Somebody seems to have decided to run the world like a very fast paced bad TV advertisement.
My attention keeps getting jerked from one desperately important perspective to another.
Iceland is bankrupt. Pakistan may be next- with very unpleasant consequences. Executives, and lawmakers, in the USA demonstrate conclusively that they are incapable of learning. 25% of all the mammals on earth are now considered to be at risk of- extinction.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch... (For you youngsters, that's supposed to be a humorous cliché segue phrase.)
We've had our own serious and distracting disasters this past week. Tiny, in the grand scheme of things; not going to make headlines in the New York Times; but - disasters.
Maybe it was just one disaster. But it has two parts. And in the light of the world handbasket epidemics, all the more disastrous for us personally- we lost a lot of resources, and replacing them is not easy, nor guaranteed.
As readers here know, we've been working on establishing a flock of guinea fowl- for multiple reasons, none of them trivial. And; since at this latitude the general consensus is guineas are not reliable parents, we added 30 chickens to the mix- chosen from breeds known to be good "setters"- to help us increase our flock next year. And, we'd been working on training our new farm dog/watch dog, since March.
Here's Bruce, behaving himself beautifully. I introduced him to the birds very carefully, very intentionally, and with plenty of guidance as to the expected behavior. No chasing, no harassing allowed. At the time the chickens were added to the outdoor pen, the guineas were being trained that this was home, and to come back for the night time. This was done by turning an increasing proportion of the guineas outside to range free, but keeping a few in the pen all day. All the chicks were kept in at this point- they were just awfully small to be on their own.
In early September, everything was going perfectly, and we started just opening the door to the pen in the morning. All the birds, guineas and chickens, would explode out; clearly enjoying the freedom to fly up into the trees (guineas only) and eat all the grass and bugs they could get (more grass than I expected). But- we only gave them new "feed" at sundown- and they would cheerfully be back, and waiting for it. At first we had to herd them into the pen; they couldn't figure out where the door was, and would just endlessly try to walk through whatever side they were on. But in a week or two, they learned to know where the door was; now they all pile in entirely by themselves (except for one or two persistent dolts).
Bruce was performing his chores beautifully; on watch outside all night, and happy to do it. The occasional bouts of barking at 3 AM got to be a comforting sound, not disturbing- he was busy keeping the raccoons out of the supplies of feed and groceries. And away from the poultry pen. When I went to feed the birds at sundown, he was always along, and would without prompting lie down at some distance from the guinea racket and chicken hustle, and just casually watch it all.
However. One day as Spice and Smidgen were walking back from work in the greenhouse, with Bruce along- the guineas appeared on the path- and apparently in a spirit of play, Bruce charged- grabbed one- and shook it. Dead.
This is how farm kids learn about life and death- it's right there, in front of you. By this time Smidgen had already seen a few guinea keets and chicks die; so it certainly wasn't any kind of trauma for her; more excitement. Sad- but mostly she was angry at Bruce. "Damn dog!" Yep, kids repeat everything.
So; onto the chain, for Bruce. We tried a trick recommended to us by a professional dog obedience trainer- we tied the dead guinea around his neck, where he couldn't reach it. Sometimes, he said, that will teach them to leave the poultry alone. And I spent more time, working with him and the birds.
He went back to being perfectly well behaved around them. Perfectly.
The chicks were all out and free-range now, and thriving. They're so different from the guineas in their behavior, it's a huge amount of fun watching them, and watching the two species interact. The guineas started out being afraid of the tiny chicks; but have changed now to bullying them over food and space. The chickens, however, are going to eventually be much bigger than the guineas- so it'll be interesting to see where it all ends up. They actually share space and food with little real fuss; once the guineas are full, they don't bother the chickens at the feeder.
Little by little, guineas and chickens were ranging farther and farther from home base- foraging over quite a few acres, and still faithfully coming home to roost at night. The first time I went out at midday and couldn't find a guinea, or a chick, anywhere, it was kinda scary. But there they all were come evening; 9 white guineas, 17 dark; 11 Buff Orpingtons; 12 Dominiques, and 9 bantam Brahmans. Day after day.
