No man can accuse me of hating animals. Yet no cultivated love exists between myself and the rest of the world’s species. In truth, even if allergies had not impaired any lasting relationship – a true dander divorce – I am too well-acquainted with the responsibility of live-in pets to accept any non-human residents into my home. I have found that helping my folks with the siblings is akin to raising a band of wild wolves anyhow. My life requires no more wildlife, especially birds.
Most animal activists never grew up among chickens. Of this, I am sure. No, most likely as a child they retain fond of memories of Fluffy the rabbit or Tigger the cat, creatures with which you can cuddle or pet. Soft creatures that purred, nuzzled, or fetched. You try any of that nonsense with a chicken, and you might lose an eye, a nose, or a liver. Most assuredly you will lose all humanitarian credos, all faith in the notion that “Man’s Best Friend” can be anything other than a bottle of Scotch. This I say with all seriousness, a bias formed from personal experience . . . and therefore as such is entirely true. If most Americans lived among chickens – raising, feeding, cleaning, watering, and occasionally carrying those feather-born demons – PETA would be nothing more than flatbread, cock-fighting would be annexed as the national sport, and I could easily buy Chick-Fil-A on Sundays.
Everyday before school, I would slip, slide, and breathe heavily downhill to the chicken coop near the base of woods. Suitably enough, most of the rainwater would gather at the base of this hill before trickling under- or aboveground to the adjacent ponds and streams, forming a marsh of fetid mud and slime, a haven for flies and mosquitoes of all sizes and varieties. This I would traverse to the edge of the bramble-soaked woods to the small shack, where the chicken’s dwelt. Most of the time this daily exercise would consist of scraping the food and water containers, cleaning out the excess – and putrid – waste from their coop, gathering slime molded eggs, and avoid losing my fingers to the pecking beaks of this demon band. During the summer months, as the air warmed and humidity rose, the wall above the coop door would collect with mud-built hives of wasps and bees, which I could either deftly avoid (rarely) or attack with a shovel (haphazardly missing). Either way due to the thick mud and swarming birds, I rarely avoided several stinging welts upon my head. The birds, if they could, laughed and cackled riotously. On the return journey up the hill, I trudge through the muck while big black flies bite and hummingbird-sized mosquitoes stab at me with their long proboscises like a straw inserted into a juice-box. At the top of the hill, drained of energy, will, and blood, I then cleaned myself for school, a welcome vacation from the “farm.”
Two years ago while on vacation, we asked a friend of the family to watch over the chickens: feed them, give them water, and collect the eggs. The coop was build with two sections: a large indoor shack with a small latched opening (to hamper invading foxes and weasels) and a outdoor fence. Typically when gathering water and food dispensers, we shoo the chickens through the opening and latch the door, so we can collect eggs quickly and easily. For you see, our rooster had become quite territorial. A whirling dervish of claws and feathers. Our friend did not know this. As he entered the coop, the rooster charged him, flying at him with claws extended like a kung-foo kick. He received several large gashes along his leg for his work, and many many apologetic thanks from the rest of us. Later that week, Mom cooked disgruntled chicken soup for dinner and the safety of the little ones.
Then there’s the smell. Oh, how many of my mornings, once full of color and warmth – emerald-green leaves caked in golden dewdrops; branches dripping opals of raindrops with sapphire pupils of the dawn sky – have been defiled by the fetid stench of the nearby coop infecting the passing storm breeze? Believe me, it frickin’ smells. I take one last longing gaze at the morning, and then barricade myself in my room. Piles of furniture, books, dental floss, shoes, chairs, and coat hangers construct an impenetrable wall, blocking every crevice. With a clap, electronic fans of all varieties whirl and turn like a manmade typhoon. As the book pages begin to flap, I relax allowing the scents of the artificial room to send me to sleep, awaking every now and then as a loud howling cluck splits the air.
To be fair though, I cannot suffer most smells that emanate from the barnyard. I walk through the stalls at the county fairs like a doctor examining plague victims, my nose and mouth masked to allow for ample breathing, my hands protected in overly-long sleeves. The kids meanwhile frolic and play about the maze of pig pens and cages, unconcerned about what they touch or where they step. In a nearby cot, my brother lies on a cot and chews on Doritoes, whiles his pig, Porky, grunts and squeals next door. Every so often his hand passes a chip through the bars, like a letter through a mail slot; his hand now sticky and wet is wiped on his jeans and reflexively returns to the bag. He consumes another chip. I try not to gag.
UPDATE: I am now adding cattle to the ever-growing list of animals best-fried-than-alive. Yesterday our cows got loose and scamper onto the nearby highway. My sister witnessed cars careening between yellow and white lines, narrowly avoiding collisions with the silly creatures. The animals remained unharmed though, apparently bored among the grass-less asphalt and capered off into the neighbor’s yard for some food. Despite the fortuitous absence in accidents, the sudden fear of tragedy, animal mutilation, and lawsuits left my family and me visibly shaken. Eventually though using some honey-soaked grains as bait, we managed to lure the creatures back in their paddock and repair the broken fence. Cows, for those unfamiliar with livestock, are extremely strong. As I held the bucket of grains, one of them managed to stick its head into the blue bucket and literally push me like a dog with a rag-doll. Afterwards we cleaned ourselves up, got some lunch, and took a nap, our bellies fat with cheeseburger.