All Creatures

We love animal stories. Whether we consider ourselves animal lovers or not, and even if we have never gazed into the soulful eyes of a loyal canine, cuddled with a cat or been honored by the love of a good horse, most of us have a soft spot when it comes to our furry friends.

You can post a hundred intelligent and thoughtful articles on social media and the response is as quiet as the Bud Lite concession at a baseball game. Post a picture of a cat and the response is immediate and sustained. We love our pets in part because they have that “awwwwww” factor. There is something about their innocence and unconditional love that touches our hearts, especially if our lives are lacking in those qualities.

An innate tendency of human nature is to assign human characteristics to non-human creatures, but no matter what the experts say, those of us who know, know – that our pets truly love us. It doesn’t matter that your cat daydreams about whether you might be good to eat if she were big enough to hunt you; she might still be one of those you read about that would walk 100 miles to find you if she were lost.

The anecdotal evidence is overwhelming, like the dog that lays down his life to protect his owners or lays down by his owner’s grave when he is left behind; the horse that rescues his owner from a wildfire, or the cat that attacks a burglar or wakes up the family in a fire. The stories add up.

Recently my editor asked me if I was going to contrive once again to mention our chickens in my next article, and since it’s been a while, I’m happy to oblige. I think I’m still fascinated that such often disagreeable creatures with a long list of unpleasant personal habits can still be so consistently amusing as to become endearing.

Bonnie Pointer is one of our favorite hens and she had been broody for weeks. When a hen is broody, she becomes almost comatose. She will often stop eating and drinking completely until the eggs hatch, and after a long period on the nest, I became concerned for Bonnie’s health. When I finally took her off the nest, I discovered that she had been trying for almost 3 weeks to hatch a wooden egg.

I thought the spell was broken as she joined the other birds, drank water, and ate voraciously. But after a few short hours she was back on the nest sitting on the most recently laid eggs. There was no way she could survive another 21 days waiting for eggs to hatch, so I decided to intervene.

A friend in the hatchery business provided us with 4 baby chicks. In the middle of the night, I crept into the henhouse with my red headlamp and crooned to the sleeping flock while removing the eggs from under Bonnie and replacing them with the chicks.

It was touch and go. As they moved underneath her, Bonnie was annoyed and began to peck at the intruders. Just as I was about to abort the operation, one of the chicks made a soft trilling sound. Bonnie immediately settled down, charmed by the little piper under her wings. Some wonder of God’s creation programmed into the little bird’s instincts saved their lives. She gathered all the babies together under the warmth of her wings and they settled down for the night.

The next morning, they were all hers and she was theirs. The mother and her chicks were the first to emerge from the henhouse, followed closely by the proud rooster who announced his new wards to the world and guarded them from the trampling feet of the other hens. The baby chicks are all healthy now and growing fast.

While most of us would cuddle with a kitten or play with a puppy, the wings of our tenderheartedness don’t often extend to enfold the other genera. Some few might cuddle with a snake or a spider, but quite honestly, I don’t remember a single such person at our last barbecue, and the only frog kisses I’ve seen were in fairytales.

Yet all creatures great and small deserve respect if not affection. The wolf spider that strays indoors at our house gets safe passage back outside. Black snakes are encouraged and sheltered; they are our best partners in controlling rodents and copperheads. Tracey has a toad friend she regularly rescues from behind the planter where he hides from the enthusiastic feet of the dogs.

A hive of honeybees is difficult to cuddle, but worthy of both respect and affection. They recognize individuals. They can detect fear or anxiety via body language and pheromones. They put food on the table by pollenating the crops essential to our food supply. When I tap on a hive and speak to the bees, the tone of the hive changes because they know it’s me.

We have a respect for black hornets at our house that doesn’t quite border on affection, but it does head in that direction. I have no affection at all for flies, and hornets hunt them incessantly. Hornets, like the bikers I knew in my more adventurous days, have a highly refined sense of justice. Don’t bother them and they won’t bother you. It’s not uncommon at the end of the year after the leaves fall to find a previously unobserved hornet’s nest so close to your daily activities that you wonder why you weren’t stung.

One year a hornet queen made the unfortunate choice to build her nest in a grape vine near one of Tracey’s prize pumpkins. The nest encapsulated the vine, preventing the removal of the hornets without damaging the grape. I didn’t want to kill the beneficial insects, so I devised a way to encourage them to move that I thought was exceptionally clever. I piped a stream of water from the creek which I arranged to spray directly on the nest and waited for the hornets to abandon ship.

They were cleverer than I. Instead of moving out, they endured the soaking to build a thick awning over the nest which sheltered their entrance. I relented. Nothing bothered those pumpkins that year.

Yesterday I collected another hornet story when Tracey found a startup nest on the soffit at the corner of our house. When a queen emerges from hibernation in the spring, she will build a small nest about the size of a golf ball, lay a few eggs and hatch the workers that will help her continue to build the hive. If you remove that golf ball before it grows into an apartment complex, the queen will relocate and produce another generation of fly killers.

A jet of water from Tracey’s garden hose dislodged the small nest, but not before the queen had exited. Unfortunately, she flew right into a spider web and became entangled. In a panic to free herself, she flew frantically against the web as the spider approached, becoming even more entangled.

Determined to rescue her I found a long handle and raised it near the web, breaking some of the imprisoning strands and allowing the queen to attach herself to the end of the handle. Slowly lowering the handle and its passenger, I brought it to rest on the ground, and sat with her for a while.

Having observed for years that hornets, like honeybees, recognize individuals and behavior patterns, I wanted the queen to know her rescuer. At only an arm’s length away she watched me as she calmly removed the sticky strands of web from her royal personage. When she had properly cleaned herself, she flew away peacefully.

“That’s great,” said Tracey, “that she learned to recognize her rescuer, as long as she doesn’t remember that I was the one with the hose!”

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