Sunday, September 23, 2018

Animal husbandry (and wifery)

K has been away at a conference in Atlanta, so it’s just me alone in a big old house in the country. While K’s kids assure us that our place will be the perfect fortress during The Zombie Apocalypse (remote, good sight lines, sustainable sources of food and water), right now it seems more appropriate as the setting for ordinary and personal doom. I’m a bad insomniac in general, but leave me defenseless against the things that go bump in the night, and I’m lucky if I snooze longer than about 45 minutes total. I locked all the doors and windows, turned on most of the lights, and checked under the bed, but none of that mattered when that first floorboard creaked. Homicidal maniacs are patient. They take one step and wait, because they know you’re waiting, you’re up there clenched with fear under the covers hoping that creaking was just one of those old-house-at-night sounds, and when you’re finally convinced, well, you’re a goner. This is not the moment when I go out and buy firearms. It has nothing to do with a gun control stance; klutz that I am, I know the only thing I’d ever shoot is me. Lack of armament perhaps lowers our Zombie Apocalypse Fortress rating, but I got bigger problems to deal with at the moment.

You see, I’m actually not alone out here at all. There are five chickens, four goats, three parrots, two turtles, and one me, responsible for all the rest. The responsibilities aren’t that onerous; these are small animals, so activities like poop-scooping take a few minutes with a trowel rather than hours with shovels. Still, though, before I’ve had breakfast—before I’ve even had coffee, let it be said—I spend a good hour and a half meeting the needs of the furry, the feathered, and the shelled.

The turtles are the easiest. Their two-tier pond gets fresh water, and their food dish gets both pellet food and vegetable scraps. Frequently they won’t have eaten the food I left there the day before, which is fine; there’s no need to clean the old food out because the bugs it will attract are equally nutritious. Once K tossed a dead mouse in the turtle garden and the next time I looked, both Millie and Jerry were hovering over it like two very small domed lions tearing into a zebra carcass. I couldn’t quite see them the same way after that, which is unfair of me, I realize: they’re omnivores, after all, but something about their ponderous plodding had made it hard for me to think of them as predators until I saw them in action. Gross, guys. Still, though, if they were only faster we would certainly set them lose in our house to combat our rodent problem. As it is, slow and steady may win the race but not dinner.

Chickens are fairly low maintenance as well, now that we’ve figured out how to keep the goats out of their coop and their food. K created a second, inner door to their coop that’s much smaller than the outer door. Goats can’t fit through it, and even the chickens have to squeeze. Nobody’s happy about this, but it must be so; chicken food has stuff in it that’s not good for goats, a fact which the goats seem fully aware of in the same way that children—hell, adults, even—know that the very thing they want to eat more than anything else in the entire world is the one thing forbidden to them. Because the world is unfair in a multitude of ways, the chickens are totally allowed in the goat shelter and are free to eat anything the goats spill from their feeding troughs. I think it’s reasonable compensation for having to share a habitat they once had all to themselves.

The goats have finally settled into their jobs as weed trimmers. Initially, and irksomely, they had no interest in the burdock that grows so crazy fast with such deep, tenacious roots—the main thing we needed them to eat. They liked mulberry leaves, they liked grass, and they’d head-butt their own mothers out of the way to get at the chicken feed, but burdock leaves would get no more than a hesitant nibble once in a while. Now they munch the big heart-shaped leaves with adorable contentment. They are awfully cute, these goats. My favorite is the littlest one, Chubb, who unsurprisingly tends to get pushed around a bit by the others but follows me around like a black Labrador puppy, hoping for treats but happy to be petted as well. “How ya doin’, Chubby-Chubb?” He was named after a trail ultra I did a few years back, though people who don’t know this find the name rather endearing regardless. (“His name is Chubb? And he’s the littlest one?” one of K’s daughters asked. “I shouldn’t choose favorites until I get to know them better, but if I did …”)

“No, no chicken food for Chubb.” Sad puppy-goat eyes plead with me, but it’s not gonna work. It goes without saying that I talk to all of them. Sometimes there are funny accents. “Now I vill get ze water und food, ja?” Other times music and song are involved, often the theme to the old “Hawaii 5-0” for no particular reason. “Chickenchicken CHICK-en, chickenchicken chick. Chickenchicken CHICK-EN, chickenchicken CHICK!” These conversations are one-sided only until I get to the macaws; then things get interesting. There are greetings: “Hi! How ya doin’?” There is praise for favorite food items: “Mmm. Is that good?” There are warnings to keep each other away from favorite food items: “No! Drop it! Let go!” Occasionally there may even be a “dammit!” in there. Strange, that.

Macaw care is the most time-consuming, though this is entirely voluntary on our part. Nobody says you have to hide food in hundreds of places around your birds’ habitat so they can figure out clever ways to extract the tasty morsels, but nobody says you have to have pet birds either. If you do, you’d best remember that they are as intelligent as they are potentially destructive, and that those two things are connected. You’d also do best to remember that the fancy bird toy you buy at the pet store is going to be highly entertaining, yes, but not in the way you think. Times K has hung something new in the aviary, I can practically hear the wheels turning in Phoenix’s head as he calculates exactly where he needs to snap for the whole thing to crash satisfyingly to the floor.

There are people who like to say they prefer the company of animals far above that of humans. I don’t happen to be one of those people, despite my introversion and misanthropy and the fact that my only companions for the greater part of each day are fourteen mammals, birds, and reptiles. The truth is I find such a preference a little troubling. It’s one thing if you admit, as K does, that you prefer to be around animals mostly because you’re just not all that good at being around people. It’s another thing entirely to suggest that your preference is a moral judgment against humanity, that you find the rest of us lacking and so align yourself with those you see as superior. To say that any particular species is superior or inferior, smarter or dumber, better or worse, is to miss something significant. The animals under my care depend on me, but only because we’ve put them in a position in which they must depend on us. We created this condition, so it’s our responsibility to deal with the consequences. There is not one corner of the earth unaffected by the activities of humans, nor is there any aspect of our lives unaffected by other living things. What you eat and drink and breathe, and indeed whether you can get a decent night’s sleep, all are connected to the relationships you have. It’s an important thing to remember in the face of everything from zombies to climate change: I’m not alone out here, and neither are you.