Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Rough Day

It has been a hard day. Really, it is a culmination of quite a few hard days in a row. Yeah, I have been having a problem with moths. Then one of the drains clogged up and spilled sewage all over the basement. We thought the pipe was cracked, and I honestly had enough on my plate. The kids were both sick and my husband was out of town on business. Oh yeah, I called a plumber. We won’t talk about the backlog of laundry and housework that I still can’t get to while I clean up the moths. Oh, and canning season starts this weekend. Did you hear that? I think someone whimpered.

During all of this was an ongoing struggle of gigantic proportions on the farm. It seems, as sometimes happens, we did not receive a goose and a gander, but two ganders instead. Anyone with experience buying poultry knows that from time to time it happens. Well, it happened to us. The problem with that is that they had a lot of competition, and no outlet for their spring hormones. No females to mate with. So, over time one of the ganders got larger than the other, as they do. What I didn’t expect was that they began to see the ducks as their harem. The larger gander, one night, beat the smaller one really badly.

Now, hard as it is to watch, this is actually pretty normal. What isn’t normal is that the smaller gander was not allowed back into the flock. The larger one kept driving him off, and the poor little guy started losing weight. He also came out of the duck house every morning with fewer feathers and more bruises. Enough was enough, and we decided to fence off part of the duck house for him, so he could get some food and sleep. They could work out their differences while they still had room to get away from each other, during the day.

This worked for a while, and we thought we might have a solution on our hands… until the larger gander started driving our drake, Sir Francis (get it?… Sir Francis?), out of the flock. Now this I can’t abide. Sir Francis keeps the ladies all together, and keeps them from straggling off in ones and twos. He’s a rather gallant little gentlemen, and likes nothing better than to be solicitous to his ladies and give them a merry chase every now and again. He’s quite the gentle soul, and counts to seven quite handily. He makes his low gentle quacking noises until everyone comes out of the bushes and they are all ready to move on together. The geese can’t count, and often leave a duck or two behind. The girls get a bit distressed when they discover they are on their own, and run in circles quacking until someone answers them. At that point, they go tearing off in the direction of the flock, scolding the whole way, shouting, “Why didn’t any of you tell me we were leaving?!?”

In any case, a goose on goose dispute might be rough, but a small drake would stand absolutely no chance. Time to intervene again. Not my favorite thing to do, animals are usually much better off if you let them work it out for themselves. This situation, however, was just untenable. You see, the big gander had also been taking half-hearted lunges at me, and I was concerned that he might hurt one of the kids. So, after much research, soul searching, and trying to find another way around it, we decided to lock the him inside the dim duck house for a week, and see if we could get his spring hormones under control. They are light dependent, you see, so it may sound a little cruel, but it was better than the alternative, which was the freezer. Besides, he had fresh bedding, food, water, treats, and visits every day. The flock even joined him at night.

The smaller gander slowly rejoined the flock, and started putting a little weight back on over the course of the week. I watched him carefully, worried that the lack of competition might send his hormones surging. It turns out that I was right to be concerned. On Monday, I was hanging some laundry out on the line in the back yard. The ducks were almost under foot, which is a habit of theirs I find quite pleasant. Ducks are surprisingly good company, actually, and make a delightful variety of small noises. Suddenly, the gander started to make quite a lot of racket, and ran into the ferns and blackberries that border that part of the yard. He started attacking something full-out, beating with his wings, stomping, and biting viciously. I couldn’t figure out what all the fuss was about, and thought it might have been a snake (it happens). But then I saw a flash of brown and black feathers. It was Sir Francis, and the gander was doing his level best to kill him.

I would like to believe that, in the scheme of things, I am neither cowardly, nor stupid. I’ll tell you, I didn’t even think twice. I ran straight at all twentyish pounds of that gander shouting and flapping my arms for all I was worth. I’ve been at this for a few years. I know the difference between dominance fighting and going for the kill. There is not a doubt in my mind that I saved Sir Francis’s life that day. There’s not a doubt in his mind either, believe it or not. The poor little drake limped a few steps out of the bushes and laid down behind my feet, putting me between himself and the gander. After that, he could barely stand. So we rounded him up, and put him back in the duck house with food and water, so he could recuperate. Which he did, thank goodness.

This added to my concerns, however. I can’t watch the birds all the time, and the purpose of the geese is to protect the flock, not disrupt it, and certainly not to try to kill its monarch. And the smaller gander was starting to make threatening overtures towards me. Not that I can really blame him, after scaring the daylights out of him in the bushes. I was sort of stumped. The next day marked the end of the larger gander’s confinement, and so I hoped that with another dominant bird in the flock, the smaller gander would leave Sir Francis alone.

