At the very end of August, we lost our senior Nigerian Dwarf buck, Nibbler, to pneumonia.
It was gut-wrenching; one day he was perfectly fine, chasing our does along the fence line and ruling the buck pasture with an iron hoof, and within 48 hours he was gone.
Antibiotics did nothing, and we came home to find him lying in the sunshine with Charlie standing vigil over his body. Our first major death left me feeling horribly guilty; I should’ve called the vet, the penicillin must not have been strong enough. Snapshots ran through my mind; of the shy, scared little buckling that I slowly befriended with animal crackers over the course of his first week here, his love of human attention, his stubborn streak. How incredibly stinky he got during rut and how he absolutely relished sharing that stink with everyone and everything he could rub himself on. The births of his kids this last spring; four gorgeous boys, two who still live on our farm as wethers (Leo and Ash), one who went to a hobby farm in Grand Rapids and one who is now a breeding buck at another hobby farm nearby.
I called the vet and pored over every goat book we own. The consensus was the same from each: hot, humid days coupled with cold nights can be catastrophic to livestock. Goats are prone to pneumonia as is, and our doe Sunny probably brought back more than a few funny stories from her trip to the county youth fair this summer. A regular recipe for disaster, with all ingredients accounted for.
We washed everything. We raked out the pens and added clean straw. I hoped, prayed, obsessed; a month later everyone seemed healthy and I was confident we had weathered the worst. Shortly after, a familiar sight blew all those hopes to dust: our dear sweet Nigerian Dwarf baby buck, Brutus, standing outside the barn door and gasping for breath.
We didn’t waste a second. We called the vet, scooped him up and loaded him into our van. I sat with him during the drive, holding his towel-swathed body while he laid his head on my leg. The vet administered a bag of IV fluid to rehydrate him, a shot of banamine to help his fever and an injection of the strongest antibiotic they had. We took him home, and the hoping and praying began anew.
He died the next day, Oct. 2nd. Our daughter Sadie found him, curled up in his quarantine pen. We cried and cried. Our sweet little baby buck, whom we’d bottle-fed and played in the spring grass with, admiring his unusual coloring and big blue eyes, was gone. It felt so strange not to hear his voice out in the pastures, calling to the does in a pubescent warble that cracked to a higher octave halfway through. His eagerness for cookies and his love of crunching the biggest alfalfa hay stems between his front teeth. His silly little beard. The way he stood at attention when the big boys walked by, hoping for approval.
I started our remaining mini-Alpine bucks, Charlie and his son Lochlan, on a course of antibiotic injections. I changed the mineral supplements that are available in each pen and added a third kind for variety. I wormed the entire herd even though it was a little early. But I still feel so guilty, like an absolute failure. Some days I can barely look into our buck pen without wanting to cry. I feel like I let my goats down by not intervening earlier; I should’ve figured it out faster, treated them more aggressively. But as Justin likes to say, hindsight is always 20-20. It hurts to write about, because it hurts to think about. But I’m determined to learn as much as I possibly can from what happened, so some good can come from it. Hopefully somewhere along the line I can forgive myself too.
This new failure came on the heels of another, a sort of oops-in-process that came to our attention a few weeks earlier. It was on Monday afternoon, September 23rd. I was busily cleaning up our barn, and paused to empty out and refill the large water trough in our doe goat pen. While standing with the hose and appreciating the warmth of the sun, admiring the female element of our herd as they munched away in the pasture, a certain goat caught my eye.
“Holy crap, she’s round,” I thought. Toby-Mae, one of our Nigerian Dwarf girls, has always had a bit of a pot belly. Goats are ruminants and digest through a fermentation process of sorts (leading to lots of burping and impressive belly gurgles after dinner time wraps up) but this was bordering on ridiculous. Toby looked like she’s swallowed a kayak, and her udder- oh, CRAP.
Pregnant, very pregnant. But how?! I wracked my brain; we keep our bucks and does 100% separate except during planned breedings, and Toby’s exposure to the bucks had been limited. That’s when I remembered that Toby had been Brutus’s favorite wet-nurse before he moved to the buck pen in early June. June… She would’ve had to have been bred in May. Well, we might as well change Toby’s name to Mrs. Robinson.
