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Archive for August, 2011

A flock of chickens is essentially a pack of little garbage disposal composting machines.  Food and yard waste goes in, fertilizer comes out.  But, they don’t eat everything.  Here’s what we’ve found our chickens like to eat.

First, what goes in each food/yard waste bin?

Chickens get:
fruits and veggies
grains, cooked and raw
bread
leftover meals
dairy (but not too much cheese)
But don’t eat:
citrus fruit and peels (taste bad)
meat, fish (they could, but this increases the chance that pathogens will end up in your fertilizer)
garlic and onion (makes eggs taste funny)
raw potato (poisonous)
dry beans (poisonous)
avocado pits and peels (poisonous)
rotten or moldy food
sweets and junk food
and eggs that look like eggs (they’ll wise up and start eating their own!)

Worms get:
moldy and spoiled food
coffee and tea
paper towels
tough peels
But not:
citrus
meat or fish
greasy, oily stuff

Food waste bin gets:
citrus
meat, bones, fish
greasy, oily stuff
houseplants (can be poisonous)
pits, peels, and egg shells (take forever to break down in compost or worm bin)

That gives you a general idea of what should go where, but chickens do have favorites, and some things that we throw into the run just don’t get eaten.

Favorites:

  • kale and swiss chard and broccoli leaves and other leafy greens.  we grow kale just for them- it’s super nutritious and they absolutely love it.  in fact, if you hold it up above their heads, they will jump almost a foot in the air to grab it.
  • yogurt.  i don’t know why, but they frickin’ love this stuff.  they’ll drink it out of a bowl, but when they were little we had to dip their beaks in it to show them what it was.
  • anything grain like- cooked rice, oatmeal, millet or wheat or barley or flaked corn or scratch mix from the grange- essentially anything that can be shaken out of a jar and pecked up.  they come running immediately.
  • mealy worms from the pet store- fantastic treats for young chicks that you are trying to handle and tame.  they won’t eat earthworms until they’re much bigger- worms are intimidating to little chicks.
  • moths, earthworms, grubs, bugs that click and jump around, etc.  if you want to see ancient dinosaur instinct come out in your chickens- watch them hunt bugs.  it’s actually rather scary.
  • beds of clover (crimson clover cover crop), wheat grass (harder to grow), pea vines (after you’ve eaten the peas), long grass, etc.

Not so much:

  • cabbage- i find i have to chop this up finely for them to eat it- otherwise it’s to tough for them to rip apart.
  • same with bread crusts- they’ll eat the soft inside, but i have to soak the stale crusts in water for them.
  • stems of broccoli, swiss chard, etc- they’re just not as good as the leaves.

Tricks:

  • try to clean out your fridge often- catch leftovers before they go bad so you can give them to the chickens instead of the worms.
  • chickens always eat the best things first, so if you want them to eat chopped broccoli stems, don’t put kale or grain out too.
  • they’ll eat more and less appealing things if their not free ranging.  if i want them to finish some wilted lettuce or chopped cabbage, or eat their weekly dose of crushed egg shell for calcium,  i’ll put it in the run when we leave them in there for the day- that way there’s nothing much better to do, like chase bugs.
  • for tougher stuff like stems, cabbage, and bread crusts, make them a smoothie!  i blend this stuff with yogurt, kefir, or just water and put it out in a bowl for them to drink.

Next spring i plan on trying out buckwheat as a cover crop- it attracts bees and makes more phosphorous available for the next crop- and i’m hoping that the chickens will enjoy eating it.  Gotta keep them well fed and entertained so they don’t destroy the lawn!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Summer garden

The summer garden is finally in full swing.  We have ripe tomatoes!  We have cucumbers!  Fall beets and broccoli have been planted!

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Talking to my Ma on the phone the other day, she said that she and Pa decided not to build an outdoor fireplace on their new patio after all- both of them being space cadets, overhanging trees may catch on fire if they forget to put it out and the whole house and yard could burn down.  And the whole neighborhood and bone dry foothills of Boise- that’d be no good.  I said, “Oh, that’s too bad.  Wait, you guys are both space cadets?!” (This whole time i thought that my dad was the only one with a horrible memory.)  She laughed, “Yep- you’re doomed!”

So that partially explains my increasingly gawd-awful short-term memory of the past… oh… 10 years.  Add to that the medical finding that stress can cause short-term memory malfunction, and you have a good explanation for why, when i decide to go backpacking post-giant experiment or post-fellowship application deadline, i forget to pack a crap-ton of fairly important gear.

