I was talking last night with a friend from school about the latest litter of Pixelkittens. That's right, Pixel the slut went and got herself knocked up, and gave birth on the haystack two days before Marilyn was going to go ahead and get her fixed.
We weren't sure how far along she was, and seeing as how she usually spends the better part of pregnancy looking like she swallowed a grapefruit, her size was no indication when she finally showed herself at the barn.
She had six kittens. She's down to three. Its tough, but I expected it. It was a big litter for her and two of them were pretty small and weak from the start. The latest tiny body was because of a respiratory bug that all of them have had. For the three strong ones, it's nothing more than a case of the snuffles... but this one just couldn't handle it.
The conversation last night though, got into nursing animals and how much work it is. A dog that's been hit by a car can't tell you where it hurts. An emaciated kitten can't squeak loud enough for you to hear it across the room. A barn owl with a broken wing will take your finger off when all you're trying to do is get it to someone who can help. And let me tell you, those talons aren't just for show. A tip if you ever have to rescue an injured predatory bird... cover it's head first, and then give it something to hang on to with those talons. Even a ball of towel, or a coat sleeve, will give it a sense of security (and it will be so busy hanging on to its "perch" that it won't try to hang on to you) but make sure it's nothing you mind having holes in. A stout stick is best of all, really.
I've bottle raised a lot of critters, and lost even more. When I was a little girl I was constantly bringing home orphans, kittens, sparrows, even a litter of field mice once. I couldn't stand to see a critter in pain. The Farmparents were kind enough to help me do what I could, and to let me learn the hard way that sometimes, it's kinder to just help them along.
After a while, it became clear that I have a certain talent for helping animals. People started bringing me strays that were hurt, more orphans. Even Farmdad brought home a dog that was hit by a car, and caught a duck in a ditch for me.
And small animals aren't the only ones. The first calf I bottle raised was a feedlot calf that the Farmparents brought home. She came out of the finishing pens, which meant that her mother had been pumped full of so many hormones and drugs it was a miracle she was even born, let alone that she survived her first twenty four hours. Her eyes were a milky blue all over, and she was tiny, way too small for what she should be. One eye eventually broke down and became a bumpy white mass, glaring from her head and completely useless. We think she could see shadows from the other eye, in spite of the fact that she had no pupil, she could find things in the yard if they were big and solid enough.
I, and our cocker spaniel, nursed her into a big healthy calf, when the experienced feedlot cowboys had refused to try to save her. She thought she was a dog. Her favorite food was hamburger pizza, which she would steal from the scrap dishes we would set out for the dogs. Her favorite toy was an old traffic cone, which she could find unerringly every time.
The winter of '06 was hard, hard on the cows and hard on us. We couldn't keep calves alive, they'd be up and sucking one day, and lay down on wet ground (there wasn't any dry ground) and snow that night, and freeze to death.
Two of them, we got to before they died. Two. Out of forty born. We lost just under half our calf crop that year.
The first one was born on a bitterly cold day. His mom had cleaned him up, but the ground he was lying on was frozen, and his body temp had dropped to the point that he couldn't even shiver. We loaded him up in the cab of the pickup when we found him, with the heater on full blast and Farmmom and I rubbing his skin vigorously. When he started being more alert, we got him out and on his feet, and tried to put him back on his momma, but she had given up on him. She wouldn't have anything to do with him. So, in to town he came.
Twenty four hours later, after twelve hours of laboriously struggling to get a couple of swallows down his throat at a time every half hour, and twelve hours of feeding him every two hours when he got enough energy to suck, I was pretty happy about his chances. He was a victory.
Farmmom called another day. "Hey Kiddo, we're bringing you another baby. Better go down and get some colostrum and get it started, this one is in bad shape. "
"Worse than the last one?"
"Yeah. She's big but I think she's got some deformity in her mouth, and she's barely staying with us."
When they rolled up I had the old glass 7-up bottle full of colostrum mix and topped with a lamb nipple. When they haven't figured out how to suck yet, it's easier to fit your finger in their mouth to work the nipple if you use the lamb nipple.
