Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Choosing Death

Twister was doing comparatively well this morning, but not well enough to be on his own during my 7 1/2-hour-plus-commute workday with only one feeding. Though stronger, he was not standing on his own, and not even really connecting with the bottle on his own...I had to hold his head and insert the nipple into his mouth before he would suck. And the sanitation issue (keeping him reasonably clean of poop and pee) was not insignificant. The few folks I could think of that might be willing to be involved with his care were busy or (wisely enough) reticent. Weighing all the factors, I took him to the vet. The vet diagnosed spina bifida (which I'd suspected) and concurred with my decision to euthanize him.

It was not the first time I've watched the life slip away from a lamb at my command. My second year with sheep, a heavy outbreak of barber pole worms (haemonchus contortus if I remember right) took its toll on the flock; of the first two obviously (to my neophite eyes) sick ones, the first dropped dead in front of me, and the other was so near death from anemia that the vet euthanized it to do a necropsy to positively identify the parasites. A few years later, a lamb apparently healthy at birth declined a couple weeks later; after more than a week of round-the-clock intensive care and several local shepherds scratching their heads, I took "Mr. Misery" to the vet school at KSU for euthanization. Though it was obvious he was very ill, nothing seemed amiss in the necropsy. I still suspect tetanus presenting uncharacteristic symptoms, but I'll never really know.

In a sense, I chose to be a party to Twister's death by simply choosing to raise livestock to begin with. Premeditated death in all its routine and surprising manifestations is a simple fact of animal husbandry: Taking the market lambs and culled breeding stock to be slaughtered; taking critically ill lambs to be euthanized;"putting down" the worst casualties of a dog attack on a neighbor's sheep flock; realizing that a randomly vicious cat was an unredeemable safety hazard to children. So is unexpected, uncontrolled death: A lamb whose neck was broken while trying to untangle it in the womb at birth ; a ewe with a ruptured spleen; a ewe chased into and entangled in an electric fence by bumble bees; a ewe who ruptured her uterus and spilled her lambs into her abdominal cavity, then "birthed" the uterus; a ewe who hung herself; a goose whose entire body cavity was filled with infection from an unidentified injury.

I do not find that I'm numbed to death through these experiences, though I am calmer about it. I simply do not fear death any more--not for the animals, not for my loved ones, not for myself. It is no longer unknown to me, at least second-hand. It is a familiar passage, though I cannot see beyond the door. If anything, I am awakened more and more to death by each witnessing of an animal' last breath, or each finding of an animal's lifeless body. I become more aware of my own mortality, and that of the people around me. I value more deeply the gift of life that can so quickly be taken away.

I try to think of vet bills as tuition in the school of lay veterinary medicine. Being a livestock grower requires one to have a lot of responsibility for, and involvement in, both routine and emergency health care of the animals. The more I can learn from each experience, the more value I get from the costs, both the loss of the animal if one dies, and the loss of the money spent. Each experience allows me to make better decisions in future situations, as my experience of extended intensive care with Mr. Misery informed my decision about Twister. In this case, I learned that spinal bifida can be feed related...which means I'll never know why, because this lamb was conceived before I had care of the flock. A weed in the hay? An herbal supplement? A wormer administered at the wrong time? God, and God only, knows. But I'll be even more attentive than before to proper pre-conception and pre-natal care of my ewes.

More and more, I trust that it is not always my place to know such things, but to simply be in awe of God's mysterious workings.

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