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Cats on the job

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By Jeneen Wiche

I value the guardian behavior of our animals as one is charged to protect the other. We have house cats that are free to go outside; barn cats that mostly hang out in the garage; a companion red heeler mutt who rarely leaves my side; and a Maremma livestock guardian dog (LGD).  Baxter, the LGD, has challenged our thinking in owning dogs. He has reinforced that animals follow their instinct above all else. He is not a pet, rather a worker that is a critical component to keeping our farm alive.
And, to that point, this week has been a challenging one. On Wednesday morning, after doing morning rounds to open the barn and check on the pastured poultry, Andy says there is some good news and some bad news. I get butterflies in my stomach when he says that. Apparently after our 75 laying hens where freed from the security of the barn for the day a fox did a morning grab? Two dead just south of the blueberries; I was charged with disposal but by the time I got back there they had returned to actualize the meal. I was glad they returned to take the birds because I would rather they not go to waste, plus this was how we were able to determine the likely predator as a fox. Dogs kill for sport; fox kill for sustenance. Oh, and the good news, Andy added, was that our 102 Freedom Rangers (a chicken breed we raise for meat) down in the nut grove looked great.
So, during the day on Wednesday, while I was away, it seems the fox returned. There were additional six or so scenes of struggle. Not every pile of feathers corresponded to a dead hen; and there were several missing their tail feathers (sort of like a lizard.) By our best count I think we lost four or five hens that day and all I kept thinking is that the fox will keep coming back if I don't do something.
So, yes, we live with constant anxiety over who might be dead in the morning-or afternoon. To allay this anxiety we have employed Baxter to the nut grove to patrol the area where our pastured poultry are ranging inside of an electrified fence. He does a great job keeping the fox from even thinking they can take a chance. But on Thursday morning it seems that our configuration was a bit off. The nut grove is perfect for free-ranging chickens because the trees actually deter aerial attacks by hawks. Well, it seems the way we arranged their little A-frame shelters allowed for a clear aerial path between the row of nut trees and two little rangers got it. The viscera was left behind which is an indication of a hawk strike. This batch of freedom rangers was special because up until Thursday morning we were at 100 percent success rate. One hundred and two chicks came in the mail and we still had 102 chicks at one month. Damn that hawk? Or is it our faulty configuration? 
So, ultimately it is playing out like this:  Baxter has being freed from his pasture patrol in the morning to go back to the barn area as I pick blueberries. He is excited to be out so he roams about the farm and house. Of course I prefer that he stay back by the barn but that is not entirely his idea of fun. He is finding out that he is not the only one on the job. Freda, my previously feral cat that is now a little sweety hissed and swiped as Baxter attempted to enter the garage. Off the back patio Parc, a rescue from a parking garage in downtown Louisville, who you can run a vacuum on, he is that laid back, hissed and puffed up as Baxter attempted to access the patio steps. I had to laugh as I watched this animal dynamic play out.
The idea of working dogs is an ancient one but let us give credit to the working cats in our lives. The mouser, the rabbit strikes, the shrews and the guardian of the patio and garage. In fact, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in San Francisco has a "Cats on the Job" program "dedicated to the lifetime adoption of under socialized and feral cats into businesses and residences to provide ongoing companionship and rodent control." I think this is a great idea.