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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The code

The BBYC would like to thank guest author Ben Petzinger for his keen insight into Idaho living.

The Code

 by Ben Petzinger

Some live by the farmer's almanac, but there's another reliable source for direction in rural Western Idaho called the 'code'. The code isn't written as it doesn't need words to direct action, it's more common sense mixed with the reality of living with chickens and dogs.

Growing up, we had chickens and lots of spare land in Canyon County, a place I am proud to call home. Mom and Dad expected us to gather eggs, feed, water and occasionally we even got to test the theory that recently capped chickens really do run about as beheaded feather balls. It's a grisly affair, but the code is part of realizing where food comes from. The code also teaches you how to deal with the untimely demise of poultry due to the blood lust of neighboring dogs.

Coyotes are always a risk with chickens, but with robust coop security and nightly lock-downs, coyotes can be held at abeyance. No one ignores a coyote on their property, but dogs on the other hand can be a little more covert and inconspicuous to the novice chicken coup patrolman/owner. It's the neighbor's dog that chicken owners need to watch out for.

The code is clear about the hierarchy of dogs vs. chickens, but it is only enforced when one of them is killed.

Having never seen a chicken "hen-peck" fido to death, I think this is a one-sided hierarchy and rightly so. Chickens are no match to the blood lust of a dog and once the canine gets a taste for pre-KFC, they'll be back for the original recipe again and again.
I don't remember many such killing raids by neighborhood dogs when I was young, but I do remember one event that taught the code very clearly.

Dad bought some guinea hens which ran wild on the property and stayed close to the house and orchard. They weren't chickens but more of a garnishment to the land which my dad enjoyed seeing. One summer day 3 or 4 of his hens turned up dead and it was clear to him that the neighbor's dog was guilty. Dad carried the dead birds with him and left his anger at home as he walked down the lane to the neighbor's house.
In a matter-of-fact delivery known to those familiar with the code, he simply laid the hens at the door step, rang the bell, explained the situation and asked for compensation. The neighbor also knew the code and accepted the fate of his dog's actions. Dad was paid but the full price was brought to bear upon the mongrel down the road who's ultimate demise was paid with a single shot. We all heard the shot ring out and that's how I learned this part of the code.

Fast forward 20 years, and a round trip of employment opportunities across several states which ultimately brought me back to Idaho; only this time to the Wood River Valley.
Jelina and I bought a small farm and started Petzinger Beef Garden, a small beef growing operation with grass fed and hormone free taste as a way to keep the pastures down and enjoy the gentleman farmer's lifestyle of having one foot in corporate America and the other foot in manure; the odor differentiation is difficult to distinguish. I love them both.

Our neighbors were wonderful people. Our children of the same age and interests and both families love the quiet life in rural Idaho. They kept a healthy coop of egg laying chickens and loved them like pets. We had our cows, much less productive on a daily basis but the yearly reaping yielded healthy beef and paid the bills. It wasn't until a new addition to the family pets, that I had any remembrance of the code. Chewi is a massive Rottweiler  who came to be in our family as a result of someone else's misfortune. No longer being cared for, we decided to adopt her in not fully knowing how she'd handle life on the farm. It was quickly apparent that boundaries needed to be defined.

One winter's day, I received a curious phone call from Jelina who reported that Chewi had a chicken in her mouth out in the yard. Flash back code instinct took over and I told Jelina to keep the dog at home until I could get there, but it was too late.....the damage was long done.

I walked over to the neighbor's coop crunching through the snow and turned the corner to see all 13 chickens resting in the snow crumpled, broken, torn, and red. It was like a terrible egg carton of red feathered snow cones each in their own divot of death. Chewi had definitely tried the first one and came back for more-all 13 of them to be exact. It was a grisly sight. I assessed the situation and decided to clean up the mess before my neighbor came home. Jelina had already called and the proud chicken owner was on her way.

I walked home and put the dog on leash. She was marched to the scene of the crime and I had a choice to make. I either had to follow through with the code or find an acceptable solution to spare the rottie's life. It was clearly a death sentence to ever set paw on the neighbor's property again but she knew no boundaries and as training goes, she had never had any.

Retribution: I knew what my neighbor wanted and that had already been taken care of; we had located 15 egg laying hens in Kuna and I had already purchased them and made arrangements to pick them up that evening. They never mentioned a commensurate punishment for the dog, the code left that up to me. It was my responsibility to contain, train and protect that dog from her own instinct to kill chickens. Now that she had done the damage, I either needed to move her away from there, shoot her or forever keep her on leash. The choices were hard to accept as a new reality. 
I quickly made up my mind; she would live and I'd have to enact my own version of the code. She would never forget the scolding and throttling she received at the scene after being marched over there and our relationship forever changed from that day. But she's alive thanks to a small investment in an invisible fence with enough wire to enclose at least 4 acres. This kept her away from any trouble and kept my friendship in tact with our neighbors who quickly reported that the 15 hens delivered that same night quickly began laying eggs in their new coup.

We've since moved again but I've brought the memories with me and whenever that dog sees a chicken, she looks out for me. Smart dog, I let her live to understand part of the code.

As a side note, I found it strangely ironic that the shock collar she wore ever after had as it's highest setting the lucky #13. Code or not, she quickly grasped the full shock and power of #13 and never tested that range again. The code is now amended to include boundaries.

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