Perhaps the toughest lesson of farm life is that of production value. It's certainly the costliest financially and emotionally, sometimes even physically when the lesson comes at the price of a life. (Every creature's life is of sacred value to itself.)
There's been a rabid and vehement push to criminalize those who leave animals out in the cold. While I agree that animals need access to food, water, and some form of shelter, I feel strongly that society is teetering on the brink of taking anthropomorphism too far. I love my animals and am of the mind that I have taken on full responsibility for each of their lives, from adoption til death. I recognize the unique personalities of every animal I own and I do my best to ensure a safe and loving farm community. My cats and dogs play together. My sheep and chickens share the same shelter. A wild duck has moved in and none of the animals molest her (though Zeke is a bit overeager to play). I believe I possess the common sense to know when it is too hot or cold to leave my dog in the car while I run into the store. Certain "animal rights activists" have at times tried to break into my vehicle to release my dog in the ignorant belief that she would be happier "free" than under human control. The fact that she slathered the window in spit and snot, baring her teeth and vocally defending her mobile home, did nothing to disabuse them of this notion. These are the same people who call leaving an animal outside abuse.
It's been wickedly cold this week; temperatures dipped into the -20s before windchill. Everyone did their best to shore up against the polar vortex. Heat lamps were installed in outbuildings, straw and hay were stockpiled, poultry and outdoor cats locked up, coats put on. As the storms began to rage I wondered if all the worry was natural, or even warranted. James Herriot wrote of more than one farm dog who was found buried beneath the snow, hale and whole, every night throughout the Yorkshire winters of his/her life. Granted, that was in the 40s when people "didn't know any better". Yet 70 years later I have met dogs and cats who could not be dragged inside on the worst night, for whom being trapped inside overnight would cause worse mental pain than any cold could physical. A man in Southern Alberta a couple of winters ago thought he had lost his entire commercial flock of Shetlands, only to have them climb out of 8ft deep snow banks a week or two later, perfectly fine though a little hungry.
I wondered about my horses. Penny was raised on range and has preferred her whole life to battle the weather outside a barn or run in. Why shouldn't she? Horses are prey animals. If adversity must come, they prefer to see it a long way off. Bullet, on the other hand, prefers the warm confines of a stall. My contingency plan was to use an abandoned barn across the street during the worst cold, but I found the siding had blown off in the last storm. Open barns provide no insulation from the wind. So the horses had to face 3 days of sub zero temperatures in one of several windbreaks in their pasture. I've stood in these horseshoe shaped coves where the 10 ft tall cedar trees stand linked limb in limb, and it's not so bad. They had no rugs, just the windbreak and 800lbs of hay. Cold and dry is not so bad, but we were expecting rain that suddenly froze when temperatures plummeted 63 degrees in a matter of hours.
No worries about the sheep; my first flock of Shetlands survived the Great Ice Storm of 2008 on open pasture, and this lot was no different. Clever enough to gather around the heat lamp in the coop, they rotated lying in watch, chewing their cud and facing the wind. All 8 are leaping about, butting heads and jockeying for corn this morning. Between the corn and alfalfa/orchard grass I doubt any pregnancies are in question.
I shored up the bees as best I could. Ultimately, I have to trust their instincts to survive. There's not much one can do for bees, and we all know that a hard freeze is death to insects. Even Zeke, whose personal motto is "Semper paratis laborare", only wanted to run outside to pee. Proving that dogs are smarter than cats, the cats had to be ushered from the door several times a day, adamant that they were above the terrible conditions. No.
This left the dumbest animals on the farm - birds. The three ducks, two domestic and one wild, huddled on the ice, heads tucked beneath their wings, firmly ignoring their shelters packed with hay and corn. The chickens ranged every day for a few minutes at a time, returning to the coop to bask and fluff under the heat lamp. The three turkeys, sadly, got mildly hypothermic the first night, eschewing all shelter for the open brutality of the back deck. Nick put them in the dogs' kennels in the laundry room. On the 2nd day of their incarceration the ill mannered tom picked on his roommate so badly we decided to rehome him down the hill. (He's thrilled to have a girlfriend and to be Lord of their Coop. I've been told he's soundly thrashed the roosters.)
This morning the cats and turkeys got out of jail. Unfortunately, Ballyhoo did not escape unscathed. The polar vortex claimed one of the golden mystery hens. This particular hen has a history of...low intelligence and poor decision making. It shouldn't have come as a surprise that, of all the animals, she chose to spend last night under a pile of boards. When Ibrought her inside this morning she couldn't move her feet, her tears had frozen in the corners of her eyes, and her comb and wing were frostbitten. Over the course of 3 hours I raised her body temperature, warming her on my lap wrapped in 2 towels and my wool scarf. Champagne and Zeke "helped". Currently the hen is cozy in a bean crate in my bathroom, her poor feet swollen but still functional.
All week I've been preaching that any animal dumb enough not to seek shelter in this frigid weather isn't worth having around. Yet this hen raises the question: am I the villain in this tale, the abusive farmer who demands too much? Or have we relaxed the standards of survival so that even the weakest have a chance? I doubt this hen has learned her lesson. If she's not able to walk I'll have to take her down the hill and put her in a stew pot. Because I am at heart a 6 year old girl who believes she can save everything, that choice becomes more difficult and remote the longer I care for her...but I can't afford free rides. Should I take one $7 hen to the vet for an exam and antibiotics when reputable chicken sources advise against forcing chickens indoors in inclement weather? Yes, because I'm responsible for her...and no, because her production value isn't high enough to warrant it.
As a farmer I am constantly faced with the dichotomy between love and the bottom line. Vet bills can quickly run into the hundreds and thousands. No matter how fond I am of any animal, I have to know where to draw the line. It's never easy. Well, I hear it's easier for farmers who have large commercial herds or flocks, whose animals are known by a number, not a name. But I'm not that kind of farmer. I am the kind whose nameless hen is swaddled in towels, drinking water out of a hummus container after a warm bath. I am the kind who sings to baby rabbits, stays up all night nursing kittens, holds out hope until the last breath and fights for and on behalf of all creatures - wild and domestic, poisonous and docile - until they choose to relinquish the fight themselves. The bottom line is, I am and always will be a sucker.