Dog Days: Dispatches from Bedlam Farm

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9781400064045: Dog Days: Dispatches from Bedlam Farm
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In Dog Days, Jon Katz, the squire of Bedlam Farm, allows us to live our dreams of leaving the city for the country, and shares the unpredictable adventure of farm life. The border collies, the sheep, the chickens, the cat, the ram, and one surprisingly sociable steer named Elvis all contribute to the hum (and occasional roar) of Bedlam. On timeless summer days and in punishing winter storms, Katz continues his meditation on what animals can selflessly teach us–and what we in turn owe to them. With good neighbors, a beautiful landscape, and tales of true love thrown in, Dog Days gives us not only marvelous animal stories but a rich portrait of the harmonious world that is Bedlam Farm.
Praise for Dog Days:

“Anyone who has ever loved an animal, who owns a farm or even dreams of it, will read Dog Days with appreciation and a cathartic lump in his or her throat.”
–The Washington Post

“Katz proves himself a Thoreau for modern times as he ponders the relationships between man and animals, humanity and nature, and the particularly smelly qualities of manure.”
–Fort Worth Star-Telegram

“Katz constructs the perfect blend between self-revelation and his subtle brand of humor.”
–The Star-Ledger

“City-dweller-turned-farmer Katz . . . returns with further adventures from his animal-filled upstate New York sheep farm. Charming.”
–People

“The perfect summer book . . . You will not be disappointed.”
–The Philadelphia Inquirer

“A new twist on the American dream.”
–The Christian Science Monitor

“Thoroughly enchanting.”
–The Dallas Morning News
From the Trade Paperback edition.

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About the Author:

Jon Katz has written sixteen books–six novels and ten works of nonfiction–including A Dog Year, The Dogs of Bedlam Farm, The New Work of Dogs, Katz on Dogs, and A Good Dog. A two-time finalist for the National Magazine Award, he writes columns about dogs and rural life for the online magazine Slate, and has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Rolling Stone, GQ, and the AKC Gazette. He co-hosts an award-winning show, Dog Talk, on Northeast Public Radio. Katz lives on Bedlam Farm in upstate New York with his wife, Paula Span, and his dogs, sheep, steers and cow, donkeys, barn cat, irritable rooster Winston, and three hens. Visit the author’s website at www.katz-dogs.com. He can be e-mailed at jdkat3@aol.com.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1

ONE

Carol’s Time

About that baby donkey. As I was heading down Route 30 a couple of weeks earlier, returning from the hardware store in town, my cell phone warbled. Anthony, working at the farm that day, was calling to say that there was a new donkey in the pasture.

Knowing this had to be a joke, since I had no male donkeys and, to my knowledge, no pregnant ones either, I laughed, fired off some appropriately obscene macho banter—the staple of male conversation hereabouts—and hung up.

It never really crossed my mind that it was true.

When I pulled into the driveway, though, I nearly drove into a fencepost. There was a tiny new donkey, soaking wet from amniotic fluid, hugging close to Jeannette, my most recently acquired Sicilian donkey. The afterbirth was close by and fresh. And Jeannette was snorting like a bull and glowering at any interlopers.

No way, I thought.

Way. Obviously, donkeys have a very long gestation period. Jeannette must have got knocked up just before she arrived last spring. I phoned an SOS to the Granville Large Animal Veterinary Service and ran into the house for some towels.

Jeannette and I are pretty tight, thanks to my daily offerings of carrots, apples, and oat cookies. She let me pick up her newborn—I named her Emma, after my own daughter—dry her off, and make sure her throat and eyes were clear. When I scratched her fuzzy little nose, she closed her eyes and went to sleep in my arms.

I gave Jeannette some cookies for energy, checked to see that she had milk in her teats—she did, a lot of it—and brushed her down a bit to calm her. Then I knelt in front of her and she put her head on my shoulder.

“Congratulations,” I said. “Who’s the father? You can tell me.” But she just went over to Emma and nosed her.

There aren’t many donkeys born around here these days. Once, donkeys were the tractors and ATVs of country life, performing agricultural and mercantile tasks integral to farming and commerce. Now they’re generally considered useless—local farmers call them “hay suckers”—so they’re rare. So people from nearby farms soon began showing up to check out the newcomer, alerted by the mysterious rural news network by which everyone instantly knows everything.

In an hour or so, Kirk the vet showed up, gave the donkeys their appropriate shots, said they were fine. He also told me that Emma was, oops, a male. So “she” became Jesus (using the Spanish pronunciation), thanks to the mysterious circumstances of his birth.

I razzed Kirk about the fact that two large-animal vets had been by in recent weeks and, when I mentioned Jeannette’s burgeoning girth, said she’d been eating too much hay and probably had gas.

Truth to tell, I felt guilty about the way I’d been mocking Jeannette for her hearty appetite and swelling belly, never guessing that she was eating for two. Probably she should have had better prenatal care, possibly some supplements. But she’d managed the whole process quite efficiently on her own, it seemed, even selecting an unusually warm February day to give birth.

A cold wave was approaching in forty-eight hours, though, so we scurried to find the heat lamps and bring Jeannette and Jesus into a cozy corner of the barn.

All this made me think even more about why I own donkeys at all.

