The only constant here is change

The only constant here is change

PrintWell, it’s official: I have taken a job with Veterinary Pet Insurance (VPI), the oldest and largest pet insurance company in the United States. I’ve long been a supporter of pet health insurance, and have carried it on my pets for an even longer period. I have never regretted a penny spent on it:  In 2012, my beloved McKenzie was fighting cancer, and without pet health insurance I could not have given her 10 months of  happy, active and normal life before cancer won and killed her.  I have recommended pet health insurance time and time again, and I know I have saved a lot of pets’ lives as a result.

Because I’ve written about pet health insurance a great deal, I’ve developed friendly relationships with some of the people in the pet insurance industry. One of them, VPI’s Curtis Steinhoff, came to the realization that I was perfect for a job he was trying to fill. I wasn’t so sure when he first called, but I took two trips to the VPI headquarters in Brea, Calif., met all the people in the communications and marketing departments and asked lots of questions. After the second trip, decided I really wanted to do the job he was offering, so I took it. I’ve been resigning all my other work every since, which was very hard but the conflicts of interest dictated a change of direction.

I’ll be working on the “wonk side,” writing  about medicine and  business for a veterinary audience, on a team that features a biostatistician (!).  I get to work with VPI’s Chief Veterinary Officer, Dr. Carol McConnell, and dig into VPI databases for articles. AND I still get to go to the veterinary conferences I so love. More than that: I have to!  (No, don’t throw me in that briar patch!)

I have written for a pet-owner audience for almost 30 years, but more and more I’ve found the pure science  and medical writing to be more challenging and interesting to me. This will now be my job — how lucky a wonk am I?

And then there’s this: I still get to work from home, with occasional short trips to Orange County for meetings.

While I’ll certainly miss some of the work I was doing before — and especially some of my editors  and almost all of my readers — I’m delighted to get a job working for and with people I like, doing work I truly enjoy, while getting to stay in my home office here at Rancho Buena Fe´.

Click here for the official release.

Tuesday, bloody Tuesday

Tuesday, bloody Tuesday

Ifeathers‘d like to say it got easier, watching my friend pull a sharpened knife across the neck of a turkey, waiting as the bird’s consciousness drain just behind, and then just ahead, of the blood flow. But it never really did.

No doubt you can get pretty callous when you work in an industrial slaughterhouse, when the speed of killing and dismemberment leaves little time for regret, or even thought itself. But thinking is something you have lots of time for when you spend months raising your own meat, and that’s even true when you spend a beautiful autumn afternoon helping to kill, pluck and butcher a small flock of birds you don’t really know.

It takes three people combined about 30 minutes per bird, and that’s if you’re really staying focused on the task. Plenty of time to think about life and death as you go through the routine: Catching a bird from the stall you put them in the night before. Putting him or her upside-down in a traffic cone you’ve hung from eaves of the barn. Severing the artery in the neck with one swift, bold stroke. Standing as respectful witness as the bird dies (this is actually, thankfully, the swiftest part of the procedure, just a second or two in duration). Waiting for the death throes to end. Plunging the carcass into 155 degree water to loosen the feathers, then plucking, butchering, packaging and freezing.

Then back to the stall for the next bird.

I know many people don’t name their meat animals, seemingly to spare them some of the emotions when it’s time to slaughter. But honestly it does not matter if you name them or not, since when you’re raising your own food in such small numbers you come to know one bird or animal from another, never more so than when you’re ending their lives. Their lives pass not in front of their eyes, but in front of yours. I didn’t know this flock that well, but I’d seen them a few times since they first arrived as fluffy babies on the farm. That was enough to remove their anonymity: They were individuals to me, just as much as if they had been named.

The friend who pulled the blade across their necks apologized to each bird before she did so. Her thank-you a second later was the last thing each bird ever heard.

I also always say “I’m sorry”and “thank-you.” I would bet that’s not uncommon.

This day I was a plucker, not a killer, but I have killed in the past. I have never killed more than a single bird or two at a time — never a flock. Most times the killing I do is to end the suffering of a dying chicken, either after a predator has mortally wounded her or because she is old, sick and miserable. There was no benefit to the birds in their deaths this day: On Monday they were a flock of healthy turkeys in the pasture, and on Tuesday they were holiday dinners in stand-up freezer.

My friend and I talked a little as we plucked about hunting some birds, and raising others to kill. We are not bloodthirsty, and the killing is the hardest part of what we do. But we know that the animals and birds  we eat live normal lives. “Self-actualized,” said my friend, by which she meant they lived doing what is normal for them to do: Move freely in a flock or a herd of their peers, eating what they are supposed to eat.  Unlike their cousins in industrialized meat-growing operations, they do not suffer every moment of their lives; unlike their wild relations, they do not die in fear and pain in the jaws of a predator.

