There are animal lovers, and then there are those who go above and beyond in our devotion to our furry, feathered and scaled friends. We are the risk takers, physically, mentally, emotionally and financially. Always swimming against the tide (even for what we believe is the most noble of causes) can be disheartening and frankly, a little lonely for many of us.
For those of us in the rescue and sanctuary business, the physical demands of animal care take over every aspect of our lives. The demands of our conscience, however, are what really drive us over the edge. Are we doing enough? Are we doing it right? Is there really hope of changing the world so it’s not a hostile place for our animal friends? On top of that humanity has become exceedingly divided in every aspect, and that has infected us in animal advocacy just as profoundly as the rest of the world. How can it be that we, who harbor so much love in our hearts and perfect acceptance of animals for who they are, can be so miserably judgmental of people who see things differently? (And yes, I include myself in this . . . so many things that are perfectly obvious to me completely escape others who really should know better! See? I suck, too . . .) There are even those who shout that they only love animals and hate humans, with so many variants in between, all of us judging on our own set of scales, and in the end, fighting a battle for those we love that can’t be won if we waste our time fighting each other.
Sure, I’m a whacko who talks to animals, and worse, when they talk back to me I can hear them. Go ahead, judge me – I really don’t have time or energy to care. But if you must judge me as a nut case, do it based on this piece of news . . . my animal friends have told me the rules of the game for life here on this planet. First, all living creatures are filled with the exact same Spirit of Life and we are all spiritual brothers and sisters. Being creatures of One Spirit, whatever happens to one, affects us all. So humans hurting humans, humans hurting animals . . . it all contributes to bad environmental and energetic juju. Humans and animals are here to work together on this great planetary experiment to learn how to balance human ego with the delicacy of all the rest of Earth’s creatures.
There are plenty of perfect animals, but there are no perfect humans, just a lot of us trying really hard, hopefully with gusto, because word on the Celestial street is that we rise up together or we don’t rise up at all. In fact, we sink. Just look at what our lack of regard for animals has done to our environment . . . way too much to tackle here, but that’s what Google is for . . . so go for it!
Here are my thoughts. First, we find the least common denominator that all of us in animal advocacy share, and I think the one thing we all agree on at this point is that being an animal in a world full of humans just sucks! OK, maybe not much to work with, but it’s a starting point, a commonality. What we forget is that we are all on a different path, coming from different backgrounds, and we each grow and become enlightened at a different pace. I grew up in a family that hunted and ate ham and Swiss cheese roll ups for between meal snacks. Did it eat away at my conscience? Hell, yes! Could I do anything about it? Not living at my parents’ house, for reasons too complex to even begin to address here. But by the time I was 21, I was a vegetarian, destined to morph into veganism, and eventually to establishing an animal rescue and sanctuary. Almost four decades later I’m still growing and progressing every day, (I hope,) as are you.
If we can accept that we are all at different points on the spectrum, and can find ways to work together, there’s hope for our animal brothers and sisters. If not, our planet will continue to descend into chaos, disease and decay and we will all go down the evolutionary drain with the rest of the failed experiments like wooly mammoths and the mighty T-Rex.
I, however, am an optimist. Which means I have to keep trying, and I have to believe in the potential for goodness in humanity. Now that I have grandchildren I see the importance with even greater clarity – we have to do better for the future of those we love!!!
Here we are, hundreds of thousands of us in the business of animal advocacy, separated by our differences, prejudices and lack of tolerance, and the ones who suffer are the animals. We need a plan, DARNIT!!! No, that’s not an exclamation; it’s actually the plan. Domesticated Animal Rescue Network Integration Team, DARNIT. Again, it’s an acronym, but feel free to use it in other situations.
I have a few ideas to facilitate helping specifically domesticated animals. Humans created them and put them in this horrible position, humans need to find a way to respectfully care for them. (We can expand to wild animals at a later date if this works out – they need help, too!)
First, I want us to get to know each other, particularly those of us who work to help domesticated animals, from house pets to farm animals. My background is in journalism, so my plan is to interview people involved in animal advocacy and post the videos on a DARNIT YouTube channel. Everyone from sanctuaries to foster facilities to people who work with state and federal legislatures on behalf of animals. I want to talk about philosophies and food and progressive, long-term solutions, as long as they are geared toward the health, safety and salvation of our animal buddies (which is what is going to save humanity in the end, as well.)
Next we post all this information on a webpage, including what each group or individual does and their mission statements, goals and most importantly, what they need and what they can offer other people doing animal advocacy. Even if we can’t agree, we can still help each other with this gargantuan task. I’ve actually seen organizations purposely work to close down rescues and sanctuaries because they didn’t agree with a philosophy. Groups declaring war on each other is counterproductive, and I’m afraid it usually comes from a place of over-inflated human ego. We can be better than that!!!
If all goes well we can try a Facebook page to easily reach each other to ask for or offer assistance (got extra horse blankets? Post them. Hay taking up space in your mow? Put it to good use!) But with the caveat that we are nice to each other. We all have the option to look up each other’s mission statements. If you truly are disgusted by what you see, SHHHHHH! BE NICE!! MOVE ALONG!!!!
Anyways, if we can be civil and remember we are all at different levels in our journey, all of us knowing that most animals have sucky lives, understanding that we are all One Spirit and need each other, we can finally make progress for them. Or at least that’s what my optimistic spirit tells me.
If you would like to be a part of this, let me know and I can schedule a 20-minute interview and start sending out questionnaires so we can begin to share information online. Remember, this is about ANIMAL ADVOCACY. I have limits as to what I will do. I won’t interview people involved with slaughter, even of well-cared-for animals. Sorry. I just can’t and there are plenty of other venues for you. But no-kill shelters – consider yourselves in the loop. People involved in cruelty-free food and other products are a definite yes. I’m pretty flexible if your ultimate goal is kindness and improving the lives and prospects of domesticated animals, so let me know. And if you think you can help in any way, please offer! I’m exceedingly busy and don’t have huge chunks of time, so if you have a skill set that will fit in with this philosophy and want to contribute, please contact me. If I don’t get back to you, BUG ME! We have a lot of animals to take care of, and their needs will always come first, so my distractions are many.
DARNIT, let’s get started!!
Kathleen Schurman and her husband, David, are enslaved by the many animals of Locket’s Meadow. Pity them. Kathleen can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In high school biology I couldn’t bring myself to stab my own finger for a sample to test my blood type. Just. Couldn’t. Do it.
Instead I ripped a hangnail open to learn that I was “0” positive. I also couldn’t assist by jabbing any of the other squeamish students. At the time I had aspirations of becoming a veterinarian, but I was developing doubts about my nerve. Fast-forward to running a farm sanctuary where the most bizarre things happen because animals are so darned unpredictable. Anything is possible, from sickness to injuries, and someone has to do the caretaking no matter how distasteful it is. Candy, one of the two shaggy black Suffolk Punch crosses that arrived on the trailer from Alberta, was the horse who taught me there was nothing I wouldn’t do for love, no matter how incredibly gross.
Candy was a big girl with a deeply swayed back from having multiple babies in the PMU trade. PMU, or Pregnant Mare Urine, is big business in the pharmaceutical industry. The drugs Premarin and Prempro, amongst others beginning with “prem,” are hormone replacement therapies generally used by women during menopause. The urine from pregnant mares, which is very rich in estrogen, is collected and turned into drugs. And women actually take them, these pills made from horse pee.
