A mouse in the house?

The picture of innocence, no?

As you know, I’ve been in transit for a few months now looking for a place to settle and, with any luck, relocate Howling Duck Ranch in good time. Recently, I was sleeping/camping out on the living room floor of a friend’s place in the country near Okotoks, AB, when I was rudely awoken during the night with the thought, “Something just bit me.”

I laid there wondering for a moment if I’d dreamed it or not. “Surely not!” I thought as I lay there pondering the options. I closed my eyes to go back to sleep. A second later I felt a trickle of wetness on my finger with my thumb. I got up and went to view my finger by the paradise-of-the-bathroom-light. Sure enough, there were two little teeth marks, broken skin, and blood trickling from my left hand third finger. I washed it off as best I could (it actually bled like small faucet). I then applied polysporin and went back to bed and thought nothing more of the event–for a week.

Fast forward and I’m now in Grande Prairie visiting a friend (who happens to be a vet) that I’m going to house sit for. As we talk about all the things that need doing on the farm,  I relay the ‘bite-in-the-night’ incident to him. His stride and thought train come to an immediate halt: “Do you know what bit you?”

No.

“Are you sure it wasn’t a bat?”

No.

“Have you been to public health to see what they say?”

No.

“Well my god, you’d better get there right now if you can!”

Really, why?

“Because you don’t know what bit you.”

So?

“Well, it is not usual for mice to bite people in their sleep. That is the modus operandi of bats.”

Um… so?

“Well, the issue is that bats carry rabies. In fact, all the cases of rabies in humans in North America were caused by bats biting people in their sleep. That’s how people die. They don’t know what bit them. Most don’t even know they were bit and until they show up with symptoms. But then it’s too late.”

How nice.

Seriously, this could have bit me?

Being a vet, he was up on his ‘things-that-go-bit-in-the-night’ knowledge. In fact he is THE vet for the region that people turn to in cases of rabid animals–you know, the one who picks up the de-headed dogs and bats and performs the tell-tale autopsies on the brains. The furrow in his brow, coupled with the intensity with which he found the public health contact information for me, convinced me I should perhaps go get looked at in the morning.

The following morning I called the nurse line. After about 20 minutes of intense questioning and the nurse telling me more than I wanted to know about the possible dire outcomes, she concluded, that yes, I should definitely see someone.

Enter public health. I relayed the story to the nurse who relayed the story to the Medical Health Officer who, without letting her finish, issued the rabies immunoglobulin and vaccine. They were not going to take any chances. He echoed my vet friend in saying that it is unusual for mice to bite people in their sleep but not unusual for bats to perform such antics.

He dispatched the order. Immediately not one, but several nurses leaped into action. “Seventeen years on the job and you’re my first rabies case,” the nurse said to me before  admonishing me to the waiting room. One of them came to discuss the pros and cons of the immunoglobulin, while several others went behind closed doors to assist the first nurse with the detailed calculations. “We want to get the dose right,” one of them said when she surfaced long enough to weigh me. “It’s extremely important because we have to give you such a high dosage.”

Calculations complete and triple or quadruple checked, I was escorted back into the office.

“Here is the pamphlet with all the contraindications. I’ll just read you the potential side effects…”

“Oh how about we get ‘er done.” I interrupted her, “I really don’t have a choice and believe me, you really don’t need me any more paranoid than I already am!”

“OK. Are you going to faint? Like, can you handle needles OK?”

She turned to prepare the ingredients. When she turned back towards me she was wielding the largest needle I’d ever seen–it was Darth Vadars light saber, replete with sound effects–brummmmmmm.

I had those exact thoughts and feelings myself!

“I’m sorry, but they have to be big to get deep into the muscle,” she explained, responding no doubt, to the look of horror on my face.

I was sitting in my underwear and tank top and about to become a human pin cushion. “This is going to hurt because it is really thick liquid and it takes time to get it into you,” she said as she plunged the first needle into my leg and held it tight, slowly releasing the immunoglobulin and repeating “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Six needles later–two in each thigh and one in each shoulder, plus a tetanus shot to the left shoulder for good measure–and I was good to go.

Before pulling on my jeans I turned to her and said, “You sure you don’t have anything for my calves? They feel left out.”

She gave me the shot schedule and told me who to see the next time I was in. I was going to be a regular visitor to the Public Health over the next six weeks so I might as well get on a first name basis with everyone. The shots left me exhausted each time. By the end of each day I felt tired and head-achy. Overall, in light of the possible horrific side effects, I’m doing well. I have more or less come through the ordeal unscathed.

The good news is, now, I really can run with the wolves with abandon!

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Filed under Animal issues, Educational, Politicking with predators

Bears and fruit trees – part 5

The solution:

“Lasting success requires both HUMANS and BEARS to change their behaviors otherwise bears will continually get into trouble”

Southwest Alberta Bear Management Program

I began this series because of a discussion the British Columbia Food Security Network was having about how to make bears and fruit trees get along. Members in Powell River, BC were being told by their local Ministry of Environment Conservation Officers to cut down their fruit trees and then being threatened with fines if they did not comply. As a farmer, a food provisioner, and someone who is passionate about food security and community development, I was concerned by this attitude of the regional Conservation Officers. Because it is not policy (yet) on the Ministry of Environment’s site, it makes me wonder why these COs are suggesting this as a reasonable solution to the human-bear conflict. I believe it is because they are convinced by some of the myths I have outlined in previous articles (see part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4 of the series), in particular, the theory that humans can control bear behaviour if we remove all the attractants, which is simply not true. Furthermore, it is a ridiculous fantasy that we can live ‘in harmony’ with wildlife. As one Bear Smart BC program coordinator told me during an interview, “Living with large predators has its limitations and we can’t expect people to ignore the risks associated with bear/human conflict.”

Sadly, the only outcome of these ‘animal-centric’ ideas is for humans to be held hostage to the bears which, thanks to changes in legislation in Canada, now have the backing of the Conservation Officers and, thanks to the preservationist media agenda, now have the backing of the public at large. The New Jersey example proves that the act of withdrawing is futile (see New Jersey Bear Problem); despite the mammoth efforts to control city garbage, their bear problem is worse than ever!