For our birds, life is good until it is  not, and then it is over.

When people ask me how I could do what I did, that’s what I tell them. And then I remind them that if you are going to be alive, other animals are going to die to make that possible. The best you can do is make more of their lives better, and their deaths swift and without fear. That’s true even if you never eat meat at all: If you live, other animals will die. They will die in the fields where your food is harvested, the corn or the soy. They will die because of habitat lost to the places where you live, drive, work or stop for coffee, or the fields committed to the monoculture crops that are processed into the foods you eat.

I know where meat comes from, and what it truly costs.  That’s how I could do what I did. And why I will do it again.

I will be back to my friend’s house soon to claim one of those birds from her freezer. This Thanksgiving the prayers of gratitude I offer will include him, not in abstraction but in memory of the day I pulled the feathers from his body, still warm from the life that had already drained away.

Image: Heading home with a reminder of the afternoon, the tail feathers of a royal palm turkey.

Big Al is off the table … for now

Big Al is off the table … for now

BigAlI did not want a rooster. And really, I still don’t. When I first looked at the house almost two years ago, the property had a resident rooster. He attacked my real estate agent, taking a chunk out of his khakis (but fortunately not his leg). On subsequent visits to the place, I brought a poultry hook so that I could prevent further incidents. When the sale closed, Mr. Rooster Man (his real name) moved next door along with the two horses who’d been boarded here, all of them belonging to a person who took an near-instant dislike for me, for reasons best not explained. (Other people were largely responsible, and it wasn’t anyone’s finest moment, mine included.’Nuff said.)

When I lived in plain ol’ suburbia, I had chickens. Where I lived, hens were allowed if you had a single-family residence on a minimum lot of a quarter-acre, which I did. I maintained a flock of about 10 chickens for four or five years before moving to this house, where “AG-RES” zoning made roosters (goats, sheep, cattle, horses) allowable.

Twice before I’d raised “female” chicks who turned out to be roosters. One died in the jaws of my chicken-killing retriever, the late McKenzie, and the other one I rehomed to my friend’s farm. But the fact is that it didn’t matter what I thought about having a rooster where I used to live, because they were not allowed by zoning, period. My neighbor, who’d taken up chickens about the same time I did, was not as fortunate. She seemed to get about 30 percent males out of chicks purported to be “95 percent” sexed as females. She rehomed hers as well, but it wasn’t easy: The feed store where she’d bought her chicks suggested turning them loose in a nearby town, or dropping them on the American River Parkway for the coyotes to eat. Or, quite sensibly, killing them for food. She did none of that, but her roosters-to-hens ratio was so bad that she stopped raising chicks. Last I heard, she was just letting her hens live out their roosterless lives.

The first spring I was here I was too busy to raise chicks. Last spring was the first chance I had, and I went a little overboard at the feed store. By the time summer came around I had 22 chickens, or about a dozen more than I’d brought over from the old house. By July, it was apparent by the dawn serenade that one of those “shes” was a he. Wouldn’t you know it: It was the “just one more” chick I’d pulled from the Ameraucana tray at the feed store. The chick had caught my eye because of the markings, and yes, that chick grew up to be a striking rooster, now named Aloysius or just plain Big Al.

Good-looking he may be, but welcome he is not.

When Mr. Rooster Man moved next door, I didn’t miss him much. Mostly because it was as if he’d never left: He’d claimed a corner of his new yard that was right under the bedroom windows of my house. Although I got use to his racket, guests always complained. Some even offered, somewhat jokingly, to remove the foul fowl. Eventually, something got him, a raccoon, or maybe a coyote, and we all slept better for it. I expressed my condolences to those who loved him, but I myself did not regret his death a bit.

As for Big Al, he isn’t an attack rooster. His crowing isn’t all that bad, and he’s gorgeous. These all work in his favor, as does the fact that he’s not all that beastly towards the hens and seems to have a beneficial impact on the volume of egg production (which is about seven dozen a week, and yes, we eat a lot of eggs and give a lot away, too).  In the spring, I’ll let some of the green and blue eggs hatch out for more Ameraucanas (love those green- and blue-shelled eggs), so he he’ll earn his keep a little. What happens when half of those chicks start crowing? I’m really not opposed to the Chicken Soup Solution. I’ve done it before, and I’ll do it again. Big Al has the edge on survival, thanks to his status as Rooster No. 1.

