Northern Exposure Meets James Herriot-Episode 2
Don’t Let It Get Your Goat:
In the first year of farming, greener than the grass at our feet, we decided to add a goat to our growing family of animals. We wanted our own milk supply, but didn’t want to drown in the gallons of milk a decent Holstein would offer daily. Since goats were similar to sheep in size and diet, we thought we’d made a brilliant choice. What we hadn’t considered, not even imagining how it could matter, was temperament, only to find it was perhaps the most important consideration of all.
First and foremost, we were shepherds. You need to be rather thick-skin to be a shepherd in the agricultural fraternity, for shepherds remain everlasting pledges. I am not sure how cattlemen somehow got the edge; for after all we were God’s chosen. When did you ever see a cowboy mentioned in the Bible? And let’s face it, any cowboy who’s being honest, realizes that he is half sheep. Take away the sheep, and you have standing before you a cowboy minus his saddle blanket, hat, chaps, winter vest, and long underwear. What sort of cowboy is that? Maybe it started back in the sheep and cattle wars on the western range. We shepherds heard about cowboys the way the Indians did. Being an investigative person I once asked a shepherd who had been in those wars what the real story was. The logic of his answer, I’m sure, would override even your screams of bias. He said simply that a shepherd on foot with a rifle is a helluva lot better shot than a cowboy on horseback with a six-gun. Need I say more?
I mention this to justify our actions of that summer’s day many years ago. I don’t know if it was sheer lunacy or because we were shepherds, but we momentarily ignored all norms of civilized agriculture and bought some goats. Better prepared than a cowboy, having acquired the humility of a shepherd, we endured the stifled laughter of our neighbors. However, nothing prepared us to be a pariah, which was how our cattle community viewed us once the goats arrived. As my partner later figured out, goats placed us somewhere between sheep farming and worm farming. You were even less esteemed than a shepherd, and you needed a lot better fences than for worms. It took us a while to wake up to our lapse in good judgment, but lord knows it wasn’t for lack of life’s trying to educate us.
Cricket and her mum were our first introductions to the caprine world, a Saanen doe kid and a doe. The fact that we knew nothing about goats didn’t daunt us. We, also, knew nothing about sheep when we started. Within several hours of the doe and kid arriving, we realized that doe needed to be milked, and we didn’t know how. If you have to learn to milk, better it be a goat than a cow. Goats can’t kick as hard as a cows, they generally don’t bite, and their tails are too short to smack you in the head. In fact, to her credit, she was tolerant and unusually well-behaved, allowing us, within the hour, to add milking to our ever growing list of new talents. Her benign nature, however, was what set us up for the fall.
One lovely summer’s day, which we’d occasionally had in northern Alberta when it wasn’t snowing, my partner, Fred, decided to build the shed we needed. We had the lumber on site, and we hauled the tools and nails there so nothing would interrupt us. In the early days of farming, finishing any project was a major accomplishment. You can’t imagine the number of things that can go wrong on a new farm. But we were sure we had it sorted out that day and would finish the shed by evening.
The goats decided to accompany us to the job site. Since there were but two of them, we felt they’d not be a bother. Cricket bounced around from the ground to the lumber pile to toolbox and back to the ground. She was curious about everything we were doing, nibbling on tools, inspecting our work, and even bounding onto our backs if we bent over for a few seconds too long. Her mum, more sedate, cudded in the shade of our wagon. The shed was going along great guns. It was early afternoon and already we were laying the rafters in place. As I jumped down to grab another piece of lumber, I noticed Cricket nosing around the box of nails. When Fred built, he built for the future, three to four hundred years. We always used 3 1/2 inch spiral spikes to put our buildings together, as once the nails were in, only a freight train in reverse could get them out. They looked almost medieval with their twisted appearance. Well, cute little Cricket was playing in the nails. I called to Fred and said, “Look at her. The little gal is carrying them around like a dog with a bone. She’s chewing on them.”
“Maybe she needs a little iron,” Fred quipped.
“She’s, oh my god, she’s EATING them,” I shrieked. Without warning, in one gigantic gulp, she swallowed one.
