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Urban pests and backyard chickens

   The scene in the morning was terrible. What was left of the torn, bloodied carcass of my beloved Anacona hen, the crazy, flighty Italian chicken whose antics never failed to amuse me, was tossed like so much trash in front of the henhouse.

The two traumatized survivors, battered, bloodied, with beaks broken from frantic attempts to escape, crooning forlornly, huddled in a corner of the backyard under a lilac bush still laden with heavy, fragrant blooms. Feathers were everywhere.

We’d been raided by a raccoon.

I know it sounds silly to cry over a chicken. Everyone knows a backyard chicken is a target for skunks and raccoons and coyotes. Chickens vanish out of my friends’ coops all the time. It’s a fact of life. But I spent the rest of the day in tears anyway, consumed with guilt, fretting over whether or not I could have prevented the raid. Stricken by the way the two remaining hens shivered and drooped, by the way they
wouldn’t go near the henhouse even when it was time to roost.

I wasn’t surprised by my tears. I am fond of all our pets and the chickens are pets as much as any of the cats or dogs are. What shocked me was the fury I felt for the raccoon. I hated him. I wanted to see him as dead as my hen. At that moment, if something had ripped him to shreds in front of me, I wouldn’t have cared.

That was a surprise because, you see, well, I’m an animal lover. I will spend days sweeping away ants so I don’t have to put out poison. I’m cartoonishly terrified of mice and once even tried to get rid of a mouse the cat dropped inside the back door. I managed to break his leg before we chased him away and I tossed and turned all night, disgusted by my cruelty. It was only a mouse, after all. What kind of monster breaks a
mouse’s leg?

I think the thing that bothered me the most was that I had failed to take care of a living thing that depended on me. Taking on a pet isn’t a lark. It’s a responsibility. And, somehow, I’d let the worst happen.

In a compact neighborhood like mine, a place that must be, after dark, a smorgasbord of cat food, dog food, garden scraps and tasty trash, it seems counterintuitive that any creature, even a clever raccoon would go to so much trouble to kill a chicken. Why bother? The answer is simple. Because it’s nature. It’s what predators do. It’s what even lazy, overfed, fat urban predators do. It’s why cats kill songbirds and dogs chase squirrels.

With the proliferation of backyard chickens in neighborhoods across the country, scenes like the one I woke up to will probably increase. To a crafty predator, fences and bolts are merely speed bumps. Bait is bait.

I borrowed a trap but I haven’t set it. Even if I caught the raccoon, I’m not sure what I would do with the thing. So, I push the bolts a little further each night when I’m locking away the hens and I occasionally open the back door and shine a flashlight toward that particular corner of the backyard. I hope he doesn’t come back. But, if he does, he’d better watch out.

I once broke a mouse’s leg, you know.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap writes for The Spokesman-Review. Her essays can be heard on Spokane
Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “ Home
Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com


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Cheryl-Anne Millsap's Home Planet column appears each week in the Wednesday "Pinch" supplement. Cheryl-Anne is a regular contributor to Spokane Public Radio and her essays can be heard on Public Radio stations across the country. She is the author of "Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons."

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