Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Agent X-10 Reports for Duty

Today, November 30, is The Shelter Pet Project's "Celebrate Shelter Pets Day."

If you have a Facebook account and a dog, cat, ferret, rabbit, pony, gerbil or manticore who came from an animal shelter or rescue, please share his or her story there, and tag The Shelter Pet Project in your note. (You have to "like" TSPP first. And what's not to like? Contrast the positive, clever, pro-animal and pro-adopter message that The Ad Council has devised to promote adoptions with the weepy and fraudulent attempts to dun TV viewers perpetrated by the ASPCA*and HSUS**, and tell me which one has actually helped animals.)

I could tell you about my first shelter pet, Shannon, the golden retriever puppy dumped in a ditch suffering from mange. The one whose need for training led me down a less-traveled path when I was eleven years old. Shannon deserves her story on her own time.

There was Kuttatoa, good old cat. He came from a shelter in the north suburbs of Boston that doesn't seem to exist any longer, or has changed its name. We'd just bought our first puppy, and no one at the shelter seemed worried that our intact German shepherd pup would miscegenate with the kitten, a curious notion that now prevails at at least one Pittsburgh-area shelter.† Lilly and Kootie were fast friends. He was not a bright cat, but the job description of "family pet" does not require or favor genius, evil or otherwise. He got along with everyone, every species, even pesky puppies. For the last seven years of his life he endured several chronic health conditions that required daily pills and periods of regular SQ fluids. He took the pills without drama or complaint, and sat on my lap and purred when I poked a large-bore needle under his skin to give him fluids. Seventeen years of loving companionship.

We now live with five dogs. Two cats. Six goats. A colony of rabbits, and countless poultry. (Literally. I haven't tried to count in a while.) Foster dogs and other temporary residents come and go.

None of them are pets.

Some of them are pets.

There are a couple of laying hens who are welcome to stick around when their productive years are over. The barn cats have an open invitation to the house, which they accept when the weather gets really wicked, and are affectionate lap cats when I have a moment to sit in the barnyard. The goats have names and abundant personality.

But everyone here has a job. I extract the rent in milk and eggs every day. A goat who eschews brush-clearing to scream for the grain-bucket will find himself hungry. A rooster who doesn't protect his hens makes excellent curry. A non-mousing kitteh would probably find herself re-situated as a house cat somewhere else.

And then there's the dogs.

Pip and Sophia are the two currently-operational SAR dogs. That's a full-time job; anything either of them contributes to the workings of the farm or to my training practice is gravy. Pip provides a lot of gravy. Sophia does try with the goats, and can sometimes be borderline useful.

Moe is medically retired from SAR and from assisting me with client dogs. Before the farm, he was unemployed, unfulfilled, and bored. Here he has naturally taken on the duties of Director of Homeland Security. He does delegate quite a lot of the critter duties to the youngsters, but when there's a serious threat, he's the one leading the charge.

Rosie is long-overdue for testing to operational status as a trailing dog. Also a full-time job. She is also my farm shadow and chief goat-beater-upper.

We did not need a fifth dog.

We've had, I think, twenty-two foster dogs pass through our home. Several who I really liked, who fit in beautifully, who people predicted "Oh, you're keeping that one, how could you let him go?"

And they've all moved on -- Rudy and Zippy and Teddy, Spike and Gary and Sparks, Mr. Barry White. I've loved them all, and I've let them all go. Some have needed help from the deepest pockets of my trainer's bag of tricks, and some have just needed a place to take a deep breath before moving on to a forever home.

I've written about Cole before. I tend to get a bit sappy when I discuss the little dude, and the condition is fairly contagious.

When he was seized from his abuser, Cole was about four or five weeks old. (I estimate, based on his presumed litter seeming to be about seven or eight weeks old when I first met them a few weeks later.) Yellowstone County gave a letter designator to each location on the property where animals were found, progressing alphabetically, and a number to each animal prefixed by the location designator. One day I'll write about the legendary "J" pen.

The trailer where Cole and a dozen other pups were found was designated X. The last place from which living or dead dogs were removed. Cole was the tenth pup removed from the X trailer. To Yellowstone County, the law, the judge, the keepers of proof, he became Evidence #X-10 in Case #DC09-018.‡

I've never found out who named him Cole. I'm just grateful there was someone who cared enough to do so.

