Monday, January 9, 2012

Animal Lover Part III: The Duck Wars (or Our Adventures in Omnivorous Pet Husbandry)

I originally published this post back in September, when no one read my blog but my parents and three personal friends. I am now re-publishing it because of the enormous demand for human interest blog pieces about ducks. I think it can really make a difference. (It can't, but you should read it anyway.)

This post is Part III of my pet saga. Parts I and II can be found here.

We have pet ducks, which live in the fenced side yard of our half-duplex suburban home. These ducks are a cross between pets and a sort of fucked up 4H project gone awry.

The rationale for that situation is explained in Part II of my pet saga, so I won't bore you with it. Suffice it to say, I have a few screws loose in the pet department. Long story short, we ended up with three male ducks and two females, which is somewhat like keeping a low-security prison shower with three testosterone-driven convicts on PCP and two witless pacifists who keep dropping the soap.

The suggested ratio of males to females in a flock is actually one to six. Siren, the third and last-acquired of these males was immediately placed on Death Row at the time his gender was identifiable, since having more male ducks, we knew, was not advisable. Female ducks, it seems, are sometimes "mated to death" in these types of circumstances. So much for the romanticization of Nature.

Ultimately, though, I wouldn't let my husband kill him. In theory, I didn't have an ethical problem with this idea. We eat meat, and I am not stupid or unconscious enough to be interested in pretending that it isn't, in fact, flesh that we are consuming, and flesh, at that rate, which generally once belonged to an animal living in very unhappy circumstances.

Xavier, worshiping us.
However, I had raised the darn duck almost from birth and, for purely emotional reasons on the part of myself and my two youngest children, I withdrew my yes vote on culling Siren. The measure died on the floor, to the extreme irritation of my dear husband, also a former vegetarian, who had, and has, a serious interest in raising animals for meat and killing them himself, so that he can feel more comfortable about eating meat. (This may hearken back to some sort of male, hunter-gatherer imperative still in his DNA, or it may be because he doesn't really love any of our animals, besides the dog, who worships him with a comically abject devotion.)

It is actually very strange that I should end up even considering committing pet homicide. I became a vegetarian, on my own, when I was six, due to my gradual discovery of the obvious hypocrisy involved in both loving animals and eating the bodies of other animals. I maintained this custom my entire childhood, despite the fact that no other member of my family ever became vegetarian until I reached adolescence, and none permanently. I was even vegan for a time. I stopped being vegetarian when I was twenty-eight, at the point when I realized that I no longer felt that the rationale I'd once had for being vegetarian would endure my entire adulthood, and when my body seemed to be demanding a higher protein diet.

I still felt, and feel, that we have an ethical responsibility to consider the conditions of animals that are raised to become meat for us. I dislike factory farming, and we inch every year closer to our goal of buying meat only from ethical sources. This year we are buying half of a local cow, whom we will meet in less than two weeks, before her death. I no longer feel uncomfortable with the food chain aspect of meat consumption. I don't necessarily feel that this denotes a lack of compassion on my part, and I say that having stood on both sides of this argument. I think life is infinitely more complicated than almost anyone will admit (hence my faith in ambiguity, I suppose). At any rate, the beneficiary of this cognitive dissonance, the duck lived on unharmed.

Our adolescent ducklings, being menaced by the mean adult ducks.
Fast forward a year and a half to last Thursday morning, and we find the duck in question, inside his electrified, predator-proof enclosure, with a severely injured wing, obviously broken and with an open wound, cause unknown. After this unhappy discovery, I suggested that my husband, who was home sick from work with a bronchial infection, call the kind and knowledgeable woman who had given us another of our ducks, and ask her for advice, while I went to work.

Thank God for poultry mentors.

While expressing no irritation at all at being disturbed in the middle of tending to her own menagerie of children and feathered friends, Vivian suggested that we might take Siren to a vet in Espanola, whose prices were not unreasonable, but that, following that, we would likely need to rehabilitate this drake in our house, perhaps all winter.

Upon receiving this news, without a tinge of angst or internal conflict, I declared that we needed to kill the sucker.

If you are one of my morally distinguished readers, who is a member of PETA, I must apologize at this point. My former self would be aghast at this decision, and so would many people who do, in fact, eat meat, if my casual acquaintances are any basis for judgment.

Here is my explanation, for what it's worth:

The duck was suffering. Or at least I assume he was suffering. Duck suffering is perhaps not very easy to distinguish from the absence of duck suffering, both involving the tendency to waddle around looking doofish and occasionally commence gargling water full of one's own feces. At any rate, I assumed that there was pain involved in the situation, as the wound looked relatively nasty. I really couldn't live with the idea that this animal should be made to feel continuous pain with no relief.

The second consideration was financial. A year or so ago, we paid close to a thousand dollars to treat our dog for a kidney condition. He is a member of our family, and I would do it again. However, we temporarily accrued debt to deal with him, and I hated that. When we acquired ducks, I knew that I wouldn't be willing to shell out big bucks for their medical conditions. I worked, while in my early twenties, at several vets' offices, and, during that time, paid out what must have been close to a third of my income, having various tumors removed from pet rats, spaying bunnies, and treating them for stomach impactions, which they suffered due to the unwitting consumption of non-food items such as candles. I carefully tended all my animals on my negligible wage, and made that care a big priority in my life.