The process of collecting it is cruel. It takes place in Canadian provinces on huge ranches where mares, often hundreds to a farm, are bred every spring. Those who are pregnant are brought into gigantic barns at the end of August and tied in stanchions where they spend at least seven months standing. And standing. And standing. Those who don’t conceive are shipped to auction, which generally means they are purchased in bulk by killer buyers and sold to slaughter for meat. The “lucky” rest of the mares are hooked up to an apparatus that collects their urine, which then flows through tubes into plastic containers in the aisles behind them. It’s not comfortable, it’ s desperately bad for horses to stand still for months at a time, and anyone else who kept a horse tied up in a stall for most of a year would be arrested for animal cruelty. Because it’s cruel.
Early spring the mares are turned out in pastures where they deliver their babies and are immediately bred again on their “foal heat” a few weeks later. Some of the fillies are kept as replacement mares when older ones who can’t breed are disposed of, while the colts are sent to auction, which usually means slaughter unless there’s intervention. We have intervened literally hundreds of times, placing foals in safe homes. In fact, we still have a lot of PMUs on the farm.
From what we could tell, Candy was in her 20s and had given birth to at least a dozen babies. Her fertility is what kept her alive all those years, and her swayed back was evidence of the damage caused by standing still for months on end, heavily pregnant. Her will to live, however, was magnificent to behold. I will never forget the moment she arrived and charged out of the trailer to take a lap around her new paddock before attacking a pile of hay. Her energy was breathtaking and I remember gasping when I first saw her. It wasn’t her appearance, but her energy that seized me and I knew she was a special soul.
Candy quickly settled down to enjoying every single moment of her life, untethered by pregnancy or urine collecting devices. All the simple horse pleasures, from standing in the rain to rolling in the dust, became an art form for her. She soaked up her freedom with every breath. She, Cinnamon and Lucille, the chestnut mare, were a tightly bonded group (the other black mare, Mallory, was adopted out soon after her arrival.) Eventually the trio moved in with our huge, grey Percheron, Fritz, and the four became a close family, all sharing one big outdoor shed; they’d had enough of being inside during their PMU years.
Time rolled past, and the little herd lolled about, eating hay, grazing, sunbathing and, well, that’s about it. We didn’t ask much of them as they’d done enough in their lives. They all had special diets because their teeth were so worn with age, and twice a day we delivered big buckets of thoroughly soaked grain mash to them; dry food was a dangerous choking hazard.
Nowadays we do almost all of the feeding on the farm because we learned the hard way that few other people care about the details the way we do. At the time, late October of 2014, we had a high school girl helping us out, and one day we got a call from her saying she thought Candy was colicking. I raced next door to the barn where the poor horse was gasping, head stretched to the ground. I felt her neck, which had a protrusion running the length of it . . . dry grain, packed into her esophagus. Candy was choking.
“Did you soak her grain?” I asked.
“Yes,” the girl replied.
“For how long?”
She didn’t answer, just looked at her feet. OMG. I called our veterinarian, Stacey Golub, and told her I needed her ASAP. Then I began to massage Candy’s neck, trying to get the food to pass, but it was packed solid. Meanwhile, I noticed that Lucille had her nose stretched to the ground. She was also choking on dry food. I was now trapped in a brutal nightmare. I called David to come help and had him work on Lucille while I worked on Candy, and eventually Lucille was able to swallow. Candy, however, got no relief.
When Stacey arrived she got right to work. Clearing a choke is messy business and it doesn’t always work. The horse gets a tube inserted into their esophagus and warm fluid is pumped in soften the grain, then pumped out again. A little at a time, from the top of the neck down, the grain is removed. The danger, of course, is aspiration into the lungs, and while we were working on Candy I just knew she was going to get aspiration pneumonia. It took a long time to remove more than a quart of grain, but finally, Candy was comfortable. Stacey gave her antibiotics to try to avoid pneumonia and then was on her way, covered in grain slime. Stacey often leaves covered in some grossness or another.
I wish I could say that our afternoon helper had learned her lesson, but after Candy’s brush with death she still rushed through feeding several more times and choked some of my older horses. At least those were milder so I could help them on my own. It’s been years since I’ve seen that girl, aside from once at the gas station where she couldn’t bring herself to make eye contact. And that’s fine . . . I’m not over it even now, and it’s been 6 years as I write this.
Despite the course of antibiotics, Candy eventually developed pneumonia, but not until almost Christmas. I saw her standing outside her shed during a snowstorm and when I went to check on her I found her with a runny nose and very lethargic. I brought her into the barn and took her temp . . . high fever . . . As much as Candy hated being confined and away from her beloved herd, I put her on stall rest and antibiotics. Old horses don’t do well with pneumonia, or chokes. She’d survived one and I wasn’t going to lose her to the other.
A week went by while we watched Candy closely, and then, the strangest thing happened. Her low-hanging belly dropped even lower. Like, WTH lower . . . with a dozen exclamation points. I called the vet and tried to explain it to her, and she said it sounded like edema, but I wasn’t convinced. I had never seen anything like it and I had a bad feeling.
Late that evening I got a call from the people who lived in the apartment over the barn. They said they had smelled something strange wafting through the ceiling and when they went downstairs to check they’d found Candy had sprung a leak.
A leak. Her belly was leaking a foul-smelling liquid onto the floor.
I raced next door to the horse barn (you may notice I do a lot of that.) I smelled Candy before I saw her. In fact, I heard her, too. It was not so much a drip, drip as it was like a faucet that had burst open. Candy was gushing a noxious yellow-brown liquid puss from a hole in her side and there was a growing puddle beneath her.
I called Doc Stacy.
“Help! Candy is leaking!”
I explained what was happening.
Stacey replied that sometimes when horses have that kind of pneumonia they develop abscesses on their lungs. Candy’s had gallons of fluid. Literally GALLONS!
I could tell from the doctor’s voice that this was a VERY BAD THING but there was nothing to be done that night, so we put extra wood shavings beneath her to soak it up and crossed our fingers.
Everyone else left and Candy and I had a chat. She said she didn’t plan on leaving but if she did, she had no regrets. She’d had the happiest eight years a horse could ever ask for. Oddly enough, although I was standing next to a pony who was pouring puss from her lungs via her belly, I also felt she wasn’t going to die. I kissed her on her soft black nose and left for the night. The vet would arrive in the morning and we would make decisions then.
Stacey arrived early, and Candy was still dripping. The opening in her side was about two thirds of the way down, and after poking around, Stacey decided the only way to get the rest to drain would be to cut a hole through the skin at the very bottom of her belly so the fluid below the original opening could get out.
Oh boy. So far it had been one delightful moment after another.
I can’t adequately describe what came out of that lower opening, but I will try. Huge clots that looked like dead baby squirrels blew out with the gush of fluid. Stacey and I jumped away, but the backsplash got us.
“So,” I asked. “Was it always your dream to be a vet?”
“Oh yes,” Stacey replied.
“I’m kinda glad I changed direction,” I said, “but it doesn’t seem to have saved me.”
Candy stood patiently. Seriously. She didn’t move a muscle through the entire procedure, just stood like the angel that she was.
“You know she shouldn’t be alive,” Stacey said.
I shrugged. I had run out of words.
