Monday, April 20, 2009

In Your Face!

Hi Folks!

Thanks for stopping by. I hope that spring has finally sprung in your neck of the woods.

I took a road trip recently with a couple of girlfriends. We went to a British tea shop up in Michigan, and hit some antique stores along the way. There was one store in a building that looked like an old log ranch house, and I seem to recall that the name of the place was rather horsey-sounding: Old Stables Antiques, or some such. While the merchandise inside was interesting, it paled in signifigance to what was out back.

Out back, behind the parking lot, was a sizeable pasture. It was a beautiful spring day, and I could see horses grazing in the distance. There was also a fenced-in area just next to the parking lot, and to my considerable surprise, the animal contained within this pen was not a horse, but a llama. Cool!

Naturally, my excitement over the antiques quicky dissipated as my critter enthusiasm kicked into high gear. "Good morning, Llama!" I called as I made my way across the lot. I find that it's a good idea to announce yourself in advance of an approach - some animals are initially quite shy, so it's best to give them a little warning that you're coming to say hello. In this case, the llama perked up and walked over the the fence to greet me.

I've only met a few horses in my time who were brave and/or interested enough to stand nose-to-nose with me. Most horses will give you a quick, curious sniff, and then go back to whatever they were doing before you interrupted them. I've been told that, being prey animals, they want to know what you've been eating lately (like meat, for instance, in which case they're going to worry that you're there for a horse meat snack), which explains why the first thing they usually want to smell is your breath.

It's probably a little careless on my part to let any animal that big get that close to my face. Because their whole head is made up mainly of bones, any sudden movement on their part could cost you your skull: all those hard horse bones smacking into your head could break just about every bone you have. Even so, I doubt that there's a horseman/woman out there who would pass up the opportunity to give their favorite horse a kiss on the nose. We do it, but we do it mindful of what the danger is.

In any event, the antique store llama, being considerably smaller than the average horse, didn't seem to present an immediate threat to my cranial well-being. It did surprise the hell out of me, though, when he plastered his nose against my own, and stood there for some minutes in that position. At first, I experienced my usual moment of "Uh-oh. Is this a good idea?" Then, deciding to get into the spirit of the thing, I simply stood my ground, looked him in the eye and spoke quietly to him.

"How ya doin', Llama?" I inquired. In lieu of a name - he wasn't wearing any identification - I generally address an animal by his species. The llama said nothing in reply, he merely continued to look at me softly through gentle brown eyes as though he'd never seen a human up close before. We remained like this for several minutes. He finally broke the spell by pulling away, and I wandered back to the antiques inside the store. And while I fully enjoyed the outing with my friends, you already know that my visit with the llama was the high point of the trip for me!

Apart from the road trip, I slept in for several weekends. I wanted to put a little distance between me and old Mikey's death before I went back to the barn. I should've known, though, that the Gods would try to balance out the karma by throwing some positive critter experiences my way. They do it all the time, but I'm not always open to it. This past Saturday, I was.

It's not unusual for Cricket the donkey to do a little braying when she first sees me. It's entirely motivated by the fact that she knows I've got treats on me, and I can usually get her started by giving a few of those treats to someone other than her. Even so, I don't know how long it's been since she actually hee-hawed at me. Usually, it's more of a "snuff-snuff-haw!" This time, though, she threw the whole thing my way!

I had walked into the barn, grabbed a pitchfork and started scooping poop without any of the usual preamble. Ordinarily, I would wander around a bit first, greet those critters who're in stalls, and chat with my fellow barn cleaners. That day, Cricket was aware of my presence well before I'd even given her a thought. As I walked into that end stall, though - and into her line of sight - I heard, "Snuff-snuff-snuff-heeeee-haawwww!" I whirled around in surprise. There she was, two stalls away, looking at me through the bars.

"Cricket!" I hollered, "my favoritest donkey in the whole world!" The barn crew laughed along with me.

"It's nice to be loved," I remarked, while Kaye observed, "She's missed you!" I frankly didn't think Cricket liked me enough to miss me.

I went back to poop scooping, then, thinking that sometimes, the Gods really go out of their way to make you feel like your efforts amount to something. It's enough to know that my once-a-week volunteering makes a difference in the lives of the barn critters; anything else - like Cricket's braying, or the occasional ride on Ruckus - is gravy. But it's really good gravy: every once in a while, one animal or another will let me know that they enjoy my company, and that's a reward all its' own.

There was more, later that same day. Nancy's boarding a new horse these days, one that may (hopefully) or may not end up being a permanent resident. His name is Jem, and I met him for the first time a few weeks ago. He had charmed me enough at that first meeting that I was looking forward to seeing him again this time. Once we'd finished cleaning all the stalls, I went looking for him.

I stood in front of his stall talking quietly to him. He pushed his nose up against mine in greeting - just as the llama had done, and we stood like that for some minutes. I was enchanted as much by his gentleness as by his friendliness, and I began to wonder what it would take to make him mine.

