Monthly Archives: June 2009

Working with farm animals, differently

Skye--herd boss and lead animal practitioner at Healing Hooves in Alberta.

Skye--herd boss and lead animal practitioner at Healing Hooves in Alberta.

Six years ago (2003) I came to Bella Coola, an isolated settlement of about 1800 (half of the population is First Nations) on the west coast of British Columbia (nearly 500k from the nearest stop light!), to complete my Anthropology fieldwork for my MSocSc degree. I planned to stay only for 3 months before returning to New Zealand, where my husband and new home were. However, I fell immediately in love with this remote village, and was soon offered a 4-month contract with the Bella Coola General Hospital, which rapidly evolved into a permanent position. My husband joined me later that year, and soon found employment with the First Nations high school; we bought a property and began making our home in the valley.

Unfortunately, in 2006 I lost my job, due to an economically driven restructuring of the United Church Health Services. In 2007, I moved without my husband to work at the Saskatchewan Population Health and Evaluation Research Unit at the University of Regina. After nine months of living away from my home, my husband and everything I loved—including this community—I quit my job and returned to Bella Coola, with a view to making myself useful to the community once again, while being supported by my husband’s wage. About two weeks after returning to my home, my husband was let go from his employment (a sudden decision made by the newly elected First Nations Government, which disrupted the school and dismantled the entire education authority). We were lucky that he managed to get temporary employment with the School District last year, which has held us over until now. However, after June 26th of 2009 we will both be unemployed, as the person he replaced last year has since returned to work.

Because I love this community, I have been researching the needs and gaps in services with a view to once again making myself useful, employable and able to contribute to the community through paid employment in a meaningful way. While working for the United Church Health Services, I got the opportunity to see first hand the gaps in Social Services in our community. It is a remote First Nations community that struggles with a cycle and history of alcoholism and sexual abuse; the direct result of colonization. One of the key gaps in service in our community, identified by the Social Health and Economic Development Society (an organization founded by myself and two colleagues to research and address gaps in social services in our community), is professional Drug and Alcohol Counseling service. Another critical need identified  through discussions with the Mental Health Department manager is qualified professionals with a specialization in autism. Bella Coola has a high rate per capita of autism, yet these people, in particular, have very limited support largely due to the small population and remote location; they often fall through the cracks entirely because of the limited, but strict, parameters issued by the Ministry. The Ministry of Children and Families struggles to fill the Child and Youth worker position and finally there is no couples therapist.

After speaking with the other mental health professionals in the valley and hearing about these community needs, I realized that if I got some professional training and experience I could help fill some of these social service gaps, and have since applied to take a Masters Degree in Counseling Psychology (scheduled to begin September, 2009). Instead of being a regular ‘talk therapist’, I plan to work with my farm animals as co-facilitators of the therapeutic process. I have been researching and learning about the exciting and burgeoning field of Animal Assisted Therapy in Counseling for several years, and have just completed my second level of Equine Facilitated Mental Health in Cremona, Alberta. In September, I will take the third (and final) level of the courses at Healing Hooves. These courses count as continuing education units for the Canadian Counseling Association, and together with the Counseling Psychology degree (and a host of other prerequisites) will lead to certification by Equine Facilitated Mental Health (with the Canadian Therapeutic Riding Association) and by Equine Facilitated Wellness Canada.

An intimate moment shared between two 'gents'.

An intimate moment shared between two 'gents'.

My long-term vision is to provide effective counseling services, specializing in Animal Assisted Therapy, to foster recovery, healing and growth through a program delivered in partnership with animals where appropriate, as well as using nature as a therapeutic tool. In order to support my Animal Assisted Therapy career goals, I have developed a small hobby farm and have already taken in several animals with a history of abuse. I give them a safe environment to heal themselves and learn again to trust humans. From the experience I have had to date, along with the research into this burgeoning field, I know these animals’ stories will help me develop a rapport with the clients I plan to work with. Often, the trust between animal and therapist fosters the development of trust between client and therapist as well. Animals can also foster relationship with people who struggle in ‘normal’ social situations. Attachment is a basic need and drive of all human beings (and animals!). Everyone needs to feel a certain security in order that development proceeds as nature intended. This development is not guaranteed in humans, and animals can play a crucial role in rebuilding these relationships. Autistic people, in particular, respond to animals positively in a therapeutic environment.