I have assisted at barn surgeries, passed out shots both IV and IM, I’ve held a gushing blood vessel closed with a hemostat while waiting for an iron to heat up to cauterize it closed . . . but my job for the next few weeks would top all of the above. Each day, at least twice, I had to run water from a hose into the upper opening of Candy’s belly and let it run through and out the lower opening. I had to do it until it ran clear. And so, I did.
Twice a day, minimum, I stood Candy on the driveway and poked a hose into the top opening and watched as puss and piles of clots that resembled fetal opossums poured out onto the pavement. And sweet Candy just stood there. Thank heavens. I couldn’t imagine if I had to wrestle her to get it done.
Between hosings I let her roam loose around the farm, and she’d wander over near her paddock to visit with her herd. When I called her, she came back to the barn and we did it all over again. It was weeks before the water ran consistently clear, but I kept at it at least once a day until the openings began to heal over.
So . . . go ahead. Give me a sharp object now and watch me stab my finger. Piece of cake.
And Candy? She was fine. As far as she was concerned getting flushed out with a hose twice a day beat the crap out of being tied up in a barn for most of every year, standing and standing . . . waiting to have a baby that would be snatched away from her long before they were ready to part, only to do it all over again. And again.
Candy was with us for two more years. On the night she crossed the Rainbow Bridge, as a very old mare, it was a brilliant full moon. David and I had gone and signed up for a big package of dance lessons at Arthur Murray in Hamden, something I’d always wanted to do, when we got a panicked call to come home. Candy was down.
I called the vet from the car and we were home in 15 minutes. By then, Candy and Lucille were paddocked with another old man, Josh, who had decidedly less energy than Fritz (these girls were ancient, after all!) and sweet old Cinnamon had died a few years earlier of cancer. We all hovered over Candy and gave her banamine and sedatives to hold her until the vet arrived but this time it was clear she had used up her all her Lazarus cards. It was August 18, 2016 and this is what I posted on Facebook late that evening:
This full moon has brought us sorrow. Tonight we lost our beautiful old mare, Candy. She survived the PMU industry. She survived the loss of her beloved babies. She survived a near fatal choke, pneumonia and deadly abscesses in her lungs. She was the most survivingest horse I ever met. But whatever the moon brought with it tonight, it was more than her enormous will could withstand. We are devastated. Everyone was with her, including her best friend and soul mate, Lucille. And that PITA Josh, whom she loved anyways. My wish is that the time she knew here on Locket’s Meadow somehow made up for all the hell she knew in her previous life. Who knows . . . even 50 years with us may not have touched it. I hope she left believing not all people are wicked, and that there are many of us who will go to any lengths for those who cannot speak for themselves. I asked her to put in a good word for us when she gets to Heaven . . . All horses go to Heaven, you know . . .
David and I never returned to take our dance lessons. Somehow, after that, they felt jinxed.
On Locket’s Meadow we have a sweet mare named Mary . . . Mary Catherine, to be precise, but when I think about her she is always Melancholy Mary to me. She’s never quite sad, never quite happy . . . she’s just . . . Mary. She’s a good girl, seldom difficult. And always in her own world, just a little distant from the rest of us.
My memory for dates isn’t great but it was about 2004 when we received a trailer load of horses from a ranch in Alberta, Canada. I remember it was cold that day, and the water troughs were frozen around the edges despite the stock tank heaters. I’d learned about the ranch these horses came from at the end of the previous summer. The owner had died, leaving his wife with around 90 Suffolk Punch drafts and draft crosses that he used in the PMU (pregnant mare urine) industry. Ranchers collected the urine from the pregnant mares, which was used in manufacturing hormone replacement therapy drugs such as Premarin and Prempro, but much more about that later. The rancher’s wife’s name is burned into my memory, never to be forgotten, but I won’t mention it here. She had decided to get rid of all the horses the easiest way, which was to load them onto trailers and send them to slaughter. The horse rescue world found out and scrambled to try to save them. Suffolk punches are actually rather rare (which shouldn’t matter as a horse is a horse and all of them matter,) but for some, it’s a motivating factor. Most of the purebreds went to a ranch in Texas, while we dredged up money enough to rescue four crossbred mares and three foals and sent our check north with a plan to get them trailered down within a few weeks.
Alberta is a tricky place as weather goes, and the first blizzard hit early in September, followed by another, and another . . . there were no haulers who could fight their way through to pick up a bunch of wild horses and bring them to Connecticut. I learned that their owner, who had no interest in them at all, had put them out in a winter pasture and left them there. I imagined she was throwing them hay, or something . . .
It was early January when I finally found a hauler who would bring them to Connecticut, as there had been a thaw. I could find no references on him, but I had to take the chance, as there had been no other takers for the job. He arrived with our rescues mid-month and backed the trailer up to the quarantine paddock next to our driveway. When he opened the rear doors the horses barreled out one at a time, attacking the water troughs and piles of hay as if they had not seen any in a month. Turns out it may have been longer than that.
The first two mares were shaggy black Suffolk crosses. Their hipbones poked from beneath their enormous, fluffy coats. I knew one was named Burnt Candy, but the other arrived nameless. The third mare was chestnut. She was so emaciated you could count the ribs beneath her woolly coat. That was Cinnamon. The fourth mare, a gorgeous deep-red chestnut cross, was in slightly better shape than the black mares, but still thin. The three foals who barreled out last were beautiful. The first was the same deep chestnut as Cinnamon, and turned out to be her son; we named him Chili. The next two looked almost like twins, both a light chestnut with white manes and tails, the only difference between them being different white markings on their foreheads.
I wondered how these three could look so much healthier than the mares, who I now realized had been subsisting by pawing through the deep snow for scraps of grass. I quickly learned how they had thrived as I watched one foal after another nurse from Cinnamon, and I understood why she was so skinny. That sweet angel had sacrificed her own health to take care of all the babies. She was my new hero.
Eventually I will write about some of the other horses, but this memory is about “the twins,” as we called them, who were inseparable. We named one Mary Catherine, who had an S-shaped mark on her forehead, and the other Catherine Mary, or Kitty. Her forehead was graced with a white star, and they were always side-by-side. Chili was the adventurous one, always off causing trouble and instigating, but not the twins. They were sweet, calm and always peaceful. They stayed near the adult mares and watched Chili as he made his irritating rounds. Eventually he’d find his way to them and they would turn their backs and stand pressed together, a united “rear,” so to speak. He nipped at their rumps, so much like a little boy on the playground yanking on the girls’ braids, with the girls muttering, “stupid boys” under their breath. Besties for life.
When we get new rescues we keep them strictly quarantined for at least two weeks, or if they develop any illness, much longer. Only a few people are allowed to enter the paddock, and they change their clothes and scrub before going near any other animals. There’s a pan of bleach near the gate to step in on the way out to sanitized boots, and the horses are carefully watched for signs of illness. Primarily we are looking for strangles, a strep-like disease that affects the upper respiratory system and causes lymph nodes to swell to the point of bursting and oozing puss. It’s highly contagious among horses, seriously gross and quite common in Canada. We had never seen it before on our farm, but there could always be a first time.
It was exactly 10 days after the Suffolks’ arrival that I got a message from one of my northern contacts that strangles had been diagnosed on the farm belonging to the hauler who had transported the horses. It was exactly 11 days after their arrival that all of the babies developed strands of mucous pouring from their noses. The hauler had clearly not disinfected his trailer before he loaded our horses and they had become infected. I have strings of adjectives for him I’d like to list right here, but I will resist . . . for now . . .