First example- following my latest giant experiment (of previous blog post fame), i slept for 4 hours, booked it back to lab to finish some stuff before Lauren arrived in Seattle, ran home to literally throw handfuls of gear into my backpack and get in the car for a 2 night trip with Lauren and Natalie.  Upon arrival at our first campsite, realized that i had forgotten my sleeping bag.  My SLEEPING BAG!  Who forgets their damn sleeping bag on a backpacking trip?!   Fortunately, Natalie happened to have a lightweight summer bag in the trunk of her car for emergencies.  So with long underwear and Nat’s emergency preparedness, i was saved from the emergency of me being a dumbass.  I also forgot my trekking poles, but luckily Nat doesn’t use hers going downhill, so that saved my dumbass knees as well.  And my sunglasses, but hopefully my hat saved my dumbass eyes from too much UV light.

Second example- after i spent the last 2 weeks working waaaaay more than i usually do in attempt to have awesome data and write an awesome research update for the training grant that i’m on- it’s up for competitive renewal, and if i don’t get it there will be some serious scrambling in my lab as we do not yet have grant funding for my project- aaah!!!- i got home, chose a trail with David while again throwing handfuls of gear into my pack and then left for another 2 night trip.  I did remember my sleeping bag this time, and upon settling down into said sleeping bag, realized that i had forgotten my hiking boots.  GAH!!   Hilariously, i did remember to take my Superfeet insoles out of my shoes and bring them along to put in my forgotten boots, so i managed to make some surprisingly comfortable footwear by putting the Superfeet in my Crocs.

Sidenote- i only condone Crocs as slippers for getting the paper, putzing around the yard, walking the dog, and as camp shoes.  Chacos and Tevas are of course better than Crocs in almost every way, but for backpacking Crocs have become my camp shoe of choice because they weigh negative 3 ounces (I think they’re made of marshmallows), and Chacos weigh a ton.  You can’t cross treacherous streams in them like you can in Chacos, but for knee-deep lazy streams they work just fine.  And you can waterproof them by putting plastic bags on your feet inside them, in case you are camping in rain or snow.

And apparently, you can hike in them.  Granted,  we hiked four miles to a campsite on a very easy trail, then day hiked sans-packs up a crazily steep trail to a sweet lake (Tuck lake)- so i was not carrying any weight on any sort of difficult trail…  good, because i also forgot my trekking poles. Again.  In any case, my feet did not die and the trip was pretty great despite my dumbassitude, perhaps because i walk the dog every morning for half an hour in my Crocs, and have built up some strength in the arches of my feet.  I did wipe out and scrape up my hands a couple times on the trail because Crocs have negative 3 traction, but there were no broken ankles or tweaked knees.  David even hiked the whole way in his Chacos to show solidarity.

Our feet were horridly, horridly dirty when we got home, which added to the shame of having forgotten that Jodie and Lisa were coming into town to stay with us that evening.  (David is experiencing job search stress, so he’s almost as bad as i am these days.)  Luckily we made it back into cell phone range just in time to prevent them from renting a hotel room.  I’m hoping that fresh eggs for breakfast partially made up for some of our dumbass (lack of) planning.

Sigh…

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It’s not often that i work long hours in lab.  I usually come in to do what i need to get done, then go do something like walk the dog or tend the garden or go hiking.  Sometimes i read articles in the backyard.  It is apparent to me and to most people i work that i do not do as much work as i could.  But, i am happy not working at break-neck speed so that i may enjoy other realms of life a bit more.  My PI may not be too happy with this, but he’s exactly the same way and knows it.  Brags about it, even.  But then, he probably worked pretty hard in grad school… still, i’m secretly hoping that one day he will tell me he was a slow poke too.

So, 8 straight hours of work in lab will tire me out.  I’ll wonder how people in real life can do it 5 days a week.  But then, seemingly out of nowhere, i will muster a stupendous amount of energy and stamina and complete a  16 to 18 hour experiment that requires almost constant work-  every time i stop to pee or stuff food in my face i feel like i’m letting the quality of my data decline.  Luckily i am able to recruit people to help me- the experiments would be impossible without their help (ie, all the cells would croak and i’d get shit for data and there aren’t enough hours in a day), and i just wouldn’t survive mentally or physically without their support.  I learned this craziness from Jess- i used to think her 20 hour experiments (into which i put my share of grunt work) were pure insanity.  How could she possibly stay up into the wee hours of the morn running the flow cytometer?  But i get it now.  Especially the part about supplying snacks for your helpers.

