Wintering Animals In the Rockies

NINE horses and two burros stand in the sunshine by the hay barn and cast baleful looks toward the house, toward me. Actually, their looks are baleless, since I'm getting a late start this zero-degree morning. They want me to get out there and cut wires on baled alfalfa and spread it around the barn so they can begin their repast. Their food is their furnace; the colder the weather, the more they need to eat to keep warm, and I sympathize with their situation too much to slow down the donning of insulated coveralls, boots, hat, gloves, and scarf, even though I feel tired and lazy after a long day's work yesterday.

Juniper and Amanda are getting into warm clothing and filling water jugs to provide for the small animals: two chickens, four ducks, five rabbits, three goats, one shoop. (Shoop is the singular of sheep, as also goose and geese, though my daughters say it could as well be shoup, as also mouse and mice. These philological discussions don't slow down our preparations to feed, the animals are pleased to know.)

Caring for the animals is part of our responsibility as caretakers of this 460-acre, 15-building, four-tent unit Girl Scout ranch 8,800 feet up in Colorado's Rocky Mountains.

When summer's resident camp was over and the animal-care specialist headed back to college in New York State, Laura and I made a deal with our daughters that they would take care of all the animals and receive $30 a month each in wages. For the time it would take, it was a low wage, but Amanda and Juniper were willing to have part of their work be a contribution to the family's welfare.

Then it snowed, and we had to start giving the horses hay. There were no objections and no requests for a raise, but I decided Juniper and Amanda should get $40 a month each, and Laura agreed. They were pleased when we told them. I particularly like the figure, because, in all the cowboy novels I've read, $40 a month and room and board is the standard ranch hand's pay, and that made our arrangement seem appropriate.

Then came the wind that rips down through this small valley at 30 m.p.h. or more, and cold feet. I instructed Juniper and Amanda to put their boots on just before they went out and to be sure their boots were cold when they put them on. The absence of sweating feet helped keep them warmer. But Amanda particularly was beginning to feel pressured by lack of time. She is learning to play the piano and Juniper the violin, and they need time to practice. They need time to write and time to read for enjoyment and time to play and be children.

So now I feed the horses, and they feed the small animals, and we work together when Banner and Diesel Smoke need special care.

The arrangement is satisfactory for all of us, except, possibly, for the equines, since I often do get there later than Juniper and Amanda, though my daughters are tending toward my winter practice of staying up late and sleeping late.

The shoop and the goats are usually out of the fenced barnyard in the daytime and eat with the horses. These small ruminants - two wethers (neutered males), one small female goat, and the shoop - are charming animals. Burros are quite territorial, but when we put the small animals on pasture, it was only a few days before the burros changed from trying to run them out of the pasture to allowing them to stand under their necks and share warmth and companionship.

The animals' needs change as the days change. Cold winds begin, and we carry the rabbits and their hutches into the small barn. We're satisfied that the rabbits are much better off there, and they seem to be satisfied too. There are enough windows for sufficient light, and there is no wind inside.

WHEN the snow comes, the ducks' legs are shorter than the snow is deep. Juniper and Amanda say they walk a little, then flop down, with their feet tucked under their wings, obviously in distress. So they pick them up, one at a time, and move them into the barn and confine them to an area where there is plenty of straw spread underfoot.

I have never heard these ducks say ``quack.'' My daughters said that when they captured and carried the ducks, one held her head up quite high and said, ``Pow, pow, pow.'' Another, when being carried, said, ``Help, help, help,'' but was relieved to be delivered unharmed to a warmer area. Their calls when we enter the barn and move around their area somewhat approach the sound of creaking hinges, though considerably more melodious and repetitious.

The chickens, Biddy and Higgledy Piggledy, almost never come out of their small house. The snow does not please them, and they seem content to wait until spring before they make contact with the ground again.

We clean hooves when necessary. Amanda and Juniper take the rabbits out of the cages and let them run around the barnyard for exercise. We make sure every animal has enough water and food, and we keep living areas clean. Sometimes, Juniper and Amanda ride horses, though that has dwindled with the winter's short days and crowded schedules.

Girl Scout troops come up for weekends. Some of them make arrangements with Amanda for barnyard tours, to see and pet the animals. Otherwise, the animals spend all their time being animals, living contentedly enough toward spring and summer.

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