I love this stretch of White Creek Road, it speaks to me of the soul of a country road, a road unlike any other road.
A large winter storm is heading to the farm (and elsewhere) on Thanksgiving Day, it prompted me to do something different this holiday. I am taking my laptop with me and going with Maria to our favorite Vermont Inn to ride out the storm in one of our favorite rooms (Paul Newman always stayed in that room) in one of our favorite places, the beautiful inn where we spent our honeymoon.
I am going to blog through the storm, bringing my camera as well. I normally don't blog when I leave the farm, give me and you a rest, but I wanted to share this Thanksgiving experience, I felt the itch. Maybe there will be some beautiful photos of the storm, and I might well be holed up for a day or so, and blogging could be special, I am grateful for so many things. So our new plan is to beat the storm by heading out Tuesday night, returning Friday, camera and computer coming along. Boots too, no dogs or animals. More later. I can hardly think of a better place to ride out a storm than to be with Maria in this very special place.
My days in cardiac rehab are coming to an end, I have three visits left before I graduate. Today, my friend (and Red's friend) Helene graduated, she got a cake, a certificate and a round of applause. Helen is a brave and easy going soul, she has a smile for everyone and works hard at stabilizing her heart. Like everyone else, Red has become a big part of her rehab, she stops for a hug and a chat in between workouts on the machines and when she is done.
Most of the people I started rehab with have graduated, are moving on. We have become close, connected to one another, it is good to see people go and sad. Rehab has marked one of the most significant periods of my life, it was part of my pathway to recovery, and to health. Good luck, Helene, we will miss you. She says she is coming to the farm to see Red work the sheep, I think most of rehab will make their way to the farm. They may or may not miss me, but they will definitely want to see Red again.
Just before I fired a single shot into the back of Ma's head, I spoke to her, and hopefully with her. I have been doing visualizations and messaging with my dogs and other animals, especially when they approach the edge of life. I believe I am learning how to communicate with them, it has taken me a long time and a lot of work.
Before I killed her, I thanked Ma for being a good and gentle sheep, and a loving mother. I thanked her for the gift of Deb and Jake, for her courage and fortitude, for working things out with Red. I thanked her for letting me reach inside her uterus and pull out her twins, one by one.
Ma was a wreck in recent days, declining painfully and rapidly, green fluid oozing from her nose and uterus, she was not eating or moving with the other sheep. Even Deb, her faithful offspring, had moved away from her and was with the other sheep. Prey animals will never be around sick or injured animals, their instincts tell them that is dangerous, they draw predators. Maria considered her condition for days, and on Saturday morning decided she should be put down. She never wanted to call the vet, she asked me if I was comfortable putting Ma down, I said I was.
I sat with Ma for awhile and I listened to her, we sat together, co-existed for a bit, messaged one another, her message was clear to me, as it was to Maria. "I am ready to go, release me."
I told her that when there is a death on the farm, and it is not a natural death, it becomes controversial since I share my life on the farm and the downs as well as the ups. Many people only want to see photos of cute and beautiful animals, but to only do that, I told her, is a lie. Life happens here, as it does anywhere, a farm is not a fantasy or a perfect life, you learn to let go or you fail. Other people seem to think they love my animals more than I do, and know better than me how to live with them.
"You will be a lesson to the world," I said to Ma, "another opportunity to show what real lives of animals are like. Some people can't bear to see it, which is why they sometimes need to. There are people who love animals but know nothing about them and their real lives, and I will use your death to try to help them understand the real world of real animals, so animals like the New York Carriage Horses will not be placed in peril because well-meaning people know nothing about them or what they need."
I do this for me, for the horses, for my dogs and animals, for the animals of the world, for the truth.
Then I said goodbye, said a prayer of thanks and gratitude, and pulled the trigger of my .22. I have shot many sick and dying animals in my 15 years in upstate New York, I have taken lessons to shoot accurately and safely, I practiced a lot and am confident about it. I never imagined being a good rifle shot, but I am, I have never missed or taken too long. I know the most vulnerable and fastest places to shoot. Ma dropped to the ground, she twitched once or twice but was already gone. I fired three shots quickly into the heart to make certain she did not linger for a second.
I believe she never sensed a thing, there was no anxiety or fear in it for her, as there is with strangers and needles, she fell instantly and was gone. She remained in her life until the end.
It was a painless death for her, sudden and she did not have to endure the trauma – I have seen it many times – of being corralled, tied up, injected two or three times by a stranger or given an IV, or waited in fear while they set up their equipment. If you know what you are doing, a bullet is the fastest and most humane death for a sheep, that is why I do it. And I learned it from the vets, who told me it was often the most humane way to end an animal's life.
This, I know, is sometimes a tough thing to swallow for people who live with pets, and who cannot bear the thought of killing their dog or cat. Neither could I. But animals and pets are not the same thing, and ought not to be confused with one another, for the sake of both. I know some people think calling a vet to come and euthanize a sheep is more humane than shooting it quickly, they usually have never done or seen either. I understand this perspective, although I am often shocked and puzzled at the arrogance of people who know little but feel comfortable judging other people who know more, and from the vantage point of their computers. I understand it, but can't say I have much respect for it.
So this is the ritual of life and death at Bedlam Farm. I was and am prepared to meet this challenge of preaching my truth about the real lives of real animals. There are many truths, and I respect the truths of other people. I can disagree with them, but I never judge them or tell them what to do. That is the boundary, even in the boundary-wrecking world of Facebook and Twitter. My animals are not furbabies, they are not people or children, entitled to the rituals of people. There is no such thing as a no-kill farm, no such thing as a no-kill life in the animal world. Many people feel differently.