Anyway, i”ll start with yesterday’s preparation for today.  It involved mixing up several liters of buffer and media; making 8-color fluorochrome-tagged antibody cocktails; mixing cell separation gradients to the correct percentage and aliquoting to tubes; prepping solutions – formadehyde, sugar water- and tubes in which to collect bits of liver to section and stain for beautious fixed and fresh-frozen immuno-histochemistry pictures; wrapping and autoclaving several dissection kits- scissors, blunt forceps, pointy forceps; collecting all the crap that i needed to bring down to the vivarium- like pipetmen, pipets, slides, tube racks, petri dishes, etc- and putting it on a big cart (the sight of which always makes the vivarium staffs’ eyeballs pop out because they know it’s going to be a bloody, stinky, sweaty mess down there for 4-5 hours); labeling no fewer than 263 tubes; then biking up Capital Hill at 8pm to have a Molly Moon’s sundae for dinner in celebration of Goo’s birthday.

I am slowly, slowly learning to prepare for experiments (especially big ones) before the day of.  Now, by the end of my third year in school, i seem to be doing ok.  I am at least less of a pain in the ass to the people helping me with the experiment and to my own self.   So, as i sit here at the flow cytometer at 9:30pm on the day of the experiment, it is not because i was under prepared and had to scramble around making buffer and labeling tubes this morning, it’s because this is a big fucking experiment.  I mean, i stopped at PCC to buy bagels for my helpers on my way in and was still here, showered,  in lab by 8am.  Granted, i could always prepare more.  More reading and research into the best techniques, or looking at past notes wouldn’t hurt.  I just realized that i forgot to stain my cells for an activation marker that’s fairly common in these types of experiments.  Whoops.

I should mention at some point that this experiment is aimed at measuring/evaluating/figuring out what the heck is going on during T cell priming against immunization with genetically attenuated malaria parasites. In mice.  Who get injected with transgenic T cells.  That are green.

This morning i biked in and before i showered, got the collagenase buffer out of the fridge to start warming up in the water bath so that the soon-to-be-added collagenase would dissolve.  Then i went downstairs to shower.  I did not wash my hair, because it always gets nasty and matted down by 5 hours in a vivarium hair net anyway…  but now, at the end of the day it’s especially gross-tastic.  I finished my day-of preparations which included weighing out and adding collagenase to the buffer, grabbing a tube of  mouse anesthesia,  filling two ice buckets with ice, and getting all of my collection tubes out of the fridge/off the bench and onto the cart.

8:45 I headed downstairs to the vivarium, where i was met by my new malaria buddy, Jess #2, and we transferred all the stuff from the lab cart onto a clean vivarium cart.  We went through the vivarium barrier (read “super clean area for immunologically messed-up mice”), which involves putting on a second layer of booties, gloves, a humongous gown (hence why we get all sweaty),  a face mask (which i just wear under my chin because it drives me crazy) and a hair net.  We set up the work side of one mouse room with a liver-perfusion station, a liver smushing station, and a lymph node and spleen smushing station.   Each gets a dissection kit, pipets and tubes and filters, slides, petri dishes, etc.  I brought four cages of mice (18 total) around on a cart just outside the door because we had occupied every other flat surface in the room.

9:20 Isaac joined us (he has a new baby so he doesn’t have to be on time anymore) and we gave Jess the run down on what was about to happen… for the next 4.5 hours.  I anesthetized the first mouse, perfused the liver (a technique that requires straining your eyes to find and insert a needle into the portal vein, all the while hunching over an open mouse with an amazing crick in your neck and upper back, and cramping up your needle-holding hand while trying to remain very still), handed off the liver to Jess and the spleen and lymph nodes to Isaac.  All of these are smushed up into single-cell suspensions via being pushed through a mesh strainer or rubbed between two frosted (rough) glass slides.   The liver cells are spun down to get rid of the hepatocytes, and the lymphocytes in the supernatant are taken off into a new tube.  All of the cell suspensions get filtered and go into a huge tray of ice.  Isaac and i switched off between perfusing livers and processing the spleens and lymph nodes.  When Isaac perfuses, he can collect blood after he snips the portal vein, then cut and remove a lobe of the liver with one hand while he holds the perfusion catheter with the other.  So for all the mice Isaac perfused, i have blood and tissue samples as well as spleen, lymph node, and liver cells.  I have not yet learned how to perform such acrobatics.