Max is an animal practitioner in the making. He came to the course with his Clinical Psychologist owner.

Max is an animal practitioner in the making. He came to the course with his Clinical Psychologist owner.

The Healing Hooves workshops will benefit anyone looking to explore incorporating animals into their therapeutic work. The workshop topics are covered through a mix of discussions, presentations, demonstrations and hands-on experiential exercises. They include opportunities to apply the theories learned to different client populations and scenarios through real life case studies, practice work with the horses, personal growth opportunities and interactions with Healing Hooves volunteers and former clients.

Other links and resources in the Animal Assisted Therapy field:

Dreamcatcher Association (Nature Assisted Therapy)

Healing Hooves (Equine Facilitated Wellness)

CANTRA Equine Facilitated Wellness (Certification body)

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Cornish Crosses not fat enough!

Well who would have thought that I’d have to put off my butchering dates because my Cornish Crosses are too skinny? Not me or any of you either I bet! Instead of butchering at 9 weeks as I’d planned, I’m holding off for another two weeks to see if they gain the weight needed to get to 4 lbs as I’m hoping. While the later date is a bit of a shock, the reality is they look really happy and healthy and no sign of the dreaded list of possibles: heart attacks, water bellies, laying down to eat, coming off the legs and so on.

My skinny, free ranging Cornish Crosses!

My skinny, free ranging Cornish Crosses!

My little guys and gals are running around like all my other heritage breeds and free ranging for a lot of their food. In fact, they are the messiest birds I’ve kept in terms of wasting food from the hopper. There is more food on the ground around the hopper than I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure what they are doing with it that the other birds don’t, but perhaps the behavior warrants a ‘quit playing with your food’ lecture.

Cornish Crosses hanging out in their yard.

Cornish Crosses hanging out in their yard.

As it stands, I’m now going to wait another two weeks to see if they get bigger. They are 8 weeks old today in the above photo. When I  first got them I was worried and alarmed at their rapid growth. However, after I moved them out onto the free range pasture their alarming rate of growth seemed to slow to a more natural rate of development. So far, they run and jump and flap and race around like any chickens I’ve kept. I’ve got renewed confidence that I’ll be able to keep a couple of females for breeding and they won’t die of heart attacks before reaching maturity. Well, that’s my thought a present!

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Working on the chainsaw gang

Lesson three from Dave was the most challenging (read ‘frightening’) to date. It is not that he insisted, but rather I figured that while I have someone here who knows what they are doing, I might as well make the most of it and get some safety lessons and usage tips. I’ve been rather like a stone age person working with my chainsaw-like tool; I’ve gone by feel and instinct, and been lucky so far. Until last Friday, I had never used a real chainsaw.

I looked for my steel-toed boots but could not find them. I was not sure if Dave would want me using the saw without the boots.  When I asked him if he was worried about my toes he stopped suddenly in front of me as if my question had momentarily frozen time. As he turned to face me, his eyes flashed and his eyebrows clamped down hard above them. His jaw took a defiant angle as he looked me up and down and said: “I’m worried about all your parts.”

The first exercise was to ‘buck up’ a fallen tree. Actually, the first real exercise was to learn how to start the darn saw! “Some guys put the saw on the ground, step on it and pull-start it,” Dave said derisively, before telling me that it was a risky way of starting the machine in these conditions. The chain could inadvertently hit something on the ground upon start-up, flip up into you and “ruin your whole day”. The safe way to start the saw is to hold it in one hand and pull-start it with the other.  Sounds easier than it is!

