The story of a suburban pre-vet student learning the harsh realities of farm life
by Kate Connell (Penn) - Volume 51: Issue 2 Foot in Mouth Disease Winner
When I decided to work on a pig farm after college, I thought that I had seen it all. I had spent three years shadowing in a veterinary office and four years working on a sheep hobby farm. I would go to upstate New York to spread my infinite medical wisdom to these farmers, and was clearly equipped to tackle any challenges that came my way. Nature would teach me some humility.
The first challenge came sooner than expected during the first week: a fox targeted the chicken tractors that housed a couple hundred birds. Not only did he kill three chickens, but he left half a dozen in a fairly maimed condition. We euthanized all but one—a chicken with a six-inch superficial chest wound. I said that I could save him, and stitched him up with an unpracticed hand. Fortunately, he was a good patient: shocked, easily restrained, and fairly stupid. We placed him in the safety of his own personal trashcan, and thus Fernando the chicken became one of the house instead of one of the flock.
Even once he was fully healed, Fernando never rejoined his many siblings, instead roaming around the barn and living the good life of a pet chicken. He tried to make friends with the egg-layers, but they were fast and scrappy while poor Fernando was slow and, again, fairly stupid. Keep in mind he had a long family tree of ancestors bred for big breasts and little brains.
So Fernando befriended the only animals in the barn that accepted him for who he was: the mama pigs and the piglets. These ladies were used to the great open skies and pastures, and were stir-crazy with their litters of hungry, whiny babies. Anyway, they showed interest in Fernando, and would let him sleep nearby without bothering him. It was actually quite cute, one of those magical interspecies relationships, right? Perhaps you realize what I did not. And that is the fact that pigs are omnivores. They’re smart enough to lay in wait for this dumb chicken to come in closer and closer until…
Take a look at the picture there. Notice anything about Fernando? (Aside from his beautiful dye-job? I told you, he was a pet at this point. And maybe we were playing with the sheep tag and decided that he could be a pride chicken. But I digress.)
Your keen eye probably caught the shredded tail feathers, but doesn’t he look a little asymmetrical? I considered these questions as I mucked a stall before finally decided to investigate. The reason he looks so asymmetrical is because he’s missing a wing. There was also a violent explosion of feathers by the pigpen. As it turns out, Fernando got so comfortable with his pig friends that he decided to sleep against the gate, where a nimble pig was able to grab his wing and detach it from his body.
I frantically wondered what I should do, but at this point our amputee chicken had already clotted, and was cranky that I hadn’t put out his feed yet. So Fernando lived on.
And continued to sleep next to the pigpen. You see, there are some things we can fix, like a simple laceration, and then there are things, like a dumbass chicken with no learning curve, that we will never be able to fix. Fernando made it another six months before I got the call from the farm to inform me that the pigs had finally caught him. RIP Fernando.
…Wait, you thought that was the end of the story? Well, it was for Fernando. But not for us. You see, during the Age of Fernando in the barn, we still had the problem of the fox and our chicken tractors. Internet research will tell you a thousand ways to reinforce a chicken coop against foxes, and then it will inform you that those reinforcements rarely hold up against a determined fox. And our fox was determined.
The population of our grass-fed flock had dwindled from two hundred to a hundred and twenty before we realized that we weren’t going outfox this fox. So I learned how to shoot my very first rifle. (Before you go calling PETA, may I point out that foxes are not endangered in New York, and I had spent every morning for the past few weeks pulling maimed chickens out of our coop and having to put them out of their misery. This fox was not just taking one for the road. He was a sadistic bastard who was torturing my poor, stupid chickens every night. The part of me against hunting was dead and gone.)
We constructed ourselves a hunter’s tree stand overlooking the pasture and within easy range of the chicken tractor. For the next few nights, we watched over the chickens in shifts, keeping a keen eye open for our fox. It’s no surprise that he was onto us, big smelly humans sitting in a tree above his dinner. But we continued our guard duties, ever vigilant. And then he finally came around.
Let me set the scene for you (because this was fantastic, and I’m actually not taking any artistic licenses here): it was close to midnight, and I was wrapped in a winter jacket, reading a James Patterson book by flashlight. The sheep and chickens were silent beneath the tree. There was a glow on the horizon from the moon hidden beneath the clouds, but with no towns around us for miles, it was enough that you could see the shadows of the land sprawled below. When the moon finally peaked through the clouds, a wall of fog rose dramatically out of the swamp at the edge of the property.
I won’t lie, I was already a little wired from reading a murder mystery in the dark, alone in middle of nowhere, hanging out in a tree waiting to hear the slightest movement from our fox.
The fog rolled in, and the temperature plummeted as soon as it hit me. Thoughts of dementors and horror movies danced through my head, but I was determined to make it to the end of my shift. I wanted to experience the true farm life, and gosh darn it if this wasn’t the real deal. I settled down with my book again, and the anxiety that had risen with the fog settled with me.
Finally my watch beeped. No sounds from below, but I decided to casually sweep the flashlight over the ground, just in case.
Have you ever caught a predator’s eyes in a beam of light? Because let me tell you, they jump out like ghostly green rays, bright enough to pierce the fog and cause your heart to explode out of your chest. I managed not to scream, and fumbled for the gun. It was cumbersome and I had only hunted cardboard boxes up until this moment. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the fox stand, stretch, and casually saunter through the tall grass and out of sight before I had even found the safety.
And thus ended our attempt to catch the fox. We settled on slaughtering the chickens 10 days ahead of schedule, popping open a bottle of wine and watching The Fantastic Mr. Fox (extremely accurate according to my experience).
To wrap this up, and let me say I’m normally not big on morals at the end of a story, but I feel like this is an important one: there are some battles that you’re not going to win as a vet. Even if you learn how to do a heart transplant to save a gored chicken, that damn fox will be back to finish the job one way or another. Or if you invent a prosthetic for your amputee chicken, it will still sleep next to the pigs. Nature is harsh, and there’s only so much that we can do as vets to work against it.