Here’s the thing about strangles – it’s highly contagious but seldom deadly, unless a horse contracts the “bastardized” version of it. In that case, it doesn’t focus only on the upper respiratory, but can pop up anywhere in the body. Bastard strangles only affects one percent of the animals who contract the disease, but it’s almost always fatal, and there’s no way to tell if a horse has it . . . until they die. The adults, being from Canada, were immune, as they’d most likely had it in their youth. Canadians treat it as we used to see chicken pox, kind of a get-it-over-with disease they get once and don’t catch again. We vaccinate for strangles in the USA, particularly horses that travel or compete.
Within days, all three babies were desperately ill. None of them could eat, all had fevers and were despondent, and soon, the three of them were oozing puss from glands beneath their jaws. I was frantic, to say the least. I tried every trick I could think of to get fluids and food into them, and for Mary and Chili I managed to make some progress, but Kitty . . . Kitty got sicker and more depressed by the hour. I was on the phone with the vet several time a day, looking for anything that could help her, but nothing worked. I began to believe we were dealing with something worse, but I couldn’t bring myself to say it.
By day five, I was terrified. Mary and Chili were turning the corner and nibbling on warm mash and bits of hay, but Kitty . . . not Kitty. That afternoon she was holding herself up by leaning her chin on the fence and bracing all four legs. She was fighting the urge to lie down with every fiber of her being, and I could smell something toxic and rotten on her breath. And I knew. I absolutely knew that the worst possible scenario for strangles was playing out in my own backyard. All of the other horses crowded around her, so protective, and Mary pressed against her hind end, helping her to stay standing.
I wrapped my arms around her neck and hugged her gently. We had brought more than a hundred rescued horses through the farm at that point, and had never lost a single one, no matter what was wrong with them. Poor Kitty was clearly suffering, and it was devastating. I could have the vet come out and euthanize her, but the thing about strangles is, you don’t know if they’re going to die until they actually do, so there was always the slightest chance and you had to wait it out . . . perhaps this was just a harsher case of strangles than the others had . . .
Kitty wobbled on all four legs, but refused to lie down. I tried to tell her it was OK, she could do what she had to, but she stood stoically, chin pressed on the top rail of the fence. I realized she was trying to not die in front of me.
“Please, Kitty. Let me stay with you. I’ll be OK,” I said.
She pressed her chin more firmly into the fence rail. I felt that she didn’t think I could handle it, and it was best if I left. OK, I could understand that because I was sobbing uncontrollably, and I would have stopped crying if I could, but that wasn’t gonna happen. It was a standoff between foal and her adoptive mama, and I finally decided I was being cruel by remaining there. I went into the house and joined my husband, who had known he couldn’t watch it much earlier.
It was maybe two minutes before I decided to go back out. I was never one to leave my babies when they were leaving me, and I couldn’t do it then. I raced out the back door to the paddock, where Kitty had finally laid down on the bed of straw inside the shed, surrounded by her horse family. I sat in front of her and she lifted her head and placed it on my lap. I stroked her face for the next few minutes, thinking how I needed to be present right there, in that moment, because it was all I had left with her. Her breathing grew more and more shallow, and then . . . it stopped. I sat on the cold ground, sobbing, holding Kitty’s beautiful face, surrounded by the other horses who stood with their noses low to the ground. That’s when I let loose with the torrent of adjectives for the negligent driver who had murdered our sweet pony, knowing there was nothing I could do about it.
We buried her at the top of the hill in our backyard, no marker, but if you want to know where she is I could walk you right up and stand over her grave. She left behind a circle of shattered family, both horse and human, none more so than her sister Mary, who was lost without her BFF. As I write this, 15 years have passed, and Mary, who had been so happy and bright eyes within days of her arrival at Locket’s Meadow, is still melancholy, still missing her sister. All the hope and promise of their rescue was laid to rest at the top of that hill, and while the others recovered, Mary still mourns.
I blame myself for using a hauler I didn’t know, but at that point, all of their lives were in jeopardy if I didn’t get them out of Alberta. There’s no telling how long the window of good weather would have lasted (it didn’t,) and there was not a single other hauler interested in taking the job. I did the best I could with what information I had, and I will always feel I failed Kitty and Mary, despite my best efforts.
Every day I walk Mary up to her paddock and I feel her melancholy and I understand why. Every single day she and I think about Kitty as I bring her up the hill, and I know she takes comfort in the fact that I remember her sister, as well, and in our combined memories she will live on as long as we do. It’s a ritual we will play out for the rest of our lives together.
Kitty’s tarot card is The Star, which stands for hope, faith, purpose, renewal and spirituality. After we lost her, we continued to rescue dozens of PMU mares and their foals for several more years. I had never been afraid of losing a rescue until Kitty, but I had to believe that what we were doing was the right thing, and that the horses we were saving from slaughter were worth the possible pain of losing yet another.
When people tell me they wish they lived our lives, I shake my head and tell them it’s not for most people, and there are days that it’s not even for me. Yet they see the relationship I have with all my babies and it looks amazing, and truly, it is. We love each other with a vengeance. But when we lose, and it’s always going to happen, the pain never gets easier, no matter how often you endure it.
As one of our vets, Dr. Stacey Golub, always says . . . the day it doesn’t bother you is the day you need to get out of the business. I know she is right.
There are a lot of keyboard warriors out there pontificating about how animals should be treated or cared for, and we are frequently the targets of their judgment. The world of rescue and sanctuary is a very black and white place for them, with a single set of specific rules. I often say there’s a huge difference between those who judge from their kitchen tables and those who are in the trenches of animal rescue, up to our knees in mud, crawling on the ground with our sick and downed babies, making life-and-death decisions on the fly.
Of course I look back and second guess my decisions; had I waited for a reputable hauler, would they all have survived until I could get another trailer up there? Cinnamon may not have. These are the questions I will ask myself for the rest of my life, doubts and self-flagellation that few people will never have to address. But when the burden of responsibility gets too heavy, the animals talk me down and somehow we go on, early to bed, early to rise, walk Mary up the hill yet one more time and remember beautiful Kitty along with her.
Not all of the picnic basket stories are as sad as Kitty’s. The next one is about Candy (we dropped the “Burnt” right away) and how she beat the odds and cheated death many more times after she got here. Lazarus had nothing on our sweet, old Candy. You will like her.
It’s the strangest damn thing. You never think about all of the little things you do in a day until the very first day you don’t have to do them. Yesterday, our retired police horse, Amigo, died. Today, when I went into the barn, I didn’t walk down to his stall first thing to check on him. I didn’t have to soak his two gallons of dry food in four gallons of water, then sprinkle all his supplements on top, Clovid last because he called it his “frosting,” and then feed it to him in his purple bucket. I didn’t have to pick out his feet and put on his “sneakers,” aka trail boots, to protect his fragile hooves before turning him out in the flattest, safest paddock. I didn’t have to kiss him on the nose and tell him he’s the best boy before I removed his halter.
Then, I didn’t have to clean up all of Amigo’s “chewings,” the pile of wet balls of hay that he’d spent the night chewing up and spitting out . . . we called it his chewing tobacco . . . and I didn’t have to dump out his water bucket which was always filled with piles of hay balls. I didn’t refill his purple bucket with five large scoops of senior feed, topped with two scoops of timothy pellets, and I didn’t have to soak that at 1pm, then bring him in and feed it to him. And at 4pm, I didn’t have to give him a flake of hay (when he had finished his massive pile of mash) so he could spend the night making another big pile of chewings.