He demonstrated it to me a couple of times and then handed me the saw. When you are not a big, burly male with powerful upper body strength, it is not an easy task. After the first six or seven tries, I began to think I’d never be able to do it. I gave him a pleading look that had no effect on him at all, but elicited a delicate hand gesture that said ‘carry on.’ Finally, pull number eight (or nine, or ten) brought the saw to life. It was a rush–not to mention relief–to hear the saw growl.  The trick is to push the saw away from you with your left hand, while pulling the start cord up with your right, all in one fluid motion. When it screamed to life I was thrilled (“The First Cut is the Loudest”), because I had doubts about my ability to even start the darn thing. I beamed over at Dave who was smiling like a proud father while giving me two thumbs up, before bellowing over the saw, “Great, now turn it off!”

The safe way of starting a chainsaw.

The safe way of starting a chainsaw.

I turned the saw off and took my ear cover off to hear what his next advice would be. He offered three words along with his delicate hand gesture: “Do it again.” Three times he made me start and stop the saw before turning me loose on the newly fallen–by him–tree. Before getting to actually fall a real tree, he wanted me to get a feel for the saw. Once I made my first couple of cuts into the big alder, I had moments of fear and near panic–“My god, this could kill me…what was I thinking, wanting to learn to use a chainsaw…this is a job for a man, not me” and so on– for four more cuts.

My first cut.

My first cut.

After I bucked off the first 4-5 feet of the tree, Dave signaled me to turn off the saw again, and gave me some pointers. Pointer number one was: don’t have the saw going full tilt! Not knowing any better, I had taken to the tree with a vengeance, squeezing hard down on the throttle and working at the log like a hungry man with a steak knife at a Texas barbecue; but that is totally unnecessary–not to mention more dangerous–and once you get the hang of it and a feel for the accelerator, you can make the cuts quite gingerly, coming to a near stop with the chainsaw as you get to the end of the cut. I made a few more cuts and suddenly he stepped forward. “Lunchtime!” he smiled, taking hold of the saw and gesturing ‘after you’ towards our ‘lunch room’–a grove of trees with table and chairs set up in the shade.

After making my first few cuts, Dave gives me a few more pointers.

After making my first few cuts, Dave gives me a few more pointers.

After lunch, he lead me through the bucking up of the rest of the tree. I made firewood out of most of it, including the bigger limbs. By the end of the job I was exhausted! Not only that, I realized that I’d not had another thought about how scary it was working with the chainsaw. Instead, I had only concentrated on the task at hand and actually found myself enjoying it. However, holding the saw, bending over, making sure I didn’t trip and kill myself–a very real consideration when bucking up branches that get tangled around your feet and legs while  you work–really took it out of me. My forearms were nearly as tired as my back. I now have a whole new appreciation for what he’s been doing. When he wields the chainsaw, he makes it look like a butter-knife. When I said this to him he laughed, “No, it’s hard work for me too. I’m carrying that saw just like you are, and it is work.”

Two days later he talked me through my first tree falling job; it was exhilarating.

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Screetchy Britches becomes a mama

Screetchy Britches takes her brood foraging.

Screetchy Britches takes her brood foraging.

A couple of months ago one of my young hens was making the motions of a broody-girl. Every day as I collected the eggs she would fan herself out, act defensively, peck at my hand and screetch her little head off as I entered the barn to collect the eggs.  I didn’t even go near her nest recognizing straight away that she was ‘broody’ and wanted to be left alone to do her thing. After a few days of listening to her vitriolic protestations over my egg collecting duties, a suitable name popped out of my mouth one night when my husband entered the house after closing up the hens and I asked, “How’s Screetchy Britches doing?”

She was new to this mothering thing and consequently wasted a lot of eggs over the course of a couple of weeks. Being young, she didn’t do a very good job of keeping the older gals out of her ‘chosen’ nursery nest. She was sitting tight enough for me to mark the eggs under her  and stop collecting them, but every few days I’d find that she’d move three nests down and was sitting tight again on yet another clutch.

