I first became aware of Maureen two years ago when I started to see her sales post for the chicken coops she was building using reclaimed materials. As you might know, I am an avid freecycler and am always happy to see things being upcycled and saved from the landfill. I sent her a message about some barn wood being offered for free, thinking she might be able to use it. We belong to some of the same Facebook farm groups, but I’d never met her until she responded to my post asking for folks interested in being part of my ‘Neighbours’ series, profiles of local chicken keepers.
On arriving at her place, a house she rents on acreage in Cedar, I was amazed at the number of coops and structures she’s built, all dedicated to chickens. Maureen’s had a variety of farm animals for years: in the 1990s she lived on a farm in Yellowpoint with horses, pigs, turkeys and chickens. She bred Labrador Retrievers and even had some exotic animals: wallabies, coatimundis and serval cats.
She was active in back country and competitive trail riding. As a member of a provincial team she earned a bronze medal at the Canadian Nationals in Competitive Trail Riding. Her team of three participated in a seventy-six mile race over two days in the Rocky Mountains, which she recalls as the most memorable experience of her life.
In one of those ordinary events, that in hindsight you consider serendipity, while Maureen was laying on her couch her toy Poodle, Harley, stepped on her in such a way that caused pain. She touched the area and felt some tenderness. Later the same day, looking for a piece of scrap paper she picked up a flyer about mammograms. She called to make an appointment and mentioned the dog sniffing around the area where he had stepped. A notation was made – as dogs have been used to detect cancers. The first test didn’t detect anything abnormal, but because of Harley’s behaviour she was sent for further testing.
Sure enough her test results came back positive. Having gone through friends’ cancer journeys, she surprised herself by agreeing to chemotherapy without any hesitation. Thinking she was going to die she re-homed most of her animals and put all her energy into her survival. She kept Harley, who accompanied her to chemotherapy and for the six week stay at the Cancer Lodge in Victoria for radiation treatments.
Her partner moved in with her and became her caretaker. After eighteen years together they split up, but have remained good friends.
Maureen spent a quarter of a century as a client service rep for Service Canada: helping folks with pensions, unemployment insurance and passport applications. She returned to work when her cancer cleared, but found working full-time a challenge so has retired early with a pension.
Fifteen years after her diagnosis Maureen was looking for ways to manage the chronic pain from nerve damaged related to reconstructive surgeries. She was back in the saddle again – or not quite, as it turned out. She had acquired a leased horse and one day as she was about to mount the mare the saddle started to roll and Maureen ended up flat on her back. That setback – a compression fracture in her spine – required three months of absolute bed rest and a year of recuperation. Sadly the mare had to be returned to her owner and it took nine months before Maureen could consider getting another one. Tucker, an Arab-Quarter Horse allows her to mount from a fence or block and not risk rolling a saddle again.
The last few years she’s spent rebuilding her health and her menagerie. She lucked out on finding a rental that is both affordable and allows her to have a mini-farm. Her landlords, who live across the road, own a 144-acre Arab Horse farm and recently bought the 44 acre property she’s on. They hay the lower field and she’s got access to five acres. Her room-mate – another government employee – has a horse, a dog and four chickens. Maureen has four dogs (three Chihuahuas and a Labrador puppy), two mini horses, an Arab-Quarter Horse and a growing flock of over 80 chickens: 30 meat birds, more than 30 laying hens, 15 chicks and 6 roosters.
Her free-ranging flock consists of Polish, Silkie, Naked Neck, Barnevelder, ISA production layers and their offspring who are a mix of different breeds. She’s got some of the most spectacular looking roosters that I’ve seen. They all get along, except for one subordinate Polish rooster who gets bullied: he is penned with three Polish hens.
She is raising Cornish x meat birds, which are purchased as day old chicks and slaughtered at eight weeks with a finished weight of six pounds each. When I was there two Silkie chicks had just hatched in an incubator. The eggs were abandoned by the hen and she was trying to save them.
Maureen’s only been there eight months and had to build some chicken housing in the rain prior to moving her fifteen birds over to the new place.
During my move in stormy December, I met my neighbour, Clarence, who offered assistance unloading a chicken house. I happily accepted. Clarence mentioned the builder lady to another neighbour, Mike, who ventured down to introduce himself. I have been friends with them ever since. Mike has helped me with several projects on the property and I even introduced to Clarence to meat chickens and assisted him in successfully raising his first flock of twenty five. My neighbours enjoy endless happy hours with me sitting and viewing my menagerie. It’s better than reality TV, hence the phrase: “Having chickens is a great way to meet your neighbours”.
While we were sitting there her Yellow Labrador puppy was playing with the one chicken that seems to enjoy engaging with her. I can see how you could sit and watch them for ages.
Since her move she’s been on a roll building more structures. Having a farm requires lots of daily care and maintenance and for her, constructing shelters and storage buildings. When Maureen was a homeowner she did some home renos with her carpenter husband, but now as a single renter she’s doing it all herself.
She’s built two two-stall horse barns, a large storage shed, nine coops and housing for meat birds constructed from reclaimed materials: free cedar from the local mills, pallets and shingles from construction job sites, tongue and groove fencing that’s she’s had to de-nail, a dog house she found at the side of the road. All of it could be unscrewed, dismantled and removed. The fences are cores screwed together with no posts in the ground. Some materials, like roofing shingles, have had to be purchased, but her aim is to keep the budget to a minimum. She also builds buggies for her Mini Horses that she takes to local fairs.
It’s a good thing she spends lots of time at home – it’s meant encounters with predators have been minimized. One of her Silkie hens was killed by a mink, but luckily her Naked Neck hen stepped in to raise her orphaned chicks. There was another attack: in broad daylight Maureen saw a mink hopping along carrying an egg from one of the coops. Without thinking she kicked the mink, later realizing that she could have been bitten. Unfortunately the mink not only got the egg, but killed the hen who laid it.
Because Maureen continues to suffer with chronic pain, she works at her own pace. Some days all she manages to do is to care for the animals. Believing that the pain would be there whether she lay in bed or not, she opts to keep active. It’s clear that her animals are her life.
“My animals keep me alive and out of a dark place. You make decisions in life about what you want to do and this is mine. This is my holiday.”