Saturday, December 27, 2008

Saturdays At The Barn

Hi Folks! I'm glad you're back.

I know I've mentioned the fact that I volunteer at a horse barn in any number of blogs, but I've never told you exactly what we do on Saturdays, so I thought I might do that today. As you know, I've been volunteering at the barn for a number of years, now. I wanted to learn more about horses, and Nancy, who owns the place, is very generous with her knowledge. Nancy says the best time for anyone to learn is on Saturdays, when she's there to supervise and answer questions. So there's a small crowd of regulars who all come out on Saturday mornings.

The regular gang includes Mandy - who's a high school senior; Kaye - who boards her horse at another stable but seems to prefer this barn for the humans involved; Nancy; and me. We scoop poop, clean the water buckets, groom some of the horses - whatever needs done. We also do a considerable amount of yakking while we work. Kaye might tell us how her lessons with George the rescue horse are coming along, I usually rant about whatever is going wrong in my life, and Mandy uses the time to dog me incessantly.

Actually, Mandy and I spend most of our Saturday mornings bickering back and forth. Today, for instance, one of our new helpers, Laurie, was telling us how her daughter's grade point average is so high, the girl won a thirty-thousand dollar grant for college. I looked over at Mandy and said, "Too bad you're not that smart!" Mandy just smiled: she knew she'd get me back before the end of the day! She always does. And while I thoroughly enjoy working with and around the horses, I must admit that the high points of my Saturdays are always the times when Mandy and I are teasing each other. When Mandy can't make it to the barn, it's mighty quiet that particular day.

There are two critters out there who are free to wander the barn at will. First is Mikey, a retired barrel racer who's now so decrepit that he doesn't require a stall. The second is Cricket the donkey. Nancy will put Cricket in a stall when she starts becoming a pest; I'm happiest when Cricket is free to wander. Both she and Mikey spend their mornings browsing the stalls after the horses have been turned out. They're looking to eat everyone's leftover hay, and Cricket always makes sure to give the feed buckets a sniff, too, just in case.

Cricket and Mikey both have a habit of invading the stalls you're trying to clean, and they'll invariably block the door with their bulk while they munch on hay. Nancy finds this annoying enough that she threatens to "stall" them if they don't move along. I personally enjoy the company, but I've also learned the importance of keeping a physical distance between myself and them. Mikey's harmless enough, but Cricket is just so damned ornery that you never know when she's going to follow through on her threat to chomp your ankle.

Most folks don't know that a healthy horse weighs about a thousand pounds. That's a lot of horse! While Cricket is quite a bit smaller than a horse, she's still got a surprising amount of strength in her, as I found out the time I was minding my own business in one of the portable stalls. There was plenty of room for both of us, but apparently Cricket was in a mood because one minute, I was aiming my pitchfork at a pile of poop, and the next, Cricket had tossed me into the corner with one ornery flick of her head. "Cricket!," I hollered in my exasperated voice, "what're you doin'?!" Even I had to laugh, though: that's just Cricket being Cricket!

Cricket provides most of the comic relief, but many of the horses are interesting in their own way: there's Big William, who's so dopey that he seems to have the mind of a 5 month-old puppy; there's Nicky Naylor, who's just the calmest, nicest horse you'd ever want to meet. There's my personal favorite, Sidney, who's a mellow guy with big round eyes. Sidney endeared himself to me forever the day I sent him outside with a promise of snacks: "I'll bring some out later, Sidney," I told him.

Five minutes later, as I ducked under the electro-braid fence, I called, "Hey, Sidney!" That's all I said, but Sidney backed away from the horse he was standing next to and turned expectantly to me. He knew, you see. He knew that I was bringing that snack I'd promised, and I don't think I've ever been more impressed by a horse's intelligence as I was at that moment. If I could bring him home and keep him in my back yard along with the shrubs and rose bushes, I'd do it in a heartbeat!

My least favorite horse is Charlie. In my opinion, he's just plain mean. For no reason that I can explain, though, Mandy likes him, and he's her regular riding horse. One of the perks of volunteering at the barn is that sometimes, Nancy lets us ride for free when we've finished working. Mandy will grab Charlie, and I'll get Ruckus, and together, we groom and tack 'em up.