We let everyone out on Tuesday morning, and I swear, I spent so much time running to windows and sitting on the porch watching everyone that I hardly got a thing done. Everyone was fine. I mean… completely fine. It was like a miracle. The larger gander was back to his usual sweet self, and the whole flock grazed and took naps together all day. One contented whole. Shawn and I sighed a huge sigh of relief, and went about our business. That is, until this morning.

Today was one of Shawn’s days back in the office in Boston. I got up early, made myself some tea, chatted with the kids, and got everybody ready and on the bus. I made breakfast for myself, fed the dog and cats, and sat down to write. I usually let the flock out around eight or nine in the morning, giving everyone time to lay their eggs indoors, and reducing (though certainly not eliminating) the number of eggs I find in my garden beds. I went down to open the door and let everyone out, and heard a whole flock of ducks in full-on distress, a huge amount of thumping and banging, and ominously… not a single honk from a goose. I ran to the door, fearing the worst, and flung it open. What met my eyes… was so much worse than anything I could have imagined.

Some of you may want to stop reading here. This is hard. Really hard, and I am giving you a trigger warning. This is part of the reality of farm life… but probably one of the hardest parts. You have been warned. I’m not kidding.

What met my eyes when I opened the door was by far the worst thing I have ever seen. Bar none, hands down, no contest. The smaller gander had tried to wedge himself into one of the nesting boxes. These boxes are designed for ducks, not geese, but such was his desperation to protect his eyes, that he peeled layers of feathers, skin, and muscle off his own wings while trying to fit. The larger gander was on top of him, reaching his head into the box and beating the smaller one against the sides. He was raking him with his claws, beating him with his wings, and trying to pull out his eyes. That isn’t the worst part, though, the worst part was that he was actually mounting the smaller gander. Anyone who tells you that animals don’t rape each other… is wrong. I am officially a witness.

I stood there, stunned, for maybe a tiny fraction of a second. The smaller gander was not moving at all, and I was really deeply afraid that he had been raped to death. But in that moment, something solidified in me. I was not going to allow this to happen. Not on my watch. Just… no. And so I ran, full tilt, screaming like a lunatic and flailing my arms like a windmill straight at thirty pounds of full-grown, dominant, angry gander. I feel the need to pause here, and explain something. These are Embden geese, and the larger male is a particularly impressive specimen. He’s something in the neighborhood of thirty pounds of muscle, stands three and a half feet tall, and has a wing span of over six feet. They are extremely powerful birds, and they know it.

The large gander was completely unimpressed with my performance. He didn’t even look up. I was desperate, stomping and shouting, but he just went right on raping that poor smaller bird… who still wasn’t moving. So I did something that I am not particularly proud of, but still don’t see a way around. I kicked that big gander right in the butt. Not hard, mind you, I have pretty strong views on treatment of animals, but there was simply no other way to stop him. I may be brave enough to take him on, but I’m not stupid enough to put my face where he can scoop my eyeballs out. But I did give him a good enough bump to knock him off the little guy. And then thirty pounds of angry dominant gander turned around and came barreling straight at me, wings spread, like a feathered freight train. I am not ashamed to say that I turned around and ran like a rabbit. You just have NO IDEA how large, dangerous, and scary these animals are until they charge. And let me tell you, he was already splattered with the blood of the other gander. His face was nearly red with it. Talk about intimidating.

I peeled out of the door to the duck house, and ducked around behind it. The gander was so close that I certainly couldn’t have gotten it shut. He came around the door after me, so I let it go, and ran. He took off up the hill after me, towards the house. I have never run from an animal in my whole life. It is almost always a bad idea. Prey runs. I have literally faced down crocodiles with complete equanimity. I have stood my ground while being hunted by a pack of wild coy-dogs… twice. Not so with this gander. He was going to add my blood to his collection whether I ran or not. So run I did.

I am faster than a gander, it turns out. It’s good to know I can still move like that at thirty-one years old. I honestly wouldn’t have thought so. The part that, in hindsight, amazes me? After I outran the angry gander, I looped back around and went back down to the duck house. You see, I had to know if the smaller bird was still alive. I know, sometimes I’m not very bright, but… I had to know.

He was still alive. He pulled his head out of the nesting box as I approached, and struggled to his feet. He was covered in blood, and his eye was swollen and protruding. He headed straight for the door, straight for where I was standing. I looked at his blood-covered body and knew that if he left the safety of the duck house he would be fox bait within an hour. I slammed the door in his face, and latched it shut. I wish I could tell you that I went in there and checked that poor wounded bird over. But I didn’t. These guys have been chasing me around for days now and my nerve just… failed. The best I could do for him was to save his life, first from the larger gander, and then from the foxes. Besides, I thought while looking at the closed door, heaven forbid I went in there, and something happened to me. Wounded animals are the most dangerous kind. If anything did happen, my kids would get off the bus this afternoon with no one there to protect them… and an angry dangerous gander loose in the yard. And I was home alone, with no car, and no way to get him to Springfield, which is the nearest avian vet. As much as I have a duty to my animals, my duty to protect my children has to come first. It was a terrible thing, to have to make that decision.