I’d also never thought about how much extra work it was to take care of just one special needs horse (living in a barn filled with them,) whose remaining teeth weren’t sturdy enough to chew hay or grain, whose hooves were thin and who needed endless coddling to keep a decent-sized belly beneath his deeply swayed back. I never thought about how many times a day I checked on him until I didn’t have to. With well over a hundred other animals to take care of on our rescue/sanctuary, I probably should feel liberated, but I don’t. Really, I feel lost and a little forlorn, and my routine is muddled and I burst into tears when I see that lonely purple bucket in the wash stall. I really should put it away, but I can’t because that act would be too permanent, too final, too . . . gone . . .
The very precise routine, supplements, ratio of water to grain, timing his hay so he didn’t chaw and spit instead of eating his mash . . . all worked out over years of intercepting his decaying health, teeth, intestines . . . nursing him through his annual August colic (double up the chia seeds!) . . . keeping him alive with a dozen huge bags of IV fluids when he caught equine corona virus . . . always double checking everything, and always walking into the barn in the morning and heading directly to his stall to make sure he’d done OK during the night.
Until 12-21-2020, when he hadn’t.
In my living room I have a large picnic basket. It’s filled to almost bursting with plastic zip lock bags, each with a name and date recorded on the outside in permanent marker and containing a bit of fur or some feathers, and occasionally a frayed collar or halter. Every single bag is the story of a friend who has left us, some of them after sickness and a long decline, some suddenly and unexpectedly. I used to see it as a melancholy pile of mementos, and it reminded me of all the ways I could have done better for each of them . . . if only this, or that, or the other thing . . . but since Amigo left I see it differently.
While Amigo was lying down in his stall, unable to stand, I sat with him and waited for the vet to arrive. I’d already given him injections of steroids and Banamine for any pain he might have, although he showed no signs of discomfort. I had checked his heart rate, which, at 60, was high but not extraordinary. He wasn’t sweating, moaning or kicking. Really, he just wouldn’t stand up. I normally can get my animals to tell me what’s wrong with them. If I ask, they let me experience a milder version of the pain they are feeling so I can treat them appropriately. But not Amigo. He was the most stoic man ever born, refusing to allow me to feel any of whatever he was enduring. Not his Mama! Instead, one at a time, Amigo flashed through my mind scenes from 11 years on our farm, of him out grazing with friends, getting groomed and braided by little girls, gently taking bits of carrots and apples and other treats from loving hands that offered them, getting dressed in Halloween costumes with children visiting his stall to trick or treat, and most often, taking that walk up the hill to his paddock every morning, sun rising over our shoulders, me and my old man climbing side-by-side. Just as comfortable as a pair of feet in worn slippers, knowing each other inside out, backwards and upside down. And all he said was “thank you.” That’s when I knew he wasn’t going to survive whatever had happened early that morning, but it didn’t matter to him. He had already survived when I brought him home to Locket’s Meadow just a few days before he was scheduled to be euthanized as he was no longer able to work as a police horse. And whether it had been 11 days, weeks or hard-fought-for years, that time had been his and he was leaving on his own terms.
Dr. Cait diagnosed him with an epic colic that could only be survived with surgery . . . if only he were young and otherwise healthy . . . and minutes later she’d gently sent him to a better place while David and I hovered and told him how much we loved him and that he was a perfect angel. And then we got up and continued feeding the rest of the horses, cleaned 25 stalls, refilled water buckets and spread bedding. Because if we don’t do it, nobody else will so tears would have to wait. Later in the afternoon, before the backhoe arrived to bury him, I returned to Amigo’s stall and trimmed off some of his mane and tail and put it in a bag.
Back in my living room, I opened the picnic basket and was barraged, as always, with story after story. This time, however, it felt different. This time I was met with a wave of gratitude from all of the animals who’d been rescued from abuse, neglect and imminent death and brought here to live out their lives on this little farm. Animals who, through the callousness and cruelty of humanity, had been injured and scarred, yet through a series of lucky events and twists of fate had found their way to us. They weren’t carrying any regrets, because they were the ones who had made it, had found their way home, and when they’d died, in their own good time, they were surrounded by love.
That’s when I knew it was finally time to record all of the stories from the picnic basket, as each of these special beings deserved to be acknowledged and known. Many are already written because I try to eulogize them as they leave, but some are from so long ago I have nothing but memories. Thanks to Amigo, I won’t see them as a pile of regrets and sadness. Amigo taught me they are actually recollections of lives spared and lived in peace, in a world that is seldom kind to our animal compatriots.
And so I begin Tales from the Picnic Basket. You may cry knowing these are lives that ended, but my hope is that you rejoice. These are the ones that made it home. Tears should be saved for those who did not.
We will start with Amigo, of course . . .
Amigo the Police Horse
Horses can read a human’s heart and mind. They are brilliant beings, completely connected to Spirit and to each other. Wild horses in a herd move as one because they are as one, psychically connected. When one horse sees danger, they all quickly “see” danger because they communicate with extrasensory visual information. A wolf creeping up on a herd is no secret once spotted because the rest will immediately “see” the danger in their mind’s eye and react. Birds in a flock? Same thing. Herds of elephants? Of course. Animals have more gifts than humans can possibly fathom, because we are isolated from them by our egos. You know, the ego that insists we are smarter, more sentient, better at communication, more spiritual, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah . . .
How do I know all this? Because they tell me. You can believe me or not, I don’t care. It won’t stop me from telling the stories of my sweet babies, as I know them.
Research has shown that horses are adept partners in psychotherapy because instead of reacting to a human’s feelings, they reflect them back to the patient, exposing their emotional state and bringing realizations that traditional therapies can’t provide. Clearly, horses can only do that if they can read right through to your heart and know what’s in your thoughts. So, when I say a horse knows what’s in your heart and mind, I mean it literally.
In 2009 I went to the Bridgeport police stable to meet a horse that was no longer useful for the work and was scheduled to be euthanized several days later. Three separate individuals had contacted me, each of whom had found our horse rescue online. Each of them called on the same day and begged me to save Amigo’s life. Apparently, word had gotten out that a beloved Bridgeport horse personality had been given a death sentence and an imminent appointment with a veterinarian.
I called the stable and spoke with the manager who told me I could come to the Seaside Park location and meet Amigo that day. I had some time so I grabbed a few friends and drove the half hour to the barn. We arrived and approached the paddock fence where a small herd was grazing on the opposite side.
First thing, let’s get this straight. If horses can read our hearts and minds, which we believe when it’s convenient and we are using them to aid humans with equine assisted therapy programs, then Amigo knew what was coming. He had seen it in his officer/partner who had already purchased his next horse and couldn’t have him delivered until Amigo’s stall was empty. He had felt it from the stable manager who had called to make the appointment to have him euthanized. Every human around him knew it, so by the time I got to Amigo, he was well aware he had a very limited amount of time to live. Because of his intuition, he also instantly knew I was there as his possible salvation, so when I say he looked up, saw me, raced to the fence and said, “Get me the hell out of here,” I’m not kidding, and neither was he. There were three of us at the fence, spread out at least a dozen feet apart from each other. He could have raced to any one of us, but he chose me, the one who would make the decision. I had no apples or sugar cubes, but I did bring a ray of hope. He looked into my eyes, I gazed back, and I knew he was coming home with me; this boy had lots of living left to do.
