I never lived on a farm in the States. Can’t say what it’s like there. Here, death is not unusual, be it a great kudu or a teeny tomato plant. This morning, 5 am, a civet ate the head off of our only egg-producing chicken, mama Huhn (huhn = chicken in German). And yesterday, I watched a two-week-old calf take his last breath.
Jay and the farm staff all took it in stride; schlepped the body away and continued with life. I had a harder time. I understand death but I don’t understand suffering at all. How could they handle it so nonchalantly?
The calf had sweating sickness. Not the kind from medieval England that killed dukes and lords, the kind in Africa that comes from a toxin produced by ticks and has many awful consequences, including the following listed in the Merck veterinary manual: The skin becomes extremely sensitive and emits a sour odor. Later, the hair and epidermis can be readily pulled off, exposing red, raw wounds. The tips of the ears and the tail may slough. Eventually, the skin becomes hard and cracked and predisposed to secondary infection or screwworm infestation.
These all were beginning to appear when we brought him in but he was eating grass and drinking water from mud puddles while tromping behind his mother, also on the yard, who was tromping through the freshly planted garden. He wouldn’t drink her milk but he would drink warmed milk out of a bottle. “You’re doing a great job”, I said. It felt necessary to offer encouragement.
The next morning I already had my doubts about his survival. The best treatment for the disease is prevention, of course, and the antibiotics we injected into his rump weren’t doing anything. He wouldn’t drink at all perhaps due to misery of the maggots swarming in his eyes, ears, groin, and other miscellaneous places. Two spoonfuls came out of each ear which were then flushed out with medicated water along with everything else. Then a thorough spritzing of fly spray which turned him blue. He had no energy to care.
In the afternoon, I revisited him in the rocky patch of grass in the corner of the yard. Together, we managed half a bottle of milk into his belly. Holding his chin up for extra support, chunks of fur came off in my hand. I ignored the rotten sweat smell he emitted as well as the insects deflected off him that were now biting me. Hands are washable, I reminded myself. It was not his fault that he was really quite gross, he needed compassion. Nearby, momcow glared at me with huge, apprehensive eyeballs.
Without any of us around, that evening he picked himself up for a cruise around the yard with mom. When we found him he had the “what?” look on his face with a sprig of grass hanging lopsided out of his mouth. He hobbled along with stiff legs, almost dragging his feet, but he seemed to enjoy moving and that he may yet beat this thing. He had whole bottle of milk for dinner without any extra help from me.
Whatever he’d found the night before he’d lost by morning. I found him flat on the ground, appearing to be dead, until I saw his chest rise slowly. I propped him up with logs behind his back, he murmured a pathetic argument. His head was too heavy for him to hold up and drinking was too much of an effort. The side of his head that had been on the ground was nearly bald now. Same maggots, same procedure as the day before. The earful of water was all that got him to sit upright. A fresh coat of fly spray and we let him sleep.
At the afternoon bottle attempt, I found him flat again. The number of flies ignoring the fly spray told me they knew what was coming. His chest rose again but it was clearly more difficult. His mouth was open, tongue nearly on the ground. He would not sit up. The relentless flies laughed at my extra spraying. His ears were already full of eggs again. I scratched his head and muttered the most comforting words I could find, then went to get Jay.
He wasn’t ready to let him go yet. Normally I would be all for that mentality but this guy was clearly suffering. To make the decision to end a life, though, is not easy. When Jay went to fetch the wheelbarrow to haul him inside away from the flies, I could see we wouldn’t need to make the decision after all. His breathing slowed to the point of stopping until he could gather enough strength to inhale once more. By the time we loaded him in the wheelbarrow, he had no strength left. I watched for the mouth to open, the chest to rise, but they didn’t. Momcow seemed to be expecting it. She left the yard soon after.
Watching a life leave a body was strange for me and I was the only one sad about this calf. Thinking about it at 5 am this morning, I realized maybe that was because death hasn’t been a big part of my life. It doesn’t affect these Africans because it IS a big part of theirs. It’s not to say they aren’t respectful or sad if it’s one of their own, but the disease, the suffering, the inevitable; it just isn’t an issue. It’s the way life goes. And perhaps they know better than someone like me that you have to enjoy what you’ve got while you’ve got it before the other stuff shows up.