One of the things I enjoy most about the farm are the greetings.
Because of our consistent morning feeding schedule, animals anticipate us and there’s a burst of excitement when we’re first spotted. I enter the screened porch in the morning to feed the cats, and the three come pouring out of the corners, thumping on the ground and twisting themselves around my ankles as I open the cat food bin. The goats, escape artists all, have been equipped with bells to help us locate them. The cacophony that accompanies their breakfast run to the “feeding corner” is hilarious. With the miniature horse and the llama joining in, everyone at a full run, it’s quite the stampede. The chickens, too. They crowd to the door of the run, clucking and crowing, hopping energetically and searching for a sign of kitchen scraps or grass in my arms which I often bring as a morning treat. So joyful. Such a great way to start the day.
Funny how you instantly recognize even a subtle disturbance in the routine on a farm. Everything is routine. Patterns abound. The daily feeding routines, the progression of the seasons, the animals’ social behaviors and play patterns, the pathway the irrigation water takes as it treks across the pastures, the routine trips to the feed store…even the gradually dissolving salt lick. The rhythm of it lulls you into a very peaceful state of mind. If the work is hard, it also seems natural and necessary, so you just do it. The patterns feel supportive. They guide you. You don’t have many choices on a farm, but that’s not a bad thing. When they say, “The cows won’t milk themselves…” it places no blame on the cows, nor on you. It just has to happen. (Having nursed four kids, I can attest to the fact that is has to happen.) My work days are very busy, and filled with choices and decisions. At home on the farm, I have a lot of work to do, too, but few choices or decisions. It’s oddly liberating.
One morning, there was a disturbance in the routine. A visitor wouldn’t have noticed it. It stood out to me immediately. Olaf, one of our five pygmy goats, stayed behind when the breakfast run greeted me. He looked OK standing there. Alert. But no one had ever missed the morning parade before. Odd. I continued my chores, but noticed that Olaf never joined us.
So I joined Olaf on the other side of the pasture to investigate. We had a talk. Eye to eye. He was brooding. Distracted. So I invited him to join me at the coveted other-side-of-the-fence. He reluctantly came along and I became more certain something was wrong. When we settled down in the shade, he braced himself against the fence, surrounded by lush, green grass….not touching a blade of it. Another pattern broken.
I was going to face some decisions here. What to do about sweet Olaf. Only a year old and part of a happy, healthy herd….what could be wrong? While I like to think we make a perfect home for all our animals and they must feel lucky to be so loved and enjoyed and cared for…we have no idea what we’re doing, really. I suddenly felt irresponsible for not being an educated goat farmer. Poor Olaf was at the mercy of a city girl.
Clearly, he was sick. How sick, I had no way of knowing. So I did what any self-respecting city girl would do: I ran inside and grabbed my books. Thumbing through in search of the “sick” chapters, hoping for some good news or direction. After reading enough vaguely-similar ailments that ended with treatment recommendations I didn’t trust myself to pull off, I opted for “…call your vet immediately.”
I was fully prepared to pop Olaf in the back of the pickup and run him in to the vet’s office. I called several vets, beginning with the one who treats our lab, Bart. “Sorry, we don’t treat goats. You might try….” I made a couple more calls until I found a vet who would treat goats. (Amazing, actually. We live in the middle of a vast amount of farmland. There are several large feed stores inside the town limits…people ride through the KFC drive-thru on horseback…. Who doctors all of these farm animals? I wondered.) The woman who answered the phone listened to my description of Olaf’s state, and she asked, “Where are you?”
“I’m outside sitting next to him in the grass. He’s right here. I took him out of the pasture…” I was focused on one thing: that goat in front of me.
“No,” she said politely. “I mean where are you. Where do you live?”
I gave her the name of my town. Same town as hers. It seemed like a strange question to me. Why wouldn’t I be local? Strange question. Do people call this vet from other towns?
“That’s great,” she said, sounding slightly amused. “I meant: what is your address?”
“Oh. Sorry.” And I rattled off my address. “Will he be able to see Olaf today?”
“Yes, he sure can. He’ll be there within an hour. Could I have your nearest cross street?”
“He’s coming here?” I was amazed. And impressed. A vet who makes house calls. How many vomiting or bleeding or pooping dogs have I hauled in my car to the vet. This would’ve been great.