As the New Jersey example shows, once you have habituated bears and then remove the attractants (food, garbage, barbeques, fruit trees) outside your home, bears will enter houses, because they are accustomed to acquiring food at those locations and are no longer afraid of humans. Instead, they see human settlements as a source of food. “We don’t know exactly how long it takes for a habituated bear to become ‘human food conditioned’ but in some observations of specific bears we have estimated it took approximately 10 days,” the Bear Smart BC program coordinator told me. What is worse, they may even consider your property part of their home range territory and defend it aggressively. While not strictly territorial by nature, bears do conduct a modified form of territorial defence (what some bear behaviour experts call ‘home range’ defence), where a bear will defend access to resources such as the best salmon spawning rivers, the best berry patches, or other areas with rich sources of food (resources) and they will defend those areas aggressively. This home range defence is an important distinction in bear behaviour that has implications for our Food Security. When you develop a food secure piece of ground in bear territory, you could find yourself (or your yard/farm) being considered part of a bear’s ‘home-range’ territory. If your yard is in prime bear habitat then it is not likely that you will end up with a young, inexperienced (or marginalized) bear, but you could end up with an older, more experienced (and thus more aggressive) bear laying claim to your fruit trees. It is even likely to be a dominant female with cubs. She may not be able to hold prime river access, but because your farm/yard/trees are close to the river, she can lay claim to that habitat. In other words, you could end up with a bear that is willing to fight aggressively to keep (or take) the access to the fruit trees. Females with cubs are an even more dangerous situation because of the ‘cub-defence’ behaviour — the most common type of bear aggression towards people that results in injury. Younger or more inexperienced bears can sometimes be deterred more easily (with bear bangers, or dogs, loud noises, electric fences, and so on) but more experienced and/or determined bears (especially females with cubs) will not be so easily deterred — especially if they have had access to this food source over time. For the most part, it is the younger bears which are being forced to access people’s yards (around cities and less wild spaces) but it is certainly not always the case.

The typical bear to get into trouble with people is a sub-adult between 2 to 5 years old for Black Bears, and 3 to 5 years old for Grizzlies. Black bear cubs stay with the sow for two years and Grizzly cubs stay three years. After that they are forced to fend for themselves and at that point they become very vulnerable. Sub-adults are vulnerable to predation by other bears, cougars and wolves, so they are forced further away from their original home range territory. Sub-adult males are bolder than females and they are usually the first source of the conflict. The next ones to get up close to homes are sows with cubs. These sows approach human development for the same reasons that sub-adults do, to stay away from predators, especially dominant male bears. Because of this, they choose “safe zones” where the dominant males (as well as other predators) are less likely to be present. Drawn in by their strong sense of smell to the odours around homes, these bears explore for opportunities. Because we are no longer trapping, snaring, and shooting these intruders, these bears quickly learn that human settlements are a safe haven so they push the envelop. It is here that the trouble begins and finding a solution becomes paramount. We can categorise bears, regardless of species, in three ways.:

1. Wild – No previous experience with humans.

2. Human Wise – They know what humans are; they have seen them, smelled and heard them.

3. Habituated – These bears are accustomed to being around people and have learned not to fear them. These are by far the most dangerous kind of bear to deal with.

Wild bears and human wise bears are not problem bears, only potentially problem bears. Problem bears are habituated bears. In order to address those bears effectively, humans have to accept that we are part of the problem and change our behaviours accordingly. If we want to keep these animals alive then a mammoth effort in lifestyle change is required. Step one is to acknowledge that we are in competition with them for resources (food, land, access to food sources, waterways, etc — even if we are vegan) and step two is to act accordingly. Here are the four main ways we may minimise the human-bear conflict: 1. We can stop habituating bears to our food sources by not putting any food into garbage cans in our neighbourhoods or into community garbage dumps. Professor Stephen Herrero found villagers in Italy surrounded by mountains and bears, who, despite growing much of their own food, keeping fruit trees, and composting in they own yards, do not have bear problems. He documents his experience in the village in his book, Bear Attacks Revised: their cause and avoidance. The people in these Italian mountain communities put NO food garbage into their dumps! Not a drop. In addition, the households compost all their own food and thus the bears do not become accustomed to human waste food in the towns or at the dumps. They also defend their settlements so the bears know not to come to town and that humans are a threat.

2. We can keep bears wild by delineating preservation areas for bears where humans are not allowed to go. As a May 2010 Sierra Club Canada Media Release so rightly states, we must “… protect adequate amounts of grizzly bear habitat and restrict the number of open routes and motorized access in other places.”

3. We can make bears more human wise by defending our territory aggressively. Enter The Wind River Bear Institute and their ‘Parters-in-Life’ program. An innovative leader in this work, the Wind River Bear Institute uses non-lethal methods of reducing the human-bear conflict problems. Their goal is to teach the bears and humans how to avoid conflict. Their mission is ‘to reduce human-caused bear mortality and conflicts worldwide to ensure the continued survival of all species of bears for future generations’. When a ‘nuisance’ bear shows up, a dog trainer and team are dispatched to aggressively defend the property and/or human settlement a bear is encroaching upon. This technique is called ‘bear shepherding’: the idea behind it is to teach bears to recognize that humans have territorial boundaries and they are not welcome inside them. Of her program, Hunt says, “We have developed a system for teaching safe, meaningful lessons to bears and use a variety of loud noises, rubber projectiles and Karelian Bear Dog (KBD) Wildlife Service Dogs (WSDs) to safely ‘herd’ bears out of off-limit areas such as roadways, campgrounds, developed sites, and back country camps.” It is the aim of The Wind River Bear Institute (WRBI) to successfully ‘retrain’ the bears to recognize humans and see them as a threat to be avoided. “Because our lessons are based on wild bear behavior, the bears are taught to view us as much like a dominant bear and learn to avoid human developed sites as ‘our’ territory.” Because the technique is based in wild animal behaviour, it can be used as a template for other animals that pose human-wildlife conflict. The WRBI has also used this shepherding technique with cougars, moose, big horn sheep, and wolves. Enter the government. Our government officials could put more money into supporting programs like the Partners-in-Life, and have Conservation Officers trained to do Bear Shepherding. We could also give back land owners some power through policy changes, and allow them to defend their territory as a preventative measure. This could entail trapping, snaring, and shooting if necessary. Property owners should not have to wait until a bear is habituated to their land before something can be done. They should not have to wait until the bear has broken into their chicken shed and killed every chicken before a Conservation Officer is dispatched to ‘deal’ with the problem bear. After all, once the chickens are all dead the bear is no longer a problem!

