When you’ve known an animal for a long time, it can be difficult to get their ending just right. WORDS & IMAGES RUTH RENNER
The best part of noncommercial farming is having close, individual contact with our animals, but keeping livestock as pets is an issue I struggle with. Breeding cattle is my primary interest on this farm and a nonproductive pet would eat just as much as a young cow with a long productive life ahead of her.
Keeping a pet bovine has never seemed like a good idea if it meant not keeping a productive breeding cow in its place, but what of the favourite cow who reaches the end of her productive life?
In contrast to our herd of purebred Angus, our sheep are a tiny flock and not required to do much more than supply a few lambs for mutton roasts every now and then. The retired old ewes can stay on without much cost to the rest of the system, as have pet wethers over the years.
Even if they're not strictly pets, on small blocks we often keep large animals for much longer than they would generally live on large commercial farms. Animals, like the rest of us, become increasingly prone to various ailments as their bodies
age, and as with your pet cat or dog, being able to call time for an old farm animal can be a fraught process.
I have been through this mill a number of times and learnt that it's better to make that call a bit early, when an animal starts to show signs of discomfort or illness, than a day or two too late. If you have the budget and the desire, you can sometimes put that decision off for a while if veterinary care can manage their pain or disease process. Ivy – one of the first two pedigree Angus cows I bought – and her daughter Isla were my earliest experiences of having to take extra care of ageing or infirm large animals. In Ivy's case I didn't end up doing it quite well enough.
I bought Ivy at nine years old and she produced a number of lovely daughters over the next few years. I wanted to keep her going for as long as possible but at 17 she started having metabolic problems in late pregnancy and I resolved to send her to the works.
Until my mother came out for a walk with me. "Oh, but you can't send Ivy!" And so I kept her for another year and another calf. I fed her the best food I had available which during some of that last autumn was in a hilly paddock. Ivy ended her life at the bottom of one of its steep slopes, aged nearly 19 years. I kept her for one year too many. Isla was my favourite cow ever and lived her last year under strict supervision after she began having occasional seizures, requiring her to be in safe grazing areas away from drains and electric fences. Isla's last year was a very stressful time for me, always on the watch in case of trouble or any deterioration in her general health. She died very peacefully under the influence of strong drugs when it became obvious that her condition had worsened.
But like any long-heralded death, the event brought relief as well as grief, and I swore I'd never go through such a prolonged process again. But over time, I did. The old sheep which had been bottlereared and much loved were allowed to live out their days until it became obvious they could not go on without suffering. They always required more care than their flock mates, more drenching, more handfeeding, although the latter was just part of the ongoing relationship.
Deciding when to end their lives was often tricky and in a couple of cases nature beat me to it. Lamb died on her own, apparently peacefully one night, but poor Dotty was carried off in a flood at the start of the week in which we knew we'd have to do the deed. I am not comfortable with letting animals "die naturally" if that involves any suffering which I have the ability and responsibility to prevent. Cows with "history" are hard to send off on a truck to an anonymous death, but that's a barrier I must often surmount to prevent the necessity of digging large holes all over the farm. I comfort myself with the knowledge that a day of disruption to a usually quiet life, with a humane end, is still better than dying in
a ditch if such trouble goes undiscovered for too long.
Imagen was born to ageing mother Ivy, but her twin sister died soon after birth. Her name was chosen to reflect the earlier presence of her image, rather than the more usual Imogen. She first calved as a two-year-old and every year after, but her third pregnancy was blighted by the notoriously wet winter of 2008, during which some of my cows became very stressed.
Unlike many farmers in the district, we didn't lose any cows that year but we did lose a few calves, including Imagen's, soon after birth. Imagen has never suffered that much stress again but I suspect the nutritional pinches during her early life are beginning to cost her now. She possibly has a touch of arthritis in her hips, although the occasional heelkicking dashes at dusk suggest she's not in unbearable pain.
Imagen isn't really a pet but through long and close association, she's rather special to us. She is the mother of our house-cow Zella, and has also been Zella's companion of the last few years, so we have closer contact with her than with the rest of the herd. Whether or not I can bring myself to send her away at the end of her life is my current struggle. Pedigree Angus cow Demelza was born in a storm in 2003 and is still doing reasonably well in the main herd. It may be some years before she requires special care but she's one cow I know will have to die on the farm. Her protracted birth may have caused some measure of brain damage which has made her particularly slow moving and tame, or perhaps that is just her nature. She's a lovely creature and while I surprised myself in being able to part with her mother on a truck one autumn, I could not imagine doing the same with Demelza, nor think of engaging anyone to shoot her, in anything other than an extreme emergency.
Any treatment budget for her will include a final vet visit, so her end can be peaceful for us both. Having an animal with a genetic fault or some sort of physical issue they could pass onto their progeny should make them unsuitable for breeding and here that would tend to make them ineligible for pet status.
If you make a pet of an animal with ‘issues' like udder problems, bearings in ewes, terrible feet, undershot jaws and so on, the consequences will not just be in managing that animal but may also cause unnecessary suffering if you create another affected generation.
I well remember my very tentative enjoyment of Angus heifer Eva, when she was a stunning-looking weaner, before I could test to discover whether or not she carried a recessive lethal gene. Luckily she eventually tested clear. I still have animals which carry that gene and while they're healthy and cause no problems, I have to go to the expense every year of testing their calves to discover if they're carriers or not. The pressure is always on to replace a carrier cow with a tested clear daughter. Diseases can make life tricky too. For several years we kept a pedigree cow who was infected with neospora, a disease cows can pick up from dog faeces-infected pasture, or they can acquire it before birth from their mothers. Irene was a stunning
cow from a very good family, had a lovely nature and I very much wanted her good influence in my herd so I tried to breed around the problem.
