I will be honest, it hurts to see the animals so cold. I have lived closely with sheep, donkeys, dogs and chickens for some time now, and this weekend, I think I feel as helpless as I can recall feeling about how to make them comfortable in the harshest winter weather I have ever seen.
After days of frigid temperatures and snow, the temperatures are plunging even further, with cruel and cutting winds driving the wind chill down to between 30 and 50 degrees below zero at times.
Sheep and donkeys are mountain animals, they can take extreme cold, but this is something new and disturbing, I hope it was up the sleeping and greedy people who deny the reality of climate change.
Sadly, so many of them are in positions of great power.
It hurts to see the animals so restless, and even anxious. They have food, warm water, good hay and energy-supporting grain. I don’t overly baby our animals, they are hardy creatures and we have been through many hard winters.
But this one is hard on them, I can see it.
They have shelter from the wind and the snow. But I see them rush from one place to another, such weather confuses and agitates them, we have opened up the inner stalls so they can come farther inside of the barn.
The animals are spooked by the gusting winds, they sometimes run in circles until the winds die down, then they retreat into the pole barn. They seem anxious to me an restless.
That is really all we can do for them, and more than many people can do for them.
They are lucky in such unprecedented cold to have solid shelter and warming food, and we are lucky to have a sturdy old farmhouse with thick walls and plumbing in the center of the house. My neighbors and farmer friends are stunned, pipes are freezing all over the place and some animals have perished from the cold.
I will be fine, so will Maria and so will our sheep and donkeys. They have everything they need to rise this out, but they have endured weeks of snow and ice an freezing temperatures and the next 48 hours will be the worst of all.
We will be here with them, checking on them, feeding and watering them. We do the best we can for as long as we can, it’s no longer possible to stand outside for more than five minutes unless you have several layers of clothes.
I am fine, we are fine. Our lives are not in danger, on Monday we will be out shoveling and scraping and looking ahead to longer days and the coming of Spring. The color and light approaching will have special meaning for all of us, and i look forward to see the animals happily and comfortably grazing out in the pastures.
Well, yes and no. We met again with Dr. Suzanne Fariello of the Cambridge Valley Veterinary Service to plan the next steps in Gus’s treatment for Megaesophagus.
Dr. Fariello and I have agreed to meet once a week for the next few weeks to study the data I’m collecting, to examine Gus and talk about his condition, and to plan for the future.
Dr. Fariello asked me right out if we can live with Gus’s condition the way it is – emotionally, in terms of time, financially and in keeping with our own ethics and philosophy. Speaking for Maria as well as myself, I said yes, we talked about it, and we can live with this level of care and disruption.
The good news is that I am discovering some things that make Gus’s condition better, and I feel we are making progress.
The bad news is that Dr. Fariello and I both agreed that Gus should not be permitted in the pasture with the other dogs in the morning, he is eating too many things there that disrupt his digestive system and potentially make his Megaesophagus worse.
So I have to alter my idea of him, and the identity I gave him. He might be able to get out in the pasture again if it turns out the Megaesophagus resolves itself or gets much better.
Down the road, we could muzzle him if we wanted him to be out in the pasture with us – sheep pellets and such can be lethal with that disease. We” still make sure he gets an occasional donkey ride. Gus is happy to stay in the house and drag his toys around when we don’t take him out. He is nothing if not adaptable.
I understand there are no permanent cures for this disease and it rarely moves in a straight line. There will always be ups and downs, progress and setbacks.
The new plan involves continuing a sucralfate tablet 30 minutes before eating to deal with acid reflux, and also taking 1/2 a metoclopromide pill in the evening to promote digestion in his intention and stomach – this medicine prevents nausea and vomiting.
Dr. Fariello liked and approved of my idea to sprinkle his new food – patted into small “meatball size” chunks with olive oil to help “lubricate” the food as it enters his esophagus (which is a muscle). I was kind of pleased with myself for this.
We also decided to give Gus some food late at night or early in the morning so his stomach isn’t empty for many hours, a circumstance that causes some dogs to regurgitate food.
In her office, I demonstrated my method of hand feeling Gus when he is standing up on his hind legs and jumping up for the food.
This accomplishes two things: his head is up when he is eating, and the jumping helps force the food down through the esophagus.
She and I both agreed that Gus does not need a Bailey Chair or other custom-built eating chair. We have ordered a 14″ tall two-bowl bench so we can put some of his food there that forces him to stand up when he eats. I understand Bailey Chairs work well for some people, but not for us at this time.
