I have always felt sorry for folks who don't love animals. And secretly I have suspected something might be wrong with them. I am a true, dyed in the wool, not entirely rational animal lover. I will labor over whether I should spend an extra twenty cents on a higher fat content gallon of milk, yet a plunk down the insane amount of cash required to buy a bottle of insulin for my cat. My animals make me happy in a completely uncomplicated, albeit expensive way that humans have yet to aspire to. This doesn't mean I don't complain and grouse when the poodle steals half a pound of fudge, vomits it all over my entire house, and requires emergency vet care on a holiday. I do, and loudly. When the elderly cat slowly claws her way up onto my bed, shredding both my quilt and my leg, I yelp. But over all, my pets make me smile more often than anything else on this earth. This may be directly related to the fact that I have a poodle.
Along with the sweetness comes the bitterness of losing them. Unless you get yourself a parrot or an elephant, you will likely outlive your beloved pet. This week was a bitter week, losing my sweet mama goat after twelve long years. She was at least four years old when I got her, so she had achieved elderly status in goat years. More than four years ago when our girls came to us, life was thrown into the maelstrom, and the pets were neglected in the chaos. It was a very mild early winter, and most of December that year was more like October or early November. The problem with livestock and mild weather is this, that when it is warm they choose to sleep outdoors on the ground. Unfortunately, if it turns suddenly cold, they can actually freeze their limbs. One morning Baby Boy came indoors, frantic because my mama goat had let out a horrible cry upon rising, and was struggling about her pen. I ran outdoors in my PJs to check on her, and the girls took the opportunity to begin swinging from the chandeliers. I was so angry at them, that I made them come outside and buckle up in the truck, and I told them I didn't care if they ate each other, but they were to stay put while I took care of the goats.
I was quickly flooded with guilt, knowing I had not been keeping a close eye on much of anything but the girls, and all of the pets (and humans) were suffering for it. Thus began a regimen of geriatric goat pampering, that involved thawing out in a crate in my kitchen, warm bottles of water with a twist of molasses, and a blanketed crate in the barn on any night that dipped below twenty degrees. I was acutely aware that she could have died because of my inattention. I was also aware that every one of our animals was stressed by the chaos reigning in the house, and that I had ceased to take joy in the pets, seeing them only as another taxing chore. Nursing my goat back to health, and pampering her for another four and a half years was the gift of that stressful, remorse filled morning. I was suddenly, instantly aware of how heartbroken it made me to discard my pets each day, in order to feed the endless needs of my children. Pet care became my self care.
A few days ago, Baby Boy again alerted me to trouble, and again I ran to the goat pen in my PJs. The news was not good. Somehow in the space of one rainy day she had failed to the point of not being able to rise. We gave her some warm water and vitamins, and tried to entice her to eat. She sniffed at grain, and strawberries, and soft green hay. She was fat from winter, and her black coat was glossy and thick with winter fleece. She looked the picture of health, but I could tell something was very wrong, and that her old lady frame would not survive it. She laid in her house all day, baaing quietly whenever the other goats would make noise. She sounded fussy. I checked on her at bedtime and she was quiet. She died during the night.
Yesterday I cried on and off all day, and went out in the thin spring sunshine to finish mucking her pen and clean out her little house. Beloved husband and Baby Boy took her body to the vet for disposal, and Hippie Boy helped me muck the pen. Mark that down in history. As we worked, he asked me what appeal all of this held for me, that it did not hold for him. I shrugged. I don't know why I love to clean up rotting hay and manure, or stand listening to the movements of these funny little animals. In my mind's eye, I can see back through a dozen Springtimes, see other barns and goat pens. I can hear those same soothing sounds, smell the same rotting hay, and see my children playing with the kids. I can feel the hours spent sitting on a crate, brushing the raggedy fleece out of spring coats, a black head leaning in with eyes closed. "Please brush my neck and scratch my knobby head." The lawn is littered with giant gray balls of wool, and I tell the children that the birds will line their nests with them. With my mama goat passes the image of a petite little girl struggling to "herd" her to her pen in the morning, or sitting at the homemade milking stand, racing to finish the milking. Long gone is that little girl, grown to a woman, and the little boys that sat in the hay to hold the wriggling kids are disappearing as well. Even the crazed little girls buckled into the backseat of the truck are gone, replaced by quiet, composed teens.
Our pets help us mark time and places, and at no time more than when we lose them. We remember the day we brought them home, how old were the children, what house did we live in. Almost every day of their lives, they do the very same things. They are, after all, beasts. It is easy to let them blend into the background of our lives in a way that our human housemates will not tolerate. It is easy to take for granted all the quiet delight they can add to our lives. Then in an instant they are gone, leaving a hole we did not anticipate.