I met them at the garage door, Farmdad carrying a big lanky heifer calf, her black coat plastered to her. He laid her down on the old carpet we'd put down for the first calf and I started working. She was cold, and still soaked with the fluids from the womb. The cow hadn't even tried to clean her up. Sometimes they just know. She was still breathing, though, and she made feeble protests when I pinched her, so I had hopes. If they're still with it enough to get pissed off, there's a good chance that they're gonna hang on.
I checked her mouth to make sure there wasn't part of a mucus plug before I started trying to feed her, and I saw that her lower jaw jutted forward, longer than her upper. Her teeth still connected with her palate though, so she wasn't too deformed to graze. Her tongue was stiff, and still had the cone shape that they're born with. Usually the tongue relaxes by the time they get on their feet, but while they're in the womb it's a plug, conforming to the whole mouth.
I hoped that it was the cold keeping the tongue from relaxing. If it wasn't, she'd never be able to suck.
I struggled with her for hours, propping her up to squirt warm milk in her mouth, scrubbing her roughly with an old towel to dry her off, talking to her constantly. I alternate between gentle reassurances and angry smack talk, most of the time. It's just stimulation for them, one way or another. Whenever I wasn't propping her up, though, she was flat out on her side, staring vacantly.
I thought she had a chance, when she started trying to suck. Her tongue still hadn't relaxed, but she was still very cold. I held on to hope with both hands, because without hope, I'd just give up and she wouldn't have any chance. I stared desperately at the other calf, curled up near her and watching me curiously as I rubbed on her and pounded her ribs, pinched her and called her baby. He was a victory. He proved that I wasn't completely incompetent, a feeling that often overtakes me when I'm struggling to help a critter and I reach the point where I just don't know what else to do.
Around eleven that night, I went back out to try to get just a couple more ounces down her. When they're newborns, it's amazing what just a tiny amount of sustenance can do. Just a few drops of condensed milk, with honey for quick energy, can revive a starving kitten enough for it to suck ten minutes later, and get a full belly. An ounce or two at a time for a weak calf can bring it back from the brink.
She wasn't breathing. Her tongue had never flattened out. She lay there, flat on her side, staring. Her jaw was open and her conical tongue lay on the carpet. I was sore from wrestling her and the other calf around for feedings, I was emotionally exhausted from pouring myself into the effort to save her.
I'd fallen in love the first time I tried to feed her. You have to, if you're going to save them. You don't get up every two hours all night to feed something because it's for sale. You don't shove your hand in the same mouth with sharp teeth and a tongue that will give you painful carpet burns because it's your job. Not and save the ones that really need you. The ones that everyone else would give up on, you struggle with, and for, because you love them. You don't look at them and see another pet cat, or dog, sparrow to sing, raccoon to rifle through the trash or future hamburger or cow to make more walking steaks.
You look at them, and you see something that is completely helpless. Something that, in the case of domestic animals, has been bred into putting its trust in man kind, that you have a responsibility, a duty to. It takes only an instant for you to fall in love. It takes only one trusting look, or a feeble suck on your finger, or a weak kick in response to pain. That one instant reaches deep inside you and that animal ceases to be "the calf," or "the kitten," and becomes, simply, "mine."
Mine. My child, my pet, my pain. Pain in the back and the arms, pain in scratches and bites and knees. But Mine.
My responsibility, my duty. And sometimes that duty is more than just doing everything you can to save them. Sometimes that duty is making sure that the end is as easy as possible for them, because there is nothing else you can do. Sometimes it's ending it yourself, rather than letting them suffer.
All the failures, the ones I couldn't save, they haunt me sometimes. But the memories of the ones I did save are there to balance it out. Kittens play fighting and rolling through the kitchen in a fluffy ball, calves in the yard in blatant defiance of city ordinance chasing me back and forth and head butting playfully at me, or just making it to the vet's office and hearing "He's got a chance."
"At least he/she died warm, with a full belly, and comforted." The Farmparents have said that to me dozens of times as I sat crying, holding tiny bodies that were stiff and cold, or still warm and flopping loosely, or with my hand on the side of the motionless body of one that's too big for me to hold. It's a mantra.
Sometimes it's just "At least I tried."