So Grateful

It’s been a pretty excellent Thanksgiving here at the Abbey: a gorgeous day, delicious dinner with family, and starting to feel better after way too long being sick. It’s also the first anniversary of Linus joining our household, going from shy and skittish shadow hiding in the garage to boldly demanding breakfast and cuddles at 4 am with a cheery “Merrow.” We’re grateful for the furry and feathered faces who greet us each day, and for the simple pleasures they help us appreciate: warm, cozy beds;image dustbaths;image

sunbeams; nest boxes with eggs;image

and being loved.image

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone from all of us!


Animal Hospital


There has been resounding silence from the Abbey these past few weeks because Coop Mistress has pneumonia which, in a word, sucks. In addition to all the wonderful care my human family has been providing, I’ve been fortunate to receive round-the-clock medical care from the world-renowned Dr. Cookies and his resident, Dr. Linus. Dr. Cookies


has barely left my side since all this started. Except when he needs to recharge himself in a sunbeam, he has been next to or on me, purring and being warm. Dr. Linus does rounds with him, coming over to give head bumps and snuggles, and then busies himself bringing me crickets, patrolling for mice


in the basement,  and folding laundry. These good doctors recognize that caregivers need care as well and have been making sure DH and DS get their share of kitty love too.


And, while the saying “No one in the barn cares if you’re sick” may be true generally, the ladies have been doing their part to keep up my morale. The weather has generally been mild here so when I’ve been able to sit outside to rest in the fresh air, I usually have a chicken near me too, checking in and telling me all sorts of important things. Taking care of them can be hard when I feel lousy but seeing their cheery little chicken faces when I open the coop is a serious spirit booster. Their eggs have been some of the few things I’ve had an appetite for. Not only do my pets make me breakfast, but they also make me medicine.

So the Abbey will be back online soon. Meanwhile, here at Veterinarians’ HospitalAnimal Hospital,  I’m in great hands, paws, and wings.

Happy National Cat Day!

"Every day is National Cat Day!"

“Every day is National Cat Day!”

Whether they’re sleeping, subduing yarn, helping with computer work or snuggling with stuffed animals the same size they are, cats are seriously the best. Happy National Cat Day to my sweet friends, my spiritual advisers, my world-class purrers and bedtime story assistants. I don’t know what I’d do without you guys.

"You could be mi-ine, but you're waaay out of li-ine!"

“You could be mi-ine, but you’re waaay out of li-ine!”

"Wait! You didn't use an Oxford comma!"

“Wait! You didn’t use an Oxford comma!”

"Not only is this owl snuggly, but I can camouflage next to it!"

“Not only is this owl fellow snuggly, but I can camouflage next to it!”

Happy Back to the Future Day!

"There are those deer again, mocking my housecatness . . ."

“There are those deer again, mocking my housecatness . . .”

Small Human had once again left his guidebook to prehistoric animals open to the Feliforms page. Intrigued as usual about his forebears, Linus went over to read, when suddenly he noticed that Small Human’s toy DeLorean was blinking. “I didn’t know that toy blinked,” said Linus as he touched it with his paw.

WHAP! Linus found himself streaking through the air! WHUMPF!  The toy car unceremoniously dumped him onto a warm grassland. Linus thought he recognized a rock outcropping as the one he could see through the living room windows, but the house was nowhere to be seen. He looked down and saw that his little white paws were now brown and huge, and he felt two strange objects on either side of his chin. He wiped his face with a paw and felt: fangs! “I’m a saber-toothed cat!” Linus realized with a thrill. “Not sure what the car had to do with it, but now I can finally get those deer! Hooooooowaaaaaarrrrrrh!”

Prey is in sight!

Prey is in sight!

With a bone-rattling roar, Linus bounded towards the small herd of deer that was leisurely browsing on bushes near what would have been the end of the backyard. “I know I’m supposed to be an ambush predator,  but this is too much fun! Roooooarrrh!” The deer scattered,  but Linus noticed one that ran just the slightest bit more slowly than the others. His ears and eyes locked on to the target.

As Linus ran, the seamless rhythm of his bounding legs and the flow of Pleistocene air through his nostrils made him feel like time was standing still. All he knew was the hunt, and the surety that this deer would be his, that his pride would eat well tonight. The deer

"We feast tonight!"

