I was definitely going to be a perfect parent. I had it all figured out. I had it all planned out.
Needless to say, it didn't work out. Most days I have to settle for good-enough. Some days I have to live with less. If you asked me now, I'd say that my parenting philosophy is not attachment or love & logic or continuum theory or tough love. I'd say that it's whatever works. I'd say that it changes every day. Maybe I'd say, "What philosophy?" Maybe I'd just laugh.
But I didn't quite learn my lesson. I was going to be a perfect farmer, too. I'd never lose an animal to disease or predators or misadventure. The coop would always be clean. The garden would always be beautiful. The grounds would always be organized.
Best-laid plans. Ideology. These are smashed to bits by chickens and children alike.
So I am quickly becoming a "whatever works" farmer. That's what you have to be when a bobcat steals your chickens right in front of you.
The first time, I was just inside the front door when I heard a commotion from the chickens. I walked out to the deck just in time to see a dark shape hauling off a hen along the creek. To me, it looked like a small dog. Jeremy walked Tuna down the creek and found the pile of bloody feathers. No sign of the predator.
The second time was just a few hours later. Our friends Alex and Jen were visiting with their two kids. That makes eight humans and one canine watching as that bold bobcat, apparently unsatisfied by the meager flesh of a juvenile Auracana, snatched one of the biggest Delawares and ran off with him. This time I got a good look at her. And I was truly shocked. Thousands of acres of wild game and she's got to brave humans and dogs and electric fences to steal a skinny chicken?
Of course, this was my fear. Remember?
Inside the electric fence, the birds can range happily on grass and insects and grubs. Outside the electric fence, they're fair game. I lost two chickens to one predator in one day. So I had to change direction.
I bought some poultry netting and strung it up along the inside of the fence. Now my purely pastured chickens are ranging less than freely. Undoubtedly they would prefer to have unlimited space, but I must assume they would also prefer to keep their heads attached to their bodies and their guts safely contained on the inside.
The added fencing did not deter that bobcat. She is relentless. She still comes by several times a day. She appears, the chickens cluck and babble with fear, she can't breach the fence, she leaves in frustration. She comes by first thing in the morning and in the middle of the night. She won't stop. Maybe she's confused about why her easy meal became so complicated.
The electric fence, with its attached netting, is only about four feet high. When she thinks to jump it, it's all over.
I don't know what else to do. We can't afford to put up a solid 12-foot fence, as is recommended by our local animal control agency. Maybe we'll just have to extend the electric wire that high and hope for the best.
More basic to a chicken than feathers or a beak is its ecological position as a prey animal. Out here, in the wild, keeping a chicken alive is to fight against its most basic nature.
When a bobcat steals a sweet Auracana and rips her head off, she's not thinking, "Is this moral? Is this ethical? Is this cruel?" She's not thinking, "Am I making her suffer? Am I moving fast enough? Is her species going to survive?" Humans, with our self-consciousness, think this way. We want an animal to be healthy and happy and to die quickly without fear or much pain. At least on the intimate scale, we try to offer our prey mercy.
"If you’ve been present at many deaths, you know 'painless' is not a word that can often be truthfully applied. 'Merciful' is generally the best we can do.
"Painlessness is — in death as in life — a fantasy.
"Mercy, on the other hand, is within our reach. Perhaps our desire to grant mercy gives us the truest logic behind the word 'humaneness.' It’s the word that describes humanity’s attempts to be merciful, to take into account the feelings of other living creatures and to spare them suffering, whenever possible."
"Killing is wrong and no animals should ever have to die, so the big cats and wild canines would go on one side, while the wildebeests and zebras would live on the other. He knew the carnivores would be okay because they didn’t need to be carnivores. That was a lie the meat industry told. He’d seen his dog eat grass: therefore, dogs could live on grass.
"No one objected. In fact, others chimed in. My cat eats grass, too, one woman added, all enthusiasm. So does mine! someone else posted. Everyone agreed that fencing was the solution to animal death....
"....[But] on the carnivore side of the fence, starvation will take every animal. Some will last longer than others, and those some will end their days as cannibals. The scavengers will have a Fat Tuesday party, but when the bones are picked clean, they’ll starve as well. The graveyard won’t end there. Without grazers to eat the grass, the land will eventually turn to desert.
"Why? Because without grazers to literally level the playing field, the perennial plants mature, and shade out the basal growth point at the plant’s base. In a brittle environment like the Serengeti, decay is mostly physical (weathering) and chemical (oxidative), not bacterial and biological as in a moist environment. In fact, the ruminants take over most of the biological functions of soil by digesting the cellulose and returning the nutrients, once again available, in the form of urine and feces.
"But without ruminants, the plant matter will pile up, reducing growth, and begin killing the plants. The bare earth is now exposed to wind, sun, and rain, the minerals leech away, and the soil structure is destroyed. In our attempt to save animals, we’ve killed everything.
"On the ruminant side of the fence, the wildebeests and friends will reproduce as effectively as ever. But without the check of predators, there will quickly be more grazers than grass. The animals will outstrip their food source, eat the plants down to the ground, and then starve to death, leaving behind a seriously degraded landscape.
"The lesson here is obvious, though it is profound enough to inspire a religion: we need to be eaten as much as we need to eat. The grazers need their daily cellulose, but the grass also needs the animals. It needs the manure, with its nitrogen, minerals, and bacteria; it needs the mechanical check of grazing activity; and it needs the resources stored in animal bodies and freed up by degraders when animals die.
"The grass and the grazers need each other as much as predators and prey. These are not one-way relationships, not arrangements of dominance and subordination. We aren’t exploiting each other by eating. We are only taking turns."
Every natural thing, including death, serves life. This is my religion. This is why I'm confused by the concept of physical resurrection, or even spiritual reincarnation. My body and indeed my soul belong here. They don't even belong to me. They belong to the Earth. I'm just borrowing this configuration of molecules. In a very short while, they'll collapse and something else will sprout from that decay. Is that beautiful or what?
Okay, enough philosophizing. I don't have a point, just meandering thoughts.
For now, we're watching and waiting with the bobcat. I'm hopeful that after being shocked a few times she'll be dissuaded from coming around again. There's got to be easier prey out there.
In other chicken news... See this boy?
That's right, he's a boy. We weren't supposed to get any males, except for the Delawares that we're raising for meat, but we did. At least one, maybe two. And several of our Delawares are looking like females, which will help to replace the layers lost to predation.
I'm thinking of calling him Jemaine, so when I catch him gettin' down with one of the ladies I can sing "Business Time".
That's right, baby. With me you only need two minutes, 'cause I'm so INTENSE.