Animal control

Friday, November 6, 2009

When I was growing up on the farm on Killough Valley in the Ozarks over yonder, my life was organized by animals.

Lulu, the milk cow, had to be milked every morning and every evening.

In winter, hay had to be delivered to hungry cattle.

Horses had to be tended.

Hogs had to be slopped. These hogs weren't going to turn up as hams and chops on our kitchen table. They were to be hauled to the stockyards in East St. Louis and turned into cash, which paid for my first years of college. These were scholarship swine.

Groundhogs had to be eliminated from fields. Their burrows were a menace to tractors and farm equipment.

Foxes had to be confronted when they raided the chicken house. And the chickens, if they survived foxes and hawks, had to be fed.

Crows had to be shot and scared off when they threatened cornfields.

Other animals familiar to anyone growing up on a farm in my day included skunks and snakes. I don't like to think about them.

Deer were hunted when the season rolled around. School was let out for the safety of students walking to Shady Nook School on Greenwood Valley.

Squirrels were hunted for food, along with rabbits.

When, in my teen years, we switched from Angus to Hereford cattle, we became midwives delivering calves out in the fields.

Various cats and dogs populated the farm. They were fed table scraps. In my entire life on the farm I never remember buying pet food for any animals. The sacks we purchased at the feed store in town were destined for livestock that were supposed to, in one way or another, not only earn their keep, but ours as well.

I was barely a teenager when I realized I did not want to live the rest of my life in a state of animal dependency. That's when I began thinking about jobs that didn't involve animals. That's when I started listening to Mrs. Pyles when she encouraged her students to think about going to college. She said college graduates could expect potential lifetime earnings of $100,000. As a teacher, she was probably making $2,000 a year -- with a master's from Columbia University in New York City.

So I set my sights on college. By accident, I would up working for a newspaper instead of teaching. More than four decades later, I can boast they I successfully avoided farming as a career, if you don't count the miserably unsuccessful -- and costly -- vegetable gardens I've planted over the years.

It recently occurred to me, however, that my life is still ruled by animals.

Take Miss Kitty.

How can a 16-pound creature made of fur and purr dictate our lives the way she does?

How come squirrels, dozens and dozens of them, are the bane of my existence?

How do birds know to peck on the kitchen window when I'm eating breakfast and their feeders are empty?

Why do raccoons think the patio fountain is meant for them? And how do they know which rocks to move to get under the protective netting I carefully stretched across the fountain?

Why do mockingbirds mock me when the water gets low in the birdbaths?

Speaking of mockingbirds: For a couple of weeks now we've watched an interesting king-of-the-hill competition at the birdbath outside our family room windows. A mockingbird sits on one side, and a robin on the other. They both want to get in the water, but not at the same time. They stare at each other and puff up their feathers. Finally, one of the birds blinks, and the other hops into the water and begins a splashing display intended, I think, to deprive the other bird of a good soak. Occasionally, an innocent chickadee wanders by -- and quickly leaves as the two larger birds duke it out.

What we need, I suppose, is a good milk cow. As if Miss Kitty isn't bossy enough.

jsullivan@semissourian.com<I>

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