When All Else Fails

Try duct tape!

Seriously, that’s the lesson you learn pretty quickly on a farm. We bought a large bulk pack of it at Sam’s Club some time back, and I’m glad to never have a shortage.

It proved itself particularly handy a little over a week ago. About two weeks ago, Puddles the Goat Kid somehow managed to break her left rear leg, down close to the foot. I tried splinting and bandaging it, but the whole thing came off in fairly short order. She didn’t seem to be in a lot of pain, and was getting around well on three legs, but I didn’t want to leave the leg untreated.

So, a week ago Tuesday, I took her to the vet to have it done “right.” I figure we’ve spent enough time and effort (and milk) bottle-feeding her, we might as well invest a little more in getting her leg correctly set. Puddles was a huge hit in the waiting room, and got lots of attention from those with dogs and cats. It took a long time for the vet to get to her, but he splinted and bandaged her leg beautifully. I left his office confident that Puddles would heal nicely, and that our $60 was well spent.

And then, last Wednesday afternoon, the splint was off. Yes, the whole thing had simply slid off her leg. I took her and it back to the vet on Thursday, waited for a long time with lots of dog-and-cat people, and he re-splinted her leg but with more bandages and tape. And only charged me $10.

And, by 6pm, the whole thing had slid right back off her leg.

Rather than spend my Friday morning back at the vet’s office, I recruited one of the Yeoman Farm Children to help me splint Puddles’s leg myself. I’d watched the vet enough times now to understand the general principles — and watched Puddles lose the splint enough times to know I had to do something different as well.

And that something was DUCT TAPE. I splinted and bandaged the leg much as the vet had (fortunately, her leg was already starting to fuse, so it wasn’t necessary to align the bone). Then, I basically mummified the entire thing with duct tape — and didn’t stop at her knee. I kept wrapping her, all the way up to mid-thigh. “Just try slipping this thing off!” I told her, as she limped across the floor of my office.

Guess what? Nearly one full week later, the splint is still in place! This isn’t the greatest photo, but it was a dark corner of the barn and she was a perpetual motion machine (every time I knelt to take a picture, she’d rush toward me). But this gives some idea of what her leg looks like:

And Puddles is doing much better. She’s actually trying to rear up and place weight on both of her rear legs. I’ll keep it on her for the next week or so, to make sure it’s healed, but I’m very optimistic.

And now an even bigger believer in the power of duct tape.

Beyond My Limit

Today, I did something I never wanted to do…and was certain I would never bring myself to do: personally put my beloved dog out of her suffering. Over the years, I’ve had to put down injured or sick cats, goats, lambs, and birds. It was never pleasant, but I’d never hesitated. But all that time, dogs remained for me a line I couldn’t cross. Especially a companion like Tabasco.

As regular readers know, we’d had Tabasco for nearly four years. We got her as a stray when we lived in Illinois; she showed up at the local rural animal shelter on the same day our Collie was hit by a car. Our vet happened to run the shelter (it was a really small county), and someone there knew we were looking for a new farm dog. Tabasco, it turned out, was a perfect fit. She was on the older side, and wasn’t terribly large, but had plenty of spunk and energy. She had a wonderful temperament, was good with our kids, loved retrieving tennis balls, enjoyed riding around in cars, and made herself a fierce defender of our property (she was a determined enough “alpha” to stand up even to our Great Pyrenees…not to mention any intruders who might show up unannounced). She had long legs and a long narrow muzzle, and loved spending hours digging her way into field mouse dens. (Mrs. Yeoman Farmer didn’t like it so much when these digs were in the middle of the lawn.)

As Tabasco got older, she increasingly spent her days with me in my office building. She’d go out to relieve herself, but grew less interested in everything else. She slept on my office couch each night, and was my constant companion by day as I worked. I found it particularly heartening when I’d return to the office after a few hours away…and find her curled up on my desk chair. She’d look up with her big eyes, thump her curly tail, and seem to be assuring me that she’d taken good care of my special place.

The first big turning point was last November, when we were gone for several weeks adopting Yeoman Farm Baby. Tabasco developed a hacking cough, bad enough that the family watching our farm mentioned it regularly over the phone. I took her to the vet once we’d returned, and x-rays confirmed a case of pneumonia. We gave her a course of antibiotics, which took care of the worst symptoms, but Tabasco was never the same. She seldom went out at all, or didn’t seem interested in much of anything but eating and sleeping and watching me work. At the time, I chalked this up to the cold winter. But even when the spring thaw came, she never again tried to chase a tennis ball or tag along for chores. The kids would take her to the barn at milking time, but that was more about getting free squirts of milk than anything else.

