Unexpected Eyes…

When I think of predation on the not-so-urban homestead here in New England, things like hawks, coyotes and bobcats come to mind but certainly nothing bigger than that and Bear, my lovable, slobbery St. Bernard, has proven to be quite the hunter despite his “rescue dog” image so it hasn’t been the big concern for me that it has been for so many others.  Possums, skunks and even raccoons have all fallen prey to Bear’s prowess as a hunter whenever they’ve made the mistake of venturing into the backyard bent on raiding the chicken coop.  With three foot sections of chicken wire now attached to the bottom of the fence and buried underground, even those marauders are seldom seen.  The only continuing threat is still the hawks but, fortunately, I’ve only lost 1 chicken in 3 years to these magnificent birds (and cried myself silly over poor Autumn, thinking how terribly frightened she must’ve been her last moments alive and hoping she died of heart failure or something before being picked apart…a gruesome thought…).  However, this week has upset the peaceful complacency I’ve experienced up until now…

I spent most of this week and last petsitting.  Though I started off doing this as a career move 2 years ago, it has proven to be a very sketchy form of income for the homestead and leaves me stretched too thin trying to care for my own menagerie of pets and somebody else’s critters so now I’ve all but given it up except for friends and family members.  Reisa and Steve started off as petsitting clients but, over the years, I learned count them as friends, having found so much in common with them and knowing them to be warm and fun-loving people.  They boarded their dogs but I went back and forth to their farm twice a day to take care of Pedro and Marianne, two lovely and lovable goats, and a flock of 17 chickens and 5 ducks–chickens at least so tame that they actually hunch their shoulder blades, begging to be petted.

I am seldom nervous caring for Reisa and Steve’s pets.  Steve works in construction and there are so many motion-sensor lights set up that one toe stepped onto the property and the place lights up like a Christmas tree.  Jack the Ripper would have a tough time lying in wait.  But this week, I was extremely on edge.

The first night went badly.  Marianne refused to come into the barn.  I got there early but stayed until almost 11 p.m., toes numbed with cold and uttering a few choice words in my frustration with this silly goat.  At one point, I decided to hunker down at an old table Reisa stores in the barn behind Steve’s motorcycle, hoping if Marianne didn’t see me, she might just mosey on into the barn with Pedro on her own.  I sat there for over an hour–after which my leg got a cramp in it and my bladder was threatening to burst so I gave up, left my “hiding place” and found Marianne standing just outside the barn door.  A little patience might’ve ended this charade a lot sooner.  As it was, she took off on a run and I was there another hour.  However, while I was waiting in the barn for her to decide to mosey in, several times I thought I heard something scratching or banging at the side door.  I chalked it off to the wind but that was the first moment I felt some unease.  It was strong enough that though I was thoroughly frozen in low-30’s temps and exhausted (I’m too old to chase recalcitrant goats around the barnyard…), I just couldn’t leave her out all night.  Something kept telling me that this was the wrong thing to do though Reisa has often advised this on other nights when Marianne was being contrary.   I was thinking coyotes; I was a little off from the mark.  The rest of the week I tied Marianne out the same as Pedro and had no problems getting her inside.   I’m thankful now that I did.

The rest of the week went off without a hitch except for the extremely nagging feeling that I was being watched.  The wind storm that cropped up overnight that first evening left lawn furniture toppled into the woods behind the barn and a “welcome” mat flung almost into the neighbors’ yard.  Other than that, nothing seemed amiss and the animals were fine.  However, the hair on my head stood partially on end every night when I ventured into the barn to turn on the lights before leading the goats inside.  I more than half expected Jack the Ripper to come popping out at me as soon as the lights were on and, as Marianne literally raced me for the barn door each night as soon as Pedro was inside, I was beginning to think there was another reason for her fear besides the almost-stranger who was caring for her.  Each morning she was comfortable enough to allow me to scratch her; evenings she and Pedro both seemed more nervous than usual and couldn’t wait to get inside.  I remember thinking more than once that I was definitely giving up this petsitting business; I couldn’t wait for the last of the chickens and ducks to migrate into the henhouse so I could leave.  And I confess to taking an almost obsessive attitude about making sure the latch was secure on the henhouse before I left and the bolt on the goats’ stall also secured; I would check and re-check a couple of times before I left, something I seldom do knowing both shelters to be strong and well-built.

Mornings were just as compulsive.  The morning after the wind storm, the latch on the henhouse had jiggled loose and the birds were all outside already when I drove in; I almost suffered an apoplexy though they were all present and accounted for and just as eager for breakfast as they are any morning.   Usually Reisa leaves the barn door open during the day so the sun can warm the inside and any breeze air it out.  Also, she has one chicken who leaves the confines of the coop (it is only partially covered with mesh…) to lay  her eggs in the goat stall.  For some reason, my last day of petsitting, I was obsessing about only leaving the barn door open enough for that chicken to get in and out and I was worried about the goats.  I actually drove down the little cul-de-sac that Reisa’s home sits on the corner of and came back around a second time after tying out the goats to make sure they were both all right.  They were but all day I was nervous about leaving them.  I had a class that evening and was doubly nervous about leaving them out after dark as the class was not scheduled to end until 8 p.m.  Thank God the class was cancelled!

