Sunday, January 4, 2009

The other reason I keep chickens

To behave 'like a chicken with its head cut off' means to act like a madman, in an unthinking unyielding way. A chicken that still has its head is not all that much calmer. The smallest thing sets them into squawking, blundering balls of feather & claw.

Captain was stoic; I later had reason to learn you could perform a full, uncomfortable (for ALL of us) exam on him untethered & he would not budge (the tether fell off, no one noticed). RedBud was a different story. Her history was murky, but she had likely been 'on the track' which means all manner of things were done to make her go fast; wild, frenzied fear is the favored motivator. She had a second, brief career as a brood mare, but anyone could tell she had never had a live birth. & so this people-fearing, high strung, 1500+ pound animal came to live at our house. Temporarily. Until she died here, years later.

RedBud was afraid of EVERYTHING, but especially people. & the people she feared most were people with ropes. & so I sent her out with the others, thinking that their calm would teach her to be calm (& it did, eventually). She wore a loose rope halter most of her days; the thinking was we could clip a lead rope to her when we needed to bring her in. Once the lead rope was on her though, she would not budge. She shook, she pulled back, her eyes rolled around in her head & there was no moving her.

So instead of a lead rope, I would cup my hand under her chin & just walk in the direction I wanted her to go. Most of the time, she walked along. Nervously, but the idea that she could turn & leave at any time seemed to be enough to make her not panic. She quickly learned that if she allowed herself to be lead this way there would be carrots or apples or whatever when we got where we were going. The learning curve was even faster when she realized that if she did mosey off, everyone else would get apples & carrots & she would not. It took less than two weeks to get her to just follow wherever we needed her to go. In fact, it was hard to get her not to follow even when I did not want her.

& that lead to our biggest problem, because EVERYTHING startled her. The sound of the gate opening could make her break into a gallop. A branch creaking over-head & she jumped around like a loon. Worst of all was the hourly pine cone cone or magnolia bomb falling from a tree & hitting the barn's tin roof, rattling as it rolled all the way down. This fear was not a problem when she was afraid of people, afraid to come to the barn, but when she was not afraid & had her panic-attack next to the barn or next to me, it was a real danger.

Enter the chickens:

When I fed Redbud (in a bucket on a fence in a different pasture than the others), the chickens perched on the fence, waiting for this favorite treat; RedBud was a very messy eater (this business of being hard to rope meant her teeth had not been floated in a long long long time).

Their presence was very hard on Redbud. The chickens did not care if she was having a nervous breakdown overhead; their world begins & ends with the next bit of food they want to cram in their beaks. They made no effort to elude her or even acknowledge her. They ran & flapped & fought along the fence line & next to her head. In the end, though it was not long before she accepted them . She really had no choice as they roosted on the fence next to her, watching for what fell out of her mouth. Being chickens, each was worried her sister would get there first & so, they descended, en masse. & squabbled under Redbud's bucket. She was old, her reflexes were not good so even if she kicked, any contact she made was random luck. I swear, no chickens were injured in this process.

Within a month, she would willingly stick her head into a bucket deep enough to cover her eyes while all manner of chaos (chickens, tractors, barking dogs, etc) took place around her. & so we were finally ready to float her teeth, trim her hooves & treat the abscess behind her ear.

Remember at the beginning of this when I said any pressure with a lead rope made her crazy? Turns out she was not just 'being bad', but had a massive abscess behind her ear. When I could finally get close enough to watch her eat, it was clear as day. Every few weeks I learn again that people who jump to 'bad' as the reason for misbehavior in animals (or even children, frankly) should probably be tied out back & forgotten during a thunderstorm, or left to sit strapped in a highchair wearing only a dirty diaper while the rest of the family makes 'we are having fun' noises in the other room. I have seen both of these stunts in the last 30 days & expect I will see them again soon.

RedBud spent the rest of her life here & was happy even the day she died. I lead her out of the pasture with apples & carrots & she stood peacefully while the vet gave her an injection & then we both sat with her, cupping her eyes & telling her how pretty she was while she died. She was unknown years old but the estimate was 25. Before she came to us she had foundered & recovered, but was never very healthy. In the last weeks she was here, she wasted to half her weight, although her appetite never faltered. The likely culprit was cancer.

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