My life as a part-time Dr. Dolittle

Larry the llama smells my face in detail, very closely, almost touching me. It startled me the first time he did it, when I first met him, and I drew away from him. I understand now that it is his form of greeting and catching up on the latest news, and I stand still until he is finished. Larry is light gray and white, long-necked - as tall as I am - and very friendly.

Buckaroo, a mostly black llama, is more reserved and doesn't like people to get too close to him.

Pauly is somewhere in between, friendly at times, but skittish at others.

The three llamas hang out with two goats and eight sheep. They live at a home that I sometimes take care of while the owners travel to distant places. Sadie, their black Lab mix, goes with them when they drive, but she stays home when they fly.

The animals tell me their needs as clearly as if they used words. If I walk down to the pond and the two ducks follow me back up the driveway, that means they haven't been getting enough to eat by foraging in and near their pond, and they expect me to put out cracked grain for them to eat.

If I don't go to the pond for a while, and the ducks are hungry, they walk up the drive way and stand outside the window. These ducks don't quack. They make loud creaking noises until I come out and feed them. I think they say things like, "What's up with the help? Have you closed the restaurant? How's an honest duck supposed to make a living if the hired help sits around and reads books and lets good ducks starve?"

The gray duck sometimes runs at me when my back is turned. I assume his intention is to nip me so that I stay alert to everything that's happening around me, but I'm not sure, since I've always seen him in my peripheral vision and turned to face him before he reaches me. He acts innocent and seems to say, "I wasn't doing anything. Just checking to see if you're using your senses."

When I walk close to their pen, the chickens are voluble and loud, as if to say, "We haven't had fresh vegetables for a long time. It gets boring in this pen, and we need access to gravel for our craws to grind our food." But I have learned that if I let them out early, they spread out too far and damage the flower beds. They are scratchers and soil-turners.

I walk to the garden and harvest greens for them. It hasn't been that long since they've had fresh vegetables, but chickens don't keep track of time well. I let them out of their pen late in the afternoon. They eat the grain I've spread, scratch in the gravel driveway, and voluntarily return to their roosts at dusk, when I lock them in again.

Late in the afternoon, I put out corn, oats, and barley for the hooved animals. They crowd closely around me, though they will move if I stride confidently forward with the expectation that they will give me room to walk - except Lucy, the black goat. She likes to lean on me. If I pet her a moment, then gently push her away, she will allow me to pass by.

Sadie, the dog, seems to think highly of me, except that - not without reason - she doesn't trust me to come up with reasonable car rides.

I had invited my friend Gregg to come to my house for dinner before I accepted this caretaking commitment, and I decided to keep the dinner engagement. Since I don't like to leave Sadie alone for hours at a time, I took her home with me. She checked every room of my house several times, then stayed close to me.

Lightning, thunder, wind, and hard rain blew in. Graupel blew in the wind and bounced from the windows and the deck. I think Sadie knew ahead of time the storm was coming and wondered why in the world we had come to a place without a basement where a sensible dog could take refuge in a storm.

All through dinner, Gregg and my wife, Laura, and I carried on convivial conversation. Sadie lay on my left foot under the table, taking some comfort in closeness.

When we got back to Sadie's home, dryness indicated there had been no storm there, though it is only seven miles from my home. I'm sure Sadie thought I had taken her for a ride only to seek out a dog-frightening storm in a place with no basement for refuge. She is a very forgiving dog, but she is no longer as interested as she was in getting into my car.

I think Sadie has decided it is best to lie in the dust beside the driveway while I am gone, chew on old bones, and let me seek storms entirely on my own.

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