The messages were fast and furious, as I expected. Many nice ones, some not so nice. Social media is kind to people who tell other people how to live, it channels arrogance and self-righteousness. Patricia wrote right away to say my writing about Ma's death was "to say the least disturbing."
"You may not have loved Ma but you gave her a name and she served you as well as she could, and as such she deserved to have been gently gathered up in a private farewell embrace and quietly buried."
A score of people wrote in to criticize my choice of a .22 rifle. I should get a bigger gun, a magnum handgun, a 30-06 deer rifle for next time, a shotgun.
"I can accept death and the life cycle but to shoot something is not the natural cycle. I agree with those who feel the same. I think we all see things differently and that is what life is all about I guess," wrote Cathy.
I meant what I told Ma. The lessons of the New York Carriage Horses are many, but among them, this: animals suffer when decisions are made for and about them by people who know nothing about them and their lives and what they need. That is another way to kill an animal and abuse it.
Patricia, of course, knows nothing about my feelings for Ma, perhaps the dumbest sheep I ever knew but also the sweetest. We have been through a lot together, when you reach into the uterus of a living thing and save not only their life but the lives of their babies you are connected in the most profound way, and forever. I am grateful to have had the chance to spare Ma further suffering, I hope someone can do it for me when the times comes.
Patricia was not around when Ma was rescued and brought to our farm, covered in fleas and lice and a foot of unshorn and felted wool. I didn't see her here in the mornings when we wrestled Ma to the ground and gave her the twice-daily penicillin shots, or when she knocked me into the barn wall and smashed up my knee, which hurts still. She was not here when we sat up with Ma day and night for days, called the vet four different times, spent more than $1,000 to keep her alive, and helped her heal from a grueling birth.
But she was right there looking over my shoulder when Ma was killed and had a lot of opinions about what I should or shouldn't do. Life on a farm is like that, any farmer can tell you. Ma does not need or seek a private farewell embrace, or a need to be quietly buried. She went into the woods to help feed the hungry animals there, that is the way of animals. She was not a person and does not require the rites of people. In all of their natural lives, animals do not get private farewell embraces and quiet burials, they are usually torn to pieces, their bodies scattered over the earth.
As to the guns, I have had my .22 rifle for years and it has always worked quickly and efficiently for me when a rabid skunk or raccoon or marauding rooster happened along. A bigger rifle is not necessary for sheep. I don't need to splatter Ma's brains all over the pasture. The people telling me to get larger rifles and handguns are simply wrong, a .22 is the perfect weapon to kill certain animals quickly and painlessly, as any farmer can testify. We and the animals here don't need louder bangs and more blood and carnage.
As to the natural cycle of things, Cathy knows little of what she speaks, she makes no sense to me. A vet is not part of the natural cycle, the natural cycle would have had Ma staggering off into the woods, abandoned by the flock, and torn to bits by coyotes or picked apart by vultures. If I had left Ma to the natural cycle, she would have starved to death – she wasn't eating – or died of an infection She might have sickened the entire flock, any farmer knows it is suicide to keep a sick animal around healthy ones, especially when green fluid is pouring out of her nose and uterus. She could easily have killed off the flock.
Beyond that, anyone who has seen a large animal vet work knows they are dedicated and professional, but do not kill animals in nearly a humane way as I do. The animal has to be captured, tied up, put in an enclosed space apart from the flock, usually wait for hours, and then the vet hauls in needs and tubes, cases and vials, sometimes an IV, usually needs two shots or more with very long and sharp needles. The animal, terrified by this point, shakes and quivers, drops to the ground, often takes long minutes to die. Beyond that, an emergency call is $150 plus the shots and equipment, which is a total of at least $300. Patricia and Cathy may not have to worry about money, but in order to care well for the animals here, we do. I believe my way is humane, efficient and practical.
Compassion is not about anthropomorphisizing or projecting our emotions. It is about respecting the nature of an animal and understanding how different they are from us.
On a gender note, I often find that sexism can cut both ways. People who post unthinking messages on Facebook seem to ignore the fact that these are Maria's sheep and she is the one who decides their fate and future. I agreed with her decision, support it completely, but it was not mine to make. I see that some people – almost always women oddly enough – simply assume I am being macho and callous by shooting an animal. That is not only false, it is just a different and patronizing kind of sexism. Maria loves her animals dearly, and is traumatized at the thought of killing any of them, but just like me, she lives in the real world of real animals, not the emotionalized world of surrogate animal children.
And I love the animals here, they are my life and work, I do not kill them recklessly or without feeling.
Betsy was outraged that I put a photo up of Ma dead. So did some other people. "I don't need to see pictures of dead animals," she wrote, "I won't be coming back here." Good decision, I thought, I never fault anyone for choosing someone else to read or another blog to see. If they are uncomfortable with me, they ought to move on, and go in peace. I'm not sure why they need to make huffy announcements rather than just leave, I think they expect me to break down and beg them to stay.
Not in this world.
Good journey, Betsy and Sue and Collie134, I hope you go in peace, but do go. This blog is not for you.
I love my life and my farm, and I am committed to sharing my life here honestly with you, you are entitled to truth and openness. I accept now that many people take that as an invitation to give me unwanted advice and tell me how to live my life. But this has made me stronger, and clearer, also more honest. This is yet another way that animals help me become a better and more fully realized human. They challenge me to define myself, sort out my values and boundaries, and stand in my truth. Thanks, Ma, for that.
I love taking photos in a storm, the wind swirling around, the light tricky and evasive, I always try and feel the emotion of it and capture the feeling of the moment. Here, Maria sits down, as she does every morning, to talk to the animals. They usually talk back.