“Brutus, you little turd!” I scolded him through the fence. He chewed his cud complacently with a proud little gleam in his eye, still watching. I turned my attention back to Toby, feeling her round belly, and was instantly rewarded with a firm kick from a tiny hoof. His baby indeed.
After Brutus died, Toby’s pregnancy became a redemption of sorts. A silver lining, if you will; a chance for Brutus to live on through his progeny. But Toby’s last delivery had not gone well at all. She labored for 23 hours and was too weak to even stand at the end. Positive that her kids were already dead and she would soon join them, I hastily grew a pair of balls and decided to give it one last shot. Hyperventilating and working around my pregnant belly, I reached in and managed to reposition a kid that was trying to come elbows-first and head folded back. She pushed while I pulled, and she delivered a huge single buckling. Luckily Toby made a full recovery, but that delivery wore heavy on my mind. At least we were better prepared with 4 kiddings under the proverbial belt now, right? Right? Wrong.
Two weeks after noticing Toby’s ‘delicate condition’, the total softening (and resulting absence) of the two ligaments that run alongside the doe’s tail signaled the start of labor. She stretched, sat on her tail like a dog and seemed to stare into space. As the day wore on she cried for me whenever I left to return to the house and started pacing the kidding pen like a caged lion, agitated yet determined. I tried to time my visits to check on her around expected phone calls; after months of wearing out the inlaws’ fax machine and hunting down obscure documents from the far reaches of Colorado, we were finally about to close the mortgage on the property. The long-awaited phone call heralding the clear to close being given by the VA arrived at 4:15pm. Literally as I hung up the phone (and fought the urge to spike it onto the kitchen floor and bust out in a touchdown dance) Sadie ran into the house and announced that Toby was pushing.
I threw on my overalls and barn boots and ran out to the barn. Sure enough, it was time to get the towels out of the kidding kit. The two most common presentations are the ‘diver’ (front hooves followed by the head) or breech, so we watched for the points of tiny hooves to appear. We waited, waited, waited… and instead of hooves, Toby’s next contraction brought a nose.
I didn’t panic; Rosie’s second baby, Ash, had come face-first and had required only a bit of pulling as his shoulders delivered. But just as the kid’s head emerged, Toby’s contractions seemed to stop completely.
Toby decided (and rightfully so) to go ahead and start panicking. I attempted the only solution I’d read of for head-first births, pushing the baby back in and repositioning it in the ‘diver’ pose. It was immediately apparent that this baby was not going back in. I couldn’t fathom how Toby had gotten even that much of this fuzzy behemoth out. The tiny mouth bubbled and the nostrils flared, it seemed to be trying to breathe. It dawned on me that the abnormal position might’ve already broken the umbilical cord. Any pressure applied to bring the baby out seemed way too likely to break its neck or worse; this kid was completely stuck and I had absolutely no idea what to do.
Then it was my turn to lose it. Months of daily frustration and effort trying to move us from the ‘rent’ to the ‘own’ status, so many roadblocks and the stress of going through inspections, appraisals and the like (with 6 kids, 2 dogs and 2 cats in residence) already had me on the edge of meltdown by sunset every day. Daily ache and disquieting numbness from my c-section incision coupled with a few chronic health issues that I’ve chosen to ignore for the last 6 years have been taking their own toll. Our baby son’s colic coincided perfectly with our toddler son’s molars coming in, and I was desperately short on sleep. Add in the recent losses of Nibbler and Brutus and the guilt I felt (and still feel) with being only 3 months postpartum, and I was pretty much a ticking time bomb before poor Toby ever even went into labor. Once the tears started I didn’t think they’d ever stop.
