Me and the boyfriend took on our first livestock about a year ago. We begun modestly by rehoming four Marans chicks. They were diddy and fluffy and chirped whenever they were disturbed. All in all they were quite marvellous.
The little sister and brother, Lou and Peep, became particularly fond of one of the chicks and named it Charlie. Fast-forward about a week and Charlie is dead. Stiff and cold as refrigerated carrot sticks, his scrawny legs stuck out at an unflattering angle: he may well have died mid can – can.
In hind sight we should have known. Whenever children become fond of one particular animal amidst a mass of similar looking animals chances are things aren’t going to end well for the loved creature. Not because a higher power has a mean streak, or because children have some weird, psychic ability (“I see dead poultry…”) but because children just happen to be drawn towards animals that are likely to kick the bucket. They really do love an underdog.
Reason # 1: Individuality
Chicks, ducklings, lambs etc. of the same breed all look largely alike, especially when they’re very young. If you can tell one animal apart from the sea of feathers and fleece then this is the animal that you’re likely to become attached to. Yes, they may stand out due to different colourings or patterns, but do you know what tends to stand out more than a slightly darker coat? A limp, or a dodgy eye, or the fact that ‘Dotty’ over there walks in circles and blows raspberries instead of bleating like the other lambs. Charlie’s quirk? He was almost always laid down and would occasionally fall when scurrying around. Cute according to a kid, not so cute according to Darwin’s thoughts on evolution.
Reason # 2: Cuddlability
Livestock does not like to be cuddled. Pick up a duckling and it will chirp and wiggle until it’s back with its siblings. If the duckling is continuously allowing itself to be caught and held without a fuss then chances are it’s too weak to put up much of a fight. The problem is the more a child holds an animal the more attached to it they will feel. They may also misinterpret an animal’s subdued behaviour as enjoyment of the attention. Children therefore tend to become more attached to the docile, weaker animals rather than the feistier ones that will scratch to get away!
Reason # 3: The Cute Factor
Weak animals grow more slowly than their stronger siblings, so they stay cuter for longer. When Charlie’s brothers and sisters were looking really, very scruffy because they were half chick fluff, half chicken feather Charlie was still a little yellow pom pom, without a scratchy feather in site. He was now distinguishable by his size alone, being about half that of his siblings. At this point we separated them (the bigger brothers and sisters were caught standing on his head, which probably didn’t help his situation).
We made sure that Charlie was warm, had access to water and food and we hoped.
We obviously didn’t hope hard enough. By the next morning I was flinging his rigid little body into a solitary, far away blackberry bush. And this is what always takes me by surprise about life on a smallholding; the romanticised, tender job of taking care of animals against the backdrop of practicality. The fact that our 24 hour stint of intensive care and worry ended with a poorly aimed fling into some overgrown bracken. The fact that being different enough to be noticed and loved by a child may also mean being too different to survive. And the fact that out of those four chicks, taken on with nothing but wide eyed optimism, only one is still roaming around our farm, dancing fat worms to the surface to be eaten.