FORT KENT, Maine — Anyone with pets or livestock knows the planning involved when leaving them for any period of time.
Regardless of the reason for leaving Rusty Metal Farm — vacations, business trips, medical emergencies — making sure the array of furred and feathered critters are adequately cared for is a big part of my pre-departure checklist.
Over the years, that planning has ranged from friends or neighbors simply stopping by to let out a dog if I am going to be gone all day to full-on Rusty Metal Farm immersion with someone staying here among the menagerie.
And, oh, how those friends and neighbors have stepped up.
Even at its most basic — making sure everyone has food, water and shelter — caring for a kennel of sled dogs, a flock of chickens, two cats and one very spoiled Shusky is a lot of work, and it’s not everyone who is willing to take it on in my absence.
But not everyone has friends like mine who, miraculously, are always ready to help out, which is really quite amazing, given what my animals have put them through in my absence.
Consider my friend Chad, who out of anyone has probably put in the most Rusty Metal Farm critter-sitting hours.
For the most part, things run pretty smoothly when he’s here — except for when they don’t.
Several years ago, I had my retired lead dog Apollo living in the house. Being quite elderly, he was content to snooze his days away on a fluffy bed, likely dreaming of his glory days on the trail.
Apollo was a calm, passive dog that ambled into his golden years with a pretty slow gait.
Until the day Chad put him on the leash to take him outside and Apollo apparently caught an enticing scent in the morning air.
Before Chad had time to react, Apollo had launched himself off the deck, clearing all four steps down and taking poor Chad with him, leaving him with a twisted ankle.
That was not the only time Apollo caused some trouble.
My dear friend Kim has never stayed here on the farm, but she has logged more miles than I care to count, coming and going to feed, water and check on various animals in my absence.
On one of my trips, Apollo went to stay with her for about 10 days and was, by all accounts, a very good house guest.
Until the day he decided he was bored at Kim’s house and went walkabout.
Kim let out Apollo like she had done every day he had been there. But when she went to bring him back inside, he was nowhere to be found.
With increasing alarm, she walked around her property, calling for him. After mobilizing her neighborhood to be on the lookout, she hopped in her car and expanded her search grid.
Eventually, she came across a fellow in his driveway, who said he’d seen the black-and-white husky with the red collar walking past his house toward town.
“He wasn’t moving very fast,” the man noted.
Sure enough, a quarter-mile down the road, there was Apollo, happily ambling along and perfectly content to hop into Kim’s car and conclude the day’s adventure.
Apollo was not the only one to make a break for it.
While Corky — everyone’s favorite Shusky and house dog — will sulk mightily when she sees my suitcase come out, she cheers up pretty quick when Chad arrives, and the two have a very good time together.
As long as that time does not go on for too many days.
It seems two weeks is Corky’s limit, because the two times I’ve been gone that long, she has packed her little bags, grabbed some kibble and run away from home.
Once my neighbor brought her back before she’d gotten too far, but the second time she was missing for the better part of a day.
I know this because another neighbor called me on my cellphone while I was on a bicycle trek in Georgia to ask if I was missing a dog. Corky had appeared — and then disappeared — from their yard.
Meanwhile, 1,500 miles to the north, poor Chad was ready to call out the National Guard to search for Corky and wondering if he’d be able to find a Shusky-replica in case she never came back.
Of course, she did come back and was promptly placed in doggy jail in an empty sled dog pen to prevent any further attempts at running off.
More recently, my friend Julie got in on the act when she kept an eye on things while I made a quick trip downstate to pick up seven new chicks to add to the chaos that is Rusty Metal Farm.
Things were going pretty well, she said, and it was all very peaceful and bucolic with the cats lounging in the sun, Corky snoozing on the deck, and the chickens contentedly scratching and clucking as they free ranged around the yard for the afternoon.
Things went somewhat awry, however, when Pi, a sled dog that often spends time in the house, gave Julie the slip and, with the unerring trajectory and speed of a heat-seeking missile, bolted straight for the chickens, Julie hot on her heels.
For their part, the chickens sprinted to their coop to take cover, save one Golden Comet, which Julie said froze in place before displaying an odd defensive move.
“The comet puffed all of her feathers out, and then POOF — all the feathers just fell off her body,” Julie said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
A trained anthropologist, Julie tried to determine the evolutionary advantage of instant feather shedding but was at a loss.
Fortunately, she was able to distract Pi long enough for the disheveled chicken to regain its composure and join the flock in the coop, despite no longer being a bird of a feather.
There have been countless other instances involving porcupines, skunks and emergency runs to the vets.
But, despite it all, my friends keep coming back, and for that I am truly grateful — and already planning the next trip.
Julia Bayly of Fort Kent is an award-winning writer and photographer, who writes part time for Bangor Daily News. Her column appears here every other Friday. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.