“Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh.
I wonder when it was that man first saw an animal as a pet, rather than as a work partner, a tool extender. I remember hearing that it wasn’t until the beginning of the twentieth century that children were allowed a childhood. For many families, children were part of the workforce. Chores were not assigned to teach discipline, they were necessary to get through the daily work of staying alive. Children were sent down mines, up chimneys, they helped to earn a penny to buy bread. What a luxury to allow your kids the freedom to play hide and seek, to have toys. We’ve come a long way indeed.
When our family moved from the city in England to the country in Jamaica over 50 years ago, we were used to seeing animals as pets. Of course you could always drive to the country and see dairy cows, sheep and goats, but for city children we mostly saw cats and dogs. So when we arrived in Jamaica and were gifted with a rooster and a hen, we named them Reginald and Henrietta, not dinner and egg producer! Dogs in Jamaica were kept in the yard, and they formed a security force. Commonly, when visiting anyone, you would stand at the gate and yell ‘Hold dog!’ – recognizing that a stranger approaching a house could be attacked by a snarling mongrel.
Cows were no longer far away images in a field, you were likely to encounter a farmer walking his herd from one place to another, taxis and people pausing on the road to allow them to pass. And hear a mother admonish her child not to be scared of the ‘she-cows’ (as opposed to the more aggressive ‘bull-cows’!). Even if a child was given a kid (goat) to care for, the child knew not to get too attached, for the animal had a purpose, an end destination. And in the country, children often had to be up early to go and tie out animals, and then go fetch them in the evening after school. After they had changed out of their school uniform into their ‘yard’ clothes. Hoping none of their classmates who were waiting on the bus to go home would see them.
In our current abode, we have retained contact with the previous owner and builder of our home. He visits from time to time, as if haunting the place, or haunted by the place, a house he designed and helped to construct. He is the creator of my ‘eye’, my circular bathroom window that gives me a beautiful view to the east, to the sunrise, across rooftops and through leaves. It was the window that sold me on the house, and it has continued to provide me with artwork, day after day. He and his only daughter laid the mosaic tiles in sun rays lining the windowsill, leaving their personal touch, their signature.
About a year ago Julio (not his real name) showed up with four young chickens (not tiny fluffy chicks, but teenagers, gawky and clumsy). He had bought them but realized he didn’t have the space for them. Would we like them? Well, how does any Jamaican turn down the offer of chickens (all female) that come with feed and supplies? So next thing I know I have a coop and chickens, a reluctant farmer. But you know how it is, they grow on you. And once they started producing eggs, they were earning their keep. At first we gave them free range of the yard, but eventually the random fertilizer drops, the disruption of every patch of soil led us to create a ‘courtyard’ for them, a fenced in area to limit their wanderings.
There was Whitey (formerly named Alaska), two brown hens (Bonnie and Clyde) and a butch looking bewhiskered one named El Chapo (all named by the previous owner). Whitey lived up to the name, she was the one that was the most adventurous when free, flying over fences with impunity while her sisters clacked at her in concern. White privilege apparently exists in the chicken world, she felt it was her right to go where she wanted! Once they were restricted, she was the one who would escape, clucking her delight at her freedom.
The story alas has an unhappy ending. One evening we heard an almighty row, at a time when they are normally calm. A raccoon had attacked, dropping into their courtyard from the Live Oak tree, leaving Bonnie (or Clyde?) dead. Her sisters were spooked and alarmed. We got them inside their coop before dusk, and tried to locate the offending raccoon. But he got away and the next day, after we foolishly let them out into the courtyard again, he struck, taking El Chapo this time.
I had scoured the internet for raccoon relief. One tip was that cayenne pepper keeps them away. And before we realized that he had struck from above I covered every bit of the base of the perimeter of the courtyard with pepper, sprinkling it like some juju powder. Like an ancient seer woman whispering incantations I tried to chant away the evil raccoon.
So far Whitey and Clyde (or Bonnie) have survived, happily staying inside the coop all day. They no longer squawk at daybreak, insisting to be let out. They suffer from PTSD, the memory of the trauma still informs their behavior. If you think that fowls cannot learn you are wrong. They are smart, they are social, they miss their sisters.
I cannot blame the raccoon, he was following his nature. There are times we look at the behavior of our fellow human-beings and wonder what is going on. But it is time that we looked out for all of our brothers and sisters, protecting each other from the raccoons. We have been given the opportunity to redesign our systems so that all of us can have equal health outcomes, equal opportunities. But first we have to render the raccoons harmless.
Have a wonderful weekend, Family! Keep sprinkling the cayenne pepper! And give thanks for the animals who have kept on giving over the centuries, protecting and feeding us along the way.