Soon after moving to the countryside, Ryan and I learned of an unfortunate reality of farm-life in the Central Valley: When times are tough and families are struggling to survive, pets become expensive luxuries and are therefore disposable. Unfortunately the popular method of disposing of unwanted animals in our area is to drive them several miles out into the countryside and abandon them among the crop fields.
Consequently, the barn in the rear of our property is home to a colony of feral barn cats. Some of them were already spayed or neutered before they were abandoned, had the tags removed from the filthy collars they still wear, some even declawed. Someone had once loved them enough to invest in their health and make them more compatible with their family, home or lifestyle. I can only imagine that when the choice had to be made, their owners chose to feed the mouths of their children over these furry lost souls.
In our barn, they came to seek shelter and found a community of similar souls to bond and breed with. Now they survive off the abundance of birds, mice and small bunnies that populate the fields and surrounding trees. We diligently refill small troughs of water around the barn to keep them from drinking out of the pesticide-riddled irrigation canals in the area. Once a month we *try* to catch them (when possible) for a trip to the discount spay/neuter clinic in town. When weather conditions or seasonal changes reduce the natural food sources in the crop fields, we even buy a big bag of cat food at the feed store.
Along with our new barn-cat responsibilities, we also inherited a dog when we moved to the ranch. Blackie was a mutt, and a very old one at that. His mother had wandered onto the property almost 20 years prior, just in time to deliver a litter of puppies right in front of my husband’s grandfather. He took it upon himself to find her and the puppies good homes among his friends and family, keeping the black puppy as his “ranch dog”. Blackie watched over the property long after the human residences moved out, relying on daily visits from various friends, family members and neighbors for food, water and attention.
Time had not been kind to that old “working dog”. By the time we moved in, he was nearly blind and completely deaf. One of his rear legs dragged occasionally from an injury he had obtained when a farmhand had accidentally backed their truck over him as a puppy. As bad as it looked, the vet had always insisted that he wasn’t in pain, but it made patrolling the perimeter fence a slow and tedious chore that old Blackie insisted on doing.
One morning I was making breakfast for Charlie and JD when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Blackie through the kitchen window. He was youthfully sprinting back and forth between the house and the front gate, stopping occasionally to roll in the grass. I thought to myself:
“Wow! Blackie must be having a really good day. He’s moving like a dog half his age!”
Then I realized it *WAS* a dog half his age.
A stray had wandered onto the property, squeezing through the chained opening on the back gate. He looked remarkably similar to Blackie, enough so to be his own son, but was young and painfully thin. I tried to bribe him with dry dog food and water.
The stray dog was only interested in water but drank bowl after bowl of it. Ryan and I both tried in vain to catch him but the dog was terribly shy and had far too many obstacles to hide among on the property. Because of his emaciated condition and refusal to eat, I was worried for the dog’s health and my own animals’ safety. We had no choice but to call Animal Control.
The man from Animal Control arrived later in the day and Ryan escorted him into the rear of the property. With remarkable speed, he had the dog apprehended. My fear was that the scared, thin dog would bite when cornered but Ryan said he only rolled onto his back to have his belly rubbed. The Animal Control man had then confidently lifted the dog up and petted him on the head while carrying him back to the truck, tail wagging. He stayed for a short while to make sure the dog would eat a can of wet dog food in the air-conditioned safety of the truck.
Our biggest concern was that the dog not be euthanized. Animal Control assured us that he would be “extremely adoptable” once he had received a clean bill of health and they’d fattened him up at the shelter. Sure enough “Blackie Jr” showed up on the county shelter website a few days later and was marked as “adopted” within a week. We were relieved to know that he’d gotten a home.
Months passed, uneventfully. Then one morning I was refilling the chicken feeders when a dark animal suddenly came running out of the shadows of the cornfield and charged straight at me. Despite the 8′ chain link fence between the cornfield and the chicken run, I still momentarily panicked. My brain told me that a coyote must have rabies to charge someone in broad daylight in that manner…but there was no coyote.