Destroying the bears is not the only way to deal with them, but sadly, sometimes it is the only solution. Habituated bears are very difficult to discourage. A Bear Smart BC program coordinator admitted, “some bears get too possessive and aggressive around people’s homes and there is no other solution but to destroy them… As a program our first responsibility is to human safety.” He is speaking from experience not from emotion. Why not simply relocate problem bears? An article in the Journal of Wildlife Management by Blanchard and Knight (1995) states, “Because of low survival and high return rates [of relocated bears], transporting grizzly bears should be considered a final action to eliminate a conflict situation.” Many relocated bears die either by fighting with other bears in their newly relocated to territory, or by fighting with bears whose territory they have to cross in order to get back to their own home range territory. Because of the low survival rate (and the high resource use and transportation costs), bear biologist Carrie Hunt implores, “relocation and destruction must fade into history as something we do as an exception rather than the norm.”

4. We can control our population growth. We must control our population and limit our growth, period. Otherwise, there will be no space left for bears or any other wild creatures to thrive. What you ‘can’ do: Removing food sources from bears has its merits and does make a positive difference in reducing conflict. The Bear Smart BC program has been working with bear-resistant garbage can makers who have developed some successful and innovative solutions. In order for any container to received bear-resistant status it must undergo stringent testing through the Living with Wildlife with Wildlife Foundation in Wyoming.

One particular maker, Tye Dee Bins, makes metal bins that, during their test trials, no bear could get into no matter how hard they tried. Electric fencing has come a long way over recent years and installation is the key to dissuading bears from trying to reach a garden, fruit trees or even barns. Bear Smart has obtained effective electric fencing from Gallagher Fencing, a New Zealand Company which came to BC and trained the Bear Smart Program Delivery Specialists on the proper installation of their electric fencing. It is paramount that the bears do not defeat the fence when they attempt to access food. In the Kootenays, BC, Grizzlies had been attacking chicken coops and pig pens, so Bear Smart BC staff responded to complaints and erected a Gallagher electric fence. After one successful electric shot, they find that the bears get the message and never return. The down side to the electric fencing is its high cost.

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Filed under Animal issues, Bears, Educational, Politicking with predators

It’s the policy, stupid

Couldn’t have said it better myself! Tom Philpott gets to the heart of the matter on and echoes my own thoughts about why individual choice about food won’t solve the problem of change the system in his ‘gritty’ GRIST article.

Why eaters alone can’t transform the food system

Grist admin avatar badge avatar for Tom Philpott

by Tom Philpott

29 Jun 2010 12:03 PM

Farmers market

Farmer Morse Pitts’ stall at the Greenmarket.(Windfall Farm blog)In the cover piece of the newest American Prospect, Heather Rogers skillfully makes a point I’ve been flogging for years: that public policy, not consumer choice, is the villain propping up the industrial food system and constraining the growth of organic farming.

Rogers, author of the new book Green Gone Wrong: How Our Economy Is Undermining the Environmental Revolution, opens with the example of a New York State farmer named Morse Pitts. He sells the bounty of his 15-acre Windfall Farm in the Hudson Valley at Manhattan’s famed Union Square market, where his eggs command a steep $14 per dozen and “some of his greens go for more than $40 per pound.” Yet even though his weekly market stand teems with consumers eager to “vote with their forks” (to speak nothing of their checking accounts), he nets just $7 per hour for his labor and plans to shut down his operation soon.

The problem, Rogers makes clear, is a widespread lack of infrastructure for supporting small-scale, ecologically minded farmers. The public resources that might do just that are siphoned off by the industrial food system, in the form of commodity subsidies and largesse to the corn ethanol industry. Farmers like Pitts have to pass on the costs of their ecological stewardship directly to their customers in the form of eye-popping prices, which still don’t add up to a decent salary, while industrial-scale farms can generally trash the environment with impunity, letting society as a whole, or distant communities, pick up the bill. See, for example, the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone.

At this point, farmers like Pitts — whose experience aligns with my own efforts to farm in North Carolina — have plenty of conscientious consumers willing to pay the full cost of their food. What they need now are conscientious policymakers willing to take on the agribusiness and food-processing interests that profit most from the current situation.

President Obama is not passing muster on this front, Rogers argues. Sure, he placed organic-friendly Kathleen Merrigan in a high post at USDA, and the First Lady has energetically promoted the consumption of local fruits and vegetables over industrially produced, highly processed garbage. But the president remains committed to mass-scale, chemical-intensive farming as the dominant thrust of U.S. agriculture. Anyone who doubts that will have to explain Obama’s stated goal, flagged by Rogers, of doubling exports of commodity crops like corn and soy over the next five years. The man clearly wants to ramp up, not dismantle, industrial agriculture. (See also his tapping of high-profile reps from the pesticide and GMO industries for key ag-policy jobs.)

I agree with Rogers’ assessment, with a caveat. Even if Obama were serious about transforming the food system (which I don’t think he is), he would have to contend with a set of highly profitable incumbent industries, from agrichemical makers to cheeseburger purveyors, that will defend their interests by fang and claw on Capitol Hill. And their immense lobbying power leaves any would-be reformer in the White House with little room to impose change.

