The trouble with animals and the reality of rural living

Neither Darcie or I grew up in the country. We were both born and raised in the City. Our parents on both sides were city dwellers for their wholes lives as well. So the realities of living in the rural setting were unknown to us, aside from what others had told us to expect. But we both agreed, when moving out here, that we didn’t move here to have an easy life. We expected difficulties and challenges and we have had our fair share since Day 1, whether it be a flat tire, a broken garage door, a truck that breaks down, locking your keys in the car, being snowed in, dealing with a power outage, and so on – if it can happen to you, it probably will. Still, one thing that we had not yet experienced, but knew was an eventual guarantee, was DEATH.

To real farmers, I imagine, death is a common occurrence on the farm. It happens. It’s not taken for granted, per se, but kids who grow up with farm animals learn early on about the concepts of life and death, and are often present for both of those experiences on innumerable occasions through their young lives. Darcie and I, on the other hand, we had never experienced it. Sure, we have had pets that needed to be euthanized when they were old, but there was always a separation and a distance to it. We had never really seen something die. And certainly neither of us have killed anything ourselves.

Last winter when I had been studying up on raising backyard chickens for our tiny urban lot, I read several books on raising chickens, what they need to eat, how an egg is formed, building a coop, et cetera. Most of it was very positive, optimistic and cheerful. But one thing that worried me: What do we do when they get old or sick? This question was never really answered in the books I’d read, but to be honest, I didn’t really want to think about it. When the time came, I’d deal with it, I reassured myself. I recall reading an article though that was a criticism of the urban backyard chicken movement in the USA. Many cities and towns were now allowing people to have 3-4 hens – people, like ourselves, hipster environmentalists and animal lovers who wanted a taste of the rural life without losing the comfortable, easy life of the city. It is certainly an appealing idea! But there was starting to be a big problem with either old hens who’d stopped laying or those that had gotten ill. These well-intentioned folks had no idea what to do with them. The article talked about people abandoning these hens in fields, at vet clinics, and farms. They weren’t able to deal with the other side of farm life – or at least, did not feel that “urban” farm life needed to deal with that one dreaded fact: things die.

I certainly didn’t want to deal with it. I didn’t want to even think about it. When people would ask me what I would do when that inevitable time came I told them the truth: I have no idea. Well, in the past few weeks, this time came. First it was Ruth, our big black Australorp.

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She had always had something strange about her from the get-go. She had an engorged crop (the crop is the area of the esophagus where digestion initially begins) and never really appeared that healthy. But she never looked to be suffering and ate normally. But then she gradually stopped laying eggs, which we thought might have been due to the winter as egg production usually slows down then. Then one day, out of the blue, we came home and there she was lying there, still. Ruth was dead. We were both pretty shocked by it. I picked her up – I’d never held a dead thing before (aside from a fish maybe) – we bagged her up and said, “well, I guess that happens.” I was a little sad, but it didn’t feel as bad as I thought it would.

As the winter was drawing to an end and weather was starting to warm up we planned to get a couple more chickens. My concern was now with only two chickens left, if another one died, then the last one would too (chickens need companions and will die of loneliness if they don’t have a partner). Four weeks ago, at about 4am, the dog started barking (which she never does) and we were awoken to a horrible shrieking sound. I bolted up in bed and looked out the window. The fence around the chicken coop was shaking. I ran outside in the freezing weather. Whatever it was – a fox, a coyote, I don’t know – was gone, I had grabbed a flashlight and there 15 feet from the coop, our little Barred Rock hen, Hildi, was dragging her back leg and groaning. I rushed over and picked her up. We looked at her only to find a large tear of flesh from her side. The first thing I thought was, “what am I going to do?” Here this poor little bird was clearly injured severely. I’ve never felt so much sorrow for an animal before. We took her into the house, cleaned her wound and put a large bandage on her while we contemplated our options. I thought we needed to end her suffering. But I couldn’t conceive of killing her myself. The thought made my stomach turn and my heart ache. I know a real farmer wouldn’t have thought twice about what to do. He likely would have put her out of her misery immediately. But maybe she would be ok? How am I supposed to know? So instead we did what we do when our animal is in need of help. We took her to the vet. Although the vet initially thought she might make it, once they did an X-ray and found she had a broken leg, that was the end. She said, “we should help her go to heaven.” Gah, I felt so terrible. This was how death felt.