Then it dawned on me. We’re dealing with barnyard animals here. Who’s going to bring a cow to the vet’s office? This is awesome. Farmers’ partnership with vets is an entirely different arrangement. I felt like a professional all of a sudden. I am being treated with the same respect due to an actual farmer. Even though I’m an imposter.
The vet arrived in his pickup-slash-paramedic truck, wearing coveralls and a friendly smile. He immediately fell in love with our lab, Bart. And Bart was head-over-heels for him, too. The vet brought out the gentle and sweet side of Bart almost instantly. As though they had an understanding. Bart could smell his kindness…and undoubtedly the aromas of other un-stressed animals on those coveralls.
“Where’s Olaf?” he asked with a sympathetic smile.
I liked this guy. He might have said, “So you’ve got a sick goat, I understand…” or “Where’s the goat you called about?” But instead, he seemed to look forward to meeting Olaf. Maybe having a little non-verbal “talk” about how he was feeling.
And that’s what happened. He looked in Olaf’s eyes and ran his hands all around his funny little goat body, watching for his reactions and asking me questions about what he eats, how he gets along with the other animals… He listened to Olaf through a stethoscope…for a long, long time. He took his temperature, and he began to talk through the good news as he found it. Heart sounds…attitude. But Olaf had a raging fever. And a bit of a rattle in his lungs. So we started down the path of pneumonia and we got a shot of antibiotic that would take him through six days. We also got several syringes loaded with fever reducer and critical nutrients to assist his complex digestive process. (Thank goodness we don’t have three stomachs…)
“Are you comfortable giving injections?”
“Oh, yes! Sure! Yeah….” I replied enthusiastically. Then I paused. “You’ll have to show me how, of course. I’ve never actually done it before.”
The vet chuckled. I realized that when he said “comfortable”, he probably meant “experienced”.
He submitted that the shots he’d given me could be done sub-cutaneously – which was easier – and he showed me how to create a little “tent” by pinching up a piece of loose skin and injecting the medicine “into the tent”. Got it. One lesson at a time, I thought. Every farmer has a first injection.
The vet asked us to keep him informed, and promised he would check on Olaf again if there was no improvement.
Olaf “fell to grazing”, apparently buoyed by the vet’s visit and feeling a bit giddy and the sudden access to fresh grass. All good.
Or maybe not.
The next day while I was at work, Olaf began pining for his pasture buddies, following them along the fence longingly. I guess the allure of the fresh grass had worn out, and he wanted to go home…so John let him back in the pasture. His temperature had dropped, but he was listless and seemed unstable on his feet. That afternoon, I called John from work to check in, and as we were talking, he said suddenly, “Whoa! Gotta go! The pony is beating up on Olaf…” And he hung up.
My heart was racing. I wanted to go grab that miniature horse myself. Poor Olaf. What in the heck is going on?
I waited as long as I could stand it, then called John to find out what was going on. John hesitated to give me details, but he eventually described that he saw the little horse knocking Olaf around and Olaf’s feet were up in the air. What? I felt a she-bear surge of protectiveness rising in me…then reminded myself that this behavior was between animals. Not school kids on the playground. It was terrible to think a weak animal could be attacked by another, but I had seen my hens do it to my little black frizzle hen, plucking her almost half-naked. It happens. And you can’t sue them for it.
Immediately, Olaf was relocated safely away from the crazy little horse (who is less than a year old himself). But by dinnertime when I came home, it was getting cold and without movement Olaf’s temperature had dropped dangerously low. Needless to say, we moved him inside the house. Maybe that’s not exactly “needless to say”, but it is in our house. I couldn’t very well lie next to him to warm him up in the pasture, after all. I was still wearing a suit and pumps.
So our strapping son and I lifted Olaf on his ratty old chaise lounge cushion and placed him gently in front of the TV. Our daughter brought the electric heating pad, and we snuggled him warm while we watched re-runs of “Friends”. Yes, I was still in my suit and pumps, but at least I was in my own living room.
For days and days that goat barely moved. We gave him injections morning and night (intramuscularly now – I was gettin’ good), fed him water and nutrients through a plunger, and stroked his sweet little goat body. He would move a little, mostly to get a better view of the TV, we believe, but he was not getting better. That wonderful vet came every single day. Listened to his heart, took his temperature, talked about options….
Olaf was sick. Olaf was probably dying. But Olaf was not dead. And he seemed contented with his spot in the living room amongst the family. Bart would lie next to him quietly and nap.
