Second Half of a Duck’s Life 1996 – 1997
Registration forms for the Monterey County Fair were due in July. Meg and Allie, who were showing rabbits and pigs, suggested showing Quackers in the poultry division. We agreed that Quackers could join us at the fair, but no one had any desire to hold him. Quackers would be strictly “shown for judging,” but not in the “showmanship” event. No one in the family, or in the entire 4H club for that matter, wanted to participate in showmanship competition with that duck. Far too dangerous.
In showmanship, the 4H member demonstrates how to handle the animal, such as a sheep, pig, cow, or a duck. The competitor’s job is to present the animal to the judge and to demonstrate how easily he/she commands the animal. As an example, in pig showmanship, 4Hrs use canes for physical prodding to maneuver pigs around the corral. Come “fair time,” it is apparent which kids exercised their pigs and which kids did not. Pigs that dart while barking like dogs and that run down other pigs or small children or elderly are pigs that received inadequate exercise by their 4H member. Other pigs that stroll along with gentle encouragement by a cane to reveal their well-developed ham-hocks or muscular shoulders are pigs that received regular exercise. Poultry showmanship involved holding the animal and there was no way any of us could handle this unruly duck. The duck could compete, but not in showmanship.
The morning of the fair, we lined the familiar orange crate with a bedding of hay to drive the 20 miles with Quackers’s head peering out of the crate. He squawked the entire way as though giving us directions, as though he knew where he was going. At check in, the poultry division leader immediately called for the largest cage available—likely one used by Macaws, Iguanas, or something even larger. The leaders banded Quackers, checked him for disease, and pronounced him “a healthy, prime specimen.” Quackers attempted to bite their hands, but these seasoned professionals knew exactly how to handle this difficult bird.
The first day of the fair was children’s day, where processions of schoolchildren marched through the animal exhibits. Most of these kids lived in the city and only saw farm animals at fair time. The poultry barn was the first barn in the livestock area, so the children’s’ energy and enthusiasm for the day was at a peak of excitement. Posted at each entry to the barn, above each block of cages, on every post were signs cautioning people NOT to put fingers in the cages. Beneath the warning, in smaller print, was an explanation that this disturbs the fragile birds. Young children do not read signs, so teachers, chaperones, and poultry leaders cautioned children to look, but not to touch the cages. For some, of course, this was not a warning, but an invitation. Quackers was at the far end of the block, near the back, waiting. Kids ran their fingers along the cages just as they would run a stick along a picket fence, enjoying the thud-thud-thud and resulting flap-flap-flap as the birds freaked and flew to the back of the tiny cage for safety. Except when they arrived at Quakers.
Quackers squatted at the edge of his cage, ready to bolt for freedom, ready to reclaim his yard, ready to bite whoever dared approach. One crying, screaming child after another learned a lesson that day, and the poultry leaders loved that bird even more. At the end of judging, Quackers won Best of Water Fowl, Best of Show, and $14.
Quackers earned family respect and admiration by winning the titles of Monterey County Fair Champion Water Fowl and Best of Show in Poultry Division awards. He gave us excitement (chased children and wild animals from our yard), money (won $14 from the County Fair), and fertilizer (everywhere he waddled in the yard and on the deck), but the lovable Quackers, pet extraordinaire and award-winning duck, met an untimely death in the form of a neighborhood dog (or raccoon or skunk or possum or cat—the duck had many enemies) in early fall.
I will never know what beast the duck encountered, yet I have no doubt that there was quite a struggle. Judging by the down feathers and fur floating in the air and on the trees, the blood-stained dirt, the trampled bushes, Quackers must have inflicted his share of wounds upon the perpetrator (as he did on all of us). As the sayings go, “He who lives by the sword must die by the sword” or “All bills must be paid.” The duck attacked everyone, except perhaps Dale—the alpha male of our flock, who dared enter his domain. In fact, the night before he died, Quackers brutally bit a skunk on the nose. I knew what was going to happen next, so I darted out the garage and into the backyard, which, of course, meant the duck now had to chase yet another invader from his yard. I owned the house; the duck owned the yard. He quacked, released the skunk’s nose, and went after me. The next day the duck died and we cried.
We received the call from our whimpering children who arrived first and witnessed the carnage. It has taken years of therapy to relieve them of the trauma. Though the girls considered Quackers a general nuisance, avoiding him at all costs, their phone call betrayed their true feelings, “Ducky’s dead. He’s dead.” I cried with them. He was fodder for many a story—shoot—he could have been a book.
Dale drove quickly home to bury Quackers beneath our fruit trees, a veritable orchard and pet cemetery in our yard. Beneath each fruit tree (and we have dozens) lie the remains of cats, dogs, rabbits, birds, hamsters, and now our duck. Dale had skinned several of our previously dead animals, just like out of those crazy, southern backwoods shows on television. Rex, our 4H show rabbit who died years before, was our first model with a hide we deemed too precious to waste. Dale skinned that thing, stretched and salted it, and we both used the sample fur for years in our biology classrooms. In fact, I passed the “skinning” technique on to my biology classes, as we “harvested” the hides of fetal pigs from dissection, using them for hacky-sacks or mini-footballs (pigskins for pigskin).
However, Quackers’s death was different. The wafting down feathers might have made a pillow or jacket, but not this time. Quackers required a deep hole and resting place near the plum-tree and beneath his old swimming pool. Our family needed a break from the drama.