It went through my head, over and over, how grateful I was that this happened on a day that the kids went to school, and that it was me who opened that door… and not Susan. I have not a doubt in my mind that my kind-hearted girl would have charged in there to rescue the smaller bird, just like her Mama. But even at nine, she only weighs just over fifty pounds, and she has nothing like my experience or sense of self-preservation. He might have really seriously hurt her. He certainly would have tried.

I was shaking, with tears and snot running down my face, by the time I reached the back porch. Some of it was a reaction to what had just happened, some of it was because I knew what had to come next, and I was heartbroken over it. Most of it, though, was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back. It has been an extremely rough couple of weeks. I’m a pretty tough chick, but sometimes life gets to be a little too much, a little too fast.

I sat down in my chair, nerves shattered, and tried to get myself under control enough to do what I had to do next. I picked up the phone, and called my husband at work. I try really hard not to do this, as he doesn’t make it into the office very often, and usually works from home. So when I called, he knew it was likely serious. And like all good men, he does not react, um… positively, when something has made his mate cry. That doesn’t happen often, either. Hardly ever, really. I’m afraid I wasn’t terribly coherent for the first few minutes, and I had to try and repeat myself a few times until I could calm down.

When I had finished, there was a deadly silence on the other end of the phone for a minute, and then his low rumble came out, “He chased you?” My husband is the most laid back and gentle man you will ever meet. However, anyone who knows him well will tell you that that quiet rumble is when he is at his most dangerous. The large gander had signed his own death warrant the moment he chased me out of that duck house. I knew it, and Shawn knew it. I simply cannot allow him to be a danger to my children. Why not re-home him, you might ask? You do not fob your responsibilities off on someone else. This animal is not a dog. Geese are not truly domesticated, and so when one goes bad, there is no help for it. You have to put him or her down. I will not lie, it breaks my heart. Absolutely in two. He is a majestic animal, and he has been an excellent protector for the flock. He has faced down a hungry fox to keep them safe. This feels like utter betrayal. But… I cannot let him kill any of the other birds. I cannot let him be a danger to my family or friends. Never mind the poor UPS guy.

I stayed inside the house until it was time to get the kids off the bus. Then I got a heavy walking stick, crept out of the front door, and down the driveway. I got the kids off the bus, and made them walk behind me all the way up the driveway. I stood to the side of the porch, and followed them up the steps to the front door. When we reached the door, that big gander hissed and charged at the porch. We scrambled inside, and shut the door behind us. We’ve stayed inside ever since.

In a few minutes, when Shawn gets home, I am going to take my big stick with me, and watch his back while he gets everyone in the duck house. And tomorrow morning, after the kids get on the bus, Shawn and I will take the big gander’s life. It will likely take two of us, as I do not own a kill cone large enough. The geese were never meant to be food, but were supposed to be permanent additions to the farm. They can live for up to 100 years or more. I have not decided whether or not I will eat him. It seems even more a betrayal to simply put him in the ground. But… they were not meant to be food, and even if they were, it is entirely the wrong time of year to kill a goose for meat. We will make our decision tonight, after a long talk, I am sure.

Now, where was my faithful Rottweiler during all of this, you might ask? Yeah, that’s the other thing contributing to my terrible day. Tiny is not well. He is ten years old now, which is the upper limit of his life expectancy. Over the last six months, he has gotten slower, more deaf, and more blind. Over the last couple of weeks, he has gotten far more lethargic, and has started showing signs of swelling, especially in his legs. For a few days now, he has had trouble breathing off and on, and has had trouble keeping down his food. When you string all of this together, it seems obvious that he is likely coming to the end of his life. His body is shutting down, and I need to take him to the vet to make sure that’s what we’re dealing with. But… it happened so gradually that I didn’t notice. Slowing down, panting a bit more, vomiting a couple of times, on their own they don’t seem like much. But he wouldn’t come down to the duck house with me this morning. He tried, he wanted to, but he just as clearly couldn’t make it. Which got me to thinking about the rest of it. I’m pretty sure my dog is dying. And even though he has only been in our lives for a couple of years, just the thought of it is like a hole in my heart. I don’t even know how to bring it up to Shawn.

So, yeah, it’s been a pretty rough day. And tomorrow doesn’t look like it’s going to be much better. But for now, everyone is safe. I’m beginning to realize that in the end, that may be enough. All things pass, and this will too. The geese will leave the farm, and we will not be replacing them. The only good news there is that I will not need fencing for my gardens, as the ducks are not destructive. The clothing moths will eventually be gone, canning season will come and go, and the wheel of the year will turn. For now, I just have to hang in there.

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