Grooming's an important element in the whole riding process. You want to check the horse from head to toe, making sure he doesn't have any wounds in places that a saddle would irritate. Picking their hooves is equally important - you want to pick out anything that might create a problem, like gravel, and usually, you can smell trouble before it gets too serious. Believe it or not, there's a "normal" stinky hoof smell, and plenty of abnormal ones that indicate an issue in the works. It's the abnormal smells that I keep my nose open for.

For whatever reason, Charlie takes an apparent dislike to having his hooves picked. Ordinarily, the horse is supposed to lift his foot on command so that you can get at the underside. When Mandy tries to do that with Charlie, he usually tries to knee-cap her in response. I'll hear endless rounds of, "No kicks, Charlie! No kicks!," which he ignores completely, along with any other rule he doesn't like. It's frankly a wonder he hasn't hurt her yet.

Horse owners are funny people. There are any number of them who own a horse simply so that they can tell people they own a horse. I've met Charlie's person and I'm pretty sure she falls into that category. Once in a blue moon, she'll come out and "help" at the barn. In her case, though, "helping" usually involves nothing more than taking an endless number of cell phone calls as she tries to order the rest of us around. I'm sure she views herself as a capable, assertive woman. I view her as an arrogant pain in the ass who's far more interested in herself than anything or anyone else - including Charlie.

As you can see, in addition to caring for the horses, there's a certain amount of gossip and intrigue going on at the barn as well! There are horses who were rescued from abusive owners, and there are past and present champion competitors. There's a crabby donkey, and great gang of women who think that scooping poop is a fun way to spend a few hours! We rarely miss a Saturday, and I'd be willing to bet that everyone else leaves there feeling as energized as I do. There's something very satisfying in knowing that I've helped critters in need. And insulted Mandy better than she insulted me!

So that's the barn in a nutshell. We're out there sweating in the summer, and freezing in the winter. We'll go even when we don't feel all that great, because it's our one day out of the week to get away from life's annoyances and do a little good for the animals. It's better than any drug I've ever been prescribed.

That's all for now, folks! Until next time, please be kind to all the critters.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Christmas Duck!

Hi Folks!

Thanks for stopping by! I've got a great Christmas story for you, so settle in and here we go!

Several weeks ago, I got an email from my weekend duck feeder, Liz. She'd noticed that one of the ducks was limping, and wanted to let me know about it. From her description, I knew she was talking about Ducky. If you scroll down the photos on the right side of this page, you'll come to a picture of a black duck with a caption underneath that reads, "Pretty Boy's wing man, Ducky." Ducky is indeed Pretty Boy's shadow, following him everywhere and taking his cues from the Alpha duck. It's a nice relationship they have, and it's comforting to know that Pretty Boy looks out for his less-courageous friend.

Initially, I assumed that Liz was talking about Ducky's gait, which has always been a much more pronounced waddle than his fellow ducks. But when I turned up at the pond for a feed, it became clear that there was indeed a difference to his walk now: he moved considerably more slowly than usual, and stopped to rest several times on his way to the pile of corn. Imagine an elderly man with a dicky hip, and you'll know what I mean.

Now, I'm more than happy to help the ducks out by taking them to the veterinarian when the situation calls for it, but the truth is that taking them to the vet is a royal pain in the ass on a good day. There's the difficulty in getting them to move into grabbing range, and the hassle of trying to figure out which avian vet is working on which day of the week. There's the stink of duck poop which permeates the inside of my car. There's the cost of the office visit. And there's the inconvenience of spending a week sharing my bathroom with an unwilling and deeply unhappy duck. Ugh!

And with Christmas right around the corner, I confess that I just didn't have the energy to deal with Ducky and whatever was causing his limp. I decided to keep an eye on him for a week or so, and make a decision then. In the meantime, the temperature outside dropped in a big way, freezing most of McKinnon's Pond, save the area around the always-running fountain. Curiously, there was also a small hole in the ice some yards away from the big hole. Making themselves comfortable around the fountain were an untold number of wild mallards and Canada geese, as well as my gang of ducks. In residence next to the small hole in the ice was Ducky.