The shelter where Cole lived for the next nine months was unique. On the one hand, the consistent nature of the sheltered population and the dedication of the employees and many of the volunteers simplified the work of raising and rehabbing. On the other hand, Evidence #X-10 could not go for a damned walk. The law in Montana would not permit his caretakers to take him out from behind the walls that formed the sheriff's perimeter. He couldn't be fostered in a home. A good-faith legal effort to have him declared fungible property, post a bond for his "value," and release him for adoption failed. He and his relatives continued in limbo.

I'm told that initially normal dogs who spend a long time in shelters develop "cage rage," become depressed, are rendered unadoptable.

Maybe. Maybe in your "shelter." Maybe if no one cares enough to exercise, play with, and train the dogs. Maybe if there is no volunteer program, because volunteers are troublesome. Maybe if the staff and volunteers are presided over by decision-makers who assume they are stupid and untrustworthy. Maybe if there's no commitment to ensuring that every dog who comes in "normal" gets out alive, and -- dare we expect? -- no worse for the experience, and perhaps improved significantly.

I've watched ordinary people with little or no dog-training experience do extraordinary things in the past two years. Enough so that I now question the idea that anyone, properly motivated, is "ordinary." Certainly there are stupid and untrustworthy people. They need to be fired to make room for the others, the ones who will rise to meet extraordinary expectations.

Despite the significant problems that Cole developed as a result of growing up in a kennel environment where he could not take a damned walk, stretch his legs, have some peace and quiet, he was not "ruined." Despite the fact that in just about any shelter in the land he would have been snapped up at eight weeks -- that puppies growing up in a shelter kennel is, under normal circumstances, simply unnecessary and easy to avoid -- he came out ready to flip into greatness.

A word about getting working dogs from shelters. SAR, specifically, since that's the world I've lived in for nineteen years.

Generally, I'm bearish on it. For first-time handlers, especially those who don't have significant experience training and observing the training of a wide variety of dogs, there are too many pitfalls. It's not as bad as buying a dog from show lines or taking a show breeder's ego-donation, by and large, but taking a shelter pup of unknown provenance does not bode well for your prospects of finishing out as an operational team.

The dog's genetic heritage matters. It just does. When we assess purpose-bred little puppies as working prospects, we are assessing them against a background of their parents' and other relatives accomplishments, and their known upbringing. We have a good idea of the pups' eventual size, health, and athletic potential, and can make reasonable prognostications about his temperament, drives, and amenability to training. We stack the odds, and it usually works. Doesn't mean that the handler can't screw up -- most higher-order failures to become operational are handler issues, not dog issues -- but he's swimming with the current, not against it.

That said, the side-of-the-road litter of "I think these are mostly ______" has yielded more than a few good operational dogs -- mostly for experienced handlers, or SAR-experienced or dog-experienced first-timers who had good supervision in both selection and training.

For experienced handlers, there are many treasures to be found among adolescent dogs in pounds. The failed pet may be the working dog waiting for his employer. While the shelter's belief that Joey in run 14 would make a great SAR dog is seldom a spot-on assessment, there are plenty of good prospects for the patient, persistent, experienced, dog-savvy handler and trainer to consider. The important quality for a handler who decides to choose his next partner from the shelter or rescue population is the ability to say no. He will pass on many dogs before seeing the genuine glint of diamond.

The thing to which I say hell no, as a training director, is the half-baked notion of a first-time handler that she can take a troubled dog -- often a shy and fearful one -- from a shelter (or anywhere -- I see as many coming from show breeders) and simultaneously rehabilitate that animal and progress towards operational status in SAR with him. The two projects are not compatible. There's plenty of room for sentiment to drive one's altruism in both fields, but some laudable sentiment is not the same thing as unrealistic romanticism or a generalized savior complex.

So I've always personally started with purpose-bred puppies. Twice I've made my own -- pups who were started on SAR conditioning as soon as they left the womb, if not before.

But once in a while -- Once in twenty-two times? Once in two-hundred-twenty-seven chances? -- a dog will come along who won the genetic lotto, even if his breeding was random, or ill-considered, or whoknowswhat. He's likely to be characterized as "troubled" in ways related to "too much dog" by the shelter or rescue workers, or at the very least, considered a pill in the kennel.

