This summer Fanny almost made the ultimate sacrifice for her herd. One afternoon the goats were all milling around the gate to the fence that encircles my house. They had been out browsing for the day. Fanny was no where in sight and the herd seemed rattled, confused, unsure of what to do or where to go. I went out looking and found Fanny lying under some trees and panting hard. As I approached I noticed nystagmus, her eyes were darting side to side in their sockets and she seemed unable to see. She tried to stand but staggered back down. I suspected some kind of neurotoxin--snake bite? poison?--or a parasitic problem? I searched her body with my hands for any swelling or sign of physical injury and found none. A few days earlier a storm had come through and had blown down some branches. I remembered hearing from a neighbor that damaged cherry leaves produce prussic acid, which causes cyanide poisoning. This usually results in immediate death they said.
I went looking and did find a wild cherry limb that had been blown down. It had been stripped of its leaves, as goats do. A little research and I learned no treatment can help. Loading her up and taking her to the vet in my truck would stress her to no avail, probably killing her. So I brought her a bucket of fresh water and waited.
As evening approached, the herd eventually found its way back to the nighttime pasture and Fanny staggered after them. By the next day, she was on her feet but was still unstable and holding her head askew, as animals do when they are confused. I was beginning to believe she might be blind in at least one eye. In the days that followed she gradually improved. In the meantime, Orie asserted herself and took over as herd queen. Disheartened, Fanny followed after as best she could. She was not used to following but expected that no matter where she stopped or which way she turned, the herd would be in tow. As a result, often she would look up from her browsing to discover that Orie had led the herd off and they were out of sight. I would hear her bawling for them sporadically throughout the day.
Orie and the herd had just gotten used to this state of affairs when Fanny recovered and decided she was well enough to take over again. Orie didn't step aside gracefully. The situation required intermittent head butting, but Fanny prevailed and reclaimed her thrown. Orie is waiting. If anything does happen to Fanny, I have no doubt about who will move into first place.
Fanny's condition suffered for a while after this incident. She lost weight and looked pretty raggedy. I was not going to let her breed this year. But two months after the poisoning, she was mostly back to normal and came into season. She bleated relentlessly for her mate and I gave in. The nighttime pasture is divided into three paddocks--one for the does and their kids, one for the buck and his whether buddies, and a middle paddock that separates the buck and the does. I call this the "field of fornication," and this is where I isolate the does when they are in season before letting the buck in with them. For all their screaming and his blubbering, the whole thing last only seconds and all is quiet again.
So Fanny became pregnant. Perhaps residual effects of the poisoning explains one of the twins small size and frailty? What was so wrong with her that caused her to crawl away from her mother and refuse to nurse?
I wonder at the goats' behavior and what it all means, and I also wonder at mine. I coddled weak kids. Against my better judgment, I bring them in and put them in a laundry basket by the wood stove. I employ "heroic measures" to try to feed them frequent little dribbles. Had it lived, it would have been my responsibility most likely, a bottle baby, more attached to me that its mother. All this, and next week I will load up a batch of yearling whethers and take them to market. I worried over and checked these whethers just as often in their first hours of life. When they were just weeks old, I went out searching for them when they became separated from their mothers who stood bellowing for them. Most times they'd fallen asleep as the herd browsed nearby and continued to doze as the herd moved on, even sleeping through their mother's urgent calling after them.
All this tender care, and tomorrow night I plan to enjoy a delicious goat chili with friends. I like to quote writer and contrary farmer Gene Logsdon regarding his farm animals. In Gene Everlasting, he says, “We raise our farm animals with loving care, grow quite fond of them, put our lives at risk to save theirs if necessary, and then we kill and eat them.”
How can I do this? A good life and a quick kill is kinder than the way animals treat one another. The natural world is a violent place. If you've ever had two bucks in rut or more than one rooster at any time, you know the maiming and mayhem that can occur. Even the hens and does have their pecking order, and heaven help any challenger of the status quo. In the wild when an animal eats another animal, it is rarely a quick and painless death. Life feeds on life. Everything must eat, must consume in order to live and thus we affect the rest of life by our mere existence. The sanest thing we can do is to keep our own numbers in check so that we do not outpace our resources and other species.
But, what do I know. I am a heretic among goatherds as well as among beekeepers and gardeners. I have tried to educate myself in the conventional ways of goat herding, and when I'm in a pinch as with the prussic acid poisoning, I research the web, contact other goat owners, and even call the vet as a last resort. But mostly I listen to and watch the goats and they tell me what they need, which most of the time is for me to leave them the hell alone. I just need to open my eyes and ears, believe what I see and hear, and trust the goats. They have been at their business of being goats for millennia without human help or interference. When they first started walking this earth, no one was around to worm them or to feed them corn, and yet they survived until recent times.
Before I began keeping goats, I had the opportunity to attend a wedding in Jamaica. On the bus ride across the island, I noticed wild goats everywhere, roaming and browsing at will with no human interference. I've read that goats live ferally in large parts of Australia and elsewhere in the world. My little acreage has plenty of brush for my small herd to eat with supplemental hay in the dead of winter.
Most of the goats came into season in early July. The coldest weather usually does not come to Middle Tennessee until at least late December. This year has been the warmest year in recorded history so I thought that all would be well. But no. The past few nights have dipped down into the teens and that is when the first three does decided to kid.
I haven't figured out why they insist on kidding in wintertime when the frailer kids are subject to hypothermia in their first few hours or days. Is it because all of the parasites and harmful microorganisms are frozen? Is it because the frail ones are not meant to live, produce, and pass on their inferior genes? All but Fanny's tiny one and, I'm learning, anything that comes out of Bella have done very well on frosty ground. Every year I am tempted to make them wait to breed so that the worst of winter will be over before the kids arrive. Every year the does beat me down with their relentless loud bleating for the buck when they are in season, or the buck outwits me and destroys a fence to get to them. Maybe they know best.
The frozen ground crunches underfoot as I return to the goat shed with my bundle. Although it is 6 am, there is no sign of the sun even beginning to light the eastern sky. The Big Dipper has disappeared beneath the northern horizon as it is want to do in the Southern states in early December. It is moonless and the Milky Way spills across the sky--so many stars! "See this, Little One? If you can make it, you get to see this big beautiful sky every single day and night of your life. No roof to block *your* view, Little One."
The heat lamps wired to the rafters spread a red glow over the dozing occupants of the goatshed. Bella is lying with the one little triplet that she has not yet neglected to death. He will not let her neglect him. He is robust and relentless, dogging her every turn, catching a sip from a teat when he can. I slip Little One in beside her brother, hoping no one will notice. This is how I introduce new chickens to the henhouse, slip them in during the cover of night and hope no one will notice the interloper when they rouse themselves at daylight. The day will warm to the 50s and tonight will be warm as well. Being accepted back into the fold is Little One's best chance at a healthy life as a goat. It is up to her, her mother, and the ways of nature. Will it work? I have no idea. They only thing I know for sure is that goats know more about being goats than I do.