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Bird Conservation: Now with Betrayal, Wrath and Forgiveness.

If your going to know me at all one thing you must be made aware of is my love for animals.  My whole life I’ve had pets, and without a doubt some of my best friends have been of the K9 variety.  I was lucky enough to have parents that allowed my sister and I to embrace our passion for animals.  At various times we had dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs, a real pig, horses, fish, tadpoles, a newt, and we rescued orphaned lambs multiple times.  I learned so much from my experiences with those creatures.  I remember each and every one and my heart aches to think of those that have passed, including the ones I will tell you about here.

The idea started due to a very interesting neighbor we had.  I remember him as a rugged, hippy, outdoorsman but I can’t be sure that’s accurate.  I was very young.  I can tell you for sure that he had a possum in a live trap at one point and that creepy looking thing made me pretty nervous when it started hissing.  I can also tell you that he had a dog  and I remember it playing with me in the snow a few times.  And I can tell you that he hatched and raised pheasants which he released into the wild in an effort to  increase the population of the birds.  There was a chicken wire pen built behind his home and I would often wander over to stare.  Over the months the pheasants would grow and begin trying to fly within their enclosure.  Eventually he would open the gate and shoo them into the field, thereby making the pen available to the next batch of birds.  It was all pretty fascinating to a kid.

A few years and a move later my mother came in to the living room with an unusual carton of eggs.  We were thrilled to hear that we were going to be raising our own batch of pheasants.  The eggs were placed in a white styrofoam incubator.  The incubator had a clear plastic window on top which allowed us to peer down inside.  The whole setup was wonderfully exciting.  We made sure that everything was just right for our unborn chicks.  Unfortunately after setting up there’s not much to do for almost a month.  Which in kid time is equivalent to forever.  But we kept at it, turning the eggs, keeping the temperature and humidity right.  In the basement we built a small pen with a feeder in the middle and straw on the floor.  We were as ready as we could be. 

This is one of my favorite memories of being a kid.  I was looking down at the eggs one day, through the little window, when something shot across my field of vision.  I yelped and hopped back, and then, pulling myself together, leaned forward once again for a better look.  There was a small yellow and black chick in there, running around on top of the eggs.  After a moments thought I decided to take it to its new home.  I slowly opened the top, reaching down and gently wrapping my fingers around the tiny ball of bones and fluff.  The incubator was in my parents room on the second floor and the pen was in the basement.  I went down the flights of stairs as carefully as I could, carrying the chick out in front of me.  As soon as I had it safely in its new home I turned on the heat lamp and tore back upstairs.  Sure enough two more chicks were running around in the incubator and I saw beaks poking through the shells of many other eggs.  I didn’t feel confident taking two at a time so I grabbed one and ran for it.  By the time it was deposited and I was back upstairs I was breathing hard, but there was no time to rest.  One after another the newly hatched pheasants were transported.  Eventually there was just a couple of chicks left stuck halfway out of their eggs.  I wasn’t supposed to help them, but I did.  I couldn’t bear to watch them struggle.  After those guys made it to the pen I stared at the remaining eggs for a while.  They didn’t seem to be doing anything and eventually I left.  At first I would check back frequently, and then not so frequently.  They never did hatch.  I guess they were duds.  I wasn’t too choked up about it, I had a whole pen full of chicks to stare at. 

Over the next few weeks the chicks grew rapidly.  It wasnt long before signs of feathers popped up on their little bodies.  We got to work on their flight pen, where they would grow to adulthood.  This was just a tall chicken wire pen out near the barn, big enough for them to spread out and move around as they grew.  The day of the transfer came quickly and the whole family was excited to get our pheasants into their final residence.  We’d worked hard on building it and it was perfect for their needs. 

We carted the birds out and sat watching them for a bit.  Things weren’t going as smoothly as we would have liked.  Instead of exploring their new situation they were just freaking out and throwing themselves at the fence.  They didn’t seem to understand that there was a barrier there.  It wasn’t hurting them and we weren’t too worried.  We figured it would take them a while to settle in.  What we didn’t figure on was our dogs. 

We were the owners of two wonderful dogs.  An older Cocker Spaniel (Mr. Snugs), and a young Golden Retriever (Alexander Casapalus Gold: Alex).  Unfortunately these are bird dogs.  I don’t know how to put it except to say that when they were let outside they went nuts.  I watched my two sweet dogs turn into blood-thirsty monsters in an instant.  They came charging up to the pen, jaws slavering.  I saw a pheasant stick its head through the fence only to have my beloved, gentle Alex bite it and pull it off.  We were all screaming.  The dogs had no interest in listening to us.  We tried to get in their way but they just ran around us.  When we’d go after one the other would race in.  Instead of staying in the center of the pen, out of the reach of the dogs, the frightened birds threw themselves against the fence in an effort to escape.  My mother realized it was hopeless and screamed at my sister and I to get inside, where our fragile little minds wouldn’t be maimed by the sight of our chicks being ripped to pieces. 

Some time later my parents stumbled in.  They had managed to get the dogs in the kennel finally.  My mother explained to me that it was in the dogs nature to do what they did, and that they weren’t bad.  She told me the birds that died had died so quickly that there was no pain.  Moms are great for that kind of stuff; making the most horrible experiences tolerable.  I had not forgiven my dogs though and I planned to teach them a lesson.

 I went out to the barn in a rage.  I came out with a horse crop and stomped towards the kennel.  I didn’t care if they were bird dogs, they would learn to listen when I said “stop”.  They had the nerve to leap about and wag their tails as I approached.  I slapped the crop against the gate as hard as I could and they jumped back, realizing that I wasn’t here for games.  I opened the gate and entered, closing it behind me.  I slapped the crop on the wooden floor. “You killed them!”, I screamed. “Why would you do that! Your bad dogs! I hate you both!”  I raised my weapon.  They wagged their tails timidly.  I looked at Alex and he grinned his gorgeous Golden grin.  There was no evil there.  I dropped to my knees and hugged him tight against me, crying into his soft coat, shamed by what I had almost done. 

We managed to release nine pheasants into the wild.  They didn’t want to leave and I spent the day chasing them off the property.  It was good to see them go.  They turned out to be nasty, dirty things.  We decided we weren’t bird people.  It was a great learning experience though.  Besides witnessing the life cycle of the pheasant I now knew that dogs were not people, and in fact what separated us from animals was our ability to deny our basic urges and control our behavior.  I was able to come to terms with the idea that an animal can not be evil.  Only humans, with our ability to decifer right from wrong, can achieve that.