Nothing happened that night.  I got to Reisa’s early and hurriedly put the goats inside.  I checked and re-checked the bolt on the door.  I breathed a sigh of relief when the chickens and ducks went inside early.  I spent some time with each bird telling them I loved them and that this might be “Auntie” Lisa’s last time petsitting them but I would never forget them.  I did the same with the goats.  I went home and worried about them, hearing again the rattle of the side door to the barn that I hoped was only the wind…

The next morning, though I knew Steve or Reisa would’ve contacted me if they’d been delayed coming home, I couldn’t shake the feeling of unease and drove by their house.  Reisa was outside with the goats, chickens and ducks and all was well.  I stopped to chat and I told her about being there all night the first night trying to get Marianne indoors and she told me about what she had sighted near her henhouse a few nights before she left on vacation–an Eastern catamount, a cougar!  It probably migrated down from Maine or maybe even Canada.  The eternal cynic in me thought, “Thanks for telling me now…!”  She said she came home late one night from work and she caught it in the headlights.  She was afraid to get out of the car.  Later, she talked to friends and neighbors, and DEM (Department of Environmental Management) and they asked her to describe the cat she had seen; they confirmed after her description that it was, indeed, a catamount and that Connecticut has been having trouble with them in recent years.

Now, I don’t know about anyone else but when I think of cougars, I think of California and the Rocky Mountains.  I think of all the stories of hikers coming up “missing” after running or walking in California parks.  I also remember a friend of mine telling me about another catamount dragging off a couple of calves from his farm a few years back; I was heartbroken, having helped him bottle feed one of those calves when its mother rejected it but my friend, Robert, lives in farm country out in North Franklin, Connecticut not the suburban area of Plainfield; Brooklyn is less than 10 minutes away from Plainfield and I have my own flock of chickens and ducks.   As she was telling me about it, I kept thinking of all the nights at Reisa’s feeling like I was being watched…

As I was leaving again, I looked out at Pedro and Marianne and then at the chickens and ducks whom Reisa had let loose from the coop.  They were peacefully scratching and pecking about along the edge of the woods and I had this insane impulse to yell at her to get them inside.  There was a nagging feeling that that peace was about to be shattered, the added worry about what I knew now was out there.  Looking back, though it probably would’ve seemed silly and extreme, I wish I had yelled at her to get them all inside…

Reisa called me the following day all upset.  The catamount came to visit again.  She and Steve had gone to the feed store after supper.  They had taken the precaution of putting Marianne and Pedro into the barn but there were still some hours of daylight left, and the chickens and ducks weren’t ready to migrate in.  When they came home they found a bunch of feathers and a trail of blood; four chickens and one Pekin duck are missing, presumed dead, with one chicken actually being found a bloody mess in the barnyard.  They thought they had lost their Mallard duck, too, but he showed up in the morning, a little shaken but in one piece.  Reisa was devastated.  Though it is a sad loss, a part of me felt a little relief that there is someone out there who is just as sensitive to even a chicken as I am; Reisa kept thinking how terrified those poor birds must’ve felt during those last moments on earth.  I was thinking the same thing and agonizing along with her.  If you have any heart at all, it’s impossible to share your world with any creature and not come to think of it as a member of the family, a loved one despite any “trouble” their daily care must bring.  Worse, now that this cat has found a source of food at Reisa and Steve’s there is little doubt it will keep returning.  I can’t imagine their worry and I, to some degree, share it as I love their animals almost as much as my own…and, being as Brooklyn is so close to Plainfield, I’m now on high-alert at this homestead hoping it never makes an appearance here.

What frightens me most though are the set of footprints found outside the goat barn and marks of digging by the side door.  Now I wonder if it was really the wind at all rattling that door the night Marianne refused to come in.  I wonder if her fear was born on the scent of this large, unknown threat.  And I wonder if poor Marianne would’ve suffered a similar fate a week earlier had that nagging little fear not crept up on me and convinced me to stay–even if it meant staying all night–to make sure she was safely indoors.   I wonder, too, if like so many hikers in California, would I have fallen prey to this big cat?

The Lord works in mysterious ways.  I am grateful to Him for giving me that nagging little fear all week.  Though this “knowing” has stolen over me at various times throughout my life and I have often lamented it, I am grateful for His gifts, always.  If I hadn’t listened to it, Marianne might not be with us today.  I am also grateful that He was watching me even more closely than the catamount…

God bless you and keep you!

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