Of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Rogers writes “he commands a $134 billion annual budget that includes agriculture subsidies, the National Organic Program, and food-stamp and nutrition programs.” True, but Vilsack has very little discretion over how that cash hoard is spent. The USDA chief mostly executes farm policy made in the House and Senate ag committees, and those entities are notoriously captured by the Big Ag and Big Food lobbies.

Just as healthcare reform could not move through Congress without making stark concessions to the insurance industry, just as even highly compromised climate legislation has been throttled by dirty-energy interests; and just as efforts to impose financial reform languish under the boot of Wall Street and its kept politicians, any serious presidential effort to reform the food system will crash into a brick wall constructed by the likes of Monsanto and Tyson Food.

Which brings us back to the role of consumers. Voting with your fork, it turns out, is not enough. We can’t just “be the change we want to see” in the food system; we also have to get out there and organize for policy reform: to become, in short, a countervailing force that challenges the power of the food lobby.

Easier said than done, of course, and a tall order at a time of 10 percent unemployment and falling wages. My own mother once confronted me with this: “Not only do I have to pay more for my food, but now I have to attend food-policy council meetings in my highly limited free time?” she complained.

The answer is yes, for those who have resources to invest in those or other things. If you want to see real change, for farmers like Pitts not to have to charge $14 for eggs and still be in the red, for the average American to be able to afford food grown by values such as his — that’s the only way it’s going to happen.

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Guess what’s coming to dinner

Who knew this would end up on my plate?

OK. So these are the kinds of things your mother doesn’t warn you about when you grow up in the city. I was warned about not talking to strangers, checking the back seat before opening the car when in underground parking, and not walking alone down deserted streets after dark. I was not warned about what I might be offered for dinner at a cattle branding party!

“Testicles anyone?” was not something I ever imagined I’d hear over the dinner table.  Now I will admit to being a pretty finicky eater. In fact, what I might have to eat is something that helped me choose where I would (and would not) do my fieldwork for my Anthropology Degree. Knowing I would never be able to choke down insects limited the scope of possibilities substantially. My mother will confirm this and bore anyone who will listen with stories of how for the first few years of my life she thought I would starve to death because there was very little I would eat!

Now, here I am in the middle of Alberta being offered a ‘delicacy’, the thought of which turns my stomach. “Prairie Oyster Kristeva?” asks Dennis, who has changed out of his chaps and into a clean pair of jeans, but is now shirtless and being affectionately referred to as ‘The Naked Chef’. When I politely try to decline Jeff’s ears ring from across the lawn. He leaps to his feet and charges over, “Oh, you’ve got to be kidding! I tried your goat.”

Somehow, I think that is different.

Desperate to get out of this, I turn to ‘Grandma Ella’. Now in her mid-eighties, she is matriarch of this ranching family. She doesn’t eat prairie oysters, never has, never will. But I quickly realize it’s a battle I’m not going to win. Not even ‘Grandma Ella’  will come to my rescue!

By this stage in the proceedings several sets of expectant eyes are on me, and I cave. “OK, I’ll try one. Just one!” With a healthy dose of trepidation, I peer over the plate in front of me. I am shocked to see they look quite appetizing–that is, if you don’t consider from whence they came.  The tender little morsels are glistening with fat and spread out neatly on the plate amidst fried onions. A waft of warm air heavy with garlic and spices rises up before me. It’s almost enough to make me forget that I’m being offered testicles on a plate.

To help muster some courage I think about the politics of food, the ultimate sacrifice those poor little calves made only a few hours ago, and the starving millions around the world. “At least I know they are fresh!” I say as I reach for my first prairie oyster. There is an unconscious little whimper emitted as I bite down on the testicle (it’s what you don’t see in the photos).

My first bite of a prairie oyster.

I’m still whimpering as I chew and try not to think about what it is I am eating.

At this stage I can't believe I have a calf testicle in my mouth.

The look on my face betrays the fact that I’m losing the battle of keeping the flashes of the morning’s activities at bay as I ponder the texture with my tongue. Texture is big for me when it comes to food. The prairie oyster reminds me of small breakfast sausages, of which I’m not all that fond.

The texture is like a breakfast sausage.

“I see you’ve got the emergency water bottle handy just in case,” Dennis laughs while watching me eat. “Not to mention the ‘whiskey back’,” I reply, raising my red cup up to toast the occasion (I’ve had a few shots to bolster my courage).  As I chew, the delicate flavour mingles in my mouth and over-shadows my misgivings. Much to my chagrin, I have to admit that they actually taste pretty darn good and–although it may have been the whiskey talking–I actually reach for seconds. I don’t, however, let go of my whiskey!

Who knew they'd be so delicious that I'd want seconds!

Besides the prairie oysters, we do have roast beef. These folks have a grand facility replete with butchering shop that will hold about 25 cattle beasts at one time for aging. We head on in to do the de-boning. Actually, Jeff did all the work while the rest of us onlookers ensured a suitable level of general harassment was kept up.

De-boning and preparing roasts for the barbeque.

“It was a plan that was hatched at about 3:30 am one night in a state of utter debauchery,” Dennis tells me shaking his head.  Then looking up, he  swept his arm around the facility, “But we were all here the next day working on it!” The fellows are proud of this establishment, and who wouldn’t be. “You know, we can have an elk on the ground, then butchered, cut, and wrapped in a matter of hours,” Dennis continues, highlighting the various merits of the facility. “For example, this leg has been aged in the back cooler for 25 days,” he says, pointing to the leg Jeff is working on.

Suddenly Jeff looked up, “What, here? In this facility…. oh, we’re taking our chances,” he says, then winks at me. He’s already elbow deep in the work of de-boning yet manages to participate in the camaraderie around the room.

There are recipes and tall stories shared in order to work up an appetite:

“Hey Doug, can I get some of your special brine while I’m here?” someone asks.

“Sure, I’ll make you some right now.”

“Oh. Can I get the actual recipe off you, or is it a family secret?”

“Yep, but you can’t tell Jeff I gave it to you.”