Maria and I also take turns holding Gus upright in our laps – he seems to like this – for between 10 and 20 minutes after eating.
Keeping him out of the pasture in the morning is a dramatic change, which seems to have paid off so far.
We’ve kept him out of the pasture for the past several days, and he has not regurgitated food once in that time. Frozen sheep pellets and frozen donkey manure are precisely what is worse for dogs who suffer from this disease.
Gus is a very easy going and adaptable dog, he takes all of this change in great humor and with no struggle or lament.
Dr. Fariello essentially banned all solid treats for good, he can have some soft treats, but nothing that is hard or that needs to be chewed extensively. This is the only part of this disease so far that directly affects Red and Fate, they eat separately and are also easy going.
My own philosophy about treats – I have plenty on hand – is that this something people need to do, not dogs so much. He has a good and active life with plenty of hard toys to chew on and toss around. He will be fine.
For most of their existence on the earth, dogs did not have expensive treats, and I will wean Fate and Red off of them as well gradually. I’m happy to have a treat free household.
Gus will also begin acupuncture treatments in a week. We’ll evaluate them to see if they help.
I have received a significant amount of mail and messages and advice about Gus and his illness, but as you know, I am working with Dr. Fariello and Maria to sort this out.
Anything else is a distraction for me and i very rarely take medical advice of any kind from people on social media that I don’t know. Every dog is an individual creature, and what works for other dogs is not necessarily relevant for Gus.
I appreciate the impulse many people have to advise me on this, but I don’t want you wasting your time. I believe in the approach we are taking, and i find our vet rational, open and very knowledgeable. We work well together. If anyone feels the need to give me advice, feel free but I just wanted you to know how I feel about it.
I will not get angry or upset, I’m growing out of that. Do what you feel you need to do.
So that’s what Dr. Fariello calls the A.1 plan, there are other plans as well. One involves seeing a veterinary internist and specialist. i said no, she said that was fine with her.
As many of you know, I have strong ethical reservations about how far to take a dog with a serious or life-threatening illness.
I don’t believe in making dogs suffer so humans can feel better about themselves, or in spending thousands of dollars on a dog when so many people are in great need. Dr.Fariello assured me that Gus is not suffering anything more than occasional acid build-ups.
On mornings when Gus has regurgitated food, he seems lethargic and quiet to me, Dr. Fariello believes he might be feeling nauseous, thus the metoclopramide. Otherwise, he is full of play and energy and appetite, things sick dogs don’t feel or do.
We won’t get to the third until we see how A.1 goes. I am excited by the fact that since our meeting and these changes, Gus has not regurgitated his food once. I am confident we can handle his and live with it. I know that may change, but we’ll deal with that if it occurs.
He has lost 1/2 a pound, which could be concerning if it continues, but Dr. Fariello says she is not worried, it is almost certainly the result of switching to a special food with fewer calories than his puppy kibble. She examined him thoroughly, she said he is very healthy, in great weight, strong heartbeat and with good coat and energy and no signs of malnutrition or any other problems.
So that’s where we are. I am learning a lot, and on some level enjoying the challenge. I approach it like a chess match, I have to creative and thoughtful. More later.
Maria and I have been sparing over who should go outside and for how long. I keep agreeing that I should not go out in frigid temperatures because of my heart disease and the medications I take, which make the cold more dangerous. Then, she complains, I go out anyway and shovel and walk the dogs and bring water to the animals, or some other chore.
This frustrates her. First, because she does not believe I should be going outside and doing chores when it’s well below zero, and secondly, because it is confusing to her that I keep agreeing not to go out, and then I do go out.
She also thinks I am sometimes questioning her ability to do all of this work by herself.
For my part, it is not a question of doubting her.
I don’t. It is just hard – impossible, actually – to see her shovel and shovel, and haul hay, and exercise the dogs and scrape off cars while I am sitting inside by a warm fire. It just triggers something inside of me and I have go out and so something to help. It just kills me to accept the idea of me as a grown man who can’t help clean up after a snowstorm while his wife does all the hard work.
I suppose vanity is at work, and other things. When I came to the country more than a decade ago, I wanted to find out who I was, and seek out my rightful place in the world. I spent six years mostly alone on the first Bedlam Farm in Hebron, and it meant the world to me to run the place mostly by myself. I shoveled, scraped away ice, lambed cleaned out the barns, hauled hay, managed my life without much help or interference or unwanted advice.
