El­derly

When you’ve known an an­i­mal for a long time, it can be dif­fi­cult to get their end­ing just right. WORDS & IM­AGES RUTH REN­NER

NZ Lifestyle Block - - Country Smile -

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. ■

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