This disassembly line (heh heh) went on until about 2pm accompanied by discussions of running, frisbee, babies  and the birthing process and how much pampers suck, Jess’s upcoming wedding, and how much PIs gossip.  And occasionally the experiment or techniques at hand.  When we had finished the 18th mouse, we cleaned up the aftermath, peeled off our now nasty gowns, gloves, and hairnets, wheeled the cart of cells to the elevator, and booked it to the lunch room for bagels and cream cheese.  It’s gross to get hungry while perfusing mouse livers, but it can’t be helped.  Isaac swears he’s found the perfect timing and dose of coffee in the morning to suppress his appetite but allow him to hold his hands still while dissecting mice.  I am always starving about 2 hours before we finish.

2:15ish   After bagels (very little conversation, mostly just furious chewing), i put more media in the spleen and lymph node tubes to keep my cells healthy  (apparently swimming in fetal bovine serum- blood without the cells- makes cells happy), and spun down my liver cells.  I got Katie to help me resuspend the pellets and layer cell separation gradients (kind of like making a black and tan, but with cells and buffer)- these get the crud out and leave me with lymphocytes that i can stain.  While those were spinning for half an hour, i began spinning down the lymph node and spleen cells and resuspending them in preparation for staining.  This takes a while because our two centrifuges only have enough buckets to hold 24 50mL tubes.   The liver gradients were done half way through, and i paused with the spleens and lymph nodes to carefully remove the lymphocyte layers from each gradient  (more eye strain and crick in the neck)  into other tubes to be washed.  Eventually everything got spun down, concentrated, resuspended in staining buffer.

4ish   Next i pipetted cells from each tube into a set of flow cytometer tubes, including a full second set of liver samples for a second staining panel.  Out came the antibodies and the antibody cocktails that i had so cleverly mixed up yesterday.  Each tube got a miniscule volume of antibody mix, which is a brilliant purple color from all of the different fluorophores in there.  Each single stained control got its tiny drop of antibody.  The CFSE (bright green dye that dilutes out as T cells become activated and proliferate) -stained control T cells that i had been culturing since last week came out of the incubator and went into a tube.  (The CFSE stain currently looks fantastic on the flow cytometer, i might add- a first for me.)  Once mixed, I put all of the flow tubes into the fridge for 20 minutes, ran into Isaac who made sure i was doing everything right- i wasn’t- corrected a few of the single stain controls, and then cleaned up my bench and the cart a bit.  And called the program manager back around 5 to tell her that i am unable to TA this fall quarter, no matter how behind on my grad school progress checkpoint list i may be… being a late bloomer  doesn’t bother me (here’s hoping i bloom!).  Also got a phone call from Nicky saying she and her teammates would not be staying at our house tonight… too bad, but now i don’t have to worry about the unsettling number of flies that have migrated from the chicken poop farm outside into the spare bedroom in the basement.

11ish Gah… my eyeballs hurt.  So close to being half way done with flow….!

7ish  Post-incubation in the fridge, i added more buffer to the cells and spun them down to wash excess antibody away,  pipetted off the extra liquid, forgot to resuspend the pellets in fixing buffer, and found Isaac to help me set up his amazing new 8 color T cell staining panel and 4 color B cell, liver antigen presenting cell panel on the flow cytometer.  Awesome.  Awesome possum, you might even say.

9ish  Phone call from David saying that Joakim and the visiting Swede Stefan are leaving the car parked near lab so that i can drive home.  Those boys are just so, so sweet.

11:30ish  Running samples.  After these next two i will stop to fill up the buffer tank and empty the waste tank, and eat some chocolate and go to the bathroom.

I may have just passed from the silly late night lab work mood into angry late night lab work mood.

rrrrrrrRRRRROOOOAAAAARRRRRRR!!!!  Need. Snack. Now.

12am Feeling better after hot chocolate and half bagel.  Contact lenses very blurry.

D’oh!  Failed to collect and stain enough cells from the lymph nodes to get good data.  Pause flow cytometer, stain all of the remaining cells at bottom of lymph node tubes.  Ah- this is how these experiments get so long…

1:45am  Alright!  Running the last 18 samples- new and improved lymph node lymphocytes!  Watch flow tubes carefully to catch when they get sucked dry by the machine.  Put next sample on. So close!

