How The Hen House Turns: Fire, Dog Crates and Straw

How The Hen House Turns
Fire, Dog Crates and Straw

Spring. The first crocus makes me remember to organize for possible evacuation.

During the Cerro Grande Fire in the year 2000, all we had to evacuate was a turtle, a plecostomas and two swordtail fish.

They didn’t like being evacuated, but at last I convinced them to stay in the largest salad bowl I could find – all but the male swordtail. I couldn’t catch him, and time was ticking away. A huge plume of black, orange and white smoke rose overhead.

It broke my heart to leave the male swordtail behind. We spent five anxious days glued to a TV set in a friend’s house in Santa Fe, while our aquatic dependents swam around in a cooler on the front porch. The second week we took off for our daughter’s home in St. Louis, while a generous pet store housed turtle and company.

Many homes were lost in that fire, but an alert helicopter pilot spotted smoke opposite our canyon and saved our neighborhood. When we arrived home, we found the male swordtail hale and hearty. The female promptly delivered hundreds of offspring.

July 2011: How did we get into this pickle? The Las Conchas fire was running toward town, and we had ten birds and two dogs to evacuate. This time the fire gave us no alternative.

It came at us with even more fury, lapping up the dry forest with fifty-mph winds. (We hadn’t had any rain or snow since October – just six-inchers – five-minute storms producing raindrops six inches apart.) How were we going to convince the welcoming casinos to house us, string bass and all?

After some circling and pouting, the dogs curled around my string bass in the Pontiac Vibe. We had two dog crates for the four ducks and three chickens, and – thanks to our neighbors – one very large dog crate for the two geese and turkey. All the crates fit into the bed of our half-ton truck, with at least two millimeters to spare.

We planned to go down the hill while we figured out what to do with our puzzled menagerie. The birds couldn’t live all week in dog crates.

As we were about to leave the house, the phone rang. Our friend from Santa Fe offered his home as a refuge. Luckily, a rabbit had decimated his garden. He said the birds were welcome to stay there.

It couldn’t have been more perfect. The yard was next to the driveway, so all we had to do was unload the dog crates full of birds and lift them over the fence.

The birds spent their days in a denuded thousand square-foot yard, partially shaded all day long and inexplicably enclosed in a five-foot-high fence.

The birds slept in the crates at night, secure from the local coyotes. We made a quick trip into Santa Fe to buy a bale of straw for the birds’ bedding and oyster shell for their gizzards.

With some encouragement – like closing the crate door on them–the hens agreed to lay their eggs in the mid-sized dog crate. The birds’ dirty straw provided mulch for the host’s other garden – the one in the patio that rabbits hadn’t found.

At first, the birds caused great excitement in our host-dog Hibber, until he realized they were just part of the pack, and not fun, secured in the pen. A few well-timed bribes smoothed over the gap in feeding times between our dogs and Hibber, who seemed to enjoy having a small pack of friends along for walks in the juniper-pinyon forest.

I soon learned that it was crucial not leave the dog crates too close to the fence. Hens are good escape artists. They can fly short distances and hop with the agility of a pole-vaulter.

We enjoyed a worry-free week, while 156,000 acres burned near Los Alamos, destroying private homes in the Jemez Mountains and a good part of Bandelier National Monument and the Valles Caldera National Preserve

We spent warm days reading on the porch of a cool adobe house that had once belonged to Jane Fonda. Feeling thankful for good luck and great friends, we were intensely aware of helicopters and slurry planes passing overhead in the smoky skies – reminders that dedicated firefighters were hard at work keeping the damage to a minimum.

With the evacuation order lifted, we packed the birds in the crates, carried their used straw to the patio garden, and headed home. I drove the Vibe behind the bird-filled truck.

I could see the geese in their crate, looking this way and that with amazement, their necks straight, heads high, wondering why the world was flashing by so fast.

Every quarter mile or so another goose feather or piece of straw flew from the crates and bounced off my windshield. Once home on their half acre of ponderosa forest, the birds resumed their routine as if nothing had happened.

While we were gone, some hungry animal had found a neglected egg in the ducks’ nest. Maybe their neglected tubs of water had provided some relief from the drought and the fire, but the water shone with a chilling film of oily ash-fall, which also stained the pavers in back of our house.


Editor’s note: Dr. Neeper is an avid student of sustainability, steady‐state economics and the impact of cosmology on issues of science and religion. She and her husband Don Neeper live in Los Alamos with a friendly menagerie of dogs, fish and fowl.
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