And then I had children.

Following that series of events, I altered my financial priorities in favor of garnering every resource, often quite limited, to put toward their care and enrichment. I love my animals, but they are not my kids anymore because I already have enough of those. I was not going to pay out any considerable amount to care for an animal that was originally intended to be dinner for my husband. (A proviso: had this been one of the "pet ducks" which eats out of our hand and which we particularly like, I am not sure how we would have made this decision. It was made easier by the fact that it was this particular duck that was injured.)

The last factor we considered weighing against Siren was the fact that there is absolutely no damn way I was living with an adult duck in my house. Believe it or not, people do this . And more power to them. I once kept rabbits loose in my house, which I intended to litterbox-train. This project was not a success, as far as my carpet was concerned. Most recently, I long-term fostered two cats while friends were on vacation, which resulted in six or more trips to the vet with abscessed puncture wounds, a bunch of highly stressed cats, and a completely ruined carpet in my sons' room. This resulted in a great exhaustion for questionable house pets on my part. I'm kind of over it.

as posted here

Ducks poo a LOT. They are hands down the foulest creatures I have ever kept, with absolutely no regard for hygiene and a total absence of common sense. I am probably never going to be willing to raise ducklings indoors again, in an enclosed area, let alone a ten-pound adult Pekin . We have one bathroom, three bedrooms, a small galley kitchen and a living room which does duty as office, family room, dining room, and study. This was a straight-up no go.

I guess what I'm saying is that if we were rich and had a bigger house, and if my husband was somewhat more like Albert Schweitzer, Siren's life could have been saved. And I could also have had a separate room where I could keep hedgehogs hidden from Mike. But I digress.

There was, however, at least one problem with proceeding with a plan to humanely dispose of this duck.

Mikalh, my six-year-old, was distraught in the morning when he heard that Siren was injured and might need to be put down. So, telling him that we executed the duck was going to be a problem, if we went through with it. Here, I felt torn. I tend to believe that if you don't want to tell your children the truth about something, it may be that you should re-examine what you're doing, rather than tell the lie. That said, I don't believe that it is OK to traumatize your children in order to avoid experiencing momentary moral discomfort. Mike and I talked about it and concluded that we were willing to minimally evade the truth but not willing to tell a lie which would require an entire fabrication of the truth and become a false tale oft retold to Mikalh. We decided we needed to be forthcoming.

However, when Mike had gotten as far as saying "You know how Siren was hurt this morning...," Mikalh stopped him.

"Now you are going to make me feel sad."

He made clear that he didn't want to talk about it, and we decided to honor that. He still hasn't mentioned it, five days later, although we feel sure he generally understood what would happen.

Anyway, the end of the story is really the end of the duck.

Mike took him over to Vivian's house, where her husband very generously showed him how to kill and prepare the duck for consumption. My oldest son went with him, always having wanted to be a part of this long-awaited event. Later, the two of them came back with a smallish kitchen garbage bag filled with what remained of this duck we had raised from his second day of life and set it in the sink. I think I felt a little sad, a little conflicted. But not too much.

Devin (my eleven-year-old) cried when he first came in from soccer practice to see the bag, but then he took a shower and came down having quietly resolved within himself whatever grief he experienced, and reckoned with the reality of the situation. Mike talked with him about why we did this, and what it means to eat meat; the importance of confronting the truth of it, rather than blissfully ignoring it while we dine on the sundered flesh of an unknown animal whose life was a made a continuous misery for the sole purpose of our consumption. He understood, if only intellectually.

I think my take-away is that our human relationship with animals is tortured and strange, full of illogic and pretense. My mother, inspired by the same experience, wrote a blog post on the subject, more thoughtful and more comprehensive than what I have written here. (You should read it.) For myself, I feel somewhat more honest an omnivore today than I was before last Thursday. I know that Siren lived a happy life, even attaining the rank of patriarch during his time with us. I raised him, let him learn to swim in the sink, fed him every morning, changed his pond water, raked up tons of poop-sodden straw, and spent hours watching his antics as part of the flock.

It represented an enormous investment of time and money, if all we were going to take away was a duck roast. So, in some strange way it was possible to see him as both a pet and a commodity at the same time.

In the aftermath, peace has descended on the duck yard. My long-exiled, original duck, Aflac, is now waddling around happily with the rest of the flock, rather than having to maintain a safe distance from any giant antagonist. The females appear to have forgotten Siren. Or, at least, they behave, in every respect, the same way as if nothing had happened. We are thinking we can now get another female, which would be a lot more useful than our testosterone-mad prior flock. Life hums on.

I want to officially say thanks to Siren for the year and half of entertainment he provided. If there is an afterlife for waterfowl, here's hoping he will enjoy years more of gargling heavenly poop-water and chasing girls.

March 2010-September 2011


  1. As someone who is currently living with the trauma of an in-home growing duck, I sympathize with what you went through. Your story is touching and you are hilarious! Thanks for making me laugh...

  2. Thanks. It was quite an experience.


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