Mind you, I'm not a wealthy woman. To be honest, I really don't have much of nuthin'. But when boyfriend John and I first began emailing (we met online), and he sent me pictures of the farm he lives on, my first set of questions - even though we hadn't actually met in person yet - went like this:

What kind of crops do you grow?

Where would the horses live?

Does farming thirty acres pay the bills?

Where would the horses live?

What do you do when there's a drought year?

Where would the horses live?

To his credit, John resisted the urge to change his email address. Instead, he gamely talked about where a horse barn could feasibly be located someday. Between you and I, he has no idea how rapidly "someday" is approaching! Once he meets Jem, I think he'll understand.

So while part of my heart is torn and aching from the loss of Pretty Boy, Peepers, and old Mikey, there's still plenty of room left for whatever comes next. Could be a new duckling at the pond, could be a cool horse named Jem. When I know, you'll be the first people I tell!

Thanks again for stopping by! Until next time, please be kind to all the critters!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

All Things Must Pass

Hi Folks.

Thanks for stopping by.

It was Mr. Spock, in 'The Undiscovered Country,' who said, "Nature abhors a vacuum." I'm finding lately that he was right. While my own world, in dealing with the grief of losing Pretty Boy, ground to a painful halt, life at the pond carried on. Within days of Pretty Boy's death, white Pekin Puddle Duck somehow figured out that Girlfriend Duck was in need of a companion. How he knew that, living on the other side of the pond as he was, I have no clue. But he's been by her side ever since.

While Puddle Duck doesn't possess any of the attitude that made Pretty Boy so charming, he's willing to do whatever is necessary to look after his new friend: several times, I've seen him shooing away wild mallard drakes so that Girlfriend Duck could eat her corn in peace. Every time I approach the pond now, I find the two Pekins in close proximity to each other. It's an arrangement that suits them both.

Another life that carries on is that of Pretty Boy's wing man, Ducky. While it's unlikely that Ducky knows that his friend has died, a curious thing has happened since he went to live with the Mitchell's: he's come out of his shell and into his own. It's an unexpected turn of events.

Ducky had been dumped at the pond as an adult, and he never really settled comfortably into the new living arrangement. As a result, he was content to walk in Pretty Boy's shadow, and he no doubt felt safe with the alpha duck looking out for him. When he first arrived at the Mitchell's, Ducky looked to Chicken for the same sort of security, but as time passed, some inexplicable change took root. Now, I'm told, Ducky chases squirrels off the property, as well as birds, rabbits, chipmunks and any other interlopers he feels brave enough to face down. He's clearly more confident, now, and more sure of his surroundings.

One of the main reasons I've kept the ducks at McKinnon's Pond - instead of pushing boyfriend John to hurry up and dig that duck pond - is because the place is so damned big. The pond is easily the size of a football field, with grass and shade trees along the banks, and it's located on a quiet street in a quiet subdivision. To my mind, it's the perfect place for a duck to live - if you can overlook, that is, the fact that any number of predators also call the area home. To ducks like Pretty Boy, who're born there, it must seem like paradise. To ducks like Ducky, who were dumped there having first known a more secure life somewhere else, it must've been a nightmare.

So while Pat Mitchell continues to express surprise at the changes in Ducky - the new-found assertiveness, the obvious pleasure he takes in patrolling his territory - they don't surprise me much at all. It makes sense that in that more contained environment, Ducky would thrive and blossom. And it's a joy to see. The last time I stopped in for a visit, Ducky ran all the way across the yard to greet me, quacking happily as he inspected me for treats. His new passion, I was told ahead of time, is saltine crackers. I came prepared.

As I drove home from that visit, it occurred to me that I hadn't been greeted so heartily by a duck since Pretty Boy died. Ducky will never take Pretty Boy's place, of course, but how satisfying it was to stand in the Mitchell's driveway, calling Ducky's name, just like I used to call Pretty Boy, and watching Ducky race toward me as fast as his webbed feet would carry him. Nature does, indeed, abhor a vacuum. There will never be another Pretty Boy, but there will be other ducks, and other critter friendships, that will be satisfying in their own right. I just have to be open to them as they come along.

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

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Notes in the Midst of Grief

Hi Folks. Thanks for stopping by.

As I've struggled to come to terms with the death of Pretty Boy Duck, I've stuggled, too, with my memories of him, and my inability to articulate the sights and sounds that made him so special to me. There are no words to describe the noises he made while in my care: the snuffling, honking sounds that were his warning to me to stop touching him; the throaty, glottal noises that actually sounded more like a croaking frog than anything else, as he chomped repeatedly on that offending hand of mine. The closest I can come is to borrow from Bob Tarte's description of his own ducks, muttering something along the lines of, "duck, duck, duck." I miss those noises.

There's another noise I miss just as much: the sound of my own voice hollering, "GOOD MORNING, PRETTY BOY!!! HOW YA DOIN', HANDSOME BUBBY?" It was the same thing I yelled every morning. He'd come running from wherever he was, intent on being the first to get to the corn I'd dumped out on the ground. Even if he was the last duck to arrive, he'd still shoulder his way to the head of the hand-out line, coming to a stop right in the middle of the pile of corn. He was usually no more than a foot away from me, and I often reached out to stroke his feathers while he ate.