This is dumb.  Next time i will collect cells and stain them, then fix them in one long day, then run them on the flow cytometer the next day- still after hours so i don’t hog the machine, but after a night’s rest.

2:45am  hay-zoos christie.  I’m about to bash this machine in with a baseball bat.  It’s being so finicky and i only have 5 samples left!  5 samples!!!!!

3am   YESSSSS!  Last one!  VEEKTORY!

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Stealing another link from Darrow.   This time it’s about the environmental effects of eating various types of protein.  The rest of the site gives tips for how to choose the best meat and why certain forms of protein are harder on the environment than others and a cool explanation of the meat production life cycle.

I’m doing fairly well, except that i drink gallons and gallons of milk.  And, if i could afford it, i would eat tons of cheese.  I wonder if goat’s milk and goat cheese are any better than cow’s milk and cheese…

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Compost is exciting.  The act of composting takes care of food scraps and yard waste so they don’t end up in the land fill.  And using compost in the garden delivers much needed organic matter and nutrients to the soil.  Composting closes the loop, bringing your garden, be it containers on the patio and a worm bin or a full blown hobby farm, closer to sustainability.

Here’s how composting goes down in my garden, which consists of a few raised beds on a small city lot:

Kitchen scraps get sorted into bins 1) for the chickens 2) for the worms 3) for non-edible food waste (bones, pits, citrus rinds) taken to Cedar Grove composting.

For our yard waste,  cut grass and fallen leaves go into the chicken coop as bedding that will get scratched apart and pooped on.  Weeds like morning glory (the bane of my existence- it cannot be killed!!!) and shotweed go into the yard waste bin so that they don’t end up sprouting in the garden.

The chicken bedding (w/ torn up leaves, grass, veggie scraps, and chicken poop) gets put into a compost tumbler every couple months.  The nitrogen rich chicken manure heats up the material and helps it compost really quickly (so does the black barrel).  We spin the barrel on most days to aerate it, which helps the material decompose aerobically, instead of anaerobically (a process that produces methane gas, which is 30 times more powerful than CO2 as a greenhouse gas… which is why we don’t want this stuff buried in a landfill).  When that’s done, it gets put directly onto the garden beds.  One potential problem with this is that we use pine shavings for bedding inside the coop, which can take a while to break down, and if put into the garden unfinished, actually take nitrogen from the soil to help them decompose.  This may be compensated by the super high nitrogen content of the chicken poop.  But once our bag of pine shavings is used up, we’re switching to timothy hay, which breaks down more quickly.  We use it as the bedding in the run, and it works pretty well- by the time we rake it out of the run to put in the tumbler, it’s 1/3 broken down already.

Worm bin.   We have a food scraps worm bin, and a dog poo worm bin.  Vermicompost from the food scrap bin goes into the garden when it’s finished, and the dog poo vermicompost will be used on our non-edible plants- an assortment of woefully neglected flowers and shrubs in the front yard.  Why a dog poo worm bin?  Never would have ventured in that direction, except that Inka loves to clean up after our chickens.  (Maybe that’s why she doesn’t hunt them- they have developed a symbiotic relationship; they provide her with delicious snacks, she protects them from would be predators, which, so far, just include the cat and friends’ dogs that come over.  We’re hoping she’d protect them from raccoons as well.)  Anyway, Inka is stealing the lawn fertilizer that the chickens provide, so i decided to reclaim it (and reduce dog waste going to the landfill) with a dog poo worm bin.  However, now that’s it’s been a few months since we got the chickens, the delightful novelty of chicken poop seems to have worn off, and Inka does not eat as much.  So….  we might not continue with this bin, unless it makes such fantastic compost that we can’t not continue.  We are saving more organic matter from going to the landfill… but it’s still gross.

With all of these avenues of composting, you’d think we’d be a streamlined operation here, but the compost doesn’t seem to come fast enough.  Half of our garden beds are in dire need of an infusion of organic matter, and by the time we have a few batches finished to feed them, the other half will be at that point.  We also don’t have a good sunny location to put our compost tumbler; the sun’s heat would make it go more quickly.  So we end up putting partially finished compost on the garden beds.  This releases readily available nutrients to the veggies, but finished compost contains nutrients in forms that are slower to break down and therefore are released to the plants over time- good for long term feeding and to avoid nutrient leaching.