With the right guidance, he may be just the guy to report for duty.


* One animal shelter, in New York City, only for animals confiscated from New York City, and not very many of them. Most homeless animals in NYC languish or die in the pound run by public ACC.

** No animal shelters. Five times more money goes into the executive pension fund than is disbursed in wee grants to animal shelters. And yes, I know they provide some money to the SPP. As long as it flows in just one direction, we're good.

† No shit. We were turned down to adopt a neutered cat because we have one unspayed bitch. I'll write more on this later.

‡ That's his actual seizure-day photo. For scale, the sign is, I think, standard 8.5 x 11 cardstock.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Friday, November 19, 2010


What? Walt Disney got the biology of critters wrong? Say it ain't so!

Spring is not the season of twitterpated. At least it isn't around here.

As the plant world and the invertebrates* die or tuck themselves in for the year in the forest and farm, the local tetrapods are getting busy. Late fall is the time for making babies. When I say you can smell the sex on the air, I'm not being hyperbolic or metaphorical. I'm hoping the wind doesn't shift from the goat pasture towards the house.

Rosie is in season, which makes her pushier, snarkier, cuddlier, and generally underfoot. She harasses the eunuchs and has her way with them. Neither Moe nor Cole got the memo about their testes, so they are happy to oblige. It's hazardous to turn a corner suddenly around here -- always a little disconcerting to walk in on a couple of dogs in flagrante delicto.

I've had bitches who became uncharacteristically stupid or wacky when they came into season, and were unreliable in their work. Pip and Rosie just add energy and intensity to their already driven performances. Rose has done a bang-up job on her last two trails; her estrus is a good time to throw extra distractions and new challenges her way. Canine sublimation?

Next estrus is put up or shut up time; we'll be deciding soon whether she will be a mother.

The deer rut means that I see more of them, as caution takes a back seat to libido. Six paraded through the south pasture at dusk; I think it was five does and a buck, but there may have been two bucks. Their rubs are particularly shreddy this year.

Our new rabbit herd got off to a slow start. The first doe that my original buck bred, back in September, did not "take," though she seemed to have. It's likely that his swimmers' soup was overcooked by the summer heat. The second doe had a litter of six, around the same time that the buck sadly succumbed to (what turned out to be) a urinary blockage. I got a new unrelated young buck from a different breeder, and have just integrated him and a new doe in the colony. Within two minutes of being released, New Guy had scent marked ten places in the stall, bred one of the younger does, and gotten his ass kicked by the dominant doe. With five does in the colony, I expect an early winter population explosion.

Gollum the barn cat, fearsome slayer of mice, voles, rats and chipmunks, has taken to sleeping amongst the rabbits. No shit. He ignores the babies, which are hardly larger than a large rat, and I've spotted him nuzzling with more than one of the does. Gollum said buh-bye to his little friends at a tender age, so I don't think he's joined in any Samhain barncat orgies, but he did get into a fight recently, which for a cat is much the same thing. His face wounds healed up fine, and he kept claiming that I shoulda seen the other guy. His sister does not corroborate his account, however.

It's not just dogs who can† discriminate between "ours" and "other" without explicit instruction and control their predatory impulses accordingly.

Meanwhile, I have to remind myself that our baby chicks and turkey poults were also freaking adorable, and grew up to be delicious.

Speaking of bucks, and urine.

Jefferson the he-goat is visiting from Rachel and Stan's farm.

He's got a lovely calm temperament. Pity about his personal habits. I do everything I can not to touch him. There's burdock in his beard and on his rump, and he's just going to have to cope, because there is no way I'm combing him out. Also, I know just how far backwards he can reach; he could groom that burdock out if it was a priority for him.

His job here is to settle Patsy and Edina. Lovely term that. Knock them up.** We'll know in a couple of weeks whether he's succeeded.

He courts the ladies by applying Capraxxe body spray, waggling his tongue, blubbering, flaunting his flehmen, and -- well, now I know what inspired the odd-looking phalli on all those vases depicting Bacchanals.

The wethers swear that he's been hanging around the playground wearing a trenchcoat and talking about a lost puppy. I'm monitoring the situation.