The vet seemed impressed that the goat was (A) still alive, and (B) still in the living room. “The prognosis….is that Olaf is probably not going to make it. That said, he’s still hanging in there, and he has a really good little attitude. He doesn’t appear to be in pain or discomfort, so since you’re willing to stick with him, let’s keep going.”
It was a busy week. Long days at work, and lots of activity around the farm. Pouring a new foundation for a new barn, re-fencing the front pasture…and there Olaf laid. Fresh bedding a couple of times a day, a sponge bath when he got too smelly. We joked that if he began to feel better, he might fake it to prolong his spa stay.
On the sixth day, Olaf started to slip. For the first time, we noticed his long, floppy ear had a slight tremble. We sat him up, gently massaged his weak muscles, and turned him over every few hours. But his limbs were becoming completely limp. He looked tired. Maybe it was time…
Then the 7th day came and went, and the 8th….red, tired eyes (we’re talking about Olaf here) and he hadn’t moved. Two shots a day, more stuff through the dropper. Then every so often, he would move his ear. And even wag his little tail. Hmmmm. Your eyes look better. We’re sticking with this.
Day 9 and Day 10 of Goat Watch. Still no movement. Every day I have dozens of people asking about Olaf. (I’m a sharer, you see.) Like the vet, they couldn’t believe he was still alive, although paralyzed in front of the TV. Not the first in our family to find themselves in this state, and surely not the last.
Day 11, the vet announces it’s time to get Olaf off the dropper and trying some doe’s milk and grassy hay. He was lovin’ that milk, and could get some hay down, too. He was not able to move his head to reach it, so we were now bottle feeding and hand feeding this guy….
Day 12, he’s eating well now. Still unable to get up, but kicking his legs a bit. We prop him up, and….are you ready for this: burp him. Great belching going on, but no strength. No ability to lift his head nor his legs.
Day 13 of Goat Watch. John builds a sling – thing to dangle Olaf over the ground in hopes he will push against the ground and build strength in his legs. Imagine the frame of an outdoor swing, with a goat in a sling hanging from it. Like one of those bouncy chairs you hang in the doorway for a baby. Hilarious to picture. Physical therapy for a goat. But it didn’t work. It would have taken a skilled engineer to create a contraption that could support the wayward limbs of that animal. His stiff, outstretched neck and his wide ribcage, boney hips and long legs. All the rehab had to be done by hand. That’s OK. As long as Olaf is hanging in there, we will.
Day 16 brings gorgeous weather, so we take Olaf outside. Still paralyzed. Maybe if he eats the grass in front of his nose, he will feel motivated to kick his way to more. Nope. He awaits his nursemaids and gobbles like a fiend when we arrive. We hold him in a standing position (no easy feat) and he tries to brace himself. No strength. Keep eating.
Day 17, 18, 19, 20….. This goat may never move again. But he’s sweet as pie. And his eyes tear up sometimes. Is it pain? Gratitude? Conjunctivitis? No matter.
One does not give up on one’s goat when the goat is not giving up. Besides, now there is a low guttural bleating going on. “Bring me more of those good leaves. You know the ones….” he seems to say. (No, not marijuana. Although, come to think of it, he might have qualified for medicinal….) We stand him up every day, and he leans hard and his stiff neck springs over to the side.
And one day – Day 19 – he takes a step. Still leaning into us, wobbling then falling hard. But he tries. He wants to get to the herd. He can hear their bells and they call him. He sleeps outside. With a blanket.
Day 21 of Goat Watch: He stands. Alone. Shaky. But he stands. The entire house: cats, dog, goats, llama, and even the horse seem alert to the development.
He’s boney. He’s weak. He looks like he’s been through Hell. He has. His own little Goat Hell.
But he’s going to live and it is actually magnificent.
Now a lot of people would have put this guy out of his misery early on. Especially many farmers – typically a compassionate but practical sort – who’d recognize his goat-ness, and who pick their battles carefully. I get it. They’d have gotten another goat and started over.
Town Transplants like us may get a little more sentimental about their castrated male animals who have little practical use on any farm. And maybe it’s because we haven’t had many chances to save something. Not like saving a wilted houseplant. Something with eyes that look for you. And warm breath. And muscles that relax when you gently rub them. Something that God wants to live.
So the lesson? One does not give up on one’s goat.