“Why not?”

“Cuz it’s actually his family’s recipe and he doesn’t know I have it!”

A pretty happy pair.

Thanks to the people at the ranch and their generous, inclusive spirit, the weekend was not only enlightening but also a lot of fun. The weather was fantastic, the ranch was beautiful, the jobs were turned into entertainment. A good time was had by this little cowgirl. I got to experience some real Canadian ranch life–I even got to sleep in a horse trailer. Now how is that for an authentic cowhand experience!

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Cattle branding 2010

I’ve just been to my first cattle branding party ever and now that I’m ready to write the post I notice there is no category for me to place this post under! Cattle it is, and calves they were. A few weeks ago I had my first farm stay guest–a cowboy from Alberta. After coming all the way to Howling Duck Ranch for a much needed holiday (and to help butcher my goats!), he kindly invited me to come to a cattle branding party.

I have always loved the idea of cowboy ranching and here was an opportunity to see it live and in person. I’ve loved western movies all my life and can practically recite the dialogue from Lonesome Dove with little encouragement. Since that first trip out to the farm of my dad’s friend when I was 5 years old, I have wanted to farm and own cows. The more recent addition to the fantasy was to work them from a horse. Having  not been born into a ranching family nor even known one, I never thought I would ever get the opportunity–and now here it was being offered on my blog!

“It’s in a place called Pine Lake, Alberta,” Jeff told me when I called to ask him if the offer was serious. “We’ll be rounding them up, branding, tagging, vaccinating, and castrating… I think you’ll really enjoy it.”

I laughed. “Well, that’s some first date,” but I was secretly thrilled.

Some of the calves waiting to be branded.

For the first while I hung back, took photos, and observed all the goings on. The people were rounding the calves up and cutting them to get them into the chute. Others were keeping the fires going for the branding tools. Some were on ear tagging duty. Jeff was in charge of vaccinations and yet another fellow was doing the castrating.

“Kristeva wants to do the cutting” Jeff announced matter-of-factly while the men were delegating tasks. Much to my horror, they nearly took him seriously. Flattered, but not quite that game, I quietly declined. The look on one man’s face told me he would have loved to be relieved of the task–maybe it hurts internally to do that job when you are a man!

Lots of folks involved in the different aspects of the job. This view from the calf pen on through to the chute.

With all that was going on around me, it was a bit overwhelming to say the least. To make matters more confusing for an inexperienced greenhorn like me there were three different men’s cattle to brand, which made the job of cutting more exciting. I was determined to get in on the action and learn how to do something. When I finally felt brave enough I asked if I could learn to cut and run the calves up the chute. The man who would be my mentor looked me up and down, “I don’t know” he said, reluctance oozing out of his every pour. “Even with my 25+ years of experience one of them little buggers nearly got me in the chops just this morning.” He looked at my clean jeans and pink trimmed jean shirt and was busy summing me up, “Are you sure you want to do this?” When I nodded, and without waiting for him to formulate the wrong conclusion, clambered over the fence into the pen.

Step one: cutting calves.

Learning to cut calves from the herd. Step two: into the chute.

Jack watches over what I’m doing and gives me guidance and pointers along the way. In the above photo I’m reaching for a calf’s tail but without much confidence. Once I get him up the chute, Jack tells me that I hesitated and the little calf had considered kicking me. “When you make your decision as to which one you’re cutting, you don’t hesitate. Get right in there behind him so he can’t get you,” he said, moving in close to the calf’s behind with his legs. “You get behind with one leg and move him against the fence with the other, like so.”

Receiving more calf handling pointers.

“Once you have them here you maintain control by keeping their heads from turning around. You do that by putting your hand in front of their eye as it come around and direct their head back.” He told me they can sometimes climb up and over the chute fencing, which I thought would make for some lively debate. “If that happens you pull back on their tails and that straightens them right out.”

Once you have them in front of the chute, you check what sex they are and if they have horn buds. When you move them into the chute you call out their gender and whether they have horns. That way the men know which procedures each calf needs. “We’re breeding most of them to be naturally dehorned, but because some of the mothers have horns or are from horned cows, they still show up every now and then.”

Step three: drugs, sex, and horny bulls (aka, branding, tagging, vaccinating, and cutting).

The little heifer hesitates so I encourage her into the chute.

“Heifer” I call out as I encourage her into the chute. The little calf moves on in and the process begins. The fact I only say ‘heifer’ means she is tagged, branded, and vaccinated only. The little bulls don’t have it so easy.

Note the branding iron just moving into the frame, top rhs.

The indignity of it all is expressed in this little guy's face.

“Horny bull,” I call out as I push on the calf’s behind. The men laugh. They are an easily entertained crew and a lot of fun to work with which made for a lot of laughs and light work of a fairly demanding job. Because of number 13’s gender status, the chute is tipped on its side so the men can rope up his hind leg to access his soon-to-be-removed testicles.

The branding irons working their magic.

Fetching the next part of the brand from the fire.

This brand is a three part brand which takes three different irons to make and Dennis’s brand is also his initials. There is a distinctive smell in the air, “Branding smoke,” Jack says as it wafts up around us in the calf pen, “I always loved the smell of branding smoke… that’s why I like to work back here.”

Castrating: Probably the least attractive aspect of today’s job is the ‘cutting’. The calf’s back leg is roped so the men doing the job don’t get kicked and can access the testicles without cutting the calf where he shouldn’t be cut. The testicles are saved in a bucket of cold water: I don’t think to ask why.

Opening the scrotum to access the testicles for removal.

Vaccinating: Amidst all the chaos, Jeff recharges the needles before administering the requisite injections.

Time to recharge the needle. Note the stainless steel bucket in the background. It contains the freshly cut testicles.

Dis-budding: The final step in the process. After everything else is complete, the calf has a basic formula placed on the areas of the skull where his horns would otherwise grow. This is a much gentler process than the traditional form of dis-budding which was akin to a large set of nail clippers that got placed over the little buds and crimped off, taking part of the skull with it. “Some calves would die of shock when we did it that way,” said one of the men, “So we prefer to do it this way if we can.”