“We feast tonight!”

zigzagged in a futile attempt to throw him off its path; Linus effortlessly changed direction along with the deer, each leap bringing him closer. With a mighty push of his hind legs, he soared and brought his powerful front legs down on the deer’s shoulders, knocking them both to the ground. He sank his jaws around its throat, his long saber teeth giving him an unshakable hold on the deer’s flesh as it thrashed its life away.

Linus turned, panting, surveying the now quiet veldt around him. He turned to haul the deer back to his waiting family.  He noticed a small blinking object near his paw. Annoyed, he batted it away. WHAP! “Nooooo! My delicious deer!!!!!” roared Linus as he felt himself streaking through time again.

“Are you fantasizing about catching those deer again,  Linus?” chuckled Cookies from the red couch. Linus looked and between his small white paws was a roll of sea-green yarn.

“But, I was there!” Linus gasped. “I had it in my saber teeth!”

“I know you did,” said Cookies gently. “Believe me, I know.” In the living room corner blinked the toy silver DeLorean.

What's the last thing a Pleistocene deer sees when it is in the paws of a mighty saber-toothed cat?

What’s the last thing a Pleistocene deer sees when it is in the paws of a mighty saber-toothed cat?

Thank You, Saint Francis!


A Presbyterian St. Francis loves animals too!

Under the Christian liturgical calendar, October 4 was the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, founder of the eponymous order and patron saint of animals. To honor him (in a wonderfully pagan throwback), various churches hold Blessings of the Animals, where pets and/or their proxies can receive a blessing in his name. At some churches (such as the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York), this is a huge deal.
Out here in the ‘burbs, it was a quieter but no less heartfelt affair. Various dogs, cats, and their attendant humans gathered in the garden at our local Presbyterian church, where the pastors had organized a sweet little service. Since none of the Abbey’s denizens wished to attend in person, the Coop Mistress was sent with collars (for the cats) and a hen saddle (for the chickens) to be blessed.


Blessed items plus commemorative tag and cat treats.

As should be no surprise, the attendees sorted themselves into dog people and cat people automatically, and not just those who had animals with them. Everyone was very friendly, but the immediate formation of dog and cat camps was amusing. Most cats, as is their wont, sent proxies for their blessings; I was honored, however, to have the privilege of meeting a 20-year-old cat named Maisie, who came with no carrier but lounged in her human’s arms, serenely watching the goings on and patiently waiting for the cat treats to be distributed. Just looking into her sweet green eyes was a blessing in and of itself.

When it was my turn for a blessing, I gave the names of the animals on whose behalf I was there. Apparently, not many chickens or their representatives attend this ceremony, so afterwards there was a Q&A. I love blowing people’s minds with how intelligent and kind chickens are. Perhaps next year Jenny will have to put in an appearance as spokeschicken. I know she would have a lot to say to St. Francis.

"You woke me up to pose with this why?"

“You woke me up to pose with this why?”

Back home, no one wanted to wear their newly-blessed items but were willing to pose with them. Oh well, it’s the thought that counts. Perhaps by the feast of St. Anthony the Abbot I’ll be able to wrestle the collars on these two.

"Collar? You mean, cats wear stuff?"

“Collar? You mean, cats wear stuff?”

Hang On, Pumpkin, Pumpkin, Hang On!

"Why does beauty have to be so hard?" Note the pin feathers on her wing. Her whole body is covered with these, underneath the fluff.

“Why does beauty have to be so hard?” Note the pin feathers on her wing. Her whole body is covered with these, underneath the fluff.

Wow. Molting is serious business with poor Pumpkin. In my limited chicken-keeping experience I’ve never seen molting malaise like this. The poor girl has not left the coop for five days except when I’ve brought her out. When the weather was windy and wet I didn’t drag her out since she has no protection with her feathers in this halfway state, but even these past few sunny days she has not wanted to leave the roosts. Luckily, her buddy Alice has been looking after her and has stayed with her; Alice is usually all about going out but she has made it clear

Thank you for being a friend: our two Golden Girls.

Thank you for being a friend: our two Golden Girls.

that her job has been to keep Pumpkin company. So, it’s just been Jenny, Sally, and Nutmeg in the tractor these past few days.