Jefferson gave me some crap about the gate his third morning here. Cole, who is deathly afraid of the electric fence around the goat pasture and never willingly approaches it, came flying off the back porch, through the gate, and straight at the he-goat's nose. Cole doesn't think much of visiting he-goat, and he interpreted a little stroppiness as a genuine threat. And now I know what he does when he thinks I'm threatened.

Good to know.

Finally, a weirdly untimely ray of hope in our disappointing heritage turkey breeding season.

Three or four weeks ago I noticed that the Bourbon red hen who had not succeeded with a clutch this year was not coming in to roost or running with the flock. But I would sometimes spot her for a few minutes in the morning around the feed trough before she would dematerialize.

Far too late in the year to be setting a nest, but the signs were unmistakable.

I finally found her Tuesday morning, close to the barn and setting a dozen eggs. She'd already pushed out three eggs -- a good sign, actually, indicating that she was paying attention to their viability and keeping the live eggs protected -- and this nest and eggs were clean, unlike her previous nests.

It is now far too cold and snotty for her to set outside, and I lost two shrubbery-setting hens this year to a raccoon, so in she came, whether she wanted to or not. The answer was Not. A twelve-pound bird can be surprisingly strong when she Does Not Want, but in she came with her eggs to a private stall. I candled them Thursday, and found squirming embryos in seven of them. Fingers crossed. It's a ridiculous time to raise turkeys, but I cannot say no to her.

The broody hens work so hard. It breaks my heart when things don't go well for them. Such devotion demands fulfillment. The only thing harder than brooding a clutch is the hero's journey of hatching out of an egg. It's hatch or die, and if anyone takes pity and helps the little warrior, it's likely to kill or cripple him. We mammals know nothing of birth struggle.

Spring may be the time of vegetative abundance and enthusiasm, but as the death and dormancy of Winter looms, the animals flaunt their eternal optimism. Snow all you want, we'll make more.


* Including the hornets, wasps and bees that make life exciting and possibly brief, and the $#@^$ stink bugs that make it annoying.

** For the dairy-animal uninformed: A goat (or cow) can produce milk for about a year after giving birth (kidding or calving), provided she is nursing offspring and/or milked regularly. To continue to get milk, the farmer must breed her every year. The onset or resumption of lactation is called freshening. She'll lactate just fine while pregnant. It's the usual practice to dry her off a couple of months before she's due again. So I'll stop milking the girls, and wean their 2010 kids, in February in preparation for April kidding.

None of this applies to the "Happy California Cows" of agribusiness fairy tales who calve and freshen, then receive hormone injections to keep them continuously lactating until their udders break down and they become hamburger. (The cows. Come to think, the udders, too, both metaphorically and probably literally.)

† Can. Can. Not necessarily will. And an absence of formal, or even conscious, training does not equate to a guidance vacuum or magical thinking.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Well Enough Alone

I just won't leave it.

For one thing, I need to provide some entertainment for Randy at the feed mill.

For another, I'm cheap.

But mainly, I don't trust conventional wisdom when the "wisdom" comes from a multinational agricorp and the "conventional" is the convention of the compliant customer.

We're talking about a woman who personally salvages whole cow tripes -- innards so vile that the slaughterhouse workers refuse to touch them -- for her dogs. Because they are that good for them.

When I got my first chickens I bought commercial chicken feed at Tractor Supply or Agway, in fifty pound sacks. The food is in pellet or crumbled pellet form, its constituent ingredients unrecognizable. It is "complete and balanced."

You can guess how long that lasted.

When we bought our first flock of meat chickens, our friends Rachel and Stan encouraged me to have feed made up at Zanella's.

Nineteenth-century technology, still going strong at Zanella's and mixing my chicken feed; photographed with a five-year-old cell phone camera that is already obsolete.

This is the sort of thing I do on principle -- buying from a local small business that sources most of its supplies from local small farmers. It was also significantly cheaper. Our local, local mill, Knauf's in Harmony, a few miles away, has been shuttered and for sale since before we moved here. I remember buying a few dog supplies and garden things there years back, when we lived in the sprawlburb to the south. They were phoning it in then. I wish someone would buy the mill and do something with it. John Zanella says the mill equipment is probably not salvageable; I still think the building would make a keen brewpub. It's a great location, but parking would be an issue.

