Feb 24, 2010

Goodbye Chicken Dog

One of our baby goats, Little Sammy, died during the night.

Sammy had already had a close call with death.  He was born small with peculiar traits.  His sister was small too, but learned how to bottle feed once she was weened and is thriving.  Sammy, on the other hand, never developed a suckling reflex and when placed in the pen with other babies would separate himself and stand, motionless, staring into the corner.

He never played. He could drink milk, but only in small amounts which you had to pour down his throat.  A little over a week ago he was found at the bottom of a kid pile.  Flat and motionless, he looked like a goner but on closer inspection his eyes twitched and faint breathes were detectable.  We moved him to the office to warm up and started tube feeding him to get some milk back in his deflated body.

Sammy slowly got better, but not much better.  He could stand up on his own, but was lethargic and didn't like to eat.  On the night before Valentine's Day Joe and I decided he needed more attention and moved him into our house. 

Sammy's favorite thing was to sit as close as possible to our gas heater.  I was sure he was going to set himself on fire, so a constant negotiation of how close he could actually be ensued. We fed him throughout the day, tiny amounts of milk, but a steady stream.  And we started giving him a calf supplement of sugar, vitamins and iron that the vet recommended.


Sammy made sounds like a chicken.  He never quite mastered walking on our hardwood floor. We'd  come home to find Sammy spread out, legs in every direction, stuck and making distressed chicken clucks.  He tripped us walking through the house and peed on our  new bathmat.  But despite all his awkwardness he was our sweet Sammy.  We took to calling him our "chicken dog."  Following us around the yard clucking he seemed confused about what kind of animal he was.

But mostly, Sammy just seemed confused. 

After a week of concentrated attention and ear scratching, we started seeing improvements.  He was gaining weight.  Once or twice he even really suckled and could drink a whole third of a bottle in one feeding.  Most important to me, though, was that he was responding to us.  He cried when we left.  Wagged his tail when we came near.  Followed us around the house and out into the yard.  He seemed more engaged with the world than the newborn kid who stared off into the corner.

Still there were things that were never quite right- he couldn't consistently suckle, his jaw clicked when he moved it and his teeth were abnormally large and crooked.  Sammy was definitely different, but we took him as a survivor.  We eventually put him back in the barn with the other babies to see if he could integrate into the group.

He lived outside for four days.  He still needed to be bottle fed and was smaller than even the newest newborns, but seemed happy.  The weather's been warm and he slept in the kid piles with his sister and even played with the other babies.  Or at least tried to in his own weird Sammy way. 

This morning I found him dead in the pen.  His body was limp and stretched out flat. I thought he might come back to life like he did the last time.  But he didn't. The other babies nudged his nose and looked at him in confusion.  I went ahead with the morning feeding and milking and the babies followed suit, happily eating and dancing on the milk bucket, forgetting all about Sammy.

The truth is that Sammy was going to die.  Almost all the baby bucks have been pre-sold off the farm for meat.  An enterprising young man from Siler City's large Latino community has bought them to raise and sell to local families.  So I knew from the beginning that even by trying to save Sammy I would only be saving him to end up the main course at a Christmas goat roast.  I thought about that when I bottle fed him.  And he wasn't a pet.  I thought about that when I held him at our kitchen table and brushed his fur with my fingers.

Sammy was a part of the farm's livestock.  I repeat these words to myself separately, "Live. Stock."

You can't save every baby and you sure can't pour all your farm's resources into saving every sick animal while the others wait for your care and attention.   And while I've written about two deaths so far, the fact of the matter is that we've delivered over 50 healthy and vivacious babies that clamour for my attention upon stepping foot in the barn.  And we are now milking 30 strong mothers.  Only a very small number don't make it.  But those small numbers stay with you.

I carried Sammy out to the burying place in the rain.   The llamas in the pasture acknowledged my passing with their periscopic heads as I made my way towards the forest.  Sammy's eyes stayed open, his little legs swung back and forth in a walking pattern.  Other animals have died, but this was my first time dealing with a body.  I walked past some of those dead bodies when I entered the forest.  A hog who hadn't made to slaughter lay sideways, his mouth open and grotesque, his eyes eaten by birds.  An adult goat lie further down, his body twisted, legs missing and neck torn by fox and coyote.  I covered little Sammy's eyes and moved quickly.

Maybe it was the rain, the mist, or my somber mood, but the forest this morning felt otherworldly.  Like something out of a Greek myth, there was a passage Sammy and I made from the cultivated earth of the farm to the haedes like wilderness of the forest.  On the farm, animals live, there is order.  We have rows, pens, scheduled times for feedings and milkings, sheets with data.  In the forest, fox and coyotes plot chicken raids, bleached bones lay on rock piles, plants grow without being watered, animals reproduce without husbandry and the order and rhythm of things isn't measurable by the punch of a time card in the farm office.  The only animals that regularly move in and out of these two spaces on our farms are four llamas who walk the perimeters of our pastures like stately centurions, guarding our flock from attack by wild creatures.

I buried Sammy near a rock pile and tried to pin down exactly what I felt.  Was it stupid to be torn up about a baby goat?  Especially a baby goat that was so obviously not going to survive and clucked like a chicken?  Had it been cruel to try and keep him alive in the first place?

I placed some pine cones around his resting spot and searched for some kind of... something.... a feeling, a realization, a lesson, the right words for the moment.  All I could come up with was, "Sammy, you were a good goat and you really loved to sit by the heater."

We'll miss you chicken dog.


  1. Good bye Sammy. You were a sweet guy. Better luck next time. I will miss you.

    Lora, that was beautifully said.

  2. What a wonderful story, thanks for sharing. I got a few tears in my eyes.