Looking at me through that chain link fence was a puppy. She was so excited to see me that her whole butt wagged with her stub of a tail. Obviously a purebred Blue Heeler (aka Queensland Heeler or Australian Shepherd), she had bright white teeth that seemed to glow against her dark face like the smile of the Cheshire Cat. The poor girl was caked with mud from living in the recently-flooded cornfield. Like so many barn cats before her, the ID tags had been removed from the ragged remnants of a red collar around her neck.
She followed me along the fence to the back gate, where I tied a piece of rope to her collar as a leash. I couldn’t imagine that she was a stray since she was so happy AND healthy. Completely different from thin, shy Blackie Jr. Someone HAD to be missing their beautiful puppy.
While I watched the boys, Ryan and Ray loaded the puppy into the truck and paraded her around to every neighboring farm for several miles. No one recognized her and everyone congratulated us:
“Such a lucky find! A purebred Heeler!!!”
Each farm had several dogs of various mixed and purebred breeds, all having been abandoned in the fields themselves at some point and rescued by a kind, hard-working farmer. Suddenly I felt ashamed for calling Animal Control on Blackie Jr.
Charlie started calling the puppy “Dory” and we warned him that she would be leaving “to go home to her own family soon”. We posted a “Found Dog” ad on Craigslist and hung posters around town. Weeks went by without anyone claiming her. In the mean time, two of our friends from Placerville had started following her progress on my Facebook page and let me know that they’d love to come get the puppy if no one claimed her.
One day I had the idea to talk to the owner at the “Farmer Stop” to see if he had heard anything about the puppy. Everyone gassed up their tractors and trucks there, so I figured he’d probably be the first to hear of a missing dog. I was right: He had been feeding her and giving her water for almost a month after she showed up at the shop, alone and scared. He thought she’d jumped out of someone’s pickup while they were getting gas, but no one ever came back to claim her. He said she had suddenly disappeared about a week before showing up at our fence. It was then clear to me that she had been intentionally abandoned.
I contacted my friends through Facebook and congratulated them on their new dog. To shave a few hours off their drive, we offered to meet at the feed store in Modesto where we needed to pick up supplies anyway. The puppy transferred hands, Charlie said his good-byes to her and “Dory” became “Outback” (the Australian dog who showed up at the back gate!)…and we drove home with a pretty sweet supply of applesauce and pumpkin bread, compliments of our friends! 🙂
I’m happy to report that Outback was given a clean bill of health from her new vet and has settled into her new home. Her new owners even tag me when they post new photos of her on Facebook so I can watch her grow and mature. It warms my heart to know that the poor little puppy that was found abandoned in a muddy cornfield (after wandering the countryside for almost two months) now has a loving home where she plays frisbee and chews through garden hoses.
Doggies aren’t the only creatures to wander out of the cornfield though. I was in the bathroom one morning, brushing my hair and listening to the birds singing outside the window. Suddenly I heard the strangest noise I’d ever heard from a bird. A squeak?! What kind of bird squeaks?!! I stuck my head out the window in time to see a tiny kitten crawling out of the cornfield and across the grass, crying out for help.
At first I waited, assuming a mother cat must be near-bye and was probably searching frantically for that little kit.
“Keep crying, little kitten. She’ll hear you!”
I thought. But several minutes passed and no mommy cat emerged. I went outside, knelt down and called to the kitten:
“Here kit kit! Come here kit kit!”
The tiny kitten immediately turned toward me and scrambled into my hand where she curled up and purred. I knew right away that this was NOT a feral barn cat. I’d NEVER catch a kitten from the barn without a trap, let alone have it curl up and purr once it was in my hand.
The kitten was a female brown and gray tabby and was disturbingly thin. We keep a small can of powdered kitten formula in the pantry for barn cat emergencies, so Ryan mixed up a dish of it. The kitten gorged herself until her tiny tummy protruded and her face was covered in milk. After a long nap, she was ready to play and Charlie happily complied with a little ball of paper tied to a string.
