On Saturday, Day Four With Ducks, I sleep in recklessly until 7:20 but need to start the coffee before peeking at the girls. I take note that my cat isn’t too crazy about the new “check the ducks before checking the cat food” routine. Then, before opening the door, I brace for the possibility that Gladys might not have made it. It’s a moment’s hesitation but I can’t help myself.
As it turns out, all five ducklings are clustered together—alive! —a little ways off from the brooder lamp. This means that either it didn’t get too cold and/or they’re growing fast enough and don’t need the heat as much. (On previous mornings they were always under the lamp first thing.) Gladys is huddled at the edge of the group, closest to the heat but with them, not apart from them. I let out my breath.
After caffeinating, I go back and clean up the waterer and feeder. The new plastic grille seems to be doing the job of keeping the bedding drier. Everyone but Gladys comes and goes between the dispensers easily and freely. Since she seems to have trouble regardless of where I placed them, it felt fairer to position them where it would be cleanest for all. But my heart gave a twinge as I watched her continue to struggle.
In truth, it all feels very Darwinian. Charlie needed the Galapagos but the garage is enough for me. It’s all writ large inside this pen—the strong ones get the crumble, the weak one gets less. And meanwhile, here I am, working hard for the survival of the not-so-fit. Is that good/bad/ok? For her or for us? I can’t figure out how far to take it yet; I think I have to try.
Today, Gladys’ peers don’t seem to single her out for nips as much as before. They’re pretty much equal opportunity nippers if one of the others is in the way. But since they move much faster and are so much bigger, it’s Gladys who is often the roadblock. Worse yet, she periodically stumbles and ends up on her back. With ducks, it’s hard work to flip over again once they’re supine. At first, I would pick her up myself but yesterday I attempted a “wait and see” approach. Kind of like what you might do if your baby started crying in the middle of the night, seeing if she can calm herself before you rush in to pick her up. (Full disclosure: I wasn’t really great at that either.)
After each of these exhausting struggles, Gladys hustles back to the brooder to regain strength before attempting further forays. It’s tough to watch. She clearly knows how to eat and drink but she gets less because it’s so difficult. And I haven’t noticed any improvement in the opening on her head although I am dutifully applying the gel twice a day. I think I’ll call the vet again to check in. After feeding my cat, of course.
As the morning passes, Gladys goes from struggling to barely moving from the heat lamp. She even seems to have trouble keeping her eyes open—she is very weak, not eating but also, for the first time, not drinking. This won’t work. The others go their ducky way, scurrying in a cheery clump from water to food. They ignore Gladys but Puff, in particular, likes to keep one beady eye on me. With her height, she is the de facto sentry and unless I make a sudden movement, she doesn’t flinch like the smaller Cayuga ducks do. Leadership material. I have a passing thought, quickly suppressed, about how easy they are and was I missing the joy of seeing them flourish as I wallow in my anxiety about their flawed sister. Maybe I can see their perfection better because of her?
They do appear exemplars of duckhood–healthy, hardy and growing. Fast. The website folks warned me they would grow fast but I didn’t expect to see that growth practically happening in front of my eyes! In just two days, the other Welsh Harlequin has caught up with the Orpington Buff previously the biggest duckling, per her class (the Buff and the Cayuga are Mediumweight and the Welsh Harlequin is Light.) Of the Cayugas, one is slightly smaller than the other which is the only way we can tell them apart. Their fluffy juvenile feathers, adorable webbed feet and little bills are glossy black. The Welsh Harlequins are yellow streaked with black and the Buff a lovely soft yellow. My daughter, Pamela, says she can’t see the growth spurt but we both see clearly that Gladys’ size has not really changed in four days.
Pamela is on a playdate when I call the vet. I blurt out that I’m worried–this snippet of a duck doesn’t appear to be drinking and is just sitting under the brooder lamp, eyes closed. To my mind she is like all the dying birds I have ever brought home, fallen from trees, abandoned or stunned by circumstance. What should I do? I ask, distraught. I don’t want her to suffer. And what if she does die? Are we allowed to bury her? Do I bring her to you? I am told that Dr. Y, the exotic animal specialist and the vet originally recommended by the other duck owner, will call me to discuss.
It’s not much later but by the time he calls, I am mentally prepared that we will have to put Gladys to sleep. But as it turns out, Dr. Y’s take is a little different. He says there are three things we can do—put her to sleep, do nothing and see what happens or, give her an antibiotic injection to help her fight off a probable infection from the opening in her head. We discuss her daily struggles and the pro/con of prolonging what seems to be tough but not physically painful. I decide to bring her in and then decide.
When I quietly open the garage door, anticipating the crumpled form under the light, she’s not there. She’s with the others, galumphing between water and food, holding her sorry own. It’s as if she heard the discussions of her fate. I wait for her to get a little more water and then I scoop her into the carrier.
“Her crop is full of food,” Dr. Y says, as soon as he picks her up. This seems to be a deciding factor. I tell him of the change in her behavior right before bringing her over. Where is the sickly little thing I described on the phone? She is peeping away in his hands. He says that he got a look at her on Thursday so he must be able to see her progress (or lack thereof). He’s still optimistic about her chances and my spirits begin to lift.
And then he says, something along the lines of, “she may never be normal.” Pretty much what the other doc said, pretty much what I had concluded myself. He looks me in the eye and asks, very directly, if I can handle that. I meet his gaze and say with as much confidence as I can muster, yes, I hope so. I then blather on about how we bought this house with a big backyard and wanted to have the ducks run around, natural pesticide/herbicide, organic lawn, blah, blah, blah and pets, of course, blogging, and….I run out of steam. Jeez Louise. I could hardly sound more stupid or shallow. Gladys is not just a blog item. She is named. She is ours.
The doctor ignores my pretentiousness and merely says, I’ll give her the antibiotic shot. Come back in a week. He doesn’t add, if she makes it. He just says, come back. I like that he said it like that.
As I walk to the counter to pay, all at once I stop worrying whether I’m going to find her on her back some morning. I stop worrying if she is struggling too hard (she’s eating, he said she’s eating). I want this tiny awkward puffball to make it, damn the vet bill. (Andrew, forget you read that.) Daydreaming, I miss the moment when Gladys flips over in the cage and can’t turn back over. She whistle-peeps her distress, I say oops and try to reorient her as I juggle wallet and pen.
And then we head home, both of us.
Copyright 2012, Lori Fontanes