Then came the bloat. As detailed in another post, her bloat got so bad about a month ago that I took her to the vet…who took another x-ray, and delivered the grim diagnosis: tumors all over her lungs. Technically, pulmonary edema, and possibly lung cancer. At her age, there wasn’t much of anything we could do. The vet gave some medications to drain her fluid and open her airway, but there was never any question of Tabasco making a recovery. The medication was all about buying time so we could say goodbye.

And I am deeply grateful for that. When we were at the vet last month, he wasn’t sure Tabasco would make it through the weekend. The news was such a shock, I broke down right there in the examining room. And then…the medications gave us five more weeks. Tabasco’s bloat was dramatically reduced within a matter of days, and for the next three or four more weeks she seemed almost normal. Slow, subdued, uninterested in strenuous activity, urinating all the time — but stable and able to get around. I treasured every time I walked through my office door and she looked up and thumped her tail. We gave her all the meat scraps and dog treats she would take, and told her over and over what a great great dog she was.

Then came the last week. Suddenly, she had a lot of trouble getting to her feet. Especially on the slick floor of my office. I told her that was okay; I’d help her get up. I wondered if it was a side effect of the steroids, or just her disease running its course. She’d have good days and bad days, but the general trajectory was downward. She went from having trouble getting up, to having trouble walking around. Her joints seemed stiff, and her hind quarters didn’t want to follow her front quarters.

Then, a few days ago, she couldn’t keep herself in a squatting position long enough to relieve herself. Or a standing position long enough to drink from her bucket. I’d hold her at the bucket so she could drink, but then she’d flop down on the grass. She seemed to like the fresh air, so I’d leave her out. And because she couldn’t get to her feet on my office floor, I’d leave her out at night as long as it wasn’t raining.

I sensed we’d reached a turning point, and began thinking more seriously about taking her in for the vet to put her down. I was certain I couldn’t do it myself. I’m a dog person to the core, and Tabasco was my constant companion. Every fiber of my being revolted at the idea of inflicting harm on her body from my own hand. It’d taken four weeks just to get comfortable with the idea of cradling her in a blanket as I allowed a vet to put her to sleep. Tabasco was a survivor, and a fighter. As long as she was physically able to keep going and seemed to have the spirit to fight, I resolved to let her do it. I prayed she’d die on her own, but knowing her…I knew she wouldn’t.

I wondered how I’d know when Tabasco couldn’t go on, and I’d have to make The Call. She wasn’t well at all yesterday, and I started to think Monday would be It. I began thinking about how I could squeeze a vet visit into my crazily busy schedule. I grilled a big batch of lamb steaks for dinner, and made sure Tabasco got every bone and every scrap. Even though she couldn’t move to get anything, she seemed to be having the time of her life as we fed them to her.

Then, this morning when I came to her, I knew it was time. I couldn’t make her wait till the vet opened on Monday. As absolutely revolting as it was to think about putting her down myself, a perfectly clear realization came to me: it was even more revolting to think about making her suffer a single additional day like this. And I couldn’t make her do it. I cared about her too much. I cared about her so much, I knew in my core that I had to end this. Now.

How did I know? And how did I do it? Some of you may be uncomfortable with the details, but I think they need to be shared. For that reason, the details will be after the jump. Continue reading only if you want to.

(I don’t know why the “Jump Break” doesn’t work, so I’m inserting the following manual break instead.)

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Tabasco’s inability to stand on her feet, or to squat to defecate, was the core of the problem. I didn’t mind carrying her around, or holding her as she drank. The issue became hygiene, and it was a lot worse than I’d thought. Bottom line: flies started to love her. By Saturday afternoon, they were all over her rear end. Saturday night, I got a look at what they were doing to her: her orifices were crawling with fly larvae. I hosed her down, and that brought some relief. Her spirits, despite everything, seemed to remain high.