A very basic solution (as opposed to acidic) that works on dissolving the horn buds.

With so many experienced hands on deck, by late afternoon the jobs are all done and it’s time to begin preparing for the dinner party. I’ll write about that in my next post!

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Filed under Cattle, Learning to Farm

Men who stare at goats

As many of you know, I’ve not been at Howling Duck Ranch for several months now. Living away from my home, the ranch, and all my animals has not been easy.  Consequently, I’ve been remiss with my regular posts. I have struggled with many things these past few months: from the lack of anything to write about (what do I have to say without my farm?), to the lack of desire to bore you with my life’s struggles. After all, that is not what brought you to this blog!

Suffice it to say, these past few months has been full of difficult decisions:  downsizing the ranch,  possibility selling the place, and finally, dissolving my  marriage.

Thankfully, I’ve had a friend living at Howling Duck Ranch. She’s been doing a wonderful job of taking care of the place and the animals, which has been a huge relief for me. She has, quite literally,  helped keep the wolves at bay! However, she can only stay until June and I’ve not yet found a suitable or affordable alternative for the Howling  Duck Ranch crew. Consequently, I’m faced with being realistic and that means disposing of some critters.

My farm sitter friend is helping with this task and has already given away many of my chickens. The goats however are not easy to find homes for. Moreover, I’m emotionally attached to them. I can’t quite part with them yet–they are my family.

However, I couldn’t avoid the facts forever. A couple of weeks ago, I had some time to get away so I planned a quick trip into the Valley to butcher some of the kids. Even a few less goats to feed at this stage would be helpful. I know this sounds contradictory to their status as family, but the boy kids always were destined to be food. Also, I convinced myself that rather than give them away and risk them being eaten by a grizzly bear or cougar, I’d end their lives myself–at least I know it will be done quickly.

While planning my trip, a blog follower sent an email requesting to visit Howling Duck Ranch and wondered did I do ‘farm stays’. Before leaving the ranch in January, I was planning to do just that. At the time, I wasn’t sure how to make that happen or what it would look like. Suddenly, before my eyes was an email request that had nestled in it an offer I couldn’t refuse: “If you ever need help with butchering goats, I’d be happy to help out.”

We exchanged a few more emails (one of which he confessed to having run a butcher shop!), and before I knew it I was planning my first ‘hands on farm stay’ experience at Howling Duck Ranch! Not only that, with someone who had a skilled set of hands. What I didn’t know at the time was just how many hands would be at my disposal that weekend.

The morning started out as planned, with me rounding up the kids:

Fetching the first kid of the morning.

Making the killing shot:

Not the funnest part of the job but a necessary one.

Prepping the carcass by hanging it in a tree, ready for skinning:

Waiting for another piece of rope to tie the second leg up by.

However, it wasn’t long before the men were involved. Before I left Smithers, I called Clarence to say I’d be in the valley (I’d never hear the end of it if he found out I’d been in town and not visited), and my friend Mike Wigle to see if he was interested in taking some photos (I encourage him to develop a farm photo portfolio every chance I get)! Both men agreed to come to the butchering day. But it was my farm stay visitor who was ‘first man in’.

Enter stage left. Jeff jumps in to help with the skinning process:

Jeff is the first man in on the scene and is laughing at how small and easy a goat is to butcher compared to the huge cattle beasts he's accustomed to working with.

Jordan came with Clarence and is soon eager to get his hands in on the process too:

Clarence's great grandson, Jordan casually approaches and offers to help.

There were some comments about the lack of edges on my knives followed by a request that I find a wet stone. As I dashed off in search of the stone, the men quietly moved in and without ceremony, took over the job:

At this stage, I'm enjoying watching men at work!

The three of them made light work of the butchering process and I was thrilled to have the help. It gave me some time to visit with my friend Colleen, who I’d not seen for months and had dropped in unannounced for a visit. Without the men at work, stopping to visit with Colleen was a luxury I would not have otherwise afforded:

No longer needed, I move away to go visit with my friend.

Eventually, even the dogs got in on the action:

Tui licks the saw and waits to be handed some tasty offal.

Colleen’s tiny pooch ‘Peanut’ gives a first rate effort as part of the ‘clean up’ crew:

Peanut eagerly eating some offal.

It is not long before the goat is in pieces:

Clarence and Jeff take over the process and cut the goat into recognizeable cuts of meat. Note: I love the look in Tui's eyes. She knows she's in for a treat as does the chicken!

Soon we’re ready for round two. At this stage, I barely have to lift a finger, let alone a goat:

Jeff is a quick study: this time, I don't even have to fetch the goat!

Although a fast and furious paced weekend, it was a wonderful visit home. Thanks to the men who stare at goats–my new friend Jeff, and my wonderful old stand-by’s Clarence, Jordan, and Mike–it was made all the more enjoyable. Thanks guys!

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Filed under Butchering, Goats

Uninspected meat trucks enter Canada from USA

Canadians are wondering if meat from the United States is safe after learning 70 truckloads have evaded border inspections since January.  That’s how many truckloads the Windsor Star newspaper said had risked fines to cross the border before inspectors from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) showed up for their new 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. shift times.
The new daylight only inspections began Jan. 4.  The Star went public with its truck count on Feb. 19. Food entering Canada outside of those hours designated for inspection must wait until an inspector is scheduled to report for work before an inspection can take place and the truck can proceed to its destination.  As a consequence, many trucks choose to ignore the regulation and pass on through to Canada with their loads.

border-crossing-featured.jpgIn the U.S., every truck entering the country with food destined for its citizens’ dinner plates is inspected. “In the States if you miss going to an inspection, your fine is three times the load you’re carrying,” said Marchuk, president of Windsor Freezer Services Ltd.  Together with Border City Storage, Windsor Freezer Services is responsible for conducting the import inspections in Windsor.  “Nobody skips inspections in the States because it’s too risky,” Marchuk concluded.