When I got my troubled border collie Orson, we started learning to herd at a sheep farm in Pennsylvania. A lonely old donkey named Carol lived in the adjacent pasture. We bonded; I was enchanted by her soulful eyes and gentle bray, and she loved the apples I brought her and the pats and scratches that accompanied them. When I bought the farm in upstate New York, I imported some of the sheep we’d been herding with. They arrived on a livestock trailer, and Carol showed up with them, a surprise gift from the farmer, who thought she deserved a better life.

Carol seemed initially stunned, then appreciative of her new life— ample pasture, fresh water, treats and cookies, pats and grooming. But she had some serious health issues. That meant a lot of visits from vets, something Carol didn’t appreciate—Amanda, her primary care physician, had to call a half hour before coming, so I could lure Carol into the barn with oats. Carol could hear Amanda’s truck from some distance, and if she could, she’d take off up the hill.

She needed the vets, though. She’d arrived with all sorts of ailments— eye infections, bad circulation, and weak lungs. Our first winter, she’d foundered (foundering is an equine wasting disease of the hoof), and developed sores and abscesses. I’d spent innumerable hours, often in the middle of the night and in freezing temperatures, administering shots, pills, and salves. The veterinary bills, plus the shelves of painkillers, antibiotics, syringes, and thermometers, had run into the thousands.

I think I’d never truly lived until I was called upon to take a rectal thermometer reading from an agitated donkey at five a.m. when the temperature was twenty below.

Carol was agreeable, but not that agreeable. We had many a brawl in the barn and pasture while I attempted to administer her growing list of meds. She wasn’t above running, butting, bumping, or dragging me if she spotted a hypodermic.

The nasty case of frostbite that plagues me to this day came one bitter night as she dragged me up the hill to avoid the thermometer.

Paula asked why I hadn’t dressed more warmly, but my neighbors just shrug. They understand the logistics of rectal thermometers: It doesn’t work with gloves. Generally Carol submitted, not always graciously.

It seems absurd but, over time, I swear she could read my intentions, or perhaps my emotions. If I was simply bringing oats for a treat, Carol came running. If I had an agenda, like an approaching vet’s or farrier’s appointment, she’d trot out of reach. Carol hadn’t survived all her years by being foolish.

But she had a calming quality I found eerily soothing. Every night before bed, Rose and I went out to the barn. I carried a granola bar for myself and a cup of oats for Carol. Rose—always eager to work but able to grasp the import of certain moments—lay down and hardly moved.

I sat on an old stool while Carol and I—and later Fanny—had our nightly munch-and-crunch. I’d put some music on a boom box I left out there. Carol liked Willie Nelson the most; he seemed to ease her mind.

“You really ought to shoot her,” my neighbor, a retired dairy farmer, repeatedly advised. “You’ll never get your money back from her.” That was surely true. He even offered several times to get his deer rifle and do the deed for me.

Yet I was crazy about Carol, felt lucky to have her, and was determined to give her a more comfortable winter.

About Carol’s compadres:

Donkey Number 2 joined her when I got a phone call from a woman who described herself as a “Jewish donkey spiritualist,” a term I hadn’t heard before and don’t expect to hear again. Pat bred donkeys and had studied and written about their symbolic significance, their place in the ancient world, and their profoundly spiritual natures.

Both Jewish and Christian theologies abound with biblical and other references to donkeys, she pointed out. Carol, like all my donkeys, wore a cross on her back, a pattern of dark hair behind the shoulders.

Since donkeys are social sorts, Pat declared, Carol was not only lonely, but was unaware of her “donkeyness.” Having lived with sheep all of her life, she probably didn’t even know she was a donkey. She needed a companion, Pat said. My wife, already embittered by the vet bills, said she could live with Carol being out of touch with her donkeyness. I couldn’t, and so little Fanny soon arrived, and then Lulu, her half sister, who was Donkey Number 3.

The Jewish donkey spiritualist was, of course, right about donkeys: They are sweet, accepting, seemingly wise. Mine have an ostensible purpose: They’re my security detail, fiercely protective of my flock of sheep. They run off stray dogs and coyotes. And as I’ve lost no sheep to these common predators, the donkeys seem to me to be doing their jobs pretty well.

But they also—and this is why I have more donkeys than I truly need— attach to people. They nuzzle and lean into humans they like, which can sometimes be disconcerting but is also touching. They are gentle with children, calm around strangers. They coexist reasonably amiably with my dogs and chickens, getting irritated only when the hay feeder gets too crowded.

When I sit out in the pasture, Lulu is usually the first to drift up behind me and rest her chin on the top of my head, waiting for her nose to be scratched. The others soon slide alongside, waiting for pats, carrots, scratches. We sit in this odd, cuddly huddle for long periods sometimes, especially when I need soothing or company. Their silent affection is quite potent, if you wait for it.

Donkeys are always watching and miss little. Nothing seems to surprise them, or seems new to them. My private theory is that some of the wisdom of the ages has been passed along in their genes, and a little may rub off on me, if I allow it.

When I come out of the house in the morning, the girls (and now Jesus, too) are waiting for me at the barnyard gate, wheezily braying for their cookies. Serious about snacks, they’re apt to nose into your pockets if you’re slow to produce them.

But our connection goes well beyond food. Apart from the cuddling and brushing, I often go check on them at night before I go to sleep. During winter storms, I trudge up to the pole barn and comb ice from their long eyelashes; they hold still for the ...

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