There was an incident which took place in my bathroom that I think I'll cherish the most among all my memories of that goofy duck. I had asked boyfriend John to come over and take pictures of Pretty Boy and I during one of his stays last summer. I like to document my critter adventures so that I can show you - not just tell you - what I was up to. So I stood in my bathroom holding Pretty Boy as John snapped away with the camera. Things were going well enough until I felt a strange presence against my neck. Pretty Boy was up to something, but I couldn't tell what. "What's he doing?" I asked John.

"Nothing," he replied. Like hell!

Calmly, I pressed the issue, "Are you sure he's not going for my jugular?"

"I'm sure," said John. Hmmmmm. It sure FELT like he was going for my jugular!

It wasn't until I got the film developed that I saw exactly what Pretty Boy had been doing. Look for yourself - scroll up the photos on the right side of this page until you get to one with a caption underneath that reads, "Apparently, I've been forgiven!" John was right: Pretty Boy hadn't been going for a vein at all; instead, he appeared to be snuggling up against me. It's something he never did before or after that day. It was a wonderful moment, and I'm thrilled that it was recorded on film.

In the weeks immediately following Pretty Boy's death, I had to endure two other losses. First came old Mikey out at the horse barn. I'd been away from the barn for a few months, and just assumed that when I returned, I'd find everything the way I'd left it. Boy, was I wrong. I walked in one Saturday in late March to find Mikey pacing frantically up and down the aisles. When I asked Nancy about it, she told me that he was dying. I don't know about you, but my mind doesn't easily wrap itself around something as frank as, "He's dying." But when I pressed her further, it started making sense. Old Mikey was thirty-two years old. He'd been decrepit for years. And now, his organs were shutting down.

Nancy had put a call in to the equine vet, who came out and euthanized Mikey a couple hours later. We'd finished cleaning the stalls by then, and Mandy, feeling a bit overwhelmed, I think, by the prospect of watching a horse die, decided to head home. I stuck around, hoping that by being a part of the end of Mikey's life, death would somehow become easier to bear. I turned out to be wrong about that, too. Death - or, more specifically, loss - hurts like hell. And you can't cheat your way out of that fact no matter how hard you try. As the drugs coursed through Mikey's veins, I sobbed quietly, as much for the loss of Pretty Boy as for that old horse. Mikey'd had a good long life, all right, but I hadn't been ready to say good-bye.

A few days after Mikey passed, I was at McKinnon's Pond feeding the ducks when I noticed that white Pekin Peepers was missing. Being fairly certain that Peeps was male, I felt sure that he wasn't sitting on a nest of eggs somewhere. And no matter how big that pond is, it's very hard to miss a big white duck. I made a mental note of his absence and continued with my day.

I got home to find a voice mail from Pat Mitchell. There was something in the sound of her voice that told me bad news was in the offing, and I said as much as I left a message for her. When we finally connected, she said, "It is bad news but probably not who you think." She thought I'd be worried about Ducky, but I already knew better. "No," I replied, "it's a white Pekin, isn't it?" She answered in the affirmative; Peepers had died.

She and Pete had found him acting strangely at the pond that morning. Unable to balance himself, he appeared as though drunk or drugged. Pat managed to catch him - and normally, those domestics can run pretty fast - which told me that he was really badly sick or injured. She brought him back to the house and put him in a quiet place, where he died later the same day. Now Pat was asking whether I wanted the body. When she offered to bury him on her property, I thanked her and agreed that that would be best.

Like Pretty Boy before him, I'd known Peepers since he was an egg. He'd been one of the last ducklings hatched before I'd instituted the Planned Duckhood project. Because Pretty Lady had popped out a few more eggs after he arrived, Peeps spent a lot of time on his own, following the other Pekins around and learning from them how to be a duck. He was an intrepid little soul, and braver than most ducklings: he approached me at feeds much earlier than usual with young ducks, which charmed me no end.

Peepers and I were never close in the way I was with Pretty Boy. But he learned his name, and was among the handful who trusted me enough to get close at the feeds without worrying about the hulking human sitting among them. I would have been sorry to see him go under the best of circumstances, but these were not, as we already know, any kind of good circumstances to begin with. The loss of Peeps was yet another straw on the camel's back.

So it's been a difficult time, lately. I still go feed the ducks three times a week, but it's with a heavy heart, and lacks the enthusiasm I enjoyed all those years I'd stand watching that big goofy duck racing toward me, Girlfriend Duck in tow, flapping his bill in anticipation of food and a visit. I just don't have the same relationship with any of the remaining ducks, so my joy is muted.

I'll continue to feed the ducks, though, and make my rounds during egg-laying season. I'll continue to holler things like, "GOOD MORNING, DUCKS! EVERYBODY COME HAVE CORN!" I'll continue to be a little embarassed when humans overhear me talking to them. And I'll continue to miss that funny, enigmatic, big, black, bossy duck, Pretty Boy.

That's all for now, folks. Thanks so much for stopping by. Until next time, please be kind to all the critters!