Ruffled Feathers and Spilled Milk

Farming with ducks and dairy goats, chickens and children.

Little House on the Prairie (of Death)

Posted on | July 6, 2009 | No Comments

C’mon, you know that’s what it had to be like.   I know it had to be like that and I only have a couple breeds of poultry and live on just 4 acres.  But since the day I started farming I spend as much time dealing with dead animals as I do collecting eggs and filling water buckets.  You think I’m exaggerating, but be careful, my friend.  Get over an acre of land and a sack of feed corn and you, too, will be riding in the circle of life, going fast, downhill, and trying to keep a brave face for young ‘uns!

We started this peaceful Sunday morning with a trip to the car to check the mousetrap.  Yes, that’s right–the mousetrap in the car.  Apparently if you drop enough goldfish crumbs, animal crackers, and cereal bars in between the car seats and park at the top of your gravel driveway in the woods you are setting yourself up for a field mouse invasion.  (Always remember the golden rule in the country: If you feed them, they will come–and bring all their relatives with them).  Initially, I ignored the children’s excited claims of mouse sightings.  After all, on a boring drive down on a country road they’ll scream as if you’ve pinched their bare thigh in the car seat buckle (admit it, you know what that sounds like) and then claim they’ve seen a UFO when you skid off to the side of the road in a panic.  But I was forced to admit the truth when my left turn signal shorted out and I found a nice fleece-filled nest amid the chewed wires.

Since I have been farming for awhile now I headed straight for the old fashioned mouse traps we keep on the high shelf and the jar of peanut butter.  Don’t tell me about those new, humane sticky traps on the market. Trapping and removing live animals sounds like a good idea until you have a squealing mouse stuck by the fur on the side of it’s face to a long strip of wood.  Who’s gonna hold that sucker while you cut him free?  And are you just gonna put him in your neighbor’s car?  Trust me, trap and release is a slippery slope on farm.  Start releasing the field mice and then you’ll be setting up Hav-A-Heart traps for the raccoons and possums raiding the hen house.  Sure, your kids will get an up close look at those semi-opposable thumbs and prehensile tails but when they’re asking you “Whatcha gonna do with him now, Mom?”,  you’ll be stuck wondering the same thing.  “Well, kids, now that we’ve carefully trapped him without injury we’ll just go get the shotgun.”  What?!?!  It’s kind of like keeping prisoners healthy until their time for a public electrocution.  Trust me, a quick painless death when I didn’t have to pull the trigger or act as witness is as easy as it gets on the farm.  But I digress……

So, after breakfast and a strong cup of coffee (Side note:  Always, always, eat breakfast before starting your farm chores.  If there are some nasty surprises in the barn you might not be able to eat for the rest of the day) we checked the mousetrap and found our suspect neatly nabbed and passed on to mouse heaven.  Since the farm’s flock of ducks had gathered around during the removal, we started by tossing the little body to these hearty omnivores.  OK, it’s gross but, hey, we spent some time fattening the little guy up, the least he can do is cut down on my feed bill by becoming a morning snack for some lucky duck.  But the ducks weren’t biting (ha ha!) so the children and I escorted the little body to Sacrifice Stump.

Sacrifice Stump was created well into my second year of farming.  It is a large stump located next to the animal graveyard.  The animal graveyard contains 5 headstones neatly painted with animal names, prayers, and pictures.  Graves were the preferred method of closure during our first year of farming when we discovered that  yes, there will be casualties.  However, there are actually more than 5 animals under the headstones.  See, only 5 casualties a year is a pretty low number of losses.  By the end of the first year we were actually burying extra bodies under the already established headstones, saying a quick prayer, and moving on.  By the second year, even that seemed to be overdoing it, plus we realized we were surrounded by a vast number of winged and pawed critters that came looking for meals in our poultry pens.  The down side to this was the need for security akin to Fort Knox.  The upside was these roaming critters would happily remove farm casualties, saving me some time with the shovel and a trip to get out the paintbox.  Because farm children become quickly immune to death in it’s various forms they will quite happily sacrifice the dead to those critters who can use the remains to fuel their own survival or feed their young.  I found the children’s acceptance of this a bit frightening at first (although it explains a lot about that horrific book The Lord of the Flies).  In any case, the whole Circle of Life concept wasn’t half as hard to explain as when we were burying animals’ bodies and I had to answer if animals would be in our heaven or a separate heaven, are they watching over us just like our relatives who have passed on, will we be able to converse with them or will they still only be able to quack when we get to heaven, etc, etc, etc.  And it was kind of creepy to be praying over animal graves when Middle started talking about how they would rise up from the dead and stand by Jesus’ side when judgment day arrived (yes, we’re Baptist).  Jeez, if I have to be accountable for how I raised my kids and the time I forgot to lock the barn door and a raccoon got in, I’m in big trouble.  But I digress….