It’s truly lovely today so I scooped Pumpkin up and sat her in the sunshine on my lap, where she snuggled in and did a little sunbathing. She also then slowly wandered off to take a dust bath with everyone else. However, she’s not really eating and I’m concerned. I will be hitting (aka the Library of Alexandria of chicken knowledge) for a molting muffins recipe this afternoon.

Sunlight and snuggles are a good prescription for many maladies.

Sunlight and snuggles are a good prescription for many maladies.

Edited to add: I found a recipe! Thank you, The Chicken Chick! Yes, I bake for my chickens; don’t you?

Fall Fashion Week at the Abbey

What have we here?

What have we here?

Now that the light has changed and we hurtle into fall and winter, it’s time for all style-conscious folks to update their looks.  We here at the Abbey are rocking new haircuts (Coop Mistress and DH), the start of velvety winter coats (Cookies and Linus), and that time-honored style that chickens everywhere absolutely love (not): molting. Like so many things in nature that we pretend don’t apply to humans, light levels affect chickens’ reproductive cycle and how their bodies replenish themselves; as the hours of daylight decrease, the ladies’ egg production slows down and the casting off of old, last-season feathers begins.


Adult feather on left, juvenile feather on right. How they’ve grown!

Chickens generally have a juvenile molt when they are about 4 months old, and then an annual molt at around 16 months of age and every year after, usually in the fall but this varies. Some chickens molt hard and fast and lose the bulk of their feathers at once; others do it gradually. Typically, molting starts with a buildup of fluffiness as new pin feathers grow in and start to displace the current ones. Jenny models hard-core back feather fluffiness here.

Baby got fluffy back.

Baby got fluffy back.

Sally, meanwhile, shows us leg and rear end fluffiness in extremis.

What are you looking at?

“What are you looking at?”

"Button quail? Really? Want to step closer and tell me that?"

“Button quail? Really? Want to step closer and tell me that?”

As the first of our hens to lay eggs, Alice was the first to go into full molt mode, too. Her molt pattern is slightly different because she was regrowing back feathers that had been pulled out by an overly exuberant rooster. Once those were well under way, she followed one of the typical patterns (though these vary depending on the individual hen): primary wing feathers dropping off one by one, followed by a profusion of fluffy body feathers, and the complete loss of tail feathers. Without her tail feathers, she reminds me of a button quail (sorry, Alice). She also has loads of pin feathers on her head, cheeks and chin, which give her a porcupine-ish look.

"I am so getting you back for publishing this photo."

“I am so getting you back for publishing this photo.”

Pumpkin, our second to lay, is also our second to molt. She is in wing and fluffy body feather shedding mode right now, and her tail feathers look like they’re about to drop any second.

"Yes, I'm about to lose these tail feathers. I feel like hell. Go away."

“Yes, I’m about to lose these tail feathers. I feel like hell. Go away.”

Nutmeg seems to be heading towards losing the tail feathers first, as can be seen in how far they are sticking out. She looks like she’s wearing a shark fin on her rump.

"Shark? I'll show you shark."

“Shark? I’ll show you shark.”

Amusing as it is for onlookers, molting is really uncomfortable for the chicken. Pin feathers have blood vessels in them so if they break for some reason, they bleed. They also are very sensitive to touch. Alice is usually a cuddle bug but she runs from me now, not wanting to be picked up lest I accidentally bump her poor pin feathers. Pumpkin has been sitting in the coop growling and sulking for the past two days. I imagine that between the physical sensation of growing new feathers plus the altered hormonal state that accompanies it and slows down the laying, they must feel pretty miserable. So everyone has been getting extra, protein-rich treats to support feather growth and lots of commiseration.

But like most things having to do with high fashion, all the suffering turns out to be

Dreamer was always the epitome of chicken beauty.

Dreamer was always the epitome of chicken beauty.

worth it. When the new feathers are in, they are shiny, beautiful, and so, so soft. Our old hen Dreamer, who was golden with her first suit of feathers, picked up copper and silver highlights with each molt and got progressively softer. Hang in there, ladies. This too shall pass and you will be strutting your stuff in no time. Meanwhile, I need to come up with some cool craft ideas for all these gorgeous feathers that are all over the place . . .

Red In Tooth and Claw

Every cat deserves to be tucked into bed.