We also never seem to have enough room or containers for all of the material we want to compost.  We’ve got four people total living in our house and producing food waste.  David and i have built worm bins one after another to hold everything coming out of our kitchen- we’ll soon be at number four- and the worms don’t seem to be munching quite fast enough.  Now that the chickens are full grown, they should be able to help us out with a good portion of the food scraps.  Someday we’ll find a balance… perhaps when we move to a place with a bigger yard with space for a real compost pile or another couple of tumblers… and more chickens… and a couple goats.

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This is my friend Schillaci’s blog.  I have recently discovered it and it’s utter hilarity.  It’s about running, which i do not currently do and thus i do not understand about 35% of the terms used in many of the posts, but the stuff is highly entertaining nonetheless.

Man… some people can write!  The post about what does and does not constitute a “journey” is my favorite thus far.  I will definitely remember that smackdown when i’m being overly dramatic about how i constantly fail to get myself to do yoga, even though it’s highly fashionable and would save me from microscope- and dissection-induced back pain.  Or when i congratulate myself for walking the dog for more than half an hour.  Or when i bike to work on Saturday, even though i’m allowed to park in the parking garage for free on weekends.

Come to think of it, have i ever completed a real journey?  Hmmm… i guess the closest i’ve come would be hiking 220 miles on the John Muir Trail in the Sierra Nevada.  That’s not too many miles, but i did it all by myself, with only the mosquitoes and marmots to talk to.  (That’s a lie- there were plenty of other hikers around- if i’d have broken my leg, it would have been at most 16 hours before someone found me.)  In any case, i didn’t get attacked by natives, or have to eat a sled dog, nor did i sow my seed in any sultanates (i don’t know what that word means), so really, i should probably attempt the PCT or the Continental Divide Trail, or a cross-country off-trail trek through the wilds of B.C. before i can consider myself journeyed.

But i might just change my tagline to “my journey toward urban farming nirvana” in the meantime.

 

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Wednesday night David and I went to a neighborhood gathering up the street that turned out to be a “block watch” meeting.  There were appetizers, stories of crazy neighbors that had since moved away, a bit of gossip, and much chatter about the neighborhood raccoons and possum(s).  There are at least two raccoons that live around here- they both have thin and scraggly short tails and wrastle each other on people’s front lawns in broad daylight.  And i’ve seen one possum.  First time i saw it, it had a horrible limp and i thought it wouldn’t last long.  Then several months later i saw it again, still with a slight limp.  Glad it survived, but that’s one more critter to add to the list of potential chicken manglers.

Anyhow, several hours after the neighborhood watch gathering, i was heading down into the basement to get ready for bed and heard scrabbling near the recycling bin.  I peeked around the box and let out a fairly horrified “Oh my god!”  There was what appeared to be a humongous rat clinging to the handle of a milk jug with it’s back to me.  But the fur was a bit wispier, white at the tips, and the ears were huge.  Upon getting a side view, i realized it was a baby possum and squealed a much more excited “Oh my god!!!”

We figure he must have come in through the cat door.  With some prodding, David got the little guy to get in a box and carried him over to the empty lot across the street.  Upon release he clung to the wall underneath the ivy and peaked out with very cute eyes.  See reconstruction below:

Fast forward to last night, when David and I are making pizza with housemate John and friend Lindsay.  I see Tilly jump in through the window carrying none other than Wednesday’s rescued baby possum.  I yell at her.  David yells at her.  She drops the possum, who is curled on the floor, breathing heavily and grimacing with a lot of very ugly teeth.  Everyone’s sad and we think about how many times we’ve tried to save rats or birds that Tilly has brought in- they all end up dead in whatever little box we’ve fixed up for them with water and peanut butter.  But, we decide we can’t just give up on a possum, so into a box with some cat food and up on the closet shelf he goes.  Maybe he’s just playing dead!  We joke about how, maybe, if we were successful in saving this possum’s life, he could very well come back to eat our chickens one day.

Of course we forget to check on him until tonight, and of course the box is empty when David looks in him.  I’m hoping he found his way down from the shelf and out the cat door again…  but he could be hiding in the sleeve of a coat or in a shoe, biding his time until the house is quiet and he can raid the cereal boxes or pet food.  We’ll see.  He’s not big enough to hurt the chickens yet, and maybe he’ll at least keep the rats out.

