When Christine and I decided to transform our backyard into a mini farm, the first livestock that we got was a pair of giant Chinchilla does and a New Zealand buck. Overall, these rabbits were gentle and sweet. The primary reason we started off with rabbits is we wanted to be able to have some type of animal that would produce offspring that we could later butcher for meat. Rabbits seemed to fit that bill perfectly, so our first group of rabbits came to our homestead in early January of 2009.
At the time, Christine was working in Parachute, Colorado during the week, and would drive back to the homestead on the weekends. I was excited for the birth of the brand new baby rabbits, so during that week I checked on Pepper’s nest box every morning and night to see if Pepper had delivered. Pepper had everything she needed for her new babies – a secure habitat, a nice nest box filled with straw and her own fur that she pulled from her body, and plenty of food and water.
As luck would have it, Pepper gave birth on Thursday of that week, and Christine was not home for the event. When I checked on Pepper that morning, I was not prepared for what I was about to encounter. Every single one of her babies was dead. There were six tiny, pink, frozen baby bunnies lying in the next box. I was absolutely devastated. My heart sank, and I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing. Pepper gave birth sometime during the night, and she had just let all of her babies freeze to death (it was March in Colorado after all).
One thing to keep in mind about this story is how different my childhood was from Christine’s. I was born and raised a city boy here in Colorado Springs (dig those 80’s skate shorts!). The only pets I had growing up were of the standard fanfare – a cat (many cats over the years) and a dog. Christine, on the other hand, grew up as a country girl in Oregon, and had a whole lot of experience with rabbits, chickens, goats, horses, etc. So here I was, totally naive and “green”, not knowing that the scenario with Pepper was pretty common when it came to a mother rabbits first litter. I had no idea that some does will completely neglect their offspring right out of the gate. In fact, some does not only neglect their offspring, but will kill them too. It was a brutal wake-up call for me. These cute bunnies were in my care, and therefore I felt like I was responsible for what had happened to Pepper’s litter.
I told Christine about what had happened, and she was very sweet and reassured me that there was nothing that I could have done to prevent this tragedy. Even so, it was a tough lesson to experience alone.
As time went on, we did get a few litters out of our rabbits, and we also lost a few more rabbits along the way. Each time a rabbit was “lost” it was still tough for me to reconcile with what had happened. I wasn’t as shocked as I was the first time, but that doesn’t mean that it made it any easier.
In the short time that we’ve had our urban farm with livestock on it I’ve seen plenty of other tragedies with other animals too. We had an absolutely beautiful Red Star chicken that was at the top of the pecking order in our chicken coop. She was gorgeous, lively, and had plenty of attitude. One day I walked in to the chicken coop to give the girls some fresh water and feed, and I found our Red Star chicken lying on the ground. And not lying like chickens normally lie on the ground. She was dead. No reason whatsoever. Just gone. Yet another heart-breaking encounter.
And then there was the time that we had one of our Ameraucana chickens get sick. Neither one of us knew exactly what was going on, but we did know that she wasn’t laying any eggs, and her belly was starting to lose feathers and was really warm to the touch. After a bit of research our best guess was that she was egg-bound. Something was blocking her ability to lay any eggs, so it was essentially a clog in her plumbing. We could see that day by day she was suffering more and more, so we decided that the humane thing to do was to put her down. It’s one thing for an animal to die naturally, but quite another when we have to make the call of whether or not to end that animals life. We decided that she was definitely not going to be able to survive this ordeal, so we said a prayer for her and made her death as quick and painless as we possibly could. We agreed to do an autopsy on her, and felt better about our decision to end her suffering once we discovered a huge number of essentially hard-boiled eggs in her abdomen. Yet another sad day on the farm, but thankfully those are few and far between all the good days we have.
I wrote this personal recollection because I want folks to understand the reality of what happens on a working farm – no matter how big or how small it is. When we first started up our farm I had illusions that all of our farm animals would always be in good spirits and in good health. It was going to be a scene straight out of a Disney movie with birds singing, bunnies hopping around, and everything is right in the world. Nature doesn’t work that way. And it was a shock for me to learn this firsthand. Don’t get me wrong – I know that nothing lives forever and that livestock complications arise on any farm. I guess I thought my farm would be different. I thought everything would always be rainbows and butterflies on our farm. Alas, that is not always the case, but I can say that on a majority of the days, all of our animals live a happy and healthy life.