Many people love the autumn. I find the changing colors of the leaves and fields, however, to be a sign of the annual death we all experience in the world, in addition to the little and big deaths in our lives that punctuate all seasons — and thus of little cheer. And, of course, there are no sheep to shear which really puts a damper on things.
Because of the death in the air, recently I was contemplating the animals lost on the farm in the nearly 9 years I’ve been here. Death is a much better topic to discuss amongst farmers than all you “normal” people, for so many people experience death only a few times during their lives: select pets, family members, and friends. A mere trifle. Farmers have got it whacking away at them all the time and, like cops and morticians, they tend to develop a morbid sense of humor about it which is oddly comforting. (Definitely something I didn’t consider when the farm dream started.)
The problem as a city person migrating to farm life, is that we drag all of our cumbersome urban values along with us. I’ve happily been able to let loose of some inconvenient things like: tidiness in the home, owning any clothing that isn’t ripped or hopelessly misshapen, and the paramount importance of folding laundry on time. But guilt is one of those things that seems to stick to the ribs. And guilt ranks really high when it comes to animals and their welfare. I know folks who feel guilty because they waited too long to euthanize a sick pet, others who beat themselves up because they made the decision too soon, and yet others carry the enormous burden of not having been able to rescuccitate their animal just one more time and bring him back from death. It’s appalling what we go through.
But I think the worst happens when we simply don’t see. We don’t hear. We don’t pay attention to warning signs because: we are really busy thinking about our electric bill, cleaning up the kitchen sink, worrying about our schedule for tomorrow, rehashing a conversation that happened at work during the day, talking on our cell phone while we take care of six other things, paying as little attention to them as the person on the other end of the line. We are “busy”. But what is really going on is that we are walking around addled, absolutely unaware of any important signals that are trying to make it to our brains. [This is why I firmly believe that 12 year olds should be in charge of the world but that, as they say, is another story.]
So I didn’t pay close enough attention to suggestions that health problems were arising in Rosalita, a young, vigorous, and somewhat (just by the way) bossy Boer/Nubian doe. She ate well, played heartily, and complained very little, and her large build was quite typical of the Boer goat (a South African breed raised exclusively for meat and tending towards a very large girth which Rosalita had in abundance). The one odd thing was the occasional dried brown stuff around her tail area. I noticed it from time to time, cleaned it up, and then went on thinking about electric bills and making cell phone calls. It took a dramatic incident for me to wake up out of my idiotic stupor. I remember the moment really clearly. I was running the tractor rather late on a Friday evening in January of 2008, trying to clean out the animals’ favorite hangout spot. Rosalita was getting up and lying down, moving around in strange ways, and grinding her teeth (a distinct sign of pain in sheep and goats). I saw this. I cued into it. But I STILL kept running the tractor because I’d planned to spend an hour on it and really wanted to complete my hour. How many of you have kept doing something you really knew you should have interrupted for a more important and unscheduled news bulletin, but kept on going anyhow? And said to yourselves, “man, I *really* hope this isn’t going to be a problem.” Yeah.
In Rosalita’s case it was a big problem. I still didn’t want to accept that this might warrant the Big Guns (aka New Bolton Center at University of Pennsylvania) – I thought perhaps she might just have a urinary tract infection. Don’t you just love it when lay people try to perform random diagnoses based on no concrete scientific facts? So I drove her up to the closest and most convenient vet clinic in Buckeystown. Let me just say right here that convenience is not only overrated, it downright sucks when it comes to critical situations.
They performed unnecessary and painful procedures on her, dragged her by the horns through a long, long hallway to get her to these painful procedures, and then dragged her back out again afterwards, with absolutely no useful information to share after all of that trauma except a large bill I had to pay on the spot. (Sound like any of your recent hospital stays?)
They sent me up to New Bolton Center in Pennsylvania, where I should have hightailed it to in the first place – this is the premier center for large animal veterinary medicine and they can, as far as I can determine, perform miracles.
The drive was a good 2 and a half hours, and Rosalita lay in the passenger seat of the truck with her head in my lap the whole time. Normally she was a pistol: active, rambunctious, and rebellious, and this was atypical … endearing …. and it made me panic-stricken.
Rosalita was a funny looking goat: mostly white with a few brown markings just like a Boer, but with funky horns that crossed back across her skull and Nubian-style ears that stuck out ever so slightly. She was built like a linebacker, and she loved to find a sheep happily munching on hay and come up from behind and WHAM into them. That really made her day. She told all the male goats what to do (yes, even Newman) but she was always in love with Spenser, our oldest sheep. She followed him around, played ‘bang the horns into each other’ with him, fought for food with him, and slept with him. They were definitely an item.
She had come here from Howard County Animal Control via Tails of Hope Sanctuary as a young doe (probably no more than 4-5 months old) to be a friend to Newman, who instantly proclaimed her “boring”. She was a skinny, shy thing, and it took a good year or more for her real personality to come out. Ultimately, though, there were some visitors to the farm who only came to see her.
Arriving at New Bolton, we were met by a team of vet techs, veterinarians, and a reproductive ruminant specialist at 4:30 in the morning. They drew blood, performed an ultrasound, and determined that her condition was too weak and her red blood count too low to perform any surgery to see what the “large mass” in her abdomen was, so they requested stabilization of her condition first. We were in their intake room, an impressive place large enough to accomodate horse and cow patients. Rosalita was tied to the side of a stall, shaking. While amongst her peers she was strong willed and even, one could say, a tad pushy; in this unfamiliar environment, she was a mess. Scared. Small. I didn’t know what to do except to pet her lamely and tell her it would be OK. It was 5:30 am. I thought to myself – I have kids coming to the farm and a worker to pick up at 8:30. There’s your marvelous 21st century adult again, ever thinking about the schedule, ever with the addled brain focusing on other things that what is most important at this moment. So I left. I left her there, scared.
If only I could rewind, I would have stayed the day with her, gotten her settled in her stall, talked with her, fed her, and reassured her that she was in the best possible hands. I don’t know if animals understand what we say, but I always tell them stuff anyhow – it seems to help, and it surely can’t hurt. I know it would have helped me. I do know that had I stayed there with her, getting her settled in her stall with her IV and being with her while all the new people came through who were caring for her medical needs, she would have felt more comforted. More loved. It would have been easier, less terrifying.
But four days after I dropped her off and left due to “convenience” and “my schedule”, and “getting on with things”, Rosalita died alone on the operating table. The surgeons found an enormous tumor that was attached to too many organs to extract, phoned me, asked for permission to euthanize. She simply never woke up from her anaesthesia. And I was not there for her.
I wrote earlier of guilt. I hate guilt – it helps no one and accomplishes nothing. But I’m rather a big believer in remorse and Rosie deserves my remorse. There, I did what so many of us always do: I went on auto pilot, operating for the planned scenario, and doing what others expected of me. A great recipe for remorse. The powerful thing about remorse is that it teaches us how to be better – sometimes spectacularly. I expect that each creature that comes into our lives arrives for a reason, and teaches us a specific lesson. Rosalita taught me the importance of sticking with things, even if it seems tiresome or inconvenient or not according to plan.
Some say, ‘wow, you must be an angel to take in so many animals’. Clearly I am not an angel and at any rate, I think, when I look at the principle (that each being arrives to teach us a lesson), “wow, I must have SO many lessons to learn.”
Till next time,
Star Gazing Farm 501(c)3
A haven for retired farm animals and wayward goats