Every cat deserves to be tucked into bed.

As a general matter the Coop Mistress tries not to be too emotional about the, er, messier aspects of nature. Everyone and everything has to eat, and if one is an obligate carnivore, one is obliged to eat meat. That’s just how it is, and generally we all have our place in this cycle. It is hard not to be angry, however, when the cycle gets out of whack because a creature who does not belong in a particular part of the cycle gets swept up in it thanks to human negligence and selfishness. Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord; I shall repay — but it isn’t fair when the sins of the humans are visited upon their animals.

The level of nocturnal — and even diurnal — coyote activity in the woods around here was easily five times what it usually is this summer, as it was last summer too. There are enough coyotes — and enough natural prey — around to sustain a breeding population; last summer, Cookies noticed and showed me a mother coyote trotting along a stone wall at the back of our property, carrying a puppy in her mouth. A few weeks later the ruckus started, and the usual three or four coyote voices were joined by at least four or five more squeaky-sounding ones. The same happened this year in mid August, and my theory is that the young ones were large enough to learn to hunt and be socialized into the pack. (Coyotes around here are actually hybrids with wolves and are therefore not solitary, like they are out west.) The demand for prey for these growing mouths therefore quadrupled, and the pack worked hard day and night to feed itself.

Feral? Yeah, right.

Feral? Yeah, right. Fluffy enjoys a tummy rub.

In the midst of this, our neighbors’ cats Fluffy and Blackie went missing. As was mentioned in a previous post, Fluffy, her friend Butterscotch, Blackie, and a few other cats were refugees from a feral cat colony centered around a now-empty house on our street. The people in this house had their share of trouble — one of the reasons the house now stands empty — but their (presumably good?) intentions in taking care of feral cats spiraled out of control when they left three years ago. The colony grew to approximately 20 cats and counting, and at last Animal Control was called in to round up what cats they could. Fluffy, Butterscotch, Blackie, et al. escaped the dragnet and ended up being cared for by our neighbors who couldn’t stand to watch them starve. These neighbors called in a Trap, Spay & Neuter group who took several away for adoption and fixed the remaining ones. Our neighbors are unable to bring cats inside their house for various reasons but looked after them daily and built a special shelter for them, which has stood them in good stead during the past few brutal winters.

Now, the extent to which all members of the colony were truly feral is debatable. Blackie, a little black, cross-eyed kitty, was incredibly skittish and would not let anyone near him. Butterscotch is shy but friendly and will happily come over for rubs and a chat. Fluffy, however, was probably much more of a house cat than a feral. She loved her tummy rubs and always had lots to say with little, kitten-like mews and many head bunts. With short legs and a pudgy tummy, she did not seem like much of a hunter; Blackie, with his eye condition, probably wasn’t much of one either. As long as they stayed close to the neighbors’ house and yard they were fine, but Darwinism certainly was not in their favor if they happened to venture too far into the woods and meet the megapack.

This is apparently what happened. Fluffy, who never missed a meal, suddenly disappeared soon after the coyote ruckuses started, and never returned. Blackie disappeared a few weeks later, as did a cat belonging to another neighbor. Since neither had previously been prone to wandering off on jaunts and have not resurfaced, they are presumed eaten. Thankfully Butterscotch camouflages well and seems to be more athletic and aware of her surroundings than those two, and I truly hope for her sake that it’s not just a matter of time, that the megapack has now broken up as this year’s pups matured.

Do these two look like they would rather be freezing their tails off outside, dodging coyotes and skunks?

Do these two look like they would rather be freezing their tails off outside, dodging coyotes and skunks?

Having rescued two amazing cats from this environment, I know it doesn’t have to be this way for them. For folks who say, “Oh, cats love to be outside; they need to roam, hunt, etc.,” I say BS. At least here where we are on the margins of suburbia, in an area that can support a decent-sized coyote population, this life is nasty, brutish and short. To cast them out because of negligence, ignorance, or downright idiocy is incredibly cruel. Fluffy, Blackie, and Butterscotch were so much detritus in one family’s meltdown — not that they seemed to be caring for their feral colony very well anyway — and now two of them died completely unnecessary deaths as unlucky outsiders in the food chain for opportunistic predators. Animals are not disposable — cats in particular, who tend to have more opportunities to breed than most dogs in this area and tend to be dumped or “set free” when they are no longer wanted because they are perceived as being able to take care of themselves.

