Thursday, June 18, 2015

Me? Take Care of All These Animals? I'm a City Girl!

I remember a time when I was afraid… of so many things. I felt unsupported by the people in my life as well as my body, which had never been very strong. As a child, I couldn’t keep up with other children and couldn’t play sports except for ping pong and badminton (if you can call them sports). While in school, I didn’t have any friends. My ‘foster’ families were the parents and children I babysat for from the time I was ten years old.

Tranformation? That’s putting it mildly! That other self I used to be no longer exists. She lives in the books I wrote. I am now surrounded by many people I care about and who care about me… and I began my complete physical rehabilitation back in January when I began to exercise at Curves. Over several months, muscles I didn’t know I had began working and getting stronger. I stood taller as my posture improved… and so did my self-confidence.

And now for the story I want to share.

Last week, when someone I know asked me to house sit for four days on her ranch (overnight) while her family went to Wisconsin, I was like… ME? I knew she had two horses, a donkey, four dogs, two cats, and lots of chickens with chicks. I knew she had rescued the first horse which turned out to be pregnant and raised the baby... which was now a large as her mama. I knew she had rescued the donkey near death and starving, and nursed it back to health.

ME? Take care of all these animals? I am a CITY girl!

I’d been around cats and chickens, but my only experience with horses was seeing them in parades, being pulled by them while I was in a cart or wagon, and my attempt to go horseback riding with a tour guide. It was supposed to be for beginners just learning to ride... we'd only walk along at a slow pace. As we got to an incline on the trail, her horse began to gallop to get momentum for the hill and all the horses behind her followed... including the one I was on. I didn’t have time to react, and went off over the side, hanging on for dear life. Fortunately, I didn’t hit the ground, but I never got on a horse again. Granted, I wasn’t asked to ride the horses on the ranch, but I was still aware of the unpredictable behavior of these huge magnificent beasts.

My experience with dogs was also limited. My mother always had small dogs until about 15 years ago. One of these little dogs had bitten me after I took a picture of her… with a flash… which startled her. I decided back then, that I would avoid dogs. It’s amazing how many similar decisions we make as children to never do something again after a negative experience.

Then my mother began to get large dogs. The first one she adopted was older and laid back… a Husky. After he died, my mother got another one… a black lab puppy, which was supposed to be trained as a companion dog for my brother while he was still alive. (He had been born with Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus and needed full-time round the clock care.) The puppy got BIG very FAST, and never got trained. After numerous times of being jumped on, I finally insisted the dog be put in a crate or in another room with the door closed while I was visiting. Even my mother did not fare well. One day, when she had the dog tied up outside, the dog took off after another critter… pulling the rope taught… and tripping my mother. She smashed her elbow. Sadly, she was heartbroken when the dog had to be taken from her.

My older sister had dogs, too. I did not particularly care for these dogs as they never outgrew puppyhood and it didn’t take much for one of them to push me over. Then there was the Great Dane I lived with for a year six years ago. The lady wanted me to take care of her dog for a weekend. Since I felt sorry for her dog being confined in the house most of the time, I had let her out one day. The dog was so happy to be outside to run and play, she galloped back over to me, and jumped up to kiss my face. The force slammed me back into the wood stairs and into the bushes, and the corner of a stair punctured the back of my thigh. Thus, I was acutely afraid of being pushed over by a large dog. I was also acutely afraid of falling, period… after the last fall in early 2005 landed me in a wheelchair.

ME? She wants me to take care of FOUR large dogs? A Great Dane / Dalmatian mix and three hunting dogs? And horses?

I seriously doubted that I could handle the job, but she didn’t know anyone else who could do it and my desire to help a friend out-weighed my fears. I agreed. And since I wouldn’t have use of the internet while I was out there, it was an opportunity to catch up on some reading and paperwork, as well as watch long awaiting Netflix movies and do some writing. I could go ‘home’ during the day to catch up on Facebook and emails, but be back at the ranch around 4:00 PM to stay the night.

The Universe was going to support me with this new challenge and someone else I knew who was an animal ‘handler’ called me to invite me over a few nights before I was to go out on the ranch. She was fearless when it came to animals and I asked her to teach me how to handle the dogs. First, she assured me that not all dogs were alike… that the Great Dane that jumped on me should have been trained properly as a young puppy but wasn’t. Then she told me the one thing I needed to know. When there is more than one dog, they are a pack… and I had to be the leader of this pack while the owner was away. She also said they would do whatever I told them to do.