For now, I’m allowing Al to keep his head. Emphasis on “for now.” If the crowing becomes annoying or he becomes dangerous, all the good looks in the world won’t save him.

A horseless winter

A horseless winter

I knew the haggin0929property had a “drainage issue” when I bought it. The sellers told me, and my neighbor told me. The day my offer was accepted, in December of 2011, I went out to celebrate finally buying my own small piece of rural property by standing in the ankle-deep mud of my new pasture. Yeah, it was bad, but … well, Mud Season is one of the two known to all horse-owners, Fly Season being the other. The pasture was still ankle-deep in mud when I closed in February of 2012, but again, if you have horses, you’ll have mud. I bought a pair of Muck Boots in preparation for last winter, but thought everything would be fine otherwise.

In December of 2012, it rained for five days straight, and the pasture was under water — it was, in effect, a lake — for the better part of two months. Even then, it could have been worse: Had it rained a little harder for a little longer, my barn would have flooded. But the rain stopped just in time, so I had two dry stalls for the horses and the $3,000 worth of hay stayed dry so I could feed them. But I knew I had been lucky, and couldn’t rely on luck again. For this year, I needed a short-term solution. A longer-term solution — fixing the drainage issue — would have to wait until I have money to afford it.

The first step was getting down to two horses, because the barn has only two stalls, and the third “stall” is a makeshift affair that doesn’t shelter much — it faces into the wind — and floods with the pasture. On short notice last December, reducing the “herd” meant giving up my very best (in terms of training, conformation, markings and temperament) horse, Patrick. I was lucky to be able to donate him to the Sacramento Police Department, where Officer Patrick now has several arrests under his cinch and a fan club.

That left River, my Kentucky Mountain Horse, and Haggin, my off-track Thoroughbred. At the beginning of summer, I started thinking about how to prepare for another wet winter with the two of them. In late summer, I had my hay shipment stacked on double pallets, so even if water got into the barn there might be a chance to save my hay. I had a “curtain” made from a tarp added to the front of the barn (the original barn doors disappeared heaven-knows-when) to protect the hay from wind-blown rain. I started getting load after load of wood chips dumped in the stalls, on the pasture’s lowest spots and on a “road” from the house to barn. Fortunately, one of my neighbors owns a tree company, and he and his crew are happy to empty their trucks at the end of a day of trimming and chipping — for free. I’ve been taking all they’ll give me, and as long as the pasture is dry enough for them to drive onto I’ll take more.

I had done all I could do:  I was prepared for rain and mud, and praying for a winter without a concentrated series of water-heavy storms that would flood the pasture.

HaggintrainBut then one of those things you never plan for happened. In my case, I ended up with a roommate who is an accomplished horse-trainer, and she decided to work on the horses while she was living here for a couple months. Since the rainy season was still months away, I brought over another friend’s horse who needed to have some refresher training before sale, the third kinda-stall being just fine in dry weather. As all three horses started shaping up beautifully under the daily training, I started looking to sell not only my friend’s horse (Casper) but also my Kentucky Mountain Horse (River).  With those two gone, I could afford to board Haggin somewhere dryer for the winter, leaving nothing to chance.

River and Casper went out on trials last week.  River now appears to be sold, and I hope Casper will soon pass muster for a final sale as well. As for Haggin, he’s not for sale, but the wonderful training my friend put on him while she was living here means his possibilities have become much broader as well. He has come a long way from his status as a broken “pasture pet” of an ex-racehorse. Although he’s still too tall and too fast for me to ride, he has become sound enough that he’ll be going out on a trial as as a low-level show and lesson horse.

In one of those “you can’t make up stuff like this” the barn where he’ll be going — Gold Country Equestrian Center — is the one where I learned to ride, some 30 years ago. Still owned by the same family, in fact.

Haggin is not for sale — I love that horse. But I think he’ll be happier being ridden regularly, and I know he’ll be happy and healthier not standing in water. He leaves  for the new barn on Wednesday, and I will be horse-free here for the time being. I may offer my two stalls to a neighbor who’s willing to chance that this winter will not be as bad as the last one, but if I do, she’ll be caring for her own horses. I’ll be at the gate with carrots and apples, and feeding/mucking in a pinch. But this winter? I’m taking it off from horse care, thank you very much. Horse-riding? We’ll see. I’m much braver a rider on Haggin in an arena than on the trails around here, and I may be taking lessons again where he’s being boarded.

The hay, by the way, is for sale.

Image: Haggin, top, and Haggin in training.