Stay safe, Butterscotch. We're working to get you the happy ending you deserve.

Stay safe, Butterscotch. We’re working to get you the happy ending you deserve.

R.I.P., Fluffy and Blackie. You deserved better. Butterscotch, please hang in there. Hopefully we’ll be able to help your situation soon.

Teach Me How to Linus

Professor and student.

Professor and student.

From the day we first saw him, Linus has been a scholar of human and feline behavior. We have no idea of his origins, but we think he was fairly young when he first appeared, and he had very quickly realized that if he were to survive in the coyote-ridden, freezing world he would need to learn a thing or two.

One of the first lessons was how to find food when the ground is covered with snow.

"Really? I just show up and you'll feed me?"

“Really? I just show up and you’ll feed me?”

For this he turned to his first teacher, a cat named Sinbad who belongs to some neighbors. We had met Sinbad about a month before Linus. We assumed he was feral and began feeding him under a certain bush near the house and he always eagerly scarfed up what we offered, giving grateful head bunts and purrs in return. One day I noticed him coming towards the house from between our barn and run-in shed, looking behind himself every few strides. Then I saw what he was looking for: a small black-and-white cat who was tentatively following him. Sinbad coaxed the little cat to accompany him to the bush and sat down to wait. I immediately came out with two cans of food, but my approach terrified the little cat, who streaked away back past the barn. Sinbad watched him leave, stayed to eat a little, and then took off after him.

The next night, I happened to look out our mud room window and noticed a feline face peering back at me. It was Sinbad, who had never come up onto the porch before to ask for food. Of course I fed him; he was back again the next night at the same time. On the third night I was expecting him, but when I looked out I saw not Sinbad but Linus, looking hopeful but terrified. When I opened the door he disappeared under the porch, but as soon as I was back inside he hastily ate and then returned to his hiding place. We never saw Sinbad on the porch again, though he was around and about, but that became Linus’ feeding place for the next year. If Sinbad had not shown him where to go for help, I doubt Linus would have survived that horrible winter.

2014-12-11 21.05.46

School is in session.

Once Linus came inside, Cookies took over as Learned Professor in Human Studies. While Linus was still in his introductory safe room, Cookies would sit or sleep by the door, and acted as go-between. The first lesson was The Humans Are OK, and he would let me rub and snuggle him while Linus watched. Cookies does a behavior we call “Please Paw” when he asks for treats wherein he lifts his left front paw and looks hopeful; once Linus was out of the safe room he would please paw too at treat time. Toys were another lesson; much like a mother cat teaching her kittens to hunt, Cookies would bat a toy around and then alley-oop it to Linus for a try. Pretty soon Linus was subduing catnip bananas like a pro. The

Cookies demonstrates how it's done.

Cookies demonstrates how it’s done.

learning continues with Linus following Cookies into new, unexplored spaces, like baskets, coolers, and the laundry room. If treat time for cats has arrived, I haven’t hopped to it

Linus' turn.

Linus’ turn.

and Cookies is snoozing somewhere, Linus will handle the reminder.

Since then, Linus has taken his human studies to the level of the true anthropologist.  He follows me around watching what I do: what is this thing that sprays water that she steps inside? What is this box that makes noise that she puts our bowls into? What are these flat things she holds on her lap while talking to Small Human before he goes to sleep? What is this flat, glowing thing that she

"Not sure what Small Human sees in these things."

“Not sure what Small Human sees in these things.”

touches in a rhythmic pattern? What are these little colored things that Small Human sticks together and that make a big noise when he dumps them out of the box, and how does she use her paws to put them back in the box?

The usage of human “paws” is a subject of great fascination. One day I was stretched out next to Cookies on the floor, rubbing his ears and face. Linus came over to see what we were doing. He watched me for a few seconds, and instead of pushing in with a head bunt for his share of the rubs, he lifted a front paw and began to touch Cookies on the head with it too. Cookies looked at us both like “WTH?” Linus and Cookies groom each other all the time, and sometimes Linus will use his front paws to hold Cookies’ head still while he licks him, but this time the paw motion was petting, not holding. I have not seen him do that since, on his own — in the moment it seemed like he was deliberately imitating what I was doing.

