Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012
With age, I’ve gotten a lot more reconciled to ulterior motives. Now, it’s unfortunately no secret that I attended an all girls’ school for 13 years (up until the time I flew away feverishly to a coed university) and I’m here to tell you that being with all girls all day long teaches you a lot about motives, ulterior and otherwise. I don’t know that a single sex educational experience is helpful or harmful to the learning process – in retrospect, I think I liked my school and especially my teachers who were dedicated and encouraging, not to mention their aiding in catapulting me to aforementioned coed university. But the social hierarchy of girls is brutal. In fact, it’s vaguely reminiscent of what I see out in the barnyard every day.
While I will credit farm animals with quite a bit less guile than adolescent girls, the struggle to get the best morsels (whether hay or young boys) nearly always involves elbows and hurt feelings and certainly means that someone is sitting at the bottom of the pile.
When new volunteers come to the farm, I try to explain the hierarchy situation to them. It’s important. Every once in a while we have a hierarchy-induced stampede through the barn. Granted, it’s only every once in a while, but if it happens on your shift, forewarned is forearmed. Mostly the strata run along species lines. Horses chase off cows, goats chase sheep, and dogs scatter the whole crew. But elderly Louie, the smaller horse, can move Bello the giant WarmBlood with a flick backwards of his ears. And while our horned steers generally make the sheep uncomfortable, not little Angel, an 80 pound Jacob with an 800 pound attitude. She marches right on out to the middle of the pasture where no sheep has ever dared to roam and eats from their round bale of hay without compunction. She’s also decided to take on Derry our livestock guardian dog, her personal mission, apparently, to try to render his job redundant.
Each animal seems to have his or her own preferred friend. You see them sleeping next to each other, eating together, harassing the farmer together. And they’re not always predictable friendships. I’ve caught Mr. Newman Goat sharing a snooze on a cold evening with Tetsuro the pig; Huckleberry the sheep leader almost always eats with the horses; and of course the most infamous case is the somewhat unnatural relationship Jean Claude the llama has with Louie the Morgan horse, but this is a family channel so we won’t go into that now.
And then there is Mabel. Mabel is a potbellied pig who came to live here last summer; her owner said she had become so fat that she could not see, and he didn’t know what to do for her. I had hoped Mabel would be a mate for our beloved bachelor Tetsuro, , but on the few times they have had occasion to interact (e.g., the gate was left open), he made it clear that she was NOT girlfriend material, even after dieting rendered her figure more svelte. I don’t know about you, but after 6 months of working off the pounds, I would be pretty depressed at this out of hand rejection. But not only did the dating game not work for these two, things got worse for Mabel. We’d had her in a small paddock with a barn so as to keep her safe from the other animals and to get her acclimated. But as her fat came off, her eyes still remained ensconced in large folds of flesh, so around Christmas we had the vet come out to take a look. We’d heard of surgeries that could be performed to help the vision, and wondered if she would be a candidate. Turns out that Mabel doesn’t have eyeballs. Huh boy. This was bad. Not only that, but the vet said she had pretty bad arthritis and seemed to be in some discomfort. In the spirit of full disclosure, I will also note that Mabel was not nice to be around. She would lunge at you with scary gurgling noises and shouting obscenities if you came too close to her. I know a good bit about foul language and this was off the charts.
Now, I really like animals, and I’ve got a lot of patience for even the most oddly dysfunctional among them, but I feared I was failing with Mabel. With the knowledge that she would never see, I began wondering about her quality of life, and went down the thought path of euthanasia. After all, she was always alone. Tetsuro hated her, and she wouldn’t be safe out with the other animals. What kind of lonesome life is that? Blind, in discomfort, and alone, refusing any kind of human touch. Was there any quality of life, except the two meals a day she seemed to relish?
Mabel reminded me of a girl I befriended back in second grade named Michele. She had such an unfortunate last name I don’t dare mention it here, and she was extremely hirsute. I used to invite her over to make Creepy Crawlers with me and she was companionable enough, but she used to tell stories of her father chaining her in the basement – true or not, I as a 7 year old had no possible means to evaluate this information and if we’d had the expression back then, I’d have said it “weirded me out.” She never did integrate with the rest of the class, who made fun of her mustache and wouldn’t eat lunch with her, and I think her parents moved away after that year because I have no memories of her after second grade. Poor Michele. Just like Mabel: hairy, strange, runt of the litter, dolt of the class. The unpopular girl. Woe betide the unpopular girl. Poor Mabel.
A few things changed. First, I asked the vet for some basic pain medication to address Mabel’s arthritis. Then, I made it my personal mission in life to get her to actually like being touched (she still grunts but no longer tries to take my hand off when I scratch her head and back). But the real change was this: I began observing that Mabel was, in fact, not alone. Every time I passed by, I saw her surrounded by beautiful birds. Some perching on the feedrack, some just hanging out in her barn, and a few brave ones actually standing on her back. Every morning after being let out of their barn, the chickens make a beeline for Mabel’s place. I know part of the appeal is the chance at snatching part of her breakfast. But breakfast doesn’t last all day, and those chickens hang around Mabel, food or not.
We all have preconceptions about companionship, with whom we walk through life. There is what we think we want, what we have ‘come to expect’, what we think others expect of us. I was so blind, myself, that I thought Mabel’s life was intolerable simply because she had no pig friends. But I think we should all count our blessings if we are half as popular as Mabel clearly is with the fowl at Star Gazing Farm.
“You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes well you just might find
You get what you need”
– The Rolling Stones
Till next time,
Star Gazing Farm 501(c)3
A haven for retired farm animals and wayward goats