But this animal 'handler' was going to be in California while I was to be on the ranch, so I couldn't rely on her for backup.

When I arrived at my new assignment, baby gates had been placed on the two entrances from the living room and dining room area to the kitchen and the rest of the house, so the dogs wouldn’t get ‘under my feet’. I was shown where a box of small milk bones was kept by one of these gates and I could give them out as many times as I wanted to. The dogs had their own doggy door in a nearby room and would be able to go in and out whenever they wanted to. There was a huge yard for them to run around in so there wouldn’t be much more to this task. They were also somewhat spoiled and were allowed to lounge on furniture as well as their own large doggy beds strategically placed in the living room.

Then I was shown the routine of filling each of three buckets with a serving of pellets and oats for each of the two horses and the donkey, as well as a bowl of chicken feed for the chickens. I’d be feeding then around 7:00 in the morning and 4:00 in the afternoon. Although the donkey was usually allowed to come out of the pen to eat in peace away from the horses, she would have to stay inside with them while the owners were gone.

Since a predator had been killing off chicks, two penned in areas (even the top) were made to keep hens and chicks in until the chicks were big enough to be out on their own. There was also a woodshed where the remaining chickens who roamed during the day would go into at night.

On the left side of this shed was a square cut out. A ramp had been provided for the chicks to walk up into this square from their enclosed area, where an animal carrier was to separate the hen and chicks from the rest of the chickens. Each night, I was to make sure all the chickens and chicks were securely in their safe places and put barricades up to keep anything from getting to them. A small trap door would be closed in front of the animal carrier, a board put in place, and a large wood frame leaned against the door to the woodshed.

You might be wondering why I am providing all these details. What is the point of this story? Read on because there is one.

The first thing I did was make ‘friends’ with the dogs by giving them each a dog bone. I was pleasantly surprised at how they lined up side by side like well-behaved children in front of the gate. (I tried to get a photo of them all lined up, but by the time the camera clicked, they had moved.)

I was even more surprised at how polite each dog was as each would carefully and gently take a bone from my fingers and walk away so the next dog could get theirs. It looked like my job would be a lot easier than I thought it would be.

Now to backtrack a little bit, I grew up with my father’s Noah’s Ark of critters: pairs of various kinds of finches, parakeets, cockatiels, parrots, gerbils, guinea pigs, and fish. He’d enjoy them while we all had to clean their cages. I liked the parakeets the best, so when I was 18, I got my own parakeet to keep me company. When my son was 12, I adopted my first two kittens. I eventually ended up with two more. Then I was heartbroken when I had to give three of them away because I was moving to a place where I could only take one.

When I moved to Texas in 2006 (with my one cat), I was introduced to the farm life with dozens of chickens as well as wild and feral cats/kittens. One time three feral cats had litters at the same time and the man brought all the babies into the house because he was afraid the chickens would kill them. He went to work and I raised the kittens. SO, I was already well trained in caring for cats and chickens. I found out how amazingly intelligent chickens were, too.


DAY 1: In this photo, you can see the distance between the house and the horses. As I walked the distance there and back three times each day (twice to feed them and a third time to secure the chickens), I felt incredibly elated. Just three years ago, I couldn’t have done this even once. I reflected on how far I’d come and wondered how much further I’d be able to go. The dogs were on their best behavior and followed me in and out of the house without knocking me over. They even provided me with entertainment when two of them played tug of war for about ten minutes with a short piece of knotted rope.

DAY 2: As I was present with the beautiful horses, admiring how similar yet different mother and daughter were, I became acutely aware that just as they each were awesome in their uniqueness, so was I. Yet all my life, I had compared myself to other people. Maybe you can relate? Someone else was always more beautiful than me or smarter or……

The second lesson I learned that day: DON’T GIVE CARROTS TO HORSES YOU DON’T KNOW! There was a bowl of mini carrots in the refrigerator getting old. When I lived with the lady who had the Great Dane, she had met a man who had horses. She’d bring the horses ‘capples’, cored apples with a carrot through each apple. Thus, I decided to give the horses and ‘Donkey’ (her actual name), these carrots. And I didn’t realize that the following events were a result of my doing that.

