What are the easiest animals to take care of? There’s a whole pantheon of childhood pets, from gerbils to goldfish, that require a minimum of care and live mercifully short lives. You probably had one, or more than one. But I can guarantee that my childhood pets were less work than yours. If there were a prize for lowest-maintenance animal, it would undoubtedly go to … drumroll please … the hermit crab.
Although we had them for years, I couldn’t tell you exactly what their minimal care consists of. My mother, naturally, took care of that. I couldn’t tell you anything about their habits or their diet. I can’t remember what we named them. (Inexplicably, given that her one daughter was grown up, my grandmother also had hermit crabs, and I do know that she named hers Damon and Pythias.) I remember being excited to get them, but I don’t think I was sad when they died.
When I was eight or nine, we graduated to a dog, a gray miniature poodle. Because my mother, like parents of small children everywhere, thought kids should get to name the family pet, the poor thing was saddled with “Tevye.” Until now, the sum total of my animal care experience was limited to taking a cagy, cantankerous poodle for the occasional walk. (“You get the pet you deserve,” my mother always says.)
Now Kevin and I have a cat and eight chickens. In the adult division of the lowest-maintenance animal competition (that’s animals for adults, not animals who are adults), cats and chickens may tie for top honors. They’ve been easy enough that I’ve been almost sanguine about getting more labor-intensive animals, like pigs or goats or Highland cows. Until today.
Today my image of myself as animal caretaker was dealt a blow. It started with the cat.
The cat has been itching for three months. She scratches her chin, ears, and shoulders so often and so vehemently that she’s developed raw, hairless patches. I have assumed this is an allergy, since she did the same thing last year, starting in September and ending in November.
Last year, I assumed she was allergic to flea and tick medicine, which we gave her, prophylactically, early in the fall. It was the kind you apply topically at the back of the neck, and it made her miserable. But, whatever was making her scratch, at least I knew it couldn’t be fleas or ticks.
This year, at about the same time, she started scratching again, so it wasn’t the flea stuff. A plant that comes up in the fall? A kind of food that we just happened to give her this time last year? I changed her dry food. Kevin applied topical lotion to the itchy spots. Nothing changed. I had started to think we’d have to take her to the vet when the problem didn’t go away in November, the way it did last year. But I put it off.
Meanwhile, the poor cat was clearly unhappy. She scratched all the time, and groomed when she wasn’t scratching. She started vomiting more than she usually does, and her weight dropped. She lost her joie de vivre. And then, this morning, when she was sitting on my lap trying to get warm, I found a flea. I was horrified. I had let my cat wander around with fleas for three months without doing a bloody thing about it.
We combed her thoroughly with a flea comb and we gave her a bath with baby shampoo (oh and didn’t she love that). We’ll comb her again tomorrow, and if things don’t improve in a day or two we’ll call the vet and get industrial-strength flea meds.
So I wasn’t feeling like a particularly caring or careful caretaker when I heard the chickens sound the alarm.
We were outside, doing stony things. I was working on the stone base of the wood-fired oven and Kevin was laying a stone path to our outdoor shower. All of a sudden there was a huge kerfuffle and the chickens went running for shelter, crowing for all they were worth. We looked up in time to see the hawk – a big one – flying low next to the rhododendrons.
We went up to investigate, and found an alarmingly large pile of buff Orpington feathers, but no buff Orpingtons. My heart was in my mouth as we peered under bushes, trying to find all eight birds.
We did find all eight, seven completely intact and one with a big bald spot on her back. There was no blood, so I assume our hen wasn’t injured, but it made me think – again – about whether we’ve been doing our chickens a disservice by putting them in harm’s way. If they stayed in the run, they’d be perfectly safe, but not nearly as happy, and we’ve opted for happiness. I’m beginning to wonder whether we’ve been wrong.
I know that neither the fleas nor the hawk brands me as an unfit animal owner. In the first instance, I was overly committed to the idea that flea medicine prevents fleas. In the second, I made a choice that some would undoubtedly disagree with, but others would, I’m sure, support. I’m not breaking out the hair shirt or forswearing animals for all time, I’m just thinking long and hard about pigs or goats or cows.
Hermit crabs, though … I could handle hermit crabs.