Bearing witness


I never thought having farm animals would be quite like it’s been. I know some would interject that we’ve been experiencing an unusually difficult lambing season, and yes, it is true that is part of what’s eating me, but really it’s much more then that.

It is fair to say that my inner conflicts began when Lucky was born and I experienced the panic that came along with her mom not taking to her immediately, and all my fear and guilt that went along with that. Then Annie Oakley and Tank; Tank was so big, and Annie needed help birthing him, and in reality, probably could have used it much sooner then we delivered.

And then Delilah. Oh Delilah. Our veteran mom; four years old herself, has birthed before. Had triplets this time. First one was stillborn. Second, strong and healthy; good size too. Third. Well, third was breech. Delilah struggled for a couple hours before I realized she was in distress. Then we checked her and made the breech discovery. The rest was a blurry panic to me, with nothing radiating down more thoroughly then guilt at having let her suffer so long, and ultimately, nearly die. I had assumed it was all normal, because birth usually is normal, but it wasn’t at all normal this time.

Delilah was saved, however, by our very competent farm vet, although her third lamb was not. But what fascinated me was that throughout her long difficult labor, Delilah never stopped taking care of her surviving lamb, her second child, Patches. You could literally see her force herself to her feet periodically and strain to remain still and nurse that baby, through ferocious contractions and all. It was amazing to me. I was in awe.

But today we had another catastrophe on the farm. This one is the worst, because this time the mom walked away with nothing. Millie is two years old and a first time mom. I have been waiting for her labor to begin for a week. And at 11:30 this morning, I noticed her doing “the labor roll,” getting up frequently, and arching her head up in the air during contractions – in summary, in labor! Finally. Of course after the Delilah fiasco, I kept good track of the time of each phase. At 12:30 we saw some fluid leak from her and then we saw a protruding bag of dark water. I was concerned about the color of the water, because I do not know if it means the same thing as it does for humans. I began readying things for another visit from our farm vet, A. At 1:00, I saw that no progress was apparent and placed The Call. A arrived soon after, and I held Millie down while A checked her. The consensus was that this was another huge baby; a second Tank, if you will. A pulled and pulled but could barely get the legs up and out. She struggled a long time, and I held onto Millie with all I had. Poor, poor Millie was making the saddest most agonizing sounds. It was truly awful. A finally got the front legs out and the nose was visible, but we could not get the rest of the head out. A had me help pull back the skin around Millie’s vulva, but it was so taut, I could barely get a finger in. Finally A said it was down to a cesarean or putting Millie down. Of course I opted for the cesarean. Then we began readying every thing for this – well, A began getting herself and her supplies ready, and I ran around looking for towels and trying to BE busy so that I wouldn’t break down and cry in front of my kids and the vet.

When we went back to get old Millie, though, the lamb was out and clearly had not made it. Millie was laying next to it. A gave Millie various medications to shore her up, and I helped gather her things together. I had to follow A back to her office for some final work, and then I came back home to deal with the disaster here and to bury the lamb. But Millie continued to stay next to her lamb, to lick it periodically and try to nose it up into a stand. This was beyond heartbreaking to witness. She would look at me and bahh so sadly. I rushed all the kids in the house with instructions to watch Lily, then I made a beeline for the shovel. I went back to Millie and her vigil, and she quietly watched me gather her lamb up and carry it out. But then she refused to leave the spot her baby had been in. Oh she might wander a few feet away and eat some grass, but then she would come back and sniff the ground, and begin bahhing again. I couldn’t bare to watch this anymore, and I went in to get the kids taken care of. But through the window I could observe her continued vigil to the spot her baby was last in and her accompanying cries.

Later I went back out and gave all of the sheep a bale of hay. Millie began following me and bahhing loudly. Then she walked back to the spot and checked again, then walked to me. I left and I saw her go to each of the three lambs and check their bottoms, looking for her baby. Then she went back to the spot that still has her baby’s scent and stood there crying bahhs.

This is an example of why, over the past week, I have been seriously weighing out in my mind if I am actually cut out to do this. I love these animals, but you hold their lives in your hand and to pretend that they lack emotion and feeling is ludicrous. It is such a great responsibility, and lately I feel like I have been messing it up. I can’t figure out how to apologize to Delilah for unwittingly allowing her to get so close to death, and I am sick trying to figure out how to ease Millie’s obvious distress and sorrow. How do people do this without getting their hearts ripped out all the time?

How do the animals?

It may sound strange or silly – hell, it may actually be strange or silly. But now I know. I’ve played witness. I’ve seen. These girls are creatures, and they are not without emotions. And I just don’t know if I can handle the responsibility.

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3 Responses to Bearing witness

  1. Cindy says:

    Awww…hugs to you Beth, this is so heartbreaking…..

  2. Robyn says:

    Nothing wise to say, just a (((hug))) to you, and a tear to wipe away while I read.

  3. sarah says:

    This is such a thoughful post, and it seems clear that you are such a wise caretaker of your animals. Much for me to ponder as we work closer to our own farming dreams.

    (This is Sarah, mama to Nora, Josie, and Calvin – we met at the playground a couple of weeks ago – I found your blog through something Jamie linked to, I think.)

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