I sigh at the dust, collected along the rooms’ edges in white drifts that mirror the February landscape, and tracked through the house by all our feet, including the cat’s. Then I look up at the finished, primer-ready walls, and grin at Stella. “We have a pretty nice place here,” I say.
“Yeah,” she surveys the house. “It’ll be even nicer when it’s an animal farm.”
Despite her reluctance to approach anything larger than a dog, Stella dreams of animals. “Can I have two pigs and two horses? I’ll name my pigs ‘preschool’ and ‘price chopper.’ And I’ll milk my cow every day.”
“If you’d milk every day, we’d get a cow,” I tell her, knowing I’m safe making this promise. Stella’s interest in farm animals will wax and wane, like a three year olds’ interest in anything. In reality, I’m the sucker most likely to assemble a menagerie.
Since we bought this property, with its 53 acres and large barns—unfenced acres and neglected barns—everyone wonders if we’ll have animals. The long answer involves a discussion of specific goals, fencing, barn rehabilitation, water supply, desired products, time management, and other logistics. The short answer: Yes.
We will have pets that we love and animals that we eat and, most likely, some pets that we end up eating, like ‘preschool’ and ‘price chopper.’ We will probably have useful animals like laying hens and freeloaders like dogs. We’ll probably have animals we regret having, cute baby animals we can’t resist having, and animals we feel we can’t live without once we have them.
I can still feel the tug of a lamb on the bottle I held when I was six, watching her tail dance wildly and her spotted head thrust forward. My thighs have wrapped horses’ bare backs, horses with saddles, horses over jumps, on trails, in a lake, across cornfields. I milked a Jersey cow by hand one summer and rectally palpated thousands of cows another summer. I’ve butchered deer and chickens for food, and euthanized dogs and cats for mercy. My fingers traced farm kittens’ triangular tails, and rubbed the chins of cats who understood me. My arms encircled the golden neck of my first dog love and leaned against the slim black shoulders of my second; my cheeks pressed soft ears and a crooked face stripe as the dog of my heart slipped away.
I have always been this way about animals.
Now, with only our beloved old gray cat around here, we scheme about the animals who will join us. It begins this spring, with a delivery of chicks. We left our previous laying hens in Georgia last summer, and brought our meat chickens with us, in the freezer. In April, we’ll have five varieties of chickens, those delightful, multitasking creatures who will be entertaining, useful, and ultimately edible. Beyond April, who knows?
One day at the emergency veterinary clinic, my coworker asked me, “What kinds of animals will you get?” Suddenly, I felt like Tom Hanks in the movie “Big,” a kid in an adult body, alive to—and a little scared of—the possibilities. My eyes lit up.
“Any kind I want,” I told him.