I don't know how he managed to create and maintain that small hole in the ice, but he looked terribly forlorn there all by himself. After a week of procrastination on my part, it was clear that something would need to be done about Ducky's dicky leg. So I poured out a large measure of cracked corn to attract all the birds from the big hole. Once they'd settled in, I walked over to an area that would be a shorter distance from the small hole to dry land, and poured out more corn for Ducky.

He struggled over the slippery ice, taking a considerable amount of time to make the journey. Once he got close enough, I grabbed him up, put him in the carrier and headed home. I wasn't able to get an appointment with Dr. P. until the next day, so I settled Ducky into my bathroom as best I could, which turned out to be no small feat.

I knew that Ducky wasn't an Alpha duck, but I'd had no idea just how much of a scaredy-duck he really is. Every time I went into the bathroom, he pooped (a sign of fear), and climbed into his food bowls in an attempt to get away. He clearly believed I was going to murder him - even though he's known me for well over four years. Nothing I said or did convinced him that my motivations were strictly benevolent, so I tried to leave him alone as much as possible.

The bad news came on Tuesday, when Dr. P. announced her belief that Ducky had an old leg injury that, instead of healing properly, created a new hip socket (which is fairly common in animals). The new hip socket wasn't the problem, though. The painful arthritis in that new hip joint was apparently the problem.

I don't know about you, but when winter hits, what little arthritis I have acts up pretty badly. I could just imagine how Ducky felt out at the pond, exposed to the elements for five months straight with no relief. Dr. P. and I agreed that Ducky shouldn't spend the winter at McKinnon's Pond, but apart from a few doses of anti-inflamatory medication, she had no help to offer.

Uncertain what to do next, I took Ducky home and made a call to one of the other area avian vets, Dr. Susan. Dr. Susan had worked on Pretty Boy's torn eyelid, and had told me at the time that she knew some folks with a barn who would be happy to take in a duck. Well, you know how much I love Pretty Boy! Call me selfish - and in this instance, you'd be right - but I wasn't prepared to send Pretty Boy off to some stanger's barn. Ducky, on the other hand....

Well, it's not as if I love Ducky any less. It's that he needs a barn more than Pretty Boy did. Unfortunately, the barn option was no longer available. Having used up my one and only idea, I was stumped for what to do about Ducky. Goodness knows he couldn't just spend the next four months in my bathroom!

I've found that usually, story-book endings only happen in the movies. But I'm starting to see that every once in a while, right here in real life, the Gods like to throw you a bone when you're not expecting it. And so it was when that very same Tuesday, Officer Jeff called me out of the blue (the guy only ever calls once or twice a year), and left a message about a report of an injured duck. When I called him back, asking if he knew anyone that would like a duck, he said he'd think on it (I've yet to hear back from him, though!), and he repeated the voicemail some woman had left him about an injured duck at McKinnon's Pond.

I called the number he gave me, asked for Pat, and immediately, my whole day changed. Pat told me that she'd been watching a black duck who appeared to be injured. She mentioned a small hole in the ice, and said that when she'd been to the pond that very morning, the duck was nowhere to be seen. Recounting her worry, Pat was on the verge of tears.

I told her that the black duck in question was not at the pond because he was in my bathtub. My goodness, the sigh of relief Pat heaved! Did I know, she asked, that there was also a duck at the pond with one wing? "Yes," I replied, "that's Pretty Boy. He had cancer in the wing and the doctor amputated it."

Now, folks, I can't put too fine a point on this when I say that you REALLY have to be paying attention to notice that Pretty Boy's missing a wing. In the first place, he'd have to be flapping right in front of you, then it would have to register in your already-busy brain that that particular duck seems to only have one wing. The odds are strongly against you noticing, which is why I was so impressed that Pat DID notice. Already, she was my kind of person!