We jumped off the roof and dove on the kid. As we did, we heard a loud final gulp, and a nail that looked longer than her neck, disappeared down the hatch, to our horror. We sat for a moment stunned. Then jumping up, we ran toward the house, then back toward the goat, then stopped, looking up, then at each other and then at the goat. We must have looked like an animated cartoon with some pages stuck together. Finally, we ran flat out for the house and the phone. “The vet, call the vet,” I screamed to Fred who was outdistancing me substantially.
When I arrived at the cabin, Fred had the verdict. “The vet said must get a cow magnet into the kid. Only he wasn’t sure that such a small creature would be able to swallow a magnet of such size.”
I thought, hell, if it’s under 3 12 inches were golden!
“What then?” I inquired, this all sounded too easy, having just seen an instrument of death slide down Cricket’s little throat.
Fred continued, “He said that if we can get the magnet down, it will likely hold the nail in one spot and allow the stomach acid eventually to dissolve it, before it punctures the gut.”
That sounded logical but that word likely left me a bit ill at ease.
Fred elected me to drive the 50 miles into town to get the magnet. The vet did stress that speed of treatment was tantamount to success, so I didn’t argue. On the return trip, who did I pass but Fred heading in the opposite direction. I flagged him over only to find out that he had to help a neighbor, and fixing the goat was now my job. Up ’til then, I had been feeling confident about the outcome of this fiasco. This news plunged me into panic. I hadn’t realized that I’d assumed Fred would take responsibility for this problem. Nor did it occur to me that he had presumed I would. To say this was unsettling would be an enormous understatement. I spent the rest of the trip home in a state of dread. My thoughts kept circling around the size of this magnet and going nowhere. It was big; we’re talking huge. What it lacked in the lethal appearance of the spike, it made up for in absolute size. This thing was as big as a cigar cut in half. We’re talking one big, heavy slug of metal. The kid on the other hand was a delicate little fifteen-pound baby. In fact, in my mind’s eye, I saw this little goat and her magnet being sucked up against parked vehicles, stuck to metal granaries, or a prime target in electrical storms. I figured that if her rumen was at all off center, she’d walk from then on with a perpetual list. And aside from that, how was I going to convince her to swallow it? The nail, that was easy, she wasn’t supposed to swallow that. This, however, was the medicine, and we all know how willingly we take our medicine.
My mind jumped from that thought to whether she’d even be alive when I got home. Maybe she’d be in the throes of an excruciating death. These thoughts came easily. Farm life had already jaded me to a certain extent. I didn’t know if I was pleased to see her bouncing around as I drove down the lane, or not. Now, her life was in my hands, and if I were unsuccessful, her resulting death would be my fault.
Cricket came running up to me for a scratch, and I snatched hold of her. I pulled the magnet out of my pocket, and held it on my out-stretched palm, hoping vainly she’d find it as interesting as the nail. Of course that didn’t work. Next, using brute strength, I pushed it into her mouth and tried forcing her to swallow it. That didn’t work either. She could work it out one side or the other faster than I could put it in. I was becoming one with fear. Fred was not going to be back for hours; I had to succeed. I grabbed the kid again and tried desperately to hold the magnet in her mouth long enough so that she would have to swallow. She fought to get free of me, squirming with all her might, continuing to push the magnet back out any part of her mouth I was unable to fortify.
We struggled so hard that my huge, protective guard dog, Dali, interpreted the scuffle as an attack on me by a vicious goat. She raced across the yard to save me and just before I could yell, “No,” she pounced. As one-hundred pounds of dog came through the air, the kid’s eyes widen, and she gulped in fear at the impending attack. The dog crashed down on top of us both, and I lost my hold on the kid. As I dragged myself up off the ground, it struck me; I’d heard a gulp. I frantically searched the ground for the magnet. The dog must have thought I’d gone bonkers. The kid, who had been frequently disciplined by the dog, had left the scene. When my search proved fruitless, no magnet to be found, a small smug smile started to creep across my face. I stood erect, lightly brushed the dirt off, and shook the dog’s paw, as partners are wont to do. Hooking my thumbs in my belt loops, I hummed a little tune and swaggered toward the cabin.
“Piece of cake,” I said to Dali as we crossed the yard together, “piece of cake, eh.”
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