I feel like I’ve been in an emotional boxing match, and getting my ass kicked. The last few months have been so hard to endure and I just don’t know if I can handle another tragedy.
The bell rang on April 14 and the match started with it’s biggest blow so far. My beloved grandfather Da passed away. I’ve been so blessed to have had all of my grandparents alive for the first 17 years of my life. I am still lucky enough to have 2 living loving grandmothers, but losing someone you’re so close to and who has been so good to you throughout your entire life is unbelievably hard. I still haven’t recovered from that first blow yet.
Yesterday we lost Sgt. Pepper, our 9-month old Great Pyrenees livestock guardian. This follows on the heels of losing our other LGD Maggie only 7 weeks before. Maggie was killed in a fight with a predator and while her death, while still extremely hard to bear, was at least understandable. There are risks in being a livestock guardian dog, and we understood that losing a dog in a battle with a predator could happen. With Pepper, the hardest thing is that there is no obvious cause of death. Lindsey and I had moved the goats yesterday morning, and Pepper was fine. I had gone out around lunchtime to grab a tool I needed and played with him for 15-20 minutes then, and he was his normal happy playful self. Then we I went out after supper to feed him, he was lying dead in the middle of the goat paddock. Not a mark on him. Not tangled in the electric fence. No vomit or diarrhea to be found to indicate poisoning of some type. He had plenty of water to drink. He had plenty of shade to cool off. He was up to date on all of his shots and medications for every conceivable thing a puppy could catch. It just makes no sense.
Sgt Pepper was an absolute joy. He was always so happy to see you when you came to feed him or care for the goats he guarded. He literally jumped for joy. Where Maggie was aloof with people other than Lindsey and I, Sgt Pepper loved all people from the moment he laid eyes on them. When he was little he used to squeeze through the electric fence or the cattle panels that enclosed his goat family to greet me when I came out in the morning and to try to follow me back to the house when I was done with chores. Sometimes I had to carry him back to the paddock 7 or 8 times before he wouldn’t follow me any more that day. He was so affectionate and really gentle for a 75-pound adolescent dog. He also was becoming quite a good guard dog. In the weeks after Maggie’s death Pepper really started acting like a grown-up dog – barking at noises during the night, patrolling the borders of the paddock, scratching the ground and leaving territorial markings. He was just a good boy.
In between those three big body blows of losing my grandfather and two of my dogs have been almost innumerable little jabs to the face. Since April we have lost 29 turkeys, an entire laying flock of 25 chickens (that happened in daylight in under 2 hours), 26 other smaller chickens, 4 ducks, 14 guinea fowl, and 13 rabbits. Of course we’ve snuck in some of our own jabs back at life – we have 17 new bunnies and more on the way, we have hatched out many more chicks than we’ve lost, we’ve got our new laying flock almost to the age where they’ll begin laying, and our turkeys seem to have recovered from their earlier bout with disease.
But every one of the losses haunts me. I care for these animals daily and I get attached to them. It saddens me to lose anything, but some things I can handle better than others. For instance, I know that we are going to have to breed disease resistance back into our poultry because no one has selected for that trait since the dawn of antibiotics. I know that we are going to lose some birds, but I also know that if we suffer a little bit now the surviving birds that we keep back for breeding will pass on their genes to their offspring and that in the long run our flock will become resistant to most of the ailments found in our environment. I can handle the turkeys because I intellectually know what’s happening and I understand evolution and the forces of selection. I know that the turkeys as a group will become stronger through the elimination of the weaker genes. I know that in time, we will have a population of turkeys that will be virtually indestructible. Therefore, I can handle the process of getting to that point.
I understand and can handle death through predation. It makes me upset, but I can still understand it. The predators have evolved to make use of the easiest source of prey. Therefore, it’s my job to make sure that our livestock is not the easiest prey for them to get. Because of that, I am upset with myself more than I am with the mink or raccoon no matter what I’m ranting about at the time. And selection will work for us in this situation too as the most alert and cagey livestock survive predators to breeding age.
I can’t understand Sgt Pepper’s death. Chickens, turkeys, ducks, goats, rabbits, etc are all new to me in the last year. I am still learning to recognize the signs of health and illness in those animals. Dogs I know. There has not been a time in my life (outside of the college dorms) where I did not have at least one – and usually more – dog living with me. I know dogs. I know how to take care of them. I understand their needs – what food, how much, what shots they need and when, the best heartworm meds, etc. Sgt Pepper did not have an unmet need yesterday, which makes his death even more heart wrenching to me because there’s no way for me to wrap my head around it.
In the last months I’ve been torn apart by the loss of my grandfather. I’ve cried for Maggie. I’ve sobbed for Sgt Pepper.
I can’t cry anymore. I don’t know how I’m going to react the next time something horrible happens.
I’ve got no heart left to break.