11 March 2007

The Tessa Talk

If you haven't yet read the sad news about Tessa, please skip down to the previous post before reading this one.

When we first moved here, and were deciding which animals to get, a friend with more experience gave us some sage advice: Before getting any livestock, decide how you're going to get rid of the dead ones.

Dead chickens, ducks, turkeys and geese are fairly easy to dispose of. When a sheep dies, we have a neighbor who allows us to dump the body deep in an 80 acre field. But it is a lot more difficult to dispose of a 90 pound dog than you might think. Here are the (bad) options:

1) Pay for the incineration service the vet's office uses. It costs at least $30, depending on the size of the dog (thirty bucks was what it would've been for Cassie, and she was less than half Tessa's size), and more if you want the ashes back. Yes, apparently some people really do want the ashes. How they know it's their dog's ashes is anybody's guess.

2) Dig a large grave, somewhere on the property.

3) Dump the body deep in the neighbor's field, and let scavengers take care of it.

We refuse Option 1 on principle. We're not paying that kind of money so someone else can throw our dog's body on a fire.

Option 2 is out because A) our property is currently a mud bog and B) we have a Red Healer dog who excavates anything that smells remotely interesting.

Option 3 is fine for getting rid of dead sheep in the summer time, but A) it sickens me to think of Tessa being left for coyotes and crows and B) our neighbor's field is as much of a mud bog as ours...even a 4x4 would get stuck.

As we mulled these bad options, Tessa's body continued to lay in the back of the pickup truck. With unseasonably warm weather all weekend (but not warm enough to dry the ground for grave digging), the increasing odor told us we had to make a decision. With time running out, that left The Yeoman Farmer with Option 4: DIY Funeral Pyre.

The kids gathered bags of fallen sticks, to use for kindling. My wife contributed boxes of old magazines we'd been meaning to dispose of. I dragged several large logs, too big to fit in the wood stove, to an open area on the property. Together, the kids and I stacked the paper, the kindling, and then all the large logs about 4 feet in the air.

I dragged Tessa's body over from the pickup truck, but then discovered a problem: I couldn't lift 90 pounds of dead dog high enough --- at least not by pulling on her legs. I tried getting a step ladder, but that was too awkward. Finally, I took a deep breath, struggled not to breathe through my nose, grabbed Tessa's body around the middle, and somehow managed to heft it to the top of the logs. I poured four quarts of old motor oil over everything...and then sat down on a rock with the kids. It was time for The Tessa Talk.

I put my arms around them, and asked them why Tessa had been such a good dog. They talked about all the wonderful things Tessa had done: chasing away coyotes, scaring off other bad animals, guarding the house and property while we were gone, taking care of Scooter Puppy, and being with us when we milked the goats. "How long did we have Tessa?" I asked.

"Less than three years," one of them replied.

"Great Pyrenees dogs usually live and work for nine or ten years," I reminded them. "How many more years should we have had Tessa?"

"Six or seven," one said, and I could see tears starting to flow.

"Six or seven years," I said, holding them closer, "that Tessa should have chased coyotes. That Tessa should have taken care of our farm. But now the coyotes will come, and there will be no Tessa. All because Tessa did something very, very foolish. And stupid."

"But Cassie taught her to chase cars!" one objected, as the others began to sob.

"It was still foolish, wasn't it?" I asked.

"Yes," he admitted, sniffling.

I held them closer, and skipped to the conclusion. "And God has lots of things he wants you to do with your life. Lots of friends to make. Lots of work to do. Maybe books to write. Music to play. Kids to teach. If you do something foolish and thoughtless, like Tessa, you won't be there to do all those things. Do you understand?"

Nodding sniffles.

"When Mommy and Daddy tell you to look before you cross the street, or hold somebody's hand, or not race off through a parking lot, you need to think of Tessa. And Cassie. Okay?"

More tears. More nodding sniffles.

I kissed all of them, and got out my butane lighter. "It's time to say goodbye to Tessa," I said, and we all did.

We watched the flames roar high into the sky, and then the kids went off to throw a ball for Tabasco and Scooter. I went inside to prepare dinner. But I couldn't help pausing at the window every few minutes, looking out on the fire, a big empty place in my heart.

I went out a few times that evening to stir the fire, and was amazed at how long it takes to completely consume an animal carcass that large. One of those times, I could hear coyotes howling and screaming not far away. A neighbor's dog offered a few barks in response, but it was nothing like Tessa's bone-chilling baritone.

I sadly stirred the fire, and wondered if we'd ever again find another dog like her.

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