Ducks in the Bathtub

THE prospect of life without duck a l'orange was inconceivable. What would we do at Christmas? No menu would be complete ever again. So were we really sincere about "going vegetarian?"

"What about starting with the big animals and working down?" Maureen suggested, giving me a sudden ray of hope that the ultimate sacrifice could be stalled.

"Brilliant," I agreed with indecent haste, "... and fair." Perhaps by the time we had worked through beef, mutton, and pork we might never have to face the unfaceable - life without "you know what."

As it turned out, events beyond our control dictated the course of our vegetarian path. It started innocuously enough on my birthday, which comes in July, when strawberries are fruiting and calabrese sprouting. I'd forgotten, but Maureen hadn't. She arrived home with a "birthday surprise," which she suggested I might not like.

"I am sure I shall love it," I said attempting a smile, "as long as it doesn't involve work."

She handed me a cardboard box with holes cut in the top.

They weren't very old, the three ducklings that huddled, wet and pungent, inside. They weren't very beautiful either; punk ducks with spiky feathers poking through the remnants of their duckling down. Punk ducks that needed immediate housing and penning.

"You said you like ducks," Maureen smiled encouragingly as she saw my face cloud at the prospect of the extra work.

"I do, I do," I replied, birthday bright, wondering where I had left the hammer.

And I did. I had always liked ducks, ever since Mother had kept a dozen Khaki Campbells for eggs during World War II when we were children. We were brought up together, so to speak, having enjoyed the same pursuits, messing about in water, getting dirty and into trouble.

By the time I had knocked together a makeshift duckhouse and a rough pen, nostalgia had rekindled all my old enthusiasm. Yes, I was pleased with my birthday present, glad to have ducks back in the family.

They grew apace and soon had us organized to their liking. Then came the night of the attack.

I have always attempted to be impartial in my regard for wildlife, but I have never found mink easy to love. When they attacked our young ducks, any vestige of impartiality went out of the window. Admittedly, it was an artificial situation - a hungry ex-captive mink meeting up with fat captive ducks - but this was unacceptable behavior. The attack was disturbing and left one dead and two severely wounded.

Looking at the hapless victims, I suppose the practical, cost-effective response should have been to make some orange sauce, peel some potatoes, and heat up the oven. But we didn't. We heated up the laundry instead and brought Richard and Blackie indoors. Richard, by the way, was the drake and Blackie was the duck ... and black.

The laundry made a good intensive-care unit. It was dry and warm and had an easily cleaned linoleum floor. Of course, Richard and Blackie didn't sleep on the linoleum; they slept on blankets, pure wool, folded in four.

There was nothing in the "how to" book on ducks that dealt with mink attacks, but our experience told us that 90 percent of a duck's day is spent in the act of eating or in exploration with a view to eating. Food, obviously, was a top priority. Alas, neither Richard nor Blackie showed any desire to eat; in fact, they showed little desire to "be" at all.

Other farm animals are fairly easy to feed, even if they don't want to make the effort themselves. Sensibly, they have mouths into which a teaspoon may be slipped. With lambs and calves, you don't even need to use a teaspoon, you can slip a nice slim plastic tube over their tongue. Then you can pour in whatever they need, knowing it is heading for its correct destination. They generally respond as cars do to petrol.

Duck beaks were not designed with teaspoons in mind, and the "S" bend of their necks makes putting a plastic tube down as difficult as rodding the kitchen sink. Feeding Richard and Blackie was a two-person job, one holding the beak open, the other throwing the contents of the spoon in the general direction of the throat.

Their initial diet was warm milk and honey. Maureen gave them bibs, because the honey made their feathers sticky, and she cleaned their beaks by wiggling them around in a finger bowl of water, warm of course. The treatment went on round-the-clock at two-hour intervals.

But after a week, we had to admit that although Richard and Blackie were still with us, they were no more than passive receptacles for food, which they took from a permanently couchant position. They seemed to lack any enthusiasm for life. It was clear that we would have to look beyond their purely nutritional needs.

I don't know whether you have ever lain down on the floor of your laundry to get a duck's eye view of it, but that's what we did. It was very depressing. Down there at the 9-inch level, you are met with a totally negative prospect; a flat monochromatic blank on all sides. There is the dishwasher, the dryer, the washing machine, and the freezer. There is no movement, no life, no roundness or relief. The same thing must apply to pig sties. Something ought to be done about it - windows perhaps, at animal he ight.

We thought of painting murals on the washing machine and freezer, but neither of us is very good at painting. Then Maureen came up with the idea that some sort of recreational activity might provide an alternative way of improving their quality of life. Going for a walk was a nonstarter because neither Richard nor Blackie was capable of standing upright. They needed support.

The obvious solution was ... water. Ducks will float even if they don't have the strength to swim.

Richard and Blackie really took to our savanna green bath. They liked it filled to about three inches with the temperature around 68 degrees F. ... and we had always to remember to leave the shower turned on.

The bath became their raison d'etre. They began to show marked improvement, and their appetites increased beyond recognition. It soon became clear that they needed more sustenance than milk and honey. They needed, to put it delicately, animal protein.

This posed an unexpected problem. We were thinking about going vegetarian, talking about the value of life, and at the same time contemplating destroying it in order to keep Richard and Blackie in animal protein - in slugs and worms. Double standards surely.

"If you domesticate an animal and take it into your care," our friend Helen suggested kindly from the black-currant patch, "then you must accept the responsibility for its well being - whatever that involves."

It begged the issue of the inherent value of the life of a worm, but it had an undeniable logic. Without pleasure, we reached for the garden fork, and for the next week we dug worms and collected slugs for Richard and Blackie.

Their return to robust good health was swift and uninterrupted. Occasionally, they revisit the laundry, and once they made their way into the kitchen, where for a few moments they paraded in front of the duck-sized oven, as if testing the extent of our vegetarianism. They needn't have worried. How could we contemplate making "you-know-what a l'orange" out of someone who had shared our bath?

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.