Down the road a ways in a cowgirl’s happily ever after, when she’s hobbled close to home by love for the little cowboys and cowgirls, the happy hum of home life just wouldn’t be right without the critters. And no description of a ranch woman’s domestic routine can leave them out and be really true.
Once, when I was 14, I got myself in trouble trying to justify the presence of every animal on the ranch to a guest from the city. I proudly told her, “Every animal on the ranch has a purpose that benefits the ranch,” in a self-assured voice. She was sitting on our couch with Toby, the Dachshund.
“Well, what about him?” she asked, twirling his long, velvety ears in her fingers.
I was stumped for an answer. He certainly had no purpose beyond keeping that spot on the couch warm! I learned a lesson about boasting then, so I won’t insist that the presence of all these animals can be economically justified. They’re just being well cared for, and that’s about it.
I never really put much thought into all the critters running around. Every ranch has a few of these. I always considered the ‘important’ animals more worth mentioning-the horses we ride and the cattle that provide our living in one way or another. But now that these petty beasts represent my only daily hands-on agricultural connection, I would like to introduce mine to you.
Bek is nine years old this year. She is usually caught with her head down a hole, digging. (That’s cow dog misdemeanor #1.) Our horse trap is full of her pending projects because, like me, she gets interrupted all the time. Unlike me, though, she remembers to go back and check up on them. That’s what “Bekkie” does for work, actually (in the cow dog world, this is probably the equivalent of organized crime). Any dreams of becoming a cow dog were ended when she was bitten by a big rattlesnake about five years ago. Her recovery was not complete and whatever mental gifts she was born with were greatly diminished. She’s still smart, but it comes in spurts now. I don’t mind having a buddy like her. Bek is my friend. She makes a poor pet, she’s always smelling like something from the underworld and really doesn’t like affection on anyone’s terms but hers. Bek understands me though. I can’t count the times she was the only one who listened and really understood. She will do anything for me, even sit at the table and pretend to be human, bark in syllables when I ask her a question, sit with the stroller and keep the horses away, and though not possessed of courage for herself, she will protect me from a mad mama cow with her last breath. She and her compadre, ZZ, make sure the cats are bored by killing rats and mice around the house. And of course, her excavating skills are elevated to superpower by now, much to my husband’s chagrin.
Riley is the ‘golden child’. She’s smart, pretty, talented and funny and she has a somewhat successful (legitimate and above-board) career as a cowdog. In fact, her only flaw is that she is a workaholic. The cats don’t get ‘lazy days’ when Riley is around. I’m sure they tried to tell her they are nocturnal, and they need their rest, but it would have fallen on deaf ears. She likes to bicker with the other dogs and tries to make them feel stupid by crouching and using her ‘eye’ on them. They are sure to let her know they don’t like it. Being a Border Collie comes with a stigma. I’ve always thought that if a fella could handle a Border Collie without breaking it’s mind or spirit, he could understand women. Maybe I shouldn’t have said that, because Riley is my husbands’ best friend. She gets to go with him when I don’t, and I must admit I’ve been jealous a time or two. I reckon they both know that though, and might even enjoy seeing me get put out by something so petty. Regardless, Riley is my buddy, too, and when I need anything done, I whistle for her and not the other two. She’s the brains of this outfit for sure.
ZZ (or Zeva) is the kid’s favorite. She’s the youngest, at the ripe old age of three. She’s a little bit of an airhead at times and I say that knowing that she is very well-bred. I think there are times when she consciously decides to do stupid things just to amuse herself at my Yosemite-Sam-like reaction. She gets a kick out it. Yes, I’m quite sure she sits back and chuckles with an expression of pretentious innocence. ZZ pals around with Bek, but she is considerably brighter and more athletic. So when I see them out there in the horse trap checking their holes and then take out after something (cow dog misdemeanor #2), I know ZZ may be gone a while. I holler until my voice is gone, madder than a hornet because I can’t call her off. I’m bound to the stroller and have to give up. But ZZ doesn’t give up easily, and returns with a jackrabbit several hours later. Bek doesn’t have that kind of stamina, and will sit down and wait for ZZ to bring in the prize; then they both bring it to me as if each had an equal role in obtaining it (taking equal credit for the rabbit, but not for the disobedient act of running it down, as it were). But then, that’s ZZ’s nature. She’s fast enough to outrun me and smart enough to stay gone a long time, kind enough to humor the old dog, mean enough not to let Riley get the prize, and big-hearted enough to leave it for the cats to eat. Her exuberance sometimes gets the better of her and she knocks down toddlers like bowling pins, but she’s gentle enough to kiss them until they stop crying (or get insanely mad at her!). She’s the most kind-hearted, loyal, and fun-loving dog I’ve ever had.
Barn cats are an elite group of feral felines. And Custer is no exception. But he has lowered himself to domestication in return for that rare delicacy known as ‘cat food’. His harem has followed suit, as have all his prodigy. He got his name when he was the only surviving kitten within a 15 mile radius and the dogs ganged up on him regularly. Besides that, he’s a yellow tabby. Custer is the best ‘dog’ we have. He comes when I whistle, stays right with the kids everywhere we go, greets us warmly every day, and never barks. He just doesn’t wag his tail. He and his family are a valuable necessity for keeping snakes, mice, and packrats at bay. We need them because our yard is the only shady green spot for miles of cholla and rocks, and this attracts the slithery types.