I found the stable manager and asked what the story was. He told me that the officers who are paired with the horses are in charge of deciding their fate. They could either find them a retirement home or have them put down. The manager told me there was limited room in the stable, the new horse was coming in a matter of days and the decision was made.
It seems almost impossible that an animal who had done years of service keeping the citizens of Bridgeport safe could be so callously disposed of, but we humans are funny like that. Until 2000, most retired police and military dogs were euthanized upon retirement. FOR REAL! But in 2000 Bill Clinton signed Robby’s Law allowing them to be adopted out to their handlers or even a qualified member of the general public. It took a federal law to rescue animals who had dedicated themselves to keeping us save, often risking their lives for us. Common sense should have dictated reciprocal kindness, for heavens sake! But again, we humans are funny . . . sigh . . .
I promise you, it’s a lot easier to place a dog in a home than a horse, and it ain’t easy to place a dog. Amigo had been diagnosed with navicular, a painful hoof condition, and he was never going to be a riding horse again, making it even harder to find him a family. Unless it was with us, of course, because at Locket’s Meadow we don’t care if they can work. Amigo, with all the brilliant wisdom that comes with innate horse sense, had found his savior in me, and I’m a really easy target.
The stable manager told me I could come back with a trailer and pick him up, and by the end of that day Amigo was home.
Often people resonate with some horses and not with others. Amigo, however, never met a human he didn’t love, and I can’t remember anyone not instantly falling in love with him. Something about his eyes, which were so kind and forgiving. I often say looking into an animal’s eyes is like looking into the eyes of God, because nothing comes between them and the Great Spirit, unlike humans and our pesky egos. Well, if looking into an animal’s eyes is like looking into the eyes of God, gazing into Amigo’s was looking into the eyes of the wisest old sage. He knew each of us for the flawed humans we were, loved us anyways and made us feel safe in his presence.
Humans weren’t the only ones drawn to Amigo. Other horses adored him, and he was welcome in any paddock. The usual establishment of the pecking order was skipped over with him. He could be found nose-to-nose with barn cats and dogs, and the barn swallows and sparrows ate out of his feed pan right alongside him. I’d even seen them alight on his back, especially fledglings learning to fly. His kindness was known to all.
Sometimes, however, he was kind to a fault. For a while he had a career as an uncle horse, sharing a paddock with foals who had just been weaned from mother’s milk. It’s important to have an adult to teach the kids manners, and who had better manners than Amigo? Except Amigo was the too-kind uncle who let the babies get away with anything. His very last charge was Sammy, a wild-hearted colt born to Annie, a mustang rescued from slaughter only a few weeks before her son was born on our farm. Sammy inherited his mother’s mustang heart and he took terrible advantage of Amigo, running him ragged in their paddock. Amigo, for his part, adored the young reprobate and let him get away with everything. Eventually we had to end that scenario and put Sammy in with Captain, who ran his paddock like a boot camp for juvenile delinquents. Poor Amigo could barely stand it as Captain nipped and head banged and cow-kicked Sammy into a more reasonably behaved young man. You could see the old horse cringing and muttering from the next paddock, “He’s just a high-spirited child! Let him be!”
I’ve wracked my brains thinking of stories about Amigo, but in the end, it boils down to one thing. We had 11 years of charm, graciousness and a sly sense of humor that permeated the very air around him. The most timid humans could handle Amigo with just a rope around his neck. The vet tech students who come to our farm to practice their skills could draw his blood, give him injections, check his every bodily function and he stood like a rock. When I would put his special trail boots on every morning before turning him out, he would lift each foot before I even asked, being as accommodating as possible while I adjusted them. Perhaps his only flaw, and it wasn’t much of one, was that I couldn’t let him be free range with the other old horses because, having been a police horse, the lure of the open road was too great. If I turned him loose he trotted straight down the driveway to the street and stood there looking around, perhaps imagining crowded city avenues and small children oohing and aahing at his feet. He never went any further than that, but really, we couldn’t let him stand in the road . . .
I’ve already written some about his final hour, but there’s more, and I didn’t understand it until a day later. While I sat with Amigo, I kept envisioning one of our other horses, Benny, in his stall. Benny had been in a back stall for a few years and he hated it. I apologized to him all the time, but the downside to being a very good boy, which he is, is that the horses who complain always get the stalls they ask for (and we learned that the hard way with a few broken doors.) I had finally been able to rearrange the residents so Benny could be in a stall at the end of the aisle next to the office, and he was thrilled. Every afternoon I let him out of his paddock and he trotted right down and put himself in.
Well, there I was, envisioning Benny in Amigo’s premier stall, and beating myself up for already replacing him. How could I even think about that, when I was waiting for the vet to come and, well, the chances of a horse Amigo’s age surviving being down were poor . . . what kind of crappy mama was I? And the vision kept popping up and I kept beating it down and beating myself up for being a terrible human being. But . . .
The next day, a long hard day, I decided that Benny would get Amigo’s stall, first door on the right. I led his paddock mate, Bingo, down to his own stall and propped their gate shut without locking it because I was going to be right back. I got partway down the hill when Benny, who never did anything wrong, pulled the gate open, let himself out and trotted directly down to Amigo’s stall. When I got there he planted his feet, looked me in the eye and said, “Mine.” His stall was 20 feet away, but he wasn’t budging.
“OK,” I said, holding back tears at seeing someone else in Amigo’s stall. “I guess it’s yours, then.”
The next afternoon I decided to test it, so I let Benny run down to the barn alone. One of our volunteers, Liz, was waiting to close his stall door, but when I got there she’d just finished an argument with him as she’d forgotten he had a new stall. He’d entered Amigo’s stall and stood his ground until Liz finally remembered that we’d changed his location.
“How does he know?” Liz asked. “Because he’s always gone to his own stall.”
That’s when I realized I should just ask him (sometimes I’m not as clever as I’d like to be.)
“Amigo gave it to me,” Benny replied. “He said it’s the ‘good boy’ stall.”
There I was, envisioning Benny in that stall and being upset about it, but the entire time it was Amigo, knowing he was going to cross the Rainbow Bridge, trying to tell me he was passing his prime digs on to his younger brother. Wow. What a dope. And what a way to keep this psychic/animal communicator completely humbled and in her place! Doh! So while I was utterly lost on his intent, that old horse made it perfectly clear to his buddy Benny what his final wish was. I’m thankful that horses can communicate with each other so fluidly; as a human, all my “junk” was in the way.
One last thing. Whenever I lose a friend, after I collect up the fur, feathers, mane or whatever and bring it into the house, I set it in front of the fireplace and light a candle. Then, I shuffle my worn deck of tarot cards and pull one for my newest angel so for the rest of my life whenever I come across that card I think of them. Amigo’s card was Medicine Wheel in my herbal tarot deck, which correlates to Wheel of Fortune in the standard deck.
I asked him why that card, and he replied, “Because it was only a spin on the wheel of fortune that brought me to you. It could just as easily have landed on euthanasia.”
I thought about all of the animals whose spin had ended sadly, and how easily it could have been Amigo. There are so many limits on rescue, such as space, funding, time, energy, volunteers . . . and I found myself obsessing, briefly, about how incredibly tragic it would have been if I hadn’t found room to squeeze Amigo into our barn.