 

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Often when we go on vacation for more than a couple days, the basement of the house is relatively quiet and the rats that live in the neighborhood feel they can infiltrate through the cat door and explore.  Then we come back, and Tilly immediately catches one, carrying it around the house like a prize, fighting off the dog for it.  This most recent rat was only half dead- still breathing and aware, but unable to move except for the occasional outburst of squeaking in pain.  While we do like Tilly to catch rats to keep them from living in our walls, we like when she kills them quickly.  This was not one of those instances, and animals in pain cause both David and i much distress.  So i decided that since i have learned through my lab work how to kill mice, i would employ those skills to help this rat pass quickly.  What an odd feeling it was to have decided that.

In lab, when a mouse experiment is done or when it comes time to collect immune cells or blood or the liver from a mouse to gather data, we generally euthanize the mice by CO2 inhalation in a small chamber.  Though it’s apparently the nicest, least painful way for the mice to die- they essentially pass out and then die in their sleep- it’s not enjoyable to watch as they first scrabble around the cage to find air and then lay heaving as they take their last few breaths.   Then, the international animal care committee has a rule that we must kill them a second way to make sure they are dead and do not come back to life only to find themselves in a plastic bag in the freezer- a fate surely more terrifying than dying in one’s sleep.  The second method is cervical dislocation, in which you hold the mouse’s head/neck down between pinched thumb and forefinger, then yank the base of the tail away with the other hand until you feel the skull pop away from the spine. This is painless for the mouse, because it’s already dead.

So, i wrastled the rat away from Tilly and told David to stay inside while i took the rat out back.  David is even more sensitive than me about animals dying, and since i already have my issues and hundreds of dead mice under my belt, i wanted to spare him the experience.  I grabbed the rat with a plastic bag, held the neck, and pulled on the tail.  I’m not sure why it surprised me that a live rat would struggle, unlike the dead mice.  It took me a couple tries to pull hard enough against the rat’s contracting muscles, but once i got it, the body went limp instantly.

I did feel like i had accomplished something, for the rat’s sake and for my, uh, gutsy-ness, but i’m not sure i would do the same thing again.  There’s a sharp difference between seeing an animal die and doing it with your own hands, and i don’t know that most people (including me) are strong enough to have the benefits of putting an animal out of its misery outweigh the toll that killing the animal takes on one’s heart.

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Our garden seems to grow fairly slowly… but that’s likely because i check on it 3 or 4 times a day.  Turns out that going out of town for a long weekend helps the veggies get bigger much faster.   Upon our return we discovered both the runner beans and pole beans had started producing (half of which we ate immediately), we had one fairly solid cabbage, one slightly scrappy but surely delicious head of broccoli, and one giant zucchini (for which i cursed out Chris Rupp, as he is the protector of the squash- ensuring that none goes unpicked before it gets giant… which i guess is somewhat difficult from his current location in Boston.)

The pea vines were also starting to dry up, so i picked the last handful of pods and ripped out the vines and tossed them on the lawn for the chickens.  They also got lots of slug-damaged cabbage leaves.  But really, the thing they’re most excited about when we return from out of town is a good dust bath.

From the ‘rents garden in Kuna (Southwest Idaho, near Boise) we brought back a load of crook neck and zucchini, but none of the weird volunteer squash crosses that looked like they could taste like orange cucumber, green pumpkin… or bumpy ghostly nothing.  We also brought back a mint plant- in my carry-on luggage.  On the way to play at the Lucky Peak reservoir, we passed one of the many mint fields in southern Idaho and stopped to pick a few sprigs to freshen the car on the way up.  They smelled so amazingly good that we decided we must make mojitos that evening, and on the way back stopped to grab some more.  Instead of a few sprigs, this time an entire plant was accidentally ripped out of the field, and there was a mad scramble to get back in the car and squeal away- car door still open- from the scene of the crime.  The mojitos were delicious, and having a whole plant meant that i could take a clump and plant it here in Seattle.  We already have a “spearmint” plant from the Seattle Tilth plant sale, and i believe this one from Idaho is “peppermint.”  It smells so gawdawfully good that it nearly makes you sick.  We will make peppermint tea as soon as the poor thing recovers from being wrapped in wet paper towel, triple-bagged, and shoved in my backpack for several hours.  Yum.

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