Then- we started to lose one now and then. One guinea- all we found was a pile of widely scattered feathers, 1/4 mile from the pen. Beelar and Spice thought it looked like an eagle strike. Then a Dominique didn't show up one night. Then a week later, an Orp failed to show. Then two days later, another Orp was missing. I was afraid. I looked at Bruce, and asked- "Bruce- do you know anything about the missing chickens?" - and he looked quite sneaky, in reply- would not meet my eyes. That's something I'd noticed in plenty of other situations; he normally had no trouble looking me right in the eyes, for quite a long time. No threat in it, on either side; just both of us looking at the other; connecting. He was fine with it. But not this time.
No proof anywhere; and of course I know the legend of Gelert. You really don't want to assume anything.
Last Sunday was Spice's and my 6th anniversary. So we combined a little shopping in the big city with a treat at our favorite Chinese buffet for lunch; intending to be back on the farm in time to put the birds to bed- at sunset. They really seem hardwired about sunset- if you get there 15 minutes late, the guineas will be up in a tree; and not coming down tonight, not even for food. The chickens will be inside their shelter- and not coming out for food, either.
We got back in time, to be met by a cheerful- obsequious even- Bruce- and - no chickens, anywhere. Guineas up in a tree, which is common enough. Then Spice started to find them- dead chickens; scattered all over.
I started picking them up. We found 15 corpses- scattered over 2 acres. Some of them very cold and stiff; some still warm.
There was no question who was to blame. Bitten and ripped at the neck. A few partially eaten- over the whole day. It could only be Bruce- he wouldn't have allowed any other predator to be there. Indeed, all I had to do was hold up a dead chicken, and look at him- and he slunk off into the thick firs. Betrayal.
At first it looked like 100% of the chickens were gone. Then I found one banty hen, hiding in the pen house. Then one Orp came carefully, slowly, out of the woods. 15 minutes later, a Dominick. Over the next two days, we had 7 left; but two more died later. 2 Orpington cockerels, 1 Orp hen; 1 Dominick and one banty hen. I think; the Dominick sometimes acts a bit roosterish. Not a lot of mothering capability there. The chicks had been totally terrorized; they refused to come out of the pen for 2 days.
As much as I enjoy working with, and watching, these animals, none of them are pets, or a hobby. They are part of our plans for future enterprises- doing critical pest control for us in our crops, and perhaps providing eggs and some meat. And they're not free- birds, and dogs, cost real dollars and real hours; both irreplaceable.
All the dog people I talked to agreed. This is not fixable; not trainable. Bruce was killing for fun, and kept at it, for hours.
A sad and miserable experience, all the way around. We'd started naming the chickens- there was one Spice called "Houdini" - because he would always sneak out of the pen, at any opportunity. He's gone, though we didn't find him.
There was one guinea missing, too. But only one. Looks like the idea I had that the guineas are fairly well able to take care of themselves is working out, anyway. The chickens could all fly- I'd seen them all do it; but they never spent time in the trees the way the guineas do.
So, Bruce is gone. No real options there; this is a farm. Recriminations galore, of course. Did I fail to train him properly? I'll always wonder, of course. The other dog people I talk to say no, I did it right. It's just sometimes- the dog can't be trained.
I'm partly thinking of E.T. Seton's "Wully, the Story of a Yaller Dog". A true story. And there are some significant parallels- Bruce was a mix of 4 breeds; not exactly a pure mongrel, but he certainly had the extraordinary "common sense" Seton attributes to them. And there were signs of some other "wild" traits. (note: in Seton's day, it was generally agreed that the jackal had provided the starting material for domestic dogs; now we know it was the wolf.)
It's all probably easiest on Smidgen. She sees the dead birds- which she has helped raised, helped feed, and understands; no, Bruce cannot come back.
Tomorrow, I'm picking up another puppy. We need a dog- farm dog/watch dog. Right now. That temporary poultry pen is toast, if some night soon a big coon, or a couple coyotes decide to tear into it. Smidgen is looking forward to it. The adults are thinking of weeks of poopy papers, and chewed electric cords. Bruce was introduced to the birds when he was big, and they were small; this puppy will be introduced when it is small, and the birds adult sized, and feisty. Maybe that'll help.
Total cost, so far- about $1,000 cash in purchases, vet fees, feed- not including the hours.
And a lot of heartache. I loved that damned dog. And trusted him.