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Well, at least one with the summer off takes on the job, with his wife, of OPS—overnight pet sitter. And sometimes, the sittees are chickens.
As a special education teacher at Wasena Elementary, I’m pleased to get to spend my summers in other people’s homes when they’re not there. With an invitation of course.
This is the summer life of an Overnight Pet Sitter, or OPS, which can often lead to a Special OPS mission, depending on the unruliness of the animals. I’ve been taking care of pets for about three years and, for the most part, the sittings are unremarkable, laid back affairs. Mini-vacations in many cases.
Liza and Sarah, family friends of my wife’s mother, asked us to stay at their place off Va. 311 on Bradshaw Road—a beautiful home, essentially a small farm, with dogs, a chatty parrot that greets you in the morning, horses, and chickens. My biggest fear as a pet sitter is having an animal die on my watch—not necessarily getting hit by a car, but even passing away from old age would be a nightmare. That being said, I couldn’t help but feel responsible for what took place while we slept at the farm, oblivious to the murder that transpired just outside our bedroom window.
In the evening, we counted the chickens as they went through their pecking order before entering their coop for the night—10 in all, and all were accounted for. We took special care to double check the latch on the door to be sure it was secure. Liza and Sarah warned us of the foxes’ and skunks’ insatiable taste for live chicken. They let us know ahead of time that if something were to happen to a chicken—if one were to get sick or attacked—to just double-bag it and toss it in the trash.
“It’s just part of life in the country, things happen,” they assured us. Still, as pet sitters, my wife and I find it good practice for the pets you left in our care to still be there when you return; even if it is just a chicken. Gabby, a Great Pyrenees charged with protecting the premises, especially the chickens, patrolled the grounds at night, or so we thought.
The next morning we opened the door of the coop and watched as the Chicken Run commenced towards the house and their feed. Dana counted to be sure all ten made it out for breakfast, but came up one short. After recounting, we searched the coop and that’s when we saw the carnage—blood streaked along the outside of the coop’s white frame and there, pulled tight against the chicken wiring, was the decapitated body of Chicken 10, as we referred to it in our debriefing. CSI Roanoke County was underway; after examining all angles and the trajectory of blood, along with the pattern of torn feathers strewn along the dirt, we determined a creature had grabbed the chicken through the wiring from outside the coop, then escaped with the head and neck, undoubtedly disappointed that the now exposed breasts did not follow.
Being the city kid I am, my first instinct was to call the owners and relay the details of the crime scene.
“Not a big deal, it happens,” we were told as we searched the cabinet for trash bags. It almost seemed like a waste, just to toss these perfectly good chicken breasts in the trash; “free range” poultry at its finest that would probably sell for $15 at Kroger, but we did toss it anyway.
A few nights later we again came up short as we counted the chickens entering the coop—now down to eight. This had to seem suspicious, now losing a second chicken, like we were negligent pet sitters. We scoured the yard, the woods behind their fence, the hay barn, porch, garage—you name it and our flashlight was cast upon it. Nothing. We paced back and forth across the yard, taking every opportunity to shoot the Great Pyrenees, Gabby, a menacing glare; had she been an employee, she’d be put on immediate probation, if not termination for letting her guard down for a second time.
Liza, a retired teacher and Sarah, a professor at Roanoke College are wonderful, understanding people and reassured us that something lurking in the woods was the culprit, although there were no traces of feathers or a struggle. Just gone. Poof. From 10 to 9, and now down to 8.
A few days later, we got a call from Sarah with the news that Chicken 9 was back! Or never really had left. Apparently, the chicken had set up camp in the back of the hay barn to roost, out of sight when we originally checked the barn. Avid travelers, they also informed us that they would be gone next summer as well and we were invited back to take care of the animals.
Oh, and they’ve added new members to their family—four more chickens and a Great Pyrenees puppy now learning under the tutelage of Gabby, whose protective prowess will hopefully improve over the course of the year leading up to our next summer stay.