Lilly and Nessie
Being a dwarf goat is probably the funnest job around here. All you have to do is play and eat. Lilly joined our outfit over a year ago. She’s sweet, and fat, and a big hit with toddlers. But she is also a fierce defender of the young and helpless; one whom all our dogs have learned to keep their distance from! She takes short expeditions out into the cholla to graze on weeds, but she never goes too far and always has an entourage of seven or eight guinea fowl to warn her of approaching danger. She has taught her daughter, Nessie, all of these important things. Nessie, a much sleeker version of her mama, still has a lot to learn. I’m always having to free her from fences and gates where she gets her horns stuck. She can holler like a human when she needs help, and she can run, jump, climb and land on her feet like an Olympic medalist. Most of the time.
These poor birds are only slaves. They are not loved, spoiled, or even spoken to. They are only here to lay eggs and be targets of toddler rock practice. It’s sad but true. They do live in a nice yard with comfortable nests and they never miss a meal. So I guess they don’t have it too bad. Probably the only complaint they would have is Riley. She persecutes them with her laser Border Collie “eye”. Thanks to them, however, I never have to buy eggs and we always have good breakfast burritos. A good hen is really a goldmine, if you want to see it that way.
The Guinea Birds
Guineas are ugly birds that look like grey rocks in the tall grass. They will never sneak up on anyone, nor will anyone ever sneak up on them. They’re deafening when they start their warning cry, and they have no low-volume sounds. We only have them to help us keep the snake population down. Their African origins make them tough to catch and pretty resourceful. They’re a real menace, actually, and very annoying; but I have not found a baby rattlesnake around the house or barn since they have been here, and their favorite thing to eat is ticks. They’re welcome in the yard, because I’ll put up with anything for that! My little daughter loves her guinea birds. If they hear her voice, they come from wherever they are to greet her. They like her and she likes them. She can get close enough to them to almost touch their backs and they don’t run or fly away, which I find remarkable considering when I approach them, they scatter like giant possessed quail, blasting deafening sirens.
From time to time, every home corral is blessed with the presence of a beef steer. Sometimes he gets gentle enough to be a buddy. We had a beef steer a couple of years ago. Ours was born on the neighboring ranch where they range cattle in summer country on the Capitan mountains. He didn’t come down at branding time, and by the time he did the following spring, he was no different than an elk but considerably less majestic. We purchased him for a beef, branded him and brought him home. In the time he spent in the horse corral eating as much as we could feed him, he never quite got used to humans. I was extremely careful feeding him, as he always stood in the corner with his head as high as it would stretch, snorting at me and pawing the ground. His final act was to send my husband leaping over the fence in a single bound. But oh, he sure tasted good! Beef. That’s who’s for dinner every night around here.
Shaka and Abraham
The first time I saw Shaka, my own firstborn baby was not even a month old. My husband brought the orphan calf into the garage where he set up a temporary stall on cardboard and straw, complete with a warming light. Deer-legged and fuzzy, he was the feistiest dogie (pronounced ‘doe-gee’, not ‘doggie’) calf I had ever been around. Feeding him three times a day with a newborn in the house was not easy given the snow and cold, but I was more than happy to do it. Whenever it was warmer, Shaka came and laid down at the door with the dogs. And when he got hungry, he would butt the glass and bawl. No different than the other baby I had to feed!
Then came Abraham. He was born in a deep cold snow storm and was very weak. We weren’t sure he was going to make it, he was so small it was likely he was a twin. Chilled down and shivering, he huddled under the light with Shaka to keep him warm. Their stall was in the corner of the insulated half of the garage, and just as warm as the porch would have been. I gave up my own naps, between feeding my newborn daughter and Shaka, to sit with little Abraham and try to teach him to nurse from a bottle. Nothing was working for him. It seemed we would lose him. The second night, about 3 or 4 a.m. (no telling, and anyway, I didn’t get that much sleep back then!) I went to God about the calf. I told God the odds were stacked and that I knew a calf wasn’t much in the grand scheme of things. But I asked God to save him anyway. We had done all we could for the little fella. Well, God heard my prayer. The next time I came in to feed the calves, they both drank a full bottle. And Abraham and Shaka lived in the yard until they got too big.
I love all the animals I’ve been blessed to care for. There’s a misconception about the people in this line of work, that they’re calloused and don’t care about their animals. I don’t understand how that could be. Why would we do this if we didn’t love these animals? I’ve seen grown men shed tears over horses and dogs, and children raised out here all learn to protect and love orphan calves, lambs, puppies and kittens. The cycle of life and death is always before you as you witness the births and the deaths, so that over time, you come to the wisdom of knowing the value of life. It’s very precious and often short, so love as deep as you can for as long as you can. Let each life fulfill it’s own purpose, and don’t interfere in such a way that would destroy that life or its’ purpose. And sometimes, the purpose of a life was love, from start to finish.