On the way to the Sacrifice Stump, the children wondered if yesterday’s loss would still be there.  A day old duckling was found dead in the nest when his mother removed the rest of her brood.  He was set on the Stump the previous evening and we were sure he would be gone courtesy of the evenings’ Death Patrol.   But as we approached, a young duck flew past us with the flock in hot pursuit and, you guessed it, the dead duckling in his bill.  Well, I warned you they were omnivores.  The children chased in hot pursuit to retrieve the little body but the duck made it to the pond with his treat.  I waited as they returned up the path through woods chanting. “Cannibals, cannibals, cannibals!”  The rooster crowed in the background.  As they reached me at the Stump, Little asked me, “What’s a cannibal, Mommy?”  Remember, always eat breakfast first.

You’d think the circle of life would be done with us for the day.  But it was only 8:30am by the time we had disposed of the mouse and watched the ducks eat one of their own.  Plenty of time for more lessons in life and death!  When we returned from Sunday school and church it was time to check the animals’ water buckets and gather eggs.  My daughter, Pretty, with the strongest farming instinct among the children, quickly spotted a rat snake in the hen house.  Little sent up the cry for a hoe and Big appeared at a run with the necessary weapon.  Nothing stirs the blood on a farm faster than the sight of an arch enemy crouching in the door frame.  An avid egg-eater, the rat snake has crossed our path on many occasions and we have not always been the victor.  (My deadly resolve tends to slacken if they strike at me and I have a terrible habit of screaming in fear even while swinging the hoe).  The snakes have been known to devour half of a nest of duck eggs only a few days from hatching.  We have been known to dance with joy around rat snake bodies entangled and dead in the deer netting on the property perimeter.  The children have proposed sticking the bodies on stakes to deter other snakes from entering but I think this might scare human visitors, too (and be discussed to my detriment in the teachers lounge if the children happen to write about it in their school journals).  And, again, I think this gets too close to that whole Lord of the Flies thing.  But I digress…

With the snake spotted and the weapon in hand, my husband suggested my Big have the honor of disposing of the monster.  Yes, it was here.  The day the oldest finally participates in the great Circle of Life as a player and not just an observer.  As my husband pulled the snake from his perch, the other children and I gathered against the fence to give encouragement and, potentially, shriek in helpless fear, if things got out of hand.  But this snake was no match for the hoe and Big struck strong and true and the eggs were saved and the enemy vanquished  in just a few moments.  The children examined the dead, and Big carried him off to, yep, Sacrifice Stump.  Guess what?  The mouse was already gone.

So, say what you want about the peaceful in the country.  Imagine your children running down a hill of grain while the Little House theme plays in the background.  But spend some time farming and you’ll know why ranches always have those grisly cattle skulls hanging around.  Death is is as much a part of the truth as the fact that the rooster crows all day, not just in the morning.  Find yourself a Sacrifice Stump and prepare to explain why snapping the neck of an injured animal is better than letting it suffer (and pretend you’d do it yourself but since Daddy just got home from work he better do it while you start dinner).  The real Circle of Life, minus the Disney music and the cute talking animals,  might seem a tough way for kids to grow up.  But take heart,  your kids will end up in therapy no matter you do.  At least mine will have an interesting story to tell :)

© Stevie Taylor 2010. All Rights Reserved.

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