As we talked on the phone, I told her what Dr. P. had said, and that I was now trying to find Ducky a winter home. Pat immediately came to the rescue, offering the use of her garage. She already had a rescued chicken in there - what difference would one duck make?! Based on the depth of emotion she displayed during that phone call, and the obviousness of the fact that she was very fond of that gang of ducks, I made the decision to trust her with Ducky's care. We arranged for me to bring him over on Friday.

In the interim, poor Ducky was stuck with me. His fear and anxiety never diminished, and he never acquired the sangfroid that was the staple of Pretty Boy's coping skills. It was hard to enjoy the visit when I spent so much of Ducky's time here feeling like an ax murderer! When Friday came, I was more than happy to hand him over to Pat and her husband, Pete.

Pat hadn't been kidding about the size of the chicken in their garage - he was HUGE! We had already agreed that the chicken (creatively named, by the way, "Chicken")would probably have territorial issues, and that it would be best to keep the two fowl separate, if for no other reason than Chicken's beak looked particularly lethal.

Toward that end, Pat had already installed a large dog cage in the garage, filled it with straw for bedding, and supplied Ducky with not only a substantial bucket of water, but also a bowl filled with cracked corn AND duck pellets. I'd forgotten to mention duck pellets on the phone, so I was surprised and very pleased to see that Pat and Pete had already done their duck food homework.

In addition to comfortable quarters, Pat showed me the children's wading pool that would provide Ducky with plenty of tub time. She assured me that the yard was completely fenced, and any excursions Ducky might take out into that yard would be closely supervised. Unloading Ducky from the carrier into the cage, I had no doubts about the care he would be receiving from the Mitchells. As I left, I thanked them profusely for their willingness to take in a gimpy duck for the winter.

Over a week would pass before I was able to stop in and visit Ducky. Christmas has a way of getting in the way of things, doesn't it? Between last-minute shopping and last-minute errand-running, I just didn't have any free time available. This concerned me, enough so that as I laid awake in bed at night, I'd indulge in a few minutes of anxiety about whether I'd done the right thing. What if I'd been wrong? Worse - what if they ate him?!

Well, the good news, folks, is that they didn't eat Ducky! I stopped by for a visit today, planning to stay just a few minutes, and ending up staying for well over half an hour. Pat had put Ducky in his paddle pool, and as we three humans sat chatting, and as Chicken lorded over his garage floor territory, Ducky paddled and bathed, splashed and preened. While he enjoyed some of the bread snacks I'd brought him, the feral garage cat came down from her perch in the rafters and allowed me to pet her.

Pat expressed surprise, when I first arrived, that Ducky seemed to know me on sight. I've learned from long experience that the ducks are great that way: they always remember me, and they're always glad to see me. As I approach the pond, the quacking starts. As I get nearer, the ducks all race toward me en masse, quacking to beat the band. It's a sight that never fails to amuse me and warm my heart.

I love those guys, every quirky, quacky one of them. They all have different personalities, but they all have one thing in common: their love of Kelly and her bag of food. After all our years together, I've managed to earn their trust, and their affection. It didn't surprise me that Ducky recognized me, there in the Mitchell's garage. What did surprise me was how attached the Mitchells had become to him, in such a short amount of time. Domestic ducks will do that to you, though: they're highly addictive!

So while awful things are happening everywhere around the world - from the quagmire that is the Iraq war, to the global economic mess, to all the poor Americans who have suddenly found themselves out of work - it's always heartening to come across some good old fashion KINDNESS; people doing good things for no other reason than that they want to help.

I know that to some of you, helping an injured duck would probably be at the very bottom of your list of things to do, but that's precisely the point: clearly, the Mitchells are people who care a great deal about the most vulnerable creatures in the world. There is no doubt in my mind that they, and all the other folks like them, have earned a special place in heaven, when their time on earth is through.

In the meantime, I'm very pleased to be able to say that I know Pete and Pat Mitchell. They've made my Christmas so much better than I ever thought possible.

I'd also like to give a shout to my weekend volunteer, Liz, who does so much more than just feed the ducks. Thanks for a great year, Liz! I really appreciate all your help.

That's all for now, folks. I wish all of you a great holiday season, and a happy, healthy new year. Until next time, please be kind to all the critters!