Death and Birth on the Farm

“Do you remember killing chickens?” I asked my brother Don. 

“Are you kidding? I killed, gutted and plucked hundreds of chickens. Nasty job.”

“ Yeah, I remember holding the headless chickens to keep them from flopping around as blood spurted from the necks, and stuffing them in the haystack as they bled out, and I remember the plucking station behind the barn, dipping each chicken into a bucket of hot water, then pulling off the feathers. That was a tiresome job. But I don’t have a memory of wielding the axe. Though I must have. I wasn’t squeamish and I always wanted to try everything. I must have done it.”

Living with animals on our little three-acre farm in Yakima, Washington taught us much about life and death. Animals were born, and sometimes we got to be part of that. And animals died, sometimes by our hand. Sometimes we ate them.

Tim, Don, me and Terry with Shetland ponies

As I remember we only ever had one sheep. The word for a motherless lamb is bummer, and that’s what we named the lamb. My father bought him at a livestock auction. We loved Bummer. He was so darned cute. We fed him with a bottle and got pretty tight with that wooly guy. But I guess lambs, as they mature, like butting their heads against things. The thing became my little brother Terry, who, at four, was no match for the strong animal two or three times his weight. Technically, sheep are no longer lambs when they reach one year in age. After that they are classified as adults, or mutton—that is if they are to be eaten. Bummer was mutton. And when he was served up to us as stew, we kids looked across the table at each other wondering how to respond to the invitation to eat our friend? 

Terry, the four-year-old, may have been too young to understand. Tim, six and a half, refused to eat one bite of Bummer. Don and I, nine and eleven, with adult stoicism, gamely dug in. The meat was fatty and tough, the taste gamey, not at all pleasant. We looked at our parents who were not able to disguise their own distaste. It turns out mutton is not very good, unless maybe you’re a Basque shepherd. In some parts of the world it’s probably a delicacy.

Don and Gus

Gus the goose died by stomping. Don saw the whole thing. Gus enjoyed teasing the horses, following behind and snapping at their fetlocks. This seemed like a particularly suicidal pastime to me, the horsewoman. But I did know that to avoid being kicked you come up along the side, touch the horse’s hindquarters so as not to surprise her and walk close in to her body. The horse can’t get enough power to complete a kick and maybe Gus had discovered this. Maybe the bird delighted in frustrating the huge animals. But Gus pushed his luck with one horse too far. She wheeled around and came down on him with a front hoof. We didn’t eat Gus. We buried him in a gander grave.

We saw chicks hatch, the births of kittens and puppies, but I only ever saw the birth of one horse. It was awesome. I was seven and in second grade. Bonnie the Shetland pony mare had given birth to many foals and so perhaps she was not bothered by human presence. But all other horses on the farm were born out in the far end of the pasture in the middle of the night.

Just after the birth. It was awesome.

We never had a cow. My father, nostalgic for his country childhood, wanted one but my mother drew the line. She knew who would end up with the job of milking while my father stayed out drinking with his buddies. But Dad did get a calf. The calf was wild but Dad committed to its domestication. You couldn’t get close to the calf after he was let out into the pasture so Dad sat down in the middle of the pasture and didn’t move. The curious calf moved closer to get a better look. Dad sat there like a meditating Buddhist monk for maybe an hour. Finally the calf came up to him.

The calf grew up to be a handsome Hereford, the cattle breed Dad had raised on his family’s South Dakota ranch (the farm’s address was Hereford Rte, SD). Dad hired out the slaughtering. That steer was shot, then hung up on a tripod and slaughtered right there in the pasture where he had first encountered Dad. Do I need to add that we ate him? Cousin Gail recalls two calves fattening up in the field. “When it was time to slaughter, the one waiting his turn seemed to recognize his fate. Oh, the bawling, rolling eyes, and frantic attempts to escape the fence. Too much for a city gal,” she said.

My illustration for Mom’s story

My brother Don, the poultryman, raised many different breeds of chickens and exotic poultry including peafowl (the males are peacocks, the females peahens). Neighborhood dogs would form packs and could take down a calf or a goat. When one of our dogs misbehaved he was immediately put down, even as my brothers protested. One night a pack dug into the peafowl pen and killed all its residents. We buried them in the rose garden. Afterward my mother dreamed that the roses bloomed as peacock feathers. She wrote the story. I penned the illustration. Don couldn’t remember if we ever ate peafowl, but he did research the prospect and learned that it’s quite common in India.

Brother Tim told me of the deaths of animals that came to the farm after I had left home. A goat was killed by a falling tree after my mother wished him dead for trashing her flower garden.

There was a pregnant sow, traded for some treasure, who gave birth to eight piglets. I was given some of the resulting meat, which I shared with my collective college household. Best pork I’ve ever tasted.

At one time Dad and the boys raised rabbits. Tim remembers that they multiplied quickly. When skinned they looked like human bodies. The story goes that Dad had such trouble killing them, he had to give it up.

We were used to animals dying on the farm, but the death of a foal took on greater significance and resulted in my teenage existential crisis.

My mare, Barbie Q, the color of the sauce, was another livestock auction rescue. She had been orphaned at three days of age when her mother was killed by a dove hunter. The little sorrel filly cost my father $30. She was in bad shape as a result of neglect, with a case of mange and a number of other disorders.

Barbie Q about one year old

We sometimes called on a large animal vet named Dr. Heffernan, but, as my dad had done on the farm in South Dakota, we doctored our animals ourselves. My dad had an animal husbandry book from the 1940s that we studied. I remember having to give Barbie injections for some ailment. I had to stand back and throw the needle into her hindquarters, like a dart. I didn’t always get it in the first time.

Barbie survived and grew into a mare with excellent conformation. We knew that her mother had been a registered Quarter Horse. Barbie was small, only 14-2 hands high, easily mounted bareback by my 12-year-old self. I took charge of Barbie’s training, teaching her to lead, setting the saddle on her back and riding her for the first time. We trained in the small pasture, repeating figure eights and practicing changing leads. I showed her in 4-H shows and fairs.

My first time in the saddle on Barbie

I was 13 when I won an essay contest sponsored by a woman who bred Arabian horses: “Why I want to breed my mare to your Arabian stallion.” The combination of Quarter Horse and Arabian genes resulted in a filly who exhibited the best of both breeds. She was a bay with a white star on her forehead and three white socks.

Barbie was a good mother and the filly was healthy. One day when she was about three months old I noticed her putting her head in a funny position. She pointed her nose to the sky and didn’t seem able to move her head. We consulted our old vet book. The common name for tetanus is lockjaw. There was no cure.

Barbie Q and her foal just before she died

The filly was in agony. We called the vet who came out, laid her down and injected her with whatever they use to kill horses. A flood of urine told me she was dead. Ever the stoic, I didn’t cry. 

But I was shaken. By that time I was already struggling with the contradictions inherent in christian doctrine. The foal’s death inspired me to abandon a religion whose god commands men to have dominion over all the earth and its animals and who allows beautiful beings to die before their time.