My old pony friend stopped me before I got myself worked up.
“But I got here, Mama,” he said. “My spin was good.”
Yeah is was, Amigo. Thank you my friend. Your good fortune was also ours.
My memory is not as sharp as it once was. Details fade as I age, but I never forget the emotions of each experience. For instance, I remember the day I learned about Mikey, maybe 10 years ago. I got a call from a woman whose name I no longer recall, and she told me her step-father had died and her family could no longer maintain his hobby farm. One of his projects was breeding a pair of polled Herefords every year and selling the calves as pets. He loved his cows and was determined that none would ever go to slaughter so he was very selective about where the babies went.
The woman had found out about our farm animal rescue, Locket’s Meadow, and asked if I would take their bull calf, Mikey. They had already decided to euthanize the cow and bull to be certain they never went into the slaughter pipeline; they loved their animals and knew that no matter what anyone says, there is no such thing as humane slaughter. Their animals would have a peaceful passing in their own yard. The plan had been to euthanize Mikey, as well, until they found out about Locket’s Meadow and our policy of letting every animal live out their natural lives on our sanctuary.
I told her I could take the calf, and if she wanted, I would also take his mama. We aren’t set up for a bull, however, and even if we castrated him he’d been intact for so long his habits would remain ingrained. The woman said they had agonized long and hard about it and they weren’t going to change their minds. We agreed to make arrangements, and as I hung up the phone, I began to cry.
I’ve been sensitive to animals’ conversations and emotions my entire life. The first thing I felt was that Mikey loved his mama with all his little heart and soul and that separating them would be devastating for him. I made a call to again pitch bringing them home together, but the family was firm in their intentions.
And so, my husband and I hooked up a trailer and drove two towns away to pick up baby Mikey. We pulled into a backyard where several Hereford’s stood within electric fencing. The calf was in the barn. He was very small, very handsome, and standing forlornly in a stall with his head held low. He clearly was not pleased to be alone, but he was silent. Only I heard him say, “Mama told me to be brave.”
I held back the tears while we loaded him onto the trailer with no trouble, then glanced back at Mikey’s parents who watched us drive away. “Take care of my baby boy,” was all I heard from his stoic mama. And Mikey . . . Mikey made one, long, low, plaintive moo as we left, and it was years before he uttered another sound.
Mikey moved into a paddock with Benny Coconut, a young Holstein who hadn’t worked out with the older steers. On Benny’s first day on the farm we’d put him in with steers, Norman and Bella Boy, and he panicked, a total bovine freak out that ended with him trying to jump the fence. We quickly removed him and tried him in with a group of male sheep and he settled down and got comfortable. When we added tiny Mikey to the mix, Benny welcomed him and took on the job of older brother, showing him the ropes and offering him his steadfast friendship.
Those of us who wallow in the deep, muddy trenches of animal rescue know more than is good for our mental health. We know that animals generally considered “food” are loving, feeling, sentient beings. We know they have deep relationships with family members and are heartbroken when separated from them. We know they carry that love in their hearts throughout their entire lives, and while we do our best to be their mamas and daddies, we know it’s not the same. Yes, they love us and we love them, but that bond . . . especially with their mamas . . . oh, how they miss them when they are separated. Some more than others . . .
Time passed and life in Benny and Mikey’s paddock was sweet and peaceful. Benny grew and grew, and he ended up a giant of a steer. Mikey, on the other hand, barely grew at all. He told me he didn’t want to get big so that when he finally saw his mama again she would still recognize him. I had no words to respond, all I could do was accept his intentions. Checkups with the vet produced no diagnosis and the consensus was he was a throwback of some kind. I knew better, but kept it between my husband, Mikey and me.
I never brought up the subject of his parents’ demise, and neither did he, but I always assumed he knew. I’m still not sure . . . and I still won’t ask . . .
When fully grown, Benny Coconut got to weigh around a ton. Mikey, who should have been at least 1,500 pounds, never got past 700 at his heaviest. They were Mutt and Jeff, huge and tiny, always side-by-side, often surrounded by a small flock of sheep. Both boys were as gentle as the sheep they grazed with, and I trusted them to be kind and careful.
One day, Benny Coconut’s eye began to run. Mikey did his best to take care of it, licking his eye and face until it was spotless. The problem went on for days, so I began to treat it as an eye infection. Despite my efforts it got progressively worse until one day I noticed a red growth on his lower eyelid. I took a picture and sent it to our large animal vet, Dr. Caitlin Macintosh, at Beckett and Associates.
Dr. Cait is wonderful. She knows I’m a sucker for my animals, and that I hurt when they hurt. But she also knows I need the truth, so she uttered the dreaded word, “cancer,” then added that it could be isolated to his third eyelid and if we removed that, he could be fine.
Oh. My. God.
We have a lot of animals. Like, when I say “a lot,” and most other people say “a lot,” there’s a difference of at least 100 animals, and ours tend to be much, much bigger. Like, nearly 40 horses, 8 steers, 9 pigs, countless sheep, goats, dogs, cats, birds . . . so many animals. All of them our babies, all of them loved and beloved. Because we have so many, and lots of them are rescued from bad situations, we also lose more animals than other people do. You would think we’d get used to it, but each one hurts just as much as the last, and some more than others. There are always those animals who are our soul mates, and both Benny and Mikey fell into that category. I was fiercely protective; we would do whatever we had to do to save him.
When Dr. Cait arrived to do the surgery, we separated the boys from each other, which hadn’t been done since Mikey arrived. We led Benny Coconut into a small paddock connected to the barn and left Mikey in the larger paddock on the opposite side of the fence so they could still see and be near each other. Benny mooed a few times for Mikey, and Mikey trotted nervously nearby.
Benny is such a good boy he needed no more than a sedative injected into his tail and Cait was able to quickly remove the growth and the third eyelid.
“I’ve never worked on such a nice steer before,” she said. “Is he always such a good boy?”
“Always,” I replied. “He’s an angel. So is his little brother.”
As the surgery ended, Mikey grew antsy. He’d stood next to Benny for much of the procedure, then took a few quick laps around the paddock before racing back, trying to get Benny’s attention. Benny was still lethargic, but Mikey took yet another lap, spun around and stopped in the middle of the paddock. Then, to my surprise, the tiny steer let out a single, low moo.
Moo number two.
Despite being drugged, Benny lifted his head and returned the greeting. Only then did Mikey settle down and calmly wait for life to get back to normal, which it did. Benny’s eye healed, and while it did, Mikey carefully kept it clean so the flies left it alone. There would be several more eye surgeries for Benny, who ended up having his eye removed, but Mikey was always nearby, and always helped with his recovery. Eventually we gave Mikey a collar with a bell so that if one day Benny Coconut completely lost his vision he would always know were Mikey was.
Wednesday, November 18, 2020.
David texted me during afternoon chores that Mikey had gone down in the mud and he needed my help. He had fallen near the barn door so it wasn’t a huge emergency, but I quickly finished what I was doing and headed over.
We have a very precise and well-orchestrated routine for chores. David starts on the “house” side of the farm where we have all of the farm animals like pigs, goats, sheep, steers, etc. I start on the “horse” side, our second driveway that has the horse barn, indoor arena and sheds. I soak the grain for the many older horses that lack teeth, add supplements and medications for all our special needs ponies and throw hay into the paddocks. We have about 38 equine-type animals in total, including burros and mules, almost all of them rescued from neglect, abuse, slaughter and other unhealthy situations. In the morning I turn them out, leading them up the hill to their paddocks, and in the afternoons I bring them back in. At the end of every day I have at least seven miles on my phone’s health feature. I am always grateful I’m a sturdy old woman from strong European peasant stock.