DAY 3: I went out that night to secure the chickens. As I tried to leave the chicken pen, the two horses cornered me and wouldn’t budge. Remember, I don’t know anything about horses… except that they like to eat oats, hay, carrots, apples, and are very sensitive to how people feel. I couldn’t let myself feel fear. They’d feel it. And I didn’t know how to get them to move so I stood there and talked to them, asking them politely to please move. One of them finally shifted and I dashed on by, hoping I wouldn’t get slammed against the side of the pen.

Donkey knocked a ceramic dish out of my hand as she attempted to push the gate open as I was trying to secure it with the chain. I felt bad for her as the horses would finish their food first, push her away from hers, and eat the rest of her share. Sometimes they picked on her for no apparent reason. A scorpion came into the house that night and was lingering in the hallway. I don’t like to kill anything bigger than an ant or mosquito so I put a cup over it and slid a card underneath it to transport it outside.

DAY 4: The lone deer and rabbit I was told come up to the house finally appeared. That night, I went out to secure the chickens. As I was leaning over to secure the little trap door, I heard the gate behind me shut and latch. Shoot! How would I get out? Was there a way to open it from the inside? I stood up, turned around, and saw one of the horses standing there. Was she laughing at me? I could have sworn she was! Fortunately, there was a space next to the latch where I could fit my hand through and unlatch the gate. Back in the house, in the side room where the doggy door was, I had to fill up two bowls with dog food. There, by the doggy door, was a HUGE spider. I looked for something to pick it up in and put it outside.

DAY 5: I was thinking about what the horses did and began writing this post. Suddenly it dawned on me. THE CARROTS! The night I was cornered, they were not going to budge until I gave them more of them. And the night the horse shut the gate on me was her way of saying ‘serves you right for not giving me carrots last night!’ That night, I went out to secure the chickens. Before I could react, Baby horse followed me into the chicken pen. Shoot! How was I supposed to get her out? I dashed back to the shed by the house where the food was to get some to try and lure her out with. Too bad I didn’t have any more carrots! I dashed back with a bucket of food, but Mama horse tried to get the bucket from me before I got to Baby horse. Why didn’t I think of bringing a second bucket? I threw some food on the ground and finally lured Baby horse out of the pen and secured it. As my adrenaline subsided, I realized that I had just accomplished an amazing feat for little old me! I also met the longest legged spider I’d ever seen. One of the legs was about four inches! Later, the owners notified me that the weather was bad in Wisconsin so they wouldn’t be able to start back until the following day.

DAY 6: Once again, the owners are delayed. Fortunately, there were no more ‘incidents.’

DAY 7: Time to go home. The owners were returning soon and I didn’t need to stay any longer. They texted me about two hours later that they were home. That afternoon at 4:00, at home, I felt the urge to return and feed the animals, but I didn’t have to. That evening, I felt the urge to go out and secure the chickens, but I didn’t have to. I felt an odd transition back to my ‘normal’ life. I had bonded with the horses, the donkey, the four dogs, the two cats, and the chickens. At least they live close enough for me to go visit, unlike my brother and sisters who live so far away.

DAY 8: Meeting with the owner to review the experience. I thought the dogs were very well behaved compared to all the other dogs I knew, but I found out that they were ‘out of control’… I wasn’t supposed to allow them to wrestle and rough house, even outside because they were hunting dogs and could easily turn aggressive. When she got home, they were out in the yard energetically 'playing'. She whistled for them to stop. Mama was back! Now I know, should I do this again in the future, I will bring a whistle because I don’t know how to do what she did.


There had been many feats that I had accomplished in life… alone. I started new jobs, learned how to drive, got on airplanes and the Amtrak train, went tent camping (alone with my young son), up and moved in the midst of danger way too many times which included driving halfway across the country, and survived many stressful hardships. But this experience stood out from all the rest.

Perhaps it was because I had the opportunity to find out how much stronger I am now. It was barely three years ago that I was still staying in bed a lot and had to use motorized carts when I went shopping because I didn't have the strength or the energy to walk throughout the stores. On the ranch, I was discovering how much more I am capable of doing now. I was feeling supported by the Earth and my Universe. And being with the horses was very healing.

Has there been one particular experience that you’ve had that stood out from all the rest?