The neospora would be passed onto her calves (if it didn't kill them) and from her daughters to their calves, but bulls could sire healthy progeny. I'd bought Irene from another Angus stud when she was culled for not being in calf and after discovering her infection, kept her until she and her best daughter produced sons for use as herd sires. Half the herd now carries her influence and she and her infected daughter are long gone. It was an expensive problem to deal with, as both mother and daughter had ‘dry’ years when their calves died in mid-pregnancy.
Fortunately, neospora has no human health implications, it didn’t affect other members of the herd, and with no dogs on the property there was little danger of the infection spreading via that route.
Discovering a favourite animal had bovine viral diarrhoea or Johne's disease would be very difficult, as would a reaction to a TB test. There are some things which have strong negative implications for other animals which cannot be ignored.
We all have resource limits of some kind, on time, feed, space or energy. Keeping a fragile large animal comfortable if it needs regular treatment can be stressful for us and them.
In the 20 years I've farmed, how and when favoured animals have met their ends has often been influenced by what else is going on. Sometimes there is space and time for the old and infirm and sometimes there is not. In either case, their ends will be humane and as kindly as we can manage.
I don't believe animals are concerned with the lengths of their lives, only with their quality in the moment. Ultimately your own beliefs about life and death will determine your approach.
Our relationships with lovely animals are rarely anything but joyful, despite their inevitable ends. If you have the resources and desire to keep old pets and can act appropriately in a timely manner when their final days come, why not?
Mushrooms. The paddocks were full of them. There was even an impressive fairy ring down on the flats. Ok, it dodged around the rushes and cowpats so wasn’t a perfect circle, but it wasn’t bad. It certainly indicated a healthy microbial mass under the soil and the Vet was rapt. Bacon and mushrooms for breakfast.
Around the bush line there were some other little balloon shapes coming out of the mulch. Some had spread onto the gravel.
But these weren’t fungi. These little golden balls in a cluster were ginger kittens.
We must have had kittens on the brain when a call about more orphans came in. There were six of them: two tabbies, one brightly-coloured tortoiseshell, two gingers and a blackie with white bib and socks. Very cute. Very little. Their eyes were open but only just, which put them at about 10 days old. It would still be another month or more before they could be weaned.
Unfortunately mother cat ‘belonged’ (only in the sense that it hung about) to one of the district’s less salubrious or intelligent characters. Sam was a few slices sort of a sandwich but managed to milk the cows some days on a local farm. He had encouraged the mother cat with saucers of milk and she had finally adopted the cow shed as her home. Sam had enough troubles keeping clothes on and food to his various children, and certainly didn’t have the nous or finances to see she was properly fed or spayed. Inevitably, a load of kittens had come along.
But then mother cat got hit crossing the road, probably going over to the harbour side to hunt for eels amongst the mangroves or grab fish carcasses left high and dry when the tide went out.
To give Sam his due, he did at least report to the Vet that the kittens were there and no longer had a mother. The Vet really does try to avoid killing perfectly formed and healthy kittens – it’s not what he trained for five years in animal medicine to do – so we had to go and pick up the orphans.
That meant we had six totally dependent fluff balls mewling pathetically in a box. Fortunately there was a packet of cat milk replacer on the clinic shelves and any number of old syringes to drip-feed them with, but neither of us had the time or patience required with so many little mouths.
It was time to call in the animal-loving cavalry. Two of our good-hearted local ladies agreed to raise two kittens each, but only until they could be weaned. Then we would have to find homes for them.
That left the Vet and I with the little black and white one and an orange tabby with bobby socks.
After six weeks, the resident house cats were resigned to the tiny interlopers and the outside dogs had stopped eyeing them for breakfast. The curtains were only slightly shredded but the cupboard under the stairs smelled like an overused dirt box. We agreed that Ferrari (he was furry) and Peugeot (she purred a lot) needed a new permanent home.
So it was an opportune moment when Janice turned up to pay for some flea treatment for her old dog. She had called at the house and was waiting at the back door when Ferrari roared down the passage and skidded to a halt at the sight of the stranger.
“Aw how cute!” she cried as he zoomed off again. “Yes he is.” The Vet replied. “Very cute.” He thought for a moment. Janice is one of life’s very good-hearted sorts. Perfect.
“You know what,” he said. “With flea treatment today you get a special free prize. You just happen to be the lucky winner.” He handed her the little ginger fluffball.
“Aw… and my old cat died a few
months back… awww.”
The Vet knew this as we had put the old cat down due to nephritis. It was ancient and no longer responding to treatment, but it had well and truly had a good innings.
“In that case,” the Vet continued, “today really is your lucky day, because you get two for the price of one.”
He plucked Peuguot out of her sleep and handed her over all warm, snuggly and purring. “Awww. They are both so cute but…” We stood there looking like proud parents, but our disappointment grew at her tone of voice. It looked like the kittens would be ruling our roost for some time to come.
“…I couldn’t take them this morning,” Janice continued. “I have to go to town today. I will have to pick them up on the way home.” Sold. And sold. What lucky cats. Transformed from starving orphans to the best-spoton-the-bed type cats, all in just a few weeks. Now we just have to remind Janice to get them both neutered in a few months or she will have another crop of golden puffballs. ■