04 February 2007

The Hardest Thing

Some time back, I blogged that deciding which animals to cull and which to keep was among the hardest things a livestock owner must do.

Actually, I'd forgotten about something that's even harder. I got a reminder of it this morning. (And, no, it's not braving sub-zero wind chills to haul water to sheep.)

One of our barn cats had been missing for over a week. This in itself was not unusual; our cats and the next farm's cats frequently "trade barns." So, I wasn't terribly surprised to find him back in our dairy goat stall when I came out this morning. Except something was wrong: the cat was wailing plaintively, and wasn't getting up.

A closer look revealed that his left hind leg was not only broken in several places, but also very badly mutilated. I picked him up, and he seemed to have lost considerable weight. When I set him back down, he managed to hop around on three legs with surprising agility. But I figured that even if the vet managed to amputate the mutilated leg, and he didn't already have some nasty infection, this cat's prognosis was very dim. There was only one thing I could do for him, and it's the thing I find most difficult about having animals.

It didn't help that he continued wailing the whole time I carried him over to my office building. And then, as I loaded my .22 rifle, he hopped a few times on his three legs. Not so much to get away, it seemed, as to show me that he could still function. But even that didn't last long. He sat down awkwardly, and turned away. I was glad I didn't have to see him looking at me. One well-placed pop, and it was over.

I didn't have a close attachment to this cat, but that didn't make it any easier. I've long gotten over my unease at dispatching chickens and ducks and turkeys; they are livestock, and we know from day one what every bird's ultimate end will be. With the companion animals, it's much harder.

But even harder than that is when the animal is one we have struggled against all odds to save, and maybe that's one reason I didn't call the vet on a Sunday morning and see if he could schedule an emergency amputation. Last summer, one of our lambs managed to contract tetanus. At first, we thought it was just pneumonia. We treated him, and bottle-fed him, and spent a lot of time caring for him. Then his symptoms got worse and worse, his jaws locked up, and he began foaming at the mouth. And then he couldn't get up on his feet. Once we realized it was tetanus, and knew there was no way to alleviate his agony, we knew he had to be dispatched...and that job, naturally, fell to me. It took me a long time to get over that one.

Bottom line of this rambling and depressing post: if you're planning to have your own livestock --- even just barn cats --- make sure you're also preparing yourself to put them down if you have to.

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