Linus: "What do you think, Cookies? Is Sir David right for the part?" Cookies: "Absolutely. Tell Mike Rowe he'll have to wait until next time."

Linus: “What do you think, Cookies? Is Sir David right for the part?”
Cookies: “Absolutely. Tell Shatner he’ll have to wait until next time.”

Meanwhile, stay tuned for Linus’ forthcoming documentary “Living With Humans,” to be aired on BBC2 early next year. I even saw a contract lying around that indicates Sir David Attenborough may be narrating it . . .

What We Read On Our Summer Vacation: “Beyond Words,” by Carl Safina

Two paws up from Linus

Two paws up from Linus

Joining us for today’s round table discussion of Carl Safina’s Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel are resident literary critics Linus and Jenny Linsky.

CM: Thank you both for reading this book and offering us your thoughts. What did you think? I have a few criticisms, but overall I thought it was well done.

L: I really feel the need to point out that there were way too few cats in this book.

JL: And chickens!

L: And it was way too dog-centric, especially with his claim that dogs are the only species that domesticated themselves. We cats certainly didn’t allow you humans to domesticate us; we chose to be here.

CM: True, but the author chose to focus on three main species — elephants, wolves, and killer whales — because of their highly social nature and recognized intelligence (and, arguably, their popularity with the human reading audience). And to be fair, he does discuss lions and tigers to a certain extent. Unfortunately there is no space dedicated to chickens.

L: Yes, the lion and tiger parts were fascinating — I especially liked the discussions of tigers taking revenge on the humans who tried to kill them —  but let’s return to that word you just used: recognized. Safina’s point is that humans willfully and/or obliviously don’t recognize intelligent behavior in other species; they either expect intelligent behavior and thought to look like human behavior and thought, or don’t believe what they see because it would challenge many assumptions they have about the way the world works.

JL: Perhaps this just goes to what you said about choosing species to focus on

Jenny pauses from her busy acorn snorfing schedule to endorse this book.

Jenny pauses from her busy acorn snorfing schedule to endorse this book.

because of their popularity with humans, but I do feel he gives short shrift to avian intelligence. He does discuss corvids (those loud fellows manage to horn their way into everything) and birds’ brain size-to-body size ratio. However, I think his argument — namely, that humans aren’t paying enough attention — would have been stronger if he had chosen a non-mammalian species as an example. I think people aren’t surprised by intelligence and compassion in animals like wolves, especially since we see many of the behaviors in dogs —

L: — when we allow dogs to behave intelligently and haven’t overbred the intelligence out of them (unlike with cats) —

JL: — yes, good point, Linus; too many dogs are either engineered or allowed to be stupid or ill these days — but what I was saying is that discussing examples of compassion, social intelligence, problem solving, etc., in non-mammals would underscore his point. As Safina mentions a number of times, the evolutionary links between humans and other mammals aren’t all that far back in the past, and there are so many commonalities, like body structure, fetal development, and that weird hair that you all have. It’s a lot easier to read body language when the body you’re observing is closely related to your own. But it is possible to observe the workings of a mind that’s arguably more foreign to humans — like those of birds or reptiles — and including some of that would have strengthened his argument that intelligence is all over the animal kingdom if you pay attention and are willing to look at things from a non-human point of view.

L: I agree; towards the end of the book he describes the wonderful behavior of two giant tortoises who are kept as pets and they sound smart and hilarious — like us, Jenny. I would love to hang out with them and learn more about them. Coop Mistress, you said you had a few criticisms?

CM: My primary criticism is with the “gee whiz” style of presenting the information that predominates the first part of the book. Perhaps it’s because I’m a human who really tries to pay attention to the animal consciousness around me so his argument is not a bolt from the blue; I read the book because I was interested in the details he discusses for species with which I am less familiar. For the mass market audience who is interested in animals and conservation but who may not have given animal consciousness much thought, this style might be helpful, but I think that the book could have accomplished its goals without it. But that’s a minor point. My other criticism was yours, Jenny, about having chosen a non-mammalian species as one of his “main” animals. Again, that might have been an editorial decision so that the book would appeal to a broader audience, but I do think presenting a non-mammalian consciousness would have made the book that much stronger. So overall, paws and wings up?

JL and L: Paws and wings up!