Coda on Mean

My apologies for the slow posting of late; things with work and the farm have kept us preocupied. Some of this has related to the legal process in adopting Yeoman Farm Baby — which, by the way, is progressing nicely (we appreciate your ongoing prayers for this intention).

About a month ago, I wrote about the passing of a barn cat named Mean. She had a prolapsed rectum, and had to be put down. At the time, we puzzled over the choice the vet gave us: $15 to have her put to sleep on the spot, or $20 for an office visit if we took her home alive and put her down ourselves. After further discussion, Mrs. Yeoman Farmer and I came to a rough consensus about the price discrepancy: the vet’s office probably gives the price break to ensure the animals die as humanely as possible. I’m a pretty good shot, but not everybody is. The vet probably heard enough horror stories about people putting three or four bullets into their pets, causing unnecessary trauma for both the animal and the family, to decide an incentive should be offered to get the job done on the spot.

We thought that would close the books on Mean. Then, a few days ago, we got a nice card in the mail from the vet’s office. The outside was covered with an illustration of doe-eyed puppies, kittens, bunnies, and the like, and read “In Loving Memory of Your Pet.” On the inside was a hand-written inscription reading:

Dear [Mrs Yeoman Farmer], A loyal companion is hard to find, hard to lose, and impossible to forget. May you find comfort in the knowledge that you were truly belssed to have shared your life with such a friend as Mean. Thinking of you in your time of loss.

And it was signed by every member of the vet’s staff.

I want to emphasize that this card was extremely thoughtful, and very much appreciated…but it also sparked a conversation around our dinner table that was perhaps even more so. First off, we thought it was amusing to read the name “Mean” in the same sentence as the tender sentiments of pet friendship. “You know someone at the vet’s office was chuckling when they wrote that,” MYF commented (see the post linked above for more info about the name’s origin). But secondly, and more importantly, we discussed why the vet’s office probably sends these cards out: most families get so attached to their pets, and so “personify” their animals, losing one of them becomes as traumatic as losing a human member of the family. We’ve largely avoided that, by being vigilant in how we refer to the animals and treat them. Yes, it’s still hard when one of them dies — especially a barn cat that the kids enjoyed playing with, or a dog that was a constant companion [see the four “Goodbye to a Great Dog” posts linked in the right margin of the blog for an example]. But it’s not the end of the world, and we don’t construct memorials to them. By contrast, we have heard of some kids so stricken at a pet’s death that their parents allow them to miss school so they can grieve.

Our kids were sad about Mean’s death, but they got over it in relatively short order. It turned out to be good preparation, because we ended up going through an identical situation just last week: Mean’s last surviving littermate, Hairy (yes, an extremely long-haired cat), also developed a prolapsed rectum. We caught it earlier this time, so thought perhaps the vet might be able to do something. MYF and the kids took Hairy in, but the vet said that once this kind of thing gets going at all there really isn’t any treatment. Furthermore (and this was important), it wasn’t that we did anything wrong. Cats can have a genetic predisposition to rectal prolapse, and that’s clearly what happened here. Both littermates developed it within weeks of each other.

We told the kids that we could get another free kitten or two, the next time we see someone advertising them. Not surprisingly, all three of the older Yeoman Farm Children are urging me to start looking actively. And given the average life expectency we’ve had with barn cats, we may need to NOT have the new female kitten spayed, so we can produce some litters of our own in the future.

But that’s okay. We and our kids understand well that both life and death are all part of the natural order of things. Especially on a farm.

3 thoughts on “Coda on Mean

  1. Do you have any advice on how to deal with a preoccupation with death? Also living on a farm and being surrounded with life and the inevitable death, our almost-4yr-old is practically obsessed with it. She talks almost daily about some animal that we have lost be it a goat, a sheep or a chicken with death by illness, predation or scheduled slaughter. One we lost a year and a half ago yet she still brings her up! Not necessarily grievingly, but will just talk… telling any visitors about all the animals and how they died. We name all our animals but they are all tools, not pets, and we keep the distinction. So, I don't know if we should allow her to talk endlessly or firmly tell her to stop dwelling on it and move on. Any thoughts???

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  2. H.M. – that's a great question, and one that I will discuss with Mrs. Yeoman Farmer. I think she will have some insights.

    Am planning another post about animal deaths (yes, we've had some more lately), so I may have her contribute to that.

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  3. Dear Homesteading Mommy,

    First off, I love your screen name!

    Regarding your little girl and her preoccupation with your dead animals, the first thing that comes to my mind is that perhaps, notwithstanding your having told her that the animals are tools rather than pets, perhaps she is too young to really make that distinction. You mention that you had a chicken die a year and a half ago, and she still talks about it. If my math is right (and I'm not great at arithmetic),she would've been 2 1/2when that chicken died. But 2 1/2 perhaps is too young an age to hope that a child can understand something which seems reasonable to adults (the tool/pet distinction). It's possible that the naming of all of the animals (thus making them seem like pets to her) overrode your explanation.
    The next thing that comes to my mind is, do you have children's books in which the animals are personified (they wear clothes, talk, act like people, their young are referred to as “babies,” etc.)? If so, that could be contributing to your daughter's preoccupation. Maybe she is having trouble wrapping her mind around death because she's been confused by books that make animals look pretty much like people.
    Which leads to my last thought: I don't know what your religious beliefs are, but we happen to be Catholic Christians. And since my kids were teeny-tiny, whenever we have a death of an animal (or of a friend or loved one), I try to focus my kids' attention on Christ's death… and RESURRECTION out of love for, and the redemption of, mankind. I try to gently remind him that people are different from animals because when animals die, they're just gone; but when people die, their souls live forever. And that if a person dies in the friendship of God, he will actually live forever with Him in Heaven. And I typically then ask them something like, “Aren't you glad that God made you a person instead of a chicken (or goat, dog, cat, etc.), so that you can spend forever with Him in Heaven?” Somehow, this seems to help them deal with the deaths of the animals and people that they held dear. (I should also say that most of our animals do not have names–really only the cats, dogs, milk goats, ewes, and the ram and buck that we keep for breeding. only 3 of our 60 or so birds have names.) Also, we don't own any kid's books that personify animals, and that has been a big help.
    I don't know if any of this helps; if so, I'm glad. If not, I'll try to dodge the tomatoes thrown at the computer screen (smile). But I'll say a prayer for your little one before I go to bed.

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