It was at about 3:30 a.m. when, in the middle of a dream, I awoke to a noise. Since the noise appeared to be that of a rifle being discharged from somewhere about the house, the line between dream and reality was a trifle blurred. Grabbing my 12-gauge and donning my brown leather slippers, I shuffled hurriedly downstairs, thumbing a slug into each barrel as I went.
I tentatively walked off the porch and into the night. Apart from the sound of crickets, the yard was silent. The air was cool and damp with the early spring rain. Our housemate was out already, his five o’clock shadow in a state of advanced maturity, in a fuzzy tartan bathrobe and matching slippers. Across his chest was tactically strapped a very pragmatic M-16. There was an odd light in his eye, as if he had just seen enemy banners on the horizon. He spoke in a low voice: “Something’s at the chickens.”
We shone a flashlight out into the yard. The first thing we saw was the coop, which we had got on sale from a farm-and-home store. In the flashlight’s electric glare, we observed that where a nesting-box door had once been, there was a large gaping hole. From out of this hole protruded the neck, legs, torso, and very small tail of an Eastern Black Bear. It removed its head from the scuttled henhouse to reveal an unfortunate Plymouth Rock Hen, which it dangled in a rather louche manner from its snout.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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The bear itself was on the small side, not much bigger than a Great Dane. It is illegal to kill bears in New Hampshire, unless you can prove they are interfering with livestock or property; even then, you may not keep the meat. So, we fired into the ground, and our uninvited guest left after a couple of shots.
As we took our estimate of the fallen, we discovered we were down to three chickens. Examining the wreckage in daylight, we saw that the bear had peeled away one of the coop’s thin wooden walls like the lid of a tin. Inside were the speckled feathers and viscera that spoke of chickens in their last distress. It was like an examination of conscience.
When the next week drove me to the grocery store, I bought my eggs for the first time in months—the cheap kind in the anonymous-looking, factory farm pulpboard box, the kind without cartoon farmhouses and sunrises on it, or anodyne promises that the chickens concerned had not been at all uncomfortable. The experience felt slightly shameful, like having to call a friend and ask for bail money. The fact that my failure to keep hens resulted in no lasting consequence made me feel insubstantial, as if I might as well have not bothered to keep my own hens at all. When cooked, the eggs were a pale, sitting-room yellow, a far cry from the brilliant tangerine orange of my usual breakfast egg. Like Job with his potsherd, I felt pleasingly hard done by.
The bear, as it turned out, was a mere child, a juvenile delinquent who, shunning the frugal diet of berries and bark on which he had doubtless been brought up, had gone a-roving in search of more noisome delicacies. Occasionally, the neighbors would warn us that he had been found sitting in their driveway. To my mind, he had a sheepish look about him, like a New Year’s undergraduate caught naked up a lamp post.
The survivors were brought back to the barn for safekeeping until we could get a dog. The bear and I began to play a rather dangerous game of hide and seek. In fact, he and I were engaged in a guerilla war that was as cold as the Iron Curtain in January. I would often sit up nights, looking out over the garage, with a copy of Xenophon and a small gin. He would return, drawn, it would seem, by the luxuriate smell of garbage bins, and brazenly force his way under our garage door. Once the sanctum had been pierced, he would pad his way between our cars to tear open a bag of trash with a relish evident by the mess he left behind. I would shoot at him in hopes of frightening him away, my wife having decided that I would rather pay for ammunition than a fine. Once, I attempted a literal parting shot, but succeeded only in mutilating an innocent rhododendron.
Bears, like Sir John Falstaff, think discretion the better part of valor, and have the horsepower to put theory into practice. A lean black bear can, in full boogie tilt, reach speeds in excess of 30 miles per hour. Also like Sir John, this pestilential bear was wont to debauch himself in the middle of the afternoon. On one of these daylight raids, I heard a young member of the distaff side declare him “actually pretty cute.” In truth, as he impertinently shambled across the yard in his lanky, adolescent way, he was cute. But even though the last killing conducted by a New Hampshire black bear occurred in 1748, I felt that this one, if approached on intimate terms, might turn out less like a character out of A. A. Milne, and more like one of his distant relatives from the Brothers Grimm.
Reactions to the bear varied. The hens seemed to view him with matronly horror, and were clearly less concerned with the fact of their sister’s departure than its abrupt impropriety. The other ladies of the house seemed to vacillate between a keen regret that the fall of man had so inconsiderately brought predators into the world, and a fear of the violence that might be required if the beast’s encroachments into the garden and henhouse were to be stopped. I kept wishing that I’d just shot the creature.
Eventually, of course, our Dear Little Friend moved on to parts unknown, leaving our rivalry to be concluded another day. More chickens were acquired gratis from a craigslister, this time a random mix of Rhode Island Reds, Araucanas, and Leghorns, now safe under the watchful eye of a guard dog.
Ultimately, the tragedy stemmed from my failure to observe adequately, and then to act with prudence. Nature, after all, is not malleable to our will, and even amateur chicken-farming is not one of the plastic arts. Somewhat hubristically, I assumed that a bear would have as much reverence for the laws of private property as I, and that because the acreage I live on was marked and measured by a small New Hampshire town, a rampaging garbage gourmet would shuffle his paws embarrassedly and demure.
It was a false assumption. As it turned out, a good dog and a gun were the only solution. From the facts as I present them, I leave it to the reader to draw his own moral.
[Image: Whose Meat? by Charles Marion Russell]