Then, this morning, the larvae were back with a vengeance. And she smelled absolutely horrible. And Tabasco’s spirit was gone. I sat her on her tail in my lap, put on a latex glove, and used peroxide to clean her up as best I could. But as much as I cleaned, the larvae kept coming. And, despite the early hour, the adult flies were already swooping in to lay more eggs. I knew there was no way whatsoever we could let her go a full additional day in this condition. Not in this heat. Not in this humidity.

It was time.

I went in the house and advised Mrs. Yeoman Farmer as to the situation. She agreed there was really no other option. It’d be cruel in the extreme to make Tabasco linger for another 26 hours while we waited for the vet to open, and we certainly couldn’t call a vet to the farm on a Sunday morning to administer an “emergency” euthanasia.

We broke it to the kids, who took it surprisingly well. I think the five weeks of preparation helped a lot with that. Homeschooled Farm Girl got choked up, brought me a fabric flower that she’d been saving, and asked if I would bury it with Tabasco. Despite the huge lump in my own throat, I assured her I would.

I took a shovel to the pasture, and dug the deepest hole I could. When I came back to retrieve Tabasco, Homeschooled Farm Boy asked if he could go with me. I let him carry my (unloaded) pistol, while I cradled Tabasco in a blanket for the trek.

We set Tabasco in the bottom of the hole, and helped her curl up as comfortably as we could. HFB and I both said our last good-byes, and then I covered her head with an old dish towel before delivering the bullet that would end everything.

I’d actually given a lot of though to the type of round I wanted to use. A shotgun slug or .45 pistol or 7.62x54R rifle would be too big. I didn’t want to blow her head off. A .22 or .380 might be too small and not do the job the first time. I settled on a 7.62×25 pistol; it’s a relatively small but extremely powerful round that would be effective without overkill.

And it indeed was the perfect choice. One pop (which, I confess, I closed my eyes as I delivered), and it was over. No doubt, but no mess. HFB and I quickly covered Tabasco’s body with rocks, and then filled the hole the rest of the way with dirt. We tamped it down, and then made our way back to the house with heavy hearts.

Strangely, my heart didn’t remain heavy for long. Yes, I felt a sad pang the first time I entered my office and looked for Tabasco’s thumping tail greeting that would never come again. But, at the same time, I felt oddly liberated. It was over. Mrs. Yeoman Farmer agreed: it was a relief to finally have resolution to the situation. Finally, we knew how it was going to end. Finally, we could move on.

I’m still surprised I found it within myself to pull that trigger, and I’ve sensed an odd change within myself today as I’ve reflected on it. I’m a stronger person now. I’ve confronted and overcome a challenge I ever even wanted to confront, let alone overcome. The other big challenges in life seem strangely less insurmountable today.

All that said, I have missed Tabasco today. Especially when I was de-boning the meat for lamb stew, and thinking about how much she would enjoy feasting on the scraps…before remembering.

But it’s going to be okay. Scooter loved those scraps. And Tabasco…I’m just glad her suffering is over. And I’m grateful God gave me the strength to render that service.

One Dollar

Nearly twenty years ago, I made a big investment in a one piece of cycling equipment: a Silca floor pump. What’s so big about buying a tire pump? Well, at the time I was a starving undergraduate, whose primary income came from working at McDonald’s on school vacations. And Silca pumps have never been cheap; depending on the model and the retailer, one can easily pay in the neighborhood of $100 these days. I seem to recall getting mine for about $35 or so — a big chunk of change, given my income. But I made the investment because I was getting increasingly serious about cycling, and there were/are no better pumps than Silcas. Just borrowing other people’s Silca pumps a few times convinced me of that.

My Silca outlasted the bike I owned at the time, and traveled back and forth across the country so many times I lost count. It flew with my bike in its case, and rode around in the trunks of cars that long ago went to the junkyard. It sat in sheds and basements and garages and barns in Illinois, Michigan, California, Washington, and Virginia.

And, eventually, it began to wear out. I hardly ever used it, or even rode a bike, between 2000 and 2007; only since then have I slowly begun to get back into the sport. This past year, as I’ve been getting increasingly serious about riding (both my own bike and the tandem with our kids), I found that the Silca pump wasn’t holding a good seal with the tire valve stems. Air leaked like crazy as I pumped, and the pump head would easily disconnect from the stem at even moderate pressure.

My first thought was that I’d gotten a good run from my investment in the Silca pump, and that it was time to buy a new one. One look at current retail prices quickly disabused me of that plan. My next thought was to buy a new brass pump head. A little searching revealed that to be a better course of action, but it still felt odd to be paying $20 to replace a part on a pump that had originally cost me only $35.

