New Musings from an Old Backpacker
03.01.2014 - 08.02.2014
The stench was awful. Piles of feces coated the floor of their tiny enclosure. It was better than what they’d get in a factory farm but still appalling--concrete and steel, a diet of corn, and no nests. Their feathers were falling out. Great eruptions of squawking and flapping ensued followed by fierce banging into the sides of the cage. We knew it from day one: Something needed to change and fast.
Alan and Angelika, proprietors of Glenaven, our current farm of the month (January), are essentially snow-birders. Residents of Vancouver for most of the year, they own a 2-acre winter spread in Panama beside Lake Gatun, formed by the Canal. They returned this year to discover the groundskeeper had acquired six chickens and a rooster and stuffed them all into this cage. His plans beyond that were unclear.
So, why didn’t that just demand they were set free? The other problem: Also the owners of three sisters, puppies barely scratching at a year, team Double-A faced the challenge of Bella. Bella, the largest and most needy of the canine clan, had somehow located her instincts since last Alan and Angelika had been in Panama. She was a chicken’s worst nightmare, even worse than a tiny enclosure.
The situation was problematic but not completely out of the realm of things Emma and I have tackled before. In fact, just a couple of months back, we’d teamed to construct of chicken hotel/roosting house on Totoco Farm. That one, however, was for chickens free to roam during the day and put away for—literally—safe-keeping at night. The Glenaven flock wasn’t afforded the luxury of safe passage, so we immediately started vying for a larger space for them.
Lord and Lady A weren’t hard to get on board. Within our first week here, construction began. We were fencing in a roughly the size of a basketball court. It was a lovely plot scattered with plantain trees, yucca crop, papaya trees, and rosa de Jamaica—plenty of things to attract bugs for the chickens, plants that would reap the benefits of the highly fertilizing crap that came next. We’d include a shelter for them so that human residents might get a little egg trade-off from the situation, too.
Of course, the chickens didn’t belong to any of us, except maybe in that animals belong to the world, hippie sense we sometimes use. Regardless, Oscar said he could care less, as long as his chickens didn’t become something’s lunch as opposed to his. His stance, which couldn’t be discredited, was that Bella would make short ribs out of these birds. She was already after the neighbor’s on a daily basis. His advice was to get rid of Bella, which was not going to happen. Option #2, a fence had to be erected to keep her away.
All things in order, I began working, the unfortunate aspect being that building a fence around a basketball court takes a lot of post holes, roughly 30, and the soil here is dense, packed clay. Those days of digging wrecked my hands. Seriously. I was having trouble sleeping because they would go numb, feel like two balloons (as Pink Floyd would say), and just plain hurt. Unlike shovels, posthole diggers are all upper-body and rely greatly on a strong grip. While I recognize the benefits, I have grown to hate posthole diggers (the tool not workers).
What’s more, the reason those lovely shade-producing plantain trees were in the area is because it’s a full-sun spot. Less than an hour in and I’d be dripping, my shirt sodden and stinking, the parts of my face not covered by beard glowing vibrant red. I’d have to change clothes just to eat lunch. Meanwhile, every morning, I’d have to walk by the cage on my way to work and by it again on my way for an afternoon swim. It just wasn’t fair.
As I put in the posts, a new volunteer arrived and began work on the roosting box. Mirco, a knotty-haired German, pursued his assignment with passion, and what started as a simple roosting box turned into an eccentric work of art. Hand-cut boards twisted into a great twizzle stick of nesting boxes as he swung away with the hammer, sometimes free-style rapping along with his iPod and sometimes shouting at the stubborn nails in German.
Within a week of work, it all started coming together. The posts were set, the roosting house was poised to be roosted in, and laundry days seem to get a little more frequent. The only problem was that our chicken wire did not show up with the material delivery, and with no chicken wire there could be no fence, and with no fence there could be no free-wheeling chickens.
It wasn’t until the following Wednesday that we could begin. Ironically, the rooster got out of the cage that evening. I told Alan I didn’t think it would have any problem fending off Bella. Later that night, an explosion of noise broke through our evening dinner music, and a few minutes later, Alan was offering up their best bottle of wine to the person who could detain the cockerel. The mission was a success—the wine shared by all—but the incident only served to reinvigorate everyone’s resolve.
The next day, Mirco worked on getting the roosting box up and equipped with entry ramps while Emma and I struggled to pull the chicken wire tight between the fence posts. I would pull, ripping at my damaged fingers while she hammered. Or, she would pull, damaging her own fingers, while I fiddled with pliers and tie-wire. Two days down in the gully (that’s what the area is referred to by insiders), and by Thursday evening, we were ready to deliver some poultry.
Now, a funny thing about us chicken-lovers was that none of us had actually captured and held a chicken before. Mirco tried first with laughable results: he moved around stiff as the birds erupted into fits of flapping every time he neared. Then, Emma took over. I’d seen Emma grab birds before, not to mention crabs and nearly snakes, and knew she was quite fearless with animals. She looked like Rocky after six weeks of training. Old Mother Hen had nothing on her.
After Emma’s success—the chickens calmed right down after being caught—the sailing went smooth. I went next and got one quickly enough to maintain my manly demure, and from there, we all went in a line, Angelika taking pictures of us as we released them into the gully. The chickens immediately began scratching the ground in search of bugs. They were safe and happy and as chickens should be.
None of us could stop watching them after that. We’d count them every time we passed. We’d sit at the top of the hill, peering down, hoping they’d go into their roosting box (Mirco, the creator, especially). We put into action a fruit and veg composting (and natural insect hunting) plan to replace their crappy corn diet. Even though the project left us Emma and I a little worse for wear, it’s an incredible feeling to see a problem, literally create a solution, and watch some happy chickens.
Other mentionables of the tale:
• Emma and I constructed our first palm thatch roof, complete with a lesson from local builders, for the chicken’s sheltered area.
• The chickens eventually did start using their roosting box, though there are no eggs to show for it yet.
• There were a couple chicken dashes before we put and the roof (then reinforced a couple of areas). Even so, once the chickens had flown the coop, they seemed oddly easy to catch to put back in. Almost like it had been a lesson learned.
• During construction, Oscar actually relinquished his post as groundskeeper of Glenaven, essentially leaving the birds to live out there lives in the gully—almost as if they were in a cartoon.
• My hands. Our hands. They remained troublesome, and Emma finally looked up the symptoms, only to find out we were showing signs of carpal tunnel and another ailment called “trigger finger”. We now do special exercises every night to combat further deterioration and suffering. All for the chickens, my friends, all for the chickens. Live well.