In contrast, Canadian fines are considered a joke since there is no real consequence for breaking the law.

The border inspection companies have joined New Democrat Border Critic Brian Masse–who discovered the flaw in the border inspection at Windsor–in calling on the federal government to implement stiffer penalties for long haul truckers who avoid inspection. They would like to see the Canadian policies and fines align with the US policies and ensure the Canadian public that every truck carrying meat be inspected.

Food safety has been at the forefront of Canadian minds since August of 2008, when 22 mostly elderly Canadians died during a listeria outbreak traced to the consumption of packaged deli meats made at a Maple Leaf Foods plant, despite the fact the company recalled 23 packaged meat products. Since this event, Canadians were expecting the food inspection regulations to become more stringent and effective, not to mention enforceable.

“Canada’s imported meat inspection regime needs to be strengthened immediately,” said Kam Rampersaud from Border City Storage Ltd. (Canada). “US producers are becoming increasingly aware of the lax inspection standards at the Canadian border,” he warned.

“There is something desperately ironic about the situation where one government agency goes overboard with a regulatory regime that seemingly has nothing to do with actual food safety but that imposes enormous costs on local small abattoirs and butcher shops while at the border Canada has lost track of an estimated 70 trucks full of actual meat products selected for inspection in the last few months,” said Grant Robertson, of the National Farmers Union of Canada.

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Filed under Uncategorized

Consumers Rights On Raw Milk Debate Go Unchallenged!

Home pasteurized milk

Home pasteurization is easily done on a stove top. Why then is it illegal to buy?

Ontario made pasteurization of milk mandatory in 1938, but Health Canada did not make it mandatory until 1991. Canada bans the sale of raw milk but not its consumption. Although it is illegal to sell raw milk in Canada, consumers can own a share in the ‘source’ cow, which is what dairy farmer Michael Schmidt’s customers do. On Thursday, January 21st, 2010, Justice of the Peace Paul Kowarsky acquitted Michael Schmidt on 19 charges relating to the distribution of his raw milk. Because Schmidt had made diligent efforts to keep his cow-share program operating “within the confines and the spirit of the legislation”, JP Kowarsky concluded that the alleged offence fell into the category of ‘strict liability’; that is, criminal intent (‘mens rea’) could not be proved.

Schmidt had been prepared to do battle on a human rights level, and challenge the statutes on the ground that they violated his basic human right to ‘life, liberty and security of person’. In November of 2009, the Canadian Constitution Foundation (CCF)—an independent, non-partisan, registered charity—announced its support for Schmidt on the grounds that consumers have the rights to choose what they put in their bodies, freedom of contract, and freedom from government regulation that is ‘arbitrary, unreasonable, unnecessary and unfair’. Even the existing cow-share system is an unnecessarily complex response to overly restrictive legislation. However, with Schmidt’s full acquittal, these complex legal issues may go unchallenged.

The Ontario government may choose to let the ruling stand, and live with the reality of cow-share arrangements. However, this is not satisfying the general public, because many people who would like to be able to access raw milk are unable to access a cow-share program; consequently, they have approached the CCF to see if they could pressure the government to change the law. According to Karen Selick (litigation director the CCF), if the government of Ontario wants to take the matter further, it has three options:

1. The government could appeal this decision. This would be a risky move because there is nothing to ensure it would be successful; moreover, it could backfire and escalate the confrontation of citizens and legislators. Schmidt and his long struggle have gained wide public support: the more people learn about his plight and educate themselves on the scientific and potential health benefits of consuming raw milk, the more people will want free access to it.

2. The government could create new legislation that specifically outlaws cow-sharing and/or the consumption of raw milk. However, there is strong opinion that, should the government choose this option, it would be met by public outrage, particularly from the burgeoning ‘food freedom’ movement. Furthermore, this would seem to constitute a breach of human rights at a most basic level, so the government would likely find themselves facing the CCF in court. In addition, policing the personal consumption of raw milk would be costly, if not impossible. Is someone going to be assigned to spy on farmers to ensure they are not sneaking a contraband tipple in the privacy of their own milking parlours?

3. The government could develop a regulatory procedure that would facilitate the sale of certified, safe, raw milk for interested consumers without requiring a cow-sharing arrangement. Schmidt and others—like Ontario raw milk advocate James McLaren—have offered to work with government officials to help develop the certification process. As Selick said in her article ‘Got Milk Justice’ (National Post, January 26, 2010), “Michigan is doing it right now. Why shouldn’t Ontario?”

Option 3 would be not only the most satisfactory solution for consumers, but also the most democratic.

Link to The Bovine: is a blog about rights around access to raw milk ,and chronicles the saga of Michael Schmidt, of Glencolton Farms, and his cow share holders with the authorities over the issue of access to raw milk.

18 Comments

Filed under Educational, Ethical farming, Food Security, Food Sovereignty, Milk preservation techniques, personal food sovereignty, Politics of Food

The eagle has hopefully landed

I’m checking out Smithers, BC as a potential new home for Howling Duck Ranch. So far it looks promising (despite the fact they tell me it could take weeks, even months to get a phone and internet connection!) I’ve already found a potential home for the goats and a possible job for the goats as well! Nothing yet for me but maybe the goats can support me. More later when I’m actually set up and online officially (just borrowing a connection for the moment). Please be patient with this move (God knows I’m having to learn how to be/do that!)

cheers,

Kristeva

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Filed under Uncategorized

Bears and fruit trees, part 4

Because of what I do and where I live, I am often talking with people about the human-wildlife conflict, and am continually surprised by what I hear. There are many misconceptions about our relationship with nature in general and with wildlife in particular. During these discussions, I notice there are several persistent, pervasive false beliefs about the human-bear relationship. Some of these beliefs are even enacted into public policies and laws, and contradictory policies at that. For example, there is a lot of talk in the media these days about local eating: the 100 Mile Diet, re-localization, Food Security, Food Sovereignty, and so on. There has even been some B.C. Ministry of Health interest in promoting the aforementioned with their recent ‘access to produce’ initiative. However, the Conservation Service (Ministry of Environment) seems to be at odds with this food security agenda by advising people to cut down their fruit trees whenever there is a bear-human conflict. This issue is the fuel that sparked this series of posts—when I found myself in conversation with some folks from the B.C. Food System Network who were alarmed by their Conservation Officer threatening them with fines if they did NOT cut down their fruit trees.