I continued searching, and discovered something important: Silca pumps are designed to be entirely rebuildable. And even inside that brass head, the rubber washer can be replaced. I opened up my pump’s head, inspected the washer, and realized that was probably my problem: it was hard and dry and didn’t seem able to provide a good seal. Back to Google, I found any number of online retailers listing that rubber washer for just a few dollars. But, just as quickly, I also discovered the limitations of online retailing: every one of those sites was going to charge at least $7 or $8 to ship that tiny rubber washer. They could’ve put it in a letter-sized envelope and mailed it to me for less than a dollar, but every site was set up with automated UPS or FedEx shipping calculators. Simply on principle, it seemed wrong to buy something and pay three or four times as much for shipping as for the product. But I wondered how else I could get something as seeming-obscure as a Silca rubber washer.

The next afternoon, I made a point of stopping at the local bicycle shop (“local” being relative…the closest bike shop is 15 miles from our house). It’s a fairly well-stocked place, and they’ve done an excellent job getting my bike out of mothballs, but the shop itself doesn’t compare to what you’d find in Seattle or a college town. I didn’t expect them to have the washer, but figured they could special-order it for me. Even if my total cost ended up being similar to buying it online, it was the principle of the thing. Especially in these economic times, I wanted to support a local retailer.

The first clerk I spoke with was significantly younger than I am. As I explained what I was looking for, he got a puzzled expression on his face. I quickly added that they’d probably have to special-order it, and perhaps we could look at some catalogs. He agreed, and led me to a stack of books in the repair area, but still didn’t seem to know quite what I was talking about. As he began opening a parts book, a middle-aged (female) employee happened to go past us. (Fortunately, this woman was the very person I’d originally hoped to speak with; when I’d brought my old Bianchi in for servicing, she’d expressed great appreciation for its vintage Campagnolo components, so I knew she knew about old Italian bike stuff.) Young Clerk turned to her and tried to ask which book he should look in, but he didn’t even know how to describe what he was looking for. “Rubber washer for the head of a Silca pump,” I told her.

“Oh, yeah,” she said. “I think we may even have those,” and walked briskly to a wall of parts bins in the service area. A moment later, she returned with a small plastic wrapper containing not one but two of these rubber washers, marked 95 cents each. “Perfect!” I exclaimed.

As the female employee hurried off to assist the customer she’d been working with, I turned back to the younger clerk. “Is that all you need?” he asked, still looking slightly bewildered.

“Yep,” I smiled, removing one of the washers and producing a dollar bill from my wallet.

Later that night, I showed Homeschooled Farm Boy how to change the rubber washer. Earlier, he’d had to help me me inflate the bike tires by holding the pump head tightly to the rim — but even then, we’d lost a lot of air to leakage. Now, with the new rubber washer, everything worked perfectly.

I’m hoping I get another twenty years of service from this pump. And maybe Homeschooled Farm Boy will someday show his own son how to rebuild it for just one dollar.

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 4×4 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.

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.

The Value of a Woodstove (and a wife who insists on having one)

We awakened Friday morning to discover our propane furnace had gone out. With temperatures in the twenties, and snow on the way, it was an enormous relief to know we had a woodstove in the kitchen—and a good supply of firewood outside. It was something my wife had insisted on, and which we’d installed a few months after moving in. As I built a fire, and felt the heat slowly fill our frigid house, I made a mental note to tell her “thanks.”

We got the stove from Lehmans, a supplier of non-electric products. The stove itself was made by an Amish farmer, and is not much to look at, but it puts out enough heat to keep the house comfortable in the dead of winter—and we do cook with it. The oven is especially nice for roasts and other dishes which don’t require a precise temperature.

As I returned to the house from doing the morning chores, there was nothing quite as beautiful as the sight of smoke curling from the oven’s smokestack.

Oh – we did get the furnace back on line Saturday morning. In the city, it probably would’ve taken days to have gotten someone out to look at it. Around here, we’ve gotten to know a local independent plumbing/heating/cooling contractor personally. We called him, not some faceless company selected from the yellow pages. He was able to shuffle his schedule for us, diagnose the problem, order the new part, and get it installed within 24 hours of our call. That’s one of the things we like most about living here.