20 years of animal rescue has taught us a few things, including how to get a cow out of the mud and into the barn. We are familiar with straps and winches, we know how to slide a huge animal on sheets of plywood. David and I barely have to say a word to each other aside from counting, “One, two, three . . . pull!” Mikey had one front leg stuck in the mud, which was a lot better than the two front legs he’d gotten stuck the previous time . . . in the dark. That was a struggle and a half. Once we’d gotten him out we still had to get him all the way to the barn, sliding him along sheets of plywood, moving the back piece to the front and sliding him again. Hours of moving him, resting him, moving him. By the time we got to the barn door he stood up, went in and ate his lunch. All done and all better. This time he was about three yards from his destination . . . piece of cake, we thought.
And it was. We had him out of the mud and into a stall in a matter of 20 minutes, but once inside, Mikey wouldn’t stand up and was clearly in shock. OK . . . we covered him with blankets hot from the dryer and I got out my box of tricks. First, an injection of Dexamethasone, a steroid to perk him up. Then a hit of an injectable antibiotic. I texted with Dr. Cait and she told me to add 10 mls of Banamine, an anti-inflammatory and pain reducer. More hot blankets. Within a half hour he was much brighter and reacting to his surroundings, but we couldn’t get him to stand up. And worse, it seemed he didn’t have control of his back legs. But WHY??? He hadn’t landed in a way that should have affected them. We continued to shift his position every few hours to keep his blood circulating and I fed him warm mash often, as it was all he would eat.
And so began several days of texting with the vet and trying everything we could think of. As is always the case when an animal is sick, there’s no room for anything but chores and tending the ailing baby, back and forth all day, always late for the next task, always apologizing to horses for being late with dinner. Dr. Cait came and checked Mikey out in case he had a cracked pelvis or other structural issue. All looked good, but blood work later showed he was anemic. Weird . . .
Since he seemed structurally sound we decided to lift him to his feet in a sling. I posted on Facebook, the ultimate resource for animal rescues, that we needed a block and tackle, and Dr. Cait located a sling we could borrow. Within a matter of hours we had what we needed, as well as a volunteer who knew how to use the equipment. The sling was in place, the chains were attached and up Mikey went. We fully expected him to just . . . stand up . . . but he couldn’t seem to find his feet beneath him. His front legs weren’t bad, but no matter how many times I placed his back feet where they belonged, they slipped out of place. We gave up and decided to try again the next morning, but in my heart I knew something was desperately wrong. If Mikey could have stood up, he would have.
That night I had a dream in which we had found an extra bedroom in our house and we had to shift everyone around. When I woke up I thought about how nice it would be to have that extra space, but then . . . I realized it wasn’t about a bedroom at all . . . it was about an extra stall. I got dressed, ran to the barn in the dark and gave Mikey his Banamine injection, his antibiotic shot and shifted his position. While he was a small steer, it still took a lot of effort to move him by myself (thank you again to my German/Dutch/Slovak heritage and my enormous shoulders.)
“Come on, Mikey,” I whispered into his impossibly soft ear. “You’ve got to be OK! We don’t need the extra stall, we need you!”
He wrapped his head around me in a gentle hug. And then he refused his breakfast.
A few hours later we assembled Mikey’s lift team. He seemed weaker every minute, and I had already decided we were only going to make one more try. It was clear there was something else terribly wrong. In fact, we only got Mikey half-way up when I halted the operation . . . his rear legs hung limply and he clearly had no control at all. A decision had to be made, and as always, it would be mine.
I curled up in the straw next to my boy, where I’d spent the bulk of every spare minute of the past few days, and we had a quiet conversation. It was time, Mikey said, for him to go back to his first mama.
“But she will always be there waiting for you,” I replied. “Why not stay here longer? What about Benny Coconut!?”
“You will always be waiting here for me, as well,” he replied. “I’m lucky to have two mamas. And you will take care of Benny just fine.”
I texted Dr. Cait and told her Mikey was ready to move on. She said given his age, the most logical explanation was bovine leukosis, which can cause tumors to grow on his spine. The issue might not have been the mud; it may be that’s just where he landed when a tumor reached critical mass. We would never know. Dr. Cait would be on the farm in an hour, but I asked her for a little more time so some of Mikey’s friends could come visit him first. I texted a few people, then curled up again next to him in the straw.
David brought Benny Coconut into the next stall he and Mikey could see each other. We always make sure our animals’ best friends know what’s happening so they can mourn, as well. A beloved companion disappearing with no explanation is beyond unfair. Friends filed in for Mikey snuggles, hugs, kisses and tears, then filed out again as the veterinarian arrived.
As far as endings go, it was like all the others. Mama and Daddy hovering over our beloved baby, whispering in his ear that he is loved and special and perfect and we wouldn’t have traded one second of our time with him for all the money in the world. Only one thing was different; when Dr. Cait gave Mikey his first shot of sedative, as it began to kick in and his head began to sway, I saw a moment of panic in his eyes. He gathered himself, held his head high, looked in Benny Coconut’s direction and bellowed out one last moo.
Moo number three.
Benny instantly answered with a matching moo, and then Mikey relaxed and rested his head on the straw. He had said his goodbye to his best friend. Mama number one was waiting for her little boy to return to her, and he was anxious to greet her. Mama number two, of course, fell apart and stayed curled in a ball next to her sweet boy for a long time. All goodbyes are painful, but some are downright unbearable.
Please don’t leave this story feeling sad or disheartened. It’s not my intent. Mikey’s life is all about love. He loved Benny Coconut, his friends, his family, his mamas, all the other steers on the farm . . . everyone. No matter what the circumstances, Mikey always chose to be kind. Had his first family not allowed him to come to Locket’s Meadow it would have been 10 years all the poorer for every one of us who ever experienced the gift of meeting him. To spend time with Mikey caused many to begin questioning all preconceived notions of farm animals and their purpose. How do you contain all “meat” animals in a neat little cubicle of non-sentient, soulless beings when you look into the eyes of an animal who is clearly deeply acquainted with God and all things spiritual? The inconvenient truth is, you shouldn’t.
Mikey’s faithful friendship and loyalty was unshakable, and he cherished every day of his life, even while missing his original family. He understood how to appreciate every moment, and he taught us so much. For all living beings, sadness is a part of the life experience and it’s how we choose to live with it and move forward that defines us. Every rescued animal on our farm has come to us from a place of pain, terror, sadness . . . most overcome it. Some remain sad no matter how hard we try. It doesn’t matter as all living beings have our tests here on this planet. As their human parents, our job is to support their lives and the spiritual choices our “babies” make. We don’t judge, nor do they.
One thing I know for sure is that all of us, humans and animals alike, contribute to the fabric of the Universes. Every choice we make, whether it is to be cruel or kind, affects all the energy in existence. Mikey’s only impact was positive and I only wish I could say the same for mine.
He may have been just a steer to some, but Mikey’s life made a difference, and I will be forever grateful to have been his second mama. If I remember nothing else, as I grow older and more feeble-minded, I will always and forever remember his love.