It’s a question of food security

While it may sound as if I would have all bears and wildlife destroyed, it is not the case. My position with respect to the human-wildlife conflict is rooted in terms of food security and community/rural survival: we cannot have food security when there are oppositional philosophies being enforced by different Ministries.

What I hope to do over the course of several posts is to examine these key themes and shed light on these common false beliefs. The other post of this series are:

1.How to make bears and fruit trees get along

2. Bears and fruit trees, part two

3. Bears and fruit trees, part three

As ever, I welcome your feedback and comments as they can add to the discussion and help me develop my position.

False belief #4: After all, you are in ‘their territory’

Some readers’ responses to one of my posts about the human-wildlife conflict provide a departure point for discussion of this false belief: “Any thoughts about the fact that you are placing tasty food morsels in the bear’s territory? Why are you keeping fruit trees in bear territory?” … “If you have animals and fruit trees then you are just asking for predators to come”… “Well, you are in their territory so you just have to accept this” (my personal favourite). The very concept of ‘territory’ is the essential problem. It is a neat fiction which presumes a boundary between the bears’ ‘territory’ and ‘ours’, and a contractual agreement as to where that boundary-line is. If so, where is it? At the edge of cities? around all rural areas? or should we all move out of the countryside and back into cities… again, where is the edge of the city? At this field, or that fence-line? As with so many issues, this debate is over boundaries, borders, and margins, and yet there is no demarcated boundary to any natural creature’s territory—only constantly changing niches or ill-defined ranges, constantly fought for with tooth and claw. The idea of identifiable borders is a human invention (viz. Hadrian’s, China’s, Berlin’s, Peach Arch Park and the 49th parallel) and we have difficulty maintaining even those (look at Gaza, or the Mexico/US border, or China and Tibet, or the Northwest Territory now Nunavut, to name a fraction of the infractions). Animals like bears do understand territory and mark theirs distinctively, but that territory is a living, changing thing, depending on each bear’s niche, condition, and the state of the food supply. That food supply is intimately linked to the general bear population; if the food supply or population changes, the bear’s fight for territory becomes more competitive; the delineation and extent of that territory shift and morph under these pressures. With respect to our current bear problem, a poor summer with few fish or berries coupled with an increase in bear population means their food source is too scarce in their own food shed, so the fight for territory between bears has become more vicious. Consequently, the weaker and younger bears that are denied access to prime habitat are pushed out of what we think of as ‘their territory’ and into ‘ours.’ Easy pickings are chicken houses, fruit trees, gardens and garbage; combined with a policy of ‘non-attractants’ it’s not long before bears consider ‘our territory’ theirs. When we add the fact that people are no longer ‘fighting’ back as we once did against these carnivores, their assumption is understandable. Unlike the bears along the river fishing for salmon, who drive us and each other away in order to protect their food source, we humans didn’t even put up a fight when they came and ate all our chickens, turkeys and ducks; nor did we complain when they harvested all our carrots, parsley, plums and pears.

So how do I establish and maintain my border? A border, however loosely defined, only has existence if both sides acknowledge and maintain it. In contrast to predators’ shifting borders, humans have always grown gardens, had fruit trees, and raised domesticated animals in this valley. While the bears’ boundary is shifting, our human boundary has always been clearly delineated (mown lawns, driveways, and often a fence, etc.), and we have throughout history educated the animals by trapping and shooting. Everywhere in the world, people have marked their ‘territory’ by shooting and trapping offenders in this way, and thus they have trained predators not to intrude across the humans’ clearly delineated, and relatively unshifting borders. Like dogs, bears and cougars can be trained, and that is why we have a residual idea that those animals have a natural fear of humans. But there is nothing innate about it; it is a learned behaviour and a direct result of an ancient human-wildlife conflict in which we have always been engaged.

I have come to understand that the remaining predators need constantly to be ‘trained’ not to come where humans are. One of the reasons that the large predators are coming back into cities in broad daylight, and generally to where humans are, is that we are no longer shooting at them. Consequently, they no longer see us as an equal predator, or even as a threat. Contrary to the misconception that these animals are innately nocturnal, they have figured out that they can even get away with being out in the day time, so every year there are more reports of their daytime marauding on farms, and through garage bins in cities. The assertion of my blog respondent, that I am in their territory, creates the misconstrued dichotomy of ‘their territory’ versus ‘our territory’, as if humans only ‘belong’ in cities, and that those cities have always existed. However, all North America’s great cities (the same goes for Europe, India, China and so on, though with different predators) were once the bears’ ‘territory’ before ‘we’ decided to stop being hunter gatherers and develop human settlements, based on cultivating crops.

The ‘our territory/their territory’ theory arises from a flawed preservationist philosophy, which mistakenly presumes that bears have a ‘territory’ which we humans have encroached upon, and now drives policy and legislative decisions in British Columbia (and North American in general, as shown in their responses to my blog). Am I really ‘in the bears’ territory’ when I am in the confines of my property’? If so, isn’t all of the North American population? And most of the European (or Chinese, or Indian, or African, etc.) population too, for that matter? The reason we have the few agricultural areas we do, is that we’ve shot almost everything that once moved there (hence the European eradication of wolves and bears and the dearth of them in large parts of the USA that they formally occupied), and continue to let the survivors know they don’t belong there any more. Our food security depends on our making more enlightened land use policies based on historical and biological realities, not these neat, fantastical conspiracies of cartographers.

15 Comments

Filed under Animal issues, Bears, Conservation, Educational, Food Security, Food Sovereignty, Fruit Trees, Politicking with predators, Politics of Food, Sustainable Farming