It was one of the great experiences of my life. To not be able to do that any longer is inevitable, but very difficult for me to accept. I think it is a kind of death for me. I don’t care for watching other people do work that is in many ways, my work also.
I do see the sexist implications of this, and I also understand that I am woefully conflicted about it. But I know the strength of Maria, and her competence. I just don’t worry about her in that way. It’s a selfish thing, really. I just want to be able to do it all, and I can’t.
But I suppose it is a good problem to have when I think of the homeless, the elderly, farmers, plow drivers, police officers, the poor, firemen and women, EMS workers who face the cold and snow in a very different way.
I am too lucky and too healthy to simply not go out in a storm and care for my farm, our animals. I think I can never really accept that completely, I would perhaps rather keel over than see myself in that way.
So small steps, one day at a time. I will do the best I can for as long as I can.
Jennifer Ciulla Van Ort wrote something on my Facebook Page that I liked a lot, she wrote about what she calls “The Community Of Cold,” responding to a blog post I wrote about how this vast system of cold unites much of our divided country. The storm called Grayson is not a left or right thing, or a red and blue thing, or a black and white thing.
She coined this term when she went to a local convenience store in her town and saw all of the plow drivers, police officers and EMS crews gathering before the storm. A Community of Cold.
We all feel this unnerving cold, it is not winter as usual, it is not normal. We all wish one another good luck, we all commiserate and think ahead to some relief, we all worry about our homes, our dogs and cats and donkeys and horses, our plumbing and water pipes.
Our politicians seem very disconnected from our Community of Cold, they quarrel with one another, hide out in palaces, play golf.
They don’t seem concerned with what so many tens of millions of Americans are feeling now. I never feel they are thinking of me, or the people I care about.
But I think we are concerned for one another. Everywhere I go here, people tell me to “be safe,” or “take care” or “stay warm,” they say they hope our pipes hold out and don’t freeze. Friends and neighbors call me to ask if we need anything, if the house is okay, and I call neighbors – especially elderly ones – and ask if them are okay.
Do they need groceries? Help cleaning off the car? A drive to the doctor? I go to the Mansion every day and ask “what do you need?” I ask Ali the same thing about the refugee kids. More communities.
I like this feeling of being part of one compassionate and strong country, I haven’t felt it for a year or so, I sometimes feel like a refugee in my own land, perhaps this is why I identify so closely with them.
Communities are all about caring, and caring promotes empathy and compassion. We all suffer when community is torn and divided, I was sorry to see so many people suffer, but also hopeful to see so many people in the same place, each of us standing in the other’s cold shoes, scanning the weather, fussing about our plumbing, waiting for a break from the cold.
This winter reminds us that we are all human beings, there are things we all understand and don’t need to argue about..
So I see this storm, this winter, as creating a new community, the Community Of Cold.
We live in communities large and small, all of us, and this morning, Maria and I took a few minutes to sort out this storm conflict, it flared up yesterday and this morning. She is tired from all the work. I said I thought it is natural for two people who love one another to worry about each other.
It is hard for me to see her work so hard – and quite competently – in such harsh conditions, I see how tired she sometimes is.
I know she can handle it, I just am struggling to come to grips with what i can’t handle. She is generous and giving, it would please her if I didn’t come out for a minute in this weather, and she would do all of the work herself without complaint.
That might be a wise thing for me to do.
But the truth is, I just can’t do it.
I told her I meant it when I said I wouldn’t go out, but then when I see her out there shoveling the walks again and hauling water, I just get dressed and come out to help. In my defense, I don’t stay out for long, and this weekend, I won’t stay out for more than five minutes. I know frostbite, I don’t take it lightly, and my heart protests when I’m taking in that kind of freezing air.
So we worked it out. It just took us a few minutes, we’ve dealt with harder things.
This morning, she went to shovel a path, I went to brush off the cars and clean up after the dogs. I shoveled the cars out, shoveled the back porch and went inside. That was quite comfortable for me, and I left her to do what she needed to do, without my hovering around and trying to help out.
It is a good compromise, and a realistic one. I am grateful for the storm, because it brought back the sense that we are all connected to one another, despite what we see in the news, despite what the politicians do to us, in more ways than we acknowledge.
Nobody refuses to stop to help a neighbor shovel out their walk because they voted for somebody else.
And no loving spouse can watch their partner work and work without wishing they could help more. That is the nature of life, I think, the pulse of the true humanity.