We were now down to our last chicken, Marge, the Buff Orpington. We needed her to have some friends though, quickly. Darcie made some calls and we found a heritage breeder who was willing to sell us two hens the next weekend. But in between the four days from Hildi’s death to us getting the new hens, perhaps out of boredom or trauma, I’m not sure, Marge started to eat her own eggs. Oh yes, it’s the worst! So disgusting. I frantically read information on how to stop egg eating, which I’d previously read is a very bad problem. If it becomes a habit/addiction it is impossible to stop. We tried using fake wood eggs (thought being that they peck the egg and hurt their beak) – fail. We tried draining the egg yolk and filling the shell with mustard (apparently they find mustard disgusting) – fail. She ate three mustard eggs, shell and all! We tried collecting the eggs as soon as possible, but working during the day, it was impossible to do so. We tried feeding her more protein (scrambled eggs for a week) – fail. The last option was to build a nesting box with a sloped bottom (the thought being here that they lay the egg and it rolls away down the ramp into a covered area). I built the box and we prayed that this would work. It was the last thing to do besides “culling” (the nice word for getting rid of or killing her). Fail. She started laying in other parts of the coop and we found the broken shells scattered throughout.

By this point we’d gotten our two new chickens: Mrs. Bouvier (a red Chantecler) and Jackie Brown (a cream legbar – notice the afro). They were super cool chickens. Very sweet and gentle. And Marge, well, she was a total ass! She would peck at them and chase them around. She was very mean. Let’s just say she wasn’t earning any sympathy given her current plight. We decided to give her one more week, try the nesting box, move them to the larger coop I’d built, give them more space, feed her lots of protein and hope that she snaps out of it. Well, day 7 is here. I walked to the coop only to find yet another egg shattered and eaten. Now what?

Opening Doors

While the design of the house with Crystal was moving forward and we’d decided to work with the EcoSmart Team, we were also finishing up the Yurt build. Things were such a whirlwind around that time and we were excited to be finished the Yurt so that we could “relax” and enjoy the rest of the summer, spend time in the yurt, and focus on the design of the house. Though for us fate had another idea.

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One morning, I called up my good friend, Benjamin, and asked him if I could take some cindercrete blocks from his retaining wall he was demolishing. I hadn’t talked with him for awhile and naturally he asked what I needed them for. “Well, it’s a long story,” I hadn’t told him about our recent life transformation, “we bought some land south of town on the river, and we’re going to build a house, but I need the blocks to build a foundation for our chicken coop when we move it out.”

“No way!” He replied, “Where?”

I started to describe the directions to him, but midway through he interrupted, “You didn’t by the place with the awesome outhouse, did you?”

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Sure, enough he knew the spot dead on. Turns out his wife’s parents own a tree farm just up the road from us. It had been for sale for a couple years, but they’d recently taken it off of the market. I knew that her parents lived somewhere south of Saskatoon, but south covers a lot of area. “We’ve been coming down there for years and swimming off your sandbars and playing with our dogs out there,” he said.

I knew I should have put those no trespassing signs up earlier!

A couple days later – in fact, the day before we planned to build and finish the yurt – his in-laws, Doug and Linda, rode down the gravel road on their bikes to introduce themselves and invite us for coffee. Absolutely, we wanted to visit their farm. We’d actually looked at it on MLS while it was for sale when we were looking at property. It had two houses on the site, one theirs and the other a modern little guest house that I thought was pretty cool.

Three days later, exhausted from building the yurt, we were tired and wanted to go home, but thought, let’s go for coffee and check out their place. If we didn’t go today, who knows when we’d have another chance?

Doug and Linda fed us coffee and we brought cupcakes. They gave us a tour of the house and grounds, but I was really excited to see the little guest house that they called “The Cottage.”

Linda told us that they’d lived in the Cottage for three years while renovating the main house. “It’s a shame no one is living in it now. We tried to get a student in horticulture to come rent, but it’s tough to get a renter this far out.”

Frick, I thought. We would have rented this place! But we had just slaved away building a yurt for the purpose of it being where we would live next summer. “Out of curiosity, how much would you have charged?”

On the drive home I got thinking though. I said to Darcie, “What if we rented that place… Like now? Like if we sold our house and lived here for the winter and then in the yurt next summer?”

This whole process of finding and purchasing the land, beginning the design process of the house, and meeting the neighbours had seemed so fateful – so many chance encounters, coincidental meetings, amazing timing – here was just another one. We’ve compared this whole experience to opening doors. A new door comes up in front of you. Do you open it up and go through? Or are you worried about what might be on the other side? Are you willing to see where this next door might take you? We’d already come this far, so why not walk through another door?

By the time we got back to town, we’d made our decision. We were going through the door.

I called Linda and told her, “Yea, so we were talking and I think we’d like to rent your place. When could you have it ready for us?”

Well, so much for the rest of our “relaxing” summer. We were moving to the country.

-K