Finally, I moved her to the old chicken house where I have the Cornish Crosses fattening up. Normally, I never move a hen once she’s sat on a clutch and until Screetchy Britches first attempt, I’d never had to. I was worried the move might upset her enough to have her go off the idea of becoming a mother but sick enough of the waste of eggs to give it a try. It worked out beautifully. Last night when I went in to close the houses up for the night, Screetchy Britches was sitting proudly with her three-strong brood. It was a perfect hatch. Because of all the nest switching and egg wasting of previous weeks, when I moved her to the new location I only brought with her three eggs–lest she waste more by not sitting tight or by fleeing back to join the others in the new barn.

Today, she’s already got them out of the nest and into the yard in search of good nibbles!

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The great transformation

When I hired Dave to clear the land I was excited by the prospect of gaining ground, and was looking forward to the job being completed. What I hadn’t counted on was that in order to get the job done he would put me to work for him! The first day he brought along his Honda quad-bike so that Judy (his wife) and I could haul the wood from the clearing. That was the first lesson he gave me–how to drive a quad. The first week of clearing was–in retrospect–hard physical work but easy going in terms of learning curve. All I had to learn was down for reverse and up was in gear, two, three, four. Basically the week was reduced to a limited repertoire: chop wood, haul, stack, repeat.

The land clearing has been a bit of an ad hoc arrangement. Dave fells the trees and Judy and I clean it up, then he asks me where to go next. We discuss the pros and cons of each tree, where the fence-line should go and decide from there. At first, I wanted to keep some of the bigger stumps–an idea that bewildered him to no end. I thought they’d be great for the goats to play on and he simply thought they were eyesores. In the end we came to an agreement about which ones I was to keep and which ones he’d take out. This of course was not before he got a lesson in the subtle differences between what constituted a ‘nice’, a ‘beautiful’ or a ‘gorgeous’ stump. Once he had cleared a bunch of the land, he’d also convinced me that some of the stumps I was emotionally attached to would have to go. However, I was determined to keep my gorgeous stump and for several days it performed the task of housing equipment like our chainsaws, gas, oil, cutters, and the much needed cold drinks and lunch packs (we’ve had week of record high temperatures). The week was spent with my gorgeous stump being the brunt of many a joke. At one point Dave did allow that it was useful as he fetched his chainsaw from its depths.

However, on Friday morning when I walked over to join the work party he had the loader poised in front of it and was beaming at me mischievously, “It’s gotta go honey.” The land around it was cleared and  suddenly I could see my wheat field and I realized he was right. It was taking up far too much ground in the middle of the best dirt on my property. “Get up here” he called and pointed to the driver’s seat in the cab of his machine. I stood there mouth agape, “There’s no better way to learn to drive a loader than to dig up a stump!”

My gorgeous stump!

My gorgeous stump!

Dave drove the machine and got it in position before handing over the controls to me. This machine demanded my attention as it was a lot more to think about than down-reverse, up-two-three-four. This has up, down, side-to-side, sweep, extend, clam, release, and that’s just the boom!

My first lesson.

My first lesson.

It sure looks a lot easier than it is (or he makes it so!). Each hand is in charge of 4 difference motions and several of the directions are anit-instinctual–at least they were for someone who has not had a lifetime of heavy equipment operation. In the end, Dave finished of the job of hauling my gorgeous stump out. The ground was soft and he didn’t want the machine to get stuck. Fair enough, I thought. The amount of ground gained was significant. We agreed that it was about 15 feet in diameter and because of the extensive root system, even more in actual cultivatable surface area. Although I was reluctant to see it go I know it was the right decision to do so.

Yesterday Dave cut down a clump of four large alders and then handed me the keys to the machine. After a brief orientation on the merits (and need for) ‘stabilization’ (three more things your hands must control), he turned me loose on the new stump and walked off to chop down more trees. When I had loosened the stump to his satisfaction, he came back and stood beside the stump and–while performing his best Bobcat impersonation–gave me some final hand signal pointers about how to actually haul it out of it’s place.

My first solo stump pull.

My first solo stump pull.

Surveying my newly gained ground from my 'once removed' gorgeous stump.

Surveying my newly gained ground from my 'once removed' gorgeous stump.

From whence the gorgeous stump came.

From whence the gorgeous stump came.

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More clearing

Writing over at Not Dabbling in Normal today.

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