As much as we enjoyed having a kitten around, our four house cats were not so thrilled. We knew that we couldn’t keep the kitten. I spread the word on Facebook and made a few phone calls. When I couldn’t find any takers, I started researching no-kill shelters in our area. Luckily we found one that was willing to accept her and by the end of the day we were kitten-free and relieved to know that “Little Pip” would get a good home.
We tried to search the cornfield and area along the road, in hopes of finding the Mommy cat or any other kittens. Unfortunately the corn was so thick that searching was difficult and nothing was found. All we could do was hope that Pip had been abandoned alone.
Two days later, we were sitting down to dinner when I heard that same familiar squeaking noise outside. Sure enough, another kitten, identical to Pip in color and age, came scrambling out of the cornfield. This one was a male and Charlie immediately dubbed him “Robert”. He was even thinner than Pip had been so I ran inside to get a dish of kitten formula. I placed the dish on the back patio and stood back as Robert happily gulped it down. He then played with Ryan and Charlie for several minutes, crying out whenever they put him down. During one such crying spell something unusual happened: He was adopted!
The most prominent breeder among our feral barn cats is a beautiful blue-eyed Siamese with little white feet. We call her “Mama” and she has managed to evade every attempt (so far) to trap and spay her. Mama is especially skittish, running away in terror at the slightest rustle of wind through the leaves in the trees. At the time that Robert arrived at our kitchen door, she was close to weaning her current litter of three kittens, one silver-pointed Siamese, one brown-pointed Siamese and a calico. Apparently Mama wasn’t ready to give up nursing though.
While Robert squeaked his complaint at being set on the ground again, Mama suddenly came dashing out of the tool shed. Fighting every feral instinct in her body, she bounded across the lawn and the gravel driveway before dropping into a fast crawl onto the paved patio. As the kitten continued to cry, she scrambled right past a shocked Ryan and Charlie, snatched that kitten up by the scruff of his neck and bounded back to the tool shed with him.
I asked Ryan “What just happened?!” and he said “I think Robert just got himself a Mommy!”
Ryan was right. We saw Mama the next day, laying on the boards by the woodpile, basking in the sun while nursing Robert. Her three older kittens were hiding among the wood, pouncing each other and rolling in the grass. One big happy family!
I’m happy to report that all the abandoned animals recovered from our crop fields have so far enjoyed a happy ending. It still breaks my heart to think of how many others in this huge expanse of valley farmland haven’t though. I see them every day: Dead cats and dogs laying on the sides of the roads. How can people be so cruel? Then I watch the news and see under-funded animal shelters closing their doors and contract disputes with animal rescue groups that run the valley shelters. Non-profit animal-fostering programs with “FULL. NOT ACCEPTING ANY ANIMALS AT THIS TIME” plastered across their websites. It’s just another sign of the times. Pets, just like people in a bad economy, are finding themselves hungry and homeless.
I encourage everyone to take the proper steps to prevent animal neglect and cruelty: If you can afford it, support your local shelter or animal rescue group with money, supplies or volunteer time. Spay or neuter your pets. Adopt new pets from a shelter or rescue instead of buying one from a pet shop or breeder. Try to re-home unwanted pets yourself, before relying on an already overwhelmed organization to do it for you. If all else fails though, PLEASE take the animal to your local shelter.
Domesticated animals are not able to survive on their own, wether abandoned in the countryside or “in nature” at a park or reserve. As much as I hate the fact that many shelters are forced to euthanize some of the animals that come to them, I’d still rather give an animal the chance for adoption with a new loving family than to end all odds by setting them free to slowly die. Yes, there would still be the risk of death via injection or gas, but the odds of survival would still be better than the certain slow death of abandonment. The animals rescued from our property are the exception, NOT the rule. Abandoned animals almost always die slow painful deaths from starvation, dehydration or exposure.
So to reiterate, I understand that we can’t always keep our pets (even if we desperately want to), but being a responsible pet owner includes much more than food and water. It means assuring the humane treatment of an animal even if it leaves your hands. Dying alone in a cornfield in NOT humane.
For more information on adopting rescued animals and to find out ways that you can help, please visit the following links:
If you would like a link to your animal rescue group, shelter or organization listed on this page, please post a comment and let me know.