hope he can become some girl’s sweet pet ride, because he is so handsome and personable.
This week will see the addition of a second bomb-proof gaited trail horse to match Patrick. Rebel is a Kentucky Mountain Horse, an easy-going gelding who will make it possible for me to always have company on the trail. My plan is to put together a small riding club of (probably) women who haven’t the time or money for a full-on commitment to a horse, but who’d like to ride every week or so for a modest membership fee. Rebel and Patrick are perfect for this work, since both are comfortable, well-mannered and friendly horses who love attention.
Having two horses here and the third at my trainer’s stable where he’ll get better riders on him should work out just fine.
I have a tendency to get tired. Not tired, like “I’ll have a nap and perk up tired” but bone-tired to the extent that nothing short of an adrenaline burst from a life-threatening experience could get my mind and body moving. And actually, I’m not sure even that would be enough, sometimes. This has been going on all my adult life, at the very least, and I “cope” by crashing. Because this tends to lead to cancellations of planned events I have finally started to plan fewer, or explain my situation when making arrangements. I find that most people are pretty understanding when you tell them up front that chances are decent that you’ll have to reschedule from time to time.
As I get older, I reschedule a lot.
Today would have been my third straight day of planned outdoor activity (my youngest retriever and I were entered in a hunt test), and I should have known that wouldn’t work. And indeed last night I was so bone-tired that the muck cart felt as if it weighed a thousand pounds, and every scoop of manure seemed like a hundred. Feeding, watering, and putting the horses up for the night seemed to take all evening. Sometimes I am light-hearted and light-footed as I work happily — yes, happily — through barn chores, but when I am tired like this it’s only the love of my animals and my concern for their care that keeps me moving.
This morning I canceled hunt test plans for the day and had a much better morning with the chores. Wrote a little, napped a little more and feel a great deal better. But still … winter is coming and I have more animals now. It makes me anxious, worrying about how I’ll be up to their care over the months ahead.
So far, if I have a bad day I just go slowly, and break up the chores into a couple of sessions instead of one. And I have found a hard-working young woman in the neighborhood — a vet tech, no less — who will be helping a couple days a week for $15 an hour, which seems fair.
Everything always seems to work out, if not always on schedule. I just have to keep plodding and trust that will work out in the months ahead.
I still have the garden beds to get in before spring, after all.
As readers could probably tell, I had a very difficult time with the loss of Drew. I’ve actually gotten a little more used to losses over the years, so the depth and breadth of my sadness really surprised me. I still feel really good about having provided hospice care for him, even though it made the loss harder. I think next time I will be better prepared, which will help.
Two weeks ago today, my almost 16-year-old Sheltie, Drew, drew his last breath in my arms, on my bed, with my friend Dr. Kelly Byam helping him cross to whatever’s on the other side.
Drew should have died a year earlier, when his main veterinarian, Dr. Bill Porte (actually, my pets have several veterinarians, all top-notch “primary care” and specialists, plus my livestock veterinarians, of course), diagnosed him with end-stage renal failure, and said I might buy a little more time by giving him sub-cutaneous fluids at home every day. (Aside: Doing so is easy and inexpensive. If your veterinarian ever offers it as an option, please, please consider it.) A little time turned into months, and Drew was happy and pain-free until the last day of his life.
When that stopped being the case, I made sure his life ended, and swiftly. While everyone has to decide what is best on his or her own, I have always thought I’d rather be a week early than an hour too late in timing euthanasia. In reality, I’ve generally been just on time, and that’s OK, too.
Losing Drew was going to be hard, I knew. But I didn’t realized (and have had many others tell me since) that providing hospice care for a pet at home can make the aftermath even more difficult. That’s because the daily care you provide a dying pet makes the bond even stronger, and the routines of care — daily fluids in Drew’s case — become habits that service to remind you of your loss for days and weeks after. In my case, every day around 10 a.m. my mind kicks me to ask: “Have you given Drew his fluids? Don’t forget!”
Now, of course, I’m trying to forget.
But that wasn’t the only thing that made the loss harder than “normal.” Not long before Drew died, the folks at the local public radio station asked me to become a regular on a new segment about pets for their daily interview show, Insight. The first topic: End of life care for pets.
The producer found out that Drew died, and he asked me a couple days after if I wanted to talk about another topic. I thought I was doing pretty well, so I said it wasn’t necessary. And in fact I was doing fine a couple days after Drew died. A week after, on the day of the program, I was not doing well at all.
The result was an interview that I am as proud of as anything I’ve ever done professionally. Because I was (mostly) able to transcend my pain and help other pet-lovers. And because even while I was getting in every point I needed to make — without notes of any kind — the slight warble in my voice that told of the tears I was (mostly) holding back made this a pretty powerful piece.
And while I have always liked Beth Ruyak, for years an anchor at the top-rated TV station in our area before she went national, I was schooled first-hand in the art of the interview, as she skillfully kept me on topic while helping me to keep it together. It was hard for her, too: She’s an animal-lover, and as she was interviewing me, her own eyes were brimming with tears. She’s a consummate professional, and it was a pleasure to be in studio with her. Even under such unexpectedly difficult circumstances.