Randy, the animal-feed guy at Zanella's, ground up the standard corn/soy mash for broiler chickens, and I drove off with a half-ton on the trailer. Did the same this year, and while I was kvetching about the high cost of layer pellets, Randy pointed out that the broiler mash could also feed the hens, as long as they were getting oyster shell.

Derrrr ....

But later this summer I started reading and talking to people and thinking (always a mistake), and then buying sacks of whole grains and experimenting.

How locally can a chicken eat?

What are the optimum protein, calcium, fat contents?

Are the whole grains better for the birds than pulverized?

How can I keep egg quality and hen health up during the winter, when pasture is snow-covered or just dead?

I goosed out a recipe that we'll try:

cracked roasted soybeans
rolled corn
(All the above grains are local)
sunflower seeds
soybean oil
dicalcium phosphate
brewer's yeast
mineral pre-mix

ad lib (in separate hoppers):
kelp meal
oyster shell

add in winter:
alfalfa meal (as rabbit pellets)

Soybeans and corn need to be cracked for the chickens; the other grains are served whole
Pasture all year when it isn't encased in snow, but the food value of the pasture starts dropping off to negligible levels around now (the psychological value is indisputable -- just ask the chooks who were snowed in for much of last winter).

Scraps from wherever I can get them -- our kitchen, friends. I'm going to try to work with some local restaurants on recycling scraps this winter. I hate waste even more than I'm cheap. Chickens eat anything. The commercial diet is deficient in animal protein and fresh green stuff, and they can't make that up on pasture in the winter. I'm interested to see how much difference the rabbit pellets might make.

At the moment, store brand layer pellets (think chicken kibble) are $12.89 per 50# bag at Tractor Supply, my closest feed store. 25.8 cents per pound, or $516 a ton. Purina Layena is $13.99 a bag, or $559.60 a ton.

I paid $275 for this latest batch of feed, which came to about 1150 pounds. $20 for rolling and mixing, $255 for ingredients, including the kelp which will also be fed to goats, cats, and dogs. (But not rabbits. It is "not recommended for rabbits." I do not know why this is.) 23.9 cents per pound.

Not the huge savings I got with the off-the shelf formula broiler feed, but the quality is just not comparable to the industrial hen kibble. This is primo chicken feed. My hens, and everyone who eats their eggs, deserve no less.

Since I was planning to add ad lib kelp to the chooks' diet regardless, and I'm not yet sure how much of it will be fed to chickens and how much to my other critters, it's reasonable t0 subtract that $35 and 50#, making the figure 21.8 cents per pound or $436 a ton. Eighty bucks saved looks a lot better than four cents a pound saved. Plus I expect to save a lot by not schlepping into TSC -- or for that matter, Zanella's associated hardware and farm supply store -- and picking up odds & ends that I could probably do without. I make feed runs every week or so when I'm buying bagged, and that adds up just for the gas.

I reuse my woven feed bags from Zanella's, bringing them back to Randy when he rolls and mixes my next batch. Or I forget them and get my chops busted until I threaten to tell blog readers worldwide which key ingredient he forgot to mix in to the last batch of feed. Most bagged feed is in paper bags, which are useful for trash, but one can only use so many. Tractor Supply and Purina are now using some pretty nifty-looking woven poly bags that can be re-used for other things. I've used some of them as shelf backing in the barn, and am experimenting with remaking others into reusable shopping bags for sale. But again, one can use only so many of these.

So far, so good. The poultry have been eating the custom mix for about a month. Egg production is up somewhat (it normally drops off in the fall, and some birds are still moulting) and shells seem stronger.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


What appeared to be a grass hut loomed up ahead of the advancing man and dog. It was a camouflaged pillbox. Rowell watched flame spurt from its wall as its hidden machine gun swept the beach he had left. Then as the handler later reported, "things happened pretty fast."

The leash jerked from his hand. There was a swirl of sand and a streak of brown hide. In seconds, Chips was inside the pillbox. An appalling noise -- wild shrieks and murderous growls -- cut through the racket of battle. An enemy machine gunner staggered out, a snarling, slashing fury at his throat. The three remaining members of the crew followed, hands up in surrender. Rowell called Chips off before the raging dog could kill his adversary.

History of Dogs for Defense, Fairfax Downey, 1955