With a crushing sense of dread I sent the kids inside. I really didnt know what was going to happen, and the last few weeks had been hard enough. I tried again and again to coax the baby’s body out, but it was stuck fast. The little face seemed to be strangling, the tongue hanging out and eyes bulging as it twitched and blew more bubbles. Still there were no contractions, and I had to use one hand to hold Toby still while trying to free the baby with the other. I sobbed, howled, pleaded with the fates to let this poor little baby goat live; this wasn’t just a baby goat, this was Brutus’s baby. He had to be okay. As a friend so aptly put it, we needed some happiness in our barn again. I couldn’t take even more guilt and our poor kids couldn’t lose the babies they’d pinned all their hopes on.
Using the tips of my index and middle fingers I pulled the baby’s fur and inched it forward from inside. Pausing to push outward and allow the little chest to expand for a shallow breath every few seconds, I kept pulling. With the other hand I massaged Toby’s belly, hoping to kick-start her contractions. I could feel a second baby moving inside. Over ten minutes since the baby’s head had first emerged, a small rounded shoulder appeared. I hauled Toby to her feet, hooked the shoulder with my index finger and pulled while pushing up on her uterus. The baby tumbled out into the straw, and by some absolute miracle it was alive. Spluttering and shaking, but absolutely alive.
He was a boy, and just as big as Toby’s baby born earlier this year. He already had horn buds through the skin and bright white teeth. I wiped his mouth out and gave him to Toby to clean, and while she fussed over him he bawled like a newborn calf. It seemed like every scream he would’ve loosed earlier all needed to come out at once now. I kept right on crying too, from months of pent-up stress and exhaustion as well as from relief. Justin and the kids came running at the sound of the baby, and we all laughed at the his gender; he made our 7th buckling, with the doe count still at 0. He was almost entirely black except for a white belly and a few white spots on his back leg, and bore a striking resemblance to Toby’s other baby, Pippin. He had brown eyes, Toby’s airplane ears and wattles (‘goat jewelry’) on his neck.
Toby still couldn’t stand, but was clearly having contractions again. 30 minutes after the first baby was (fully) born she delivered again. The second baby was breech but was born effortlessly; another little buck, only this guy was half his big brother’s size. His bottom half was mostly white, but his face was instantly familiar- aside from his eyes being Toby’s brown, the interesting white markings and the set of his eyes are exactly like Brutus. He has wattles as well, but inherited the polled gene from his mother- he’s naturally hornless.
Just after the second baby’s birth, the family friend we’d invited for dinner that night arrived. Luckily I’d prepared most of dinner ahead of time since we’d known from the morning that it was Toby’s big day, but what a mess of bloody sobbing woman and hyped-up kids the poor guy walked into. We got Toby her celebratory bucket of warm molasses water as well as a vitamin drench and helped the boys latch on to nurse. We cleaned up and left them in a cozy nest under the heat lamp, with at least one person checking in on them every half hour or so.
Its just shy of 2 weeks since their birth and they’re absolutely thriving, twin devils in goat suits that drive their mother crazy. Toby has made a full recovery and takes excellent care of her boys; we’re going to give her one last shot at motherhood (in 2015 at the earliest!) under a VERY strict grain ration in hopes of keeping her babies small. If she has a rough time again, we’re prepared to retire her to much-loved pet status.
Toby’s offspring are named for J.R.R Tolkien characters (since she’s Ol’ Toby’s Leaf) and the new additions have been dubbed Frodo Buckins and Meriadoc Brandybuck. We’re currently searching for the absolute best home for Mr. Frodo, the booger that got himself stuck in an impossible situation and had to be rescued by someone completely clueless. Since he resembles his daddy so much, Merry is going to be staying here to become acquainted with Rosie next spring. The kids are in love, as always. Baby goats are, in my humble opinion, just as adorable and mischievous as puppies and we absolutely love having them around. These two are extra special though.
Our mortgage closed. I’m no longer a slave to my email. My mom-in-law’s fax machine must be wondering if I’m dead or something. Things have quieted down around here, at least as much as they ever really can, and the fall is settling in nicely. I’m trying to relax, leave some things messy, and decompress. I’m sure something else will come along in no time, but for right now I’m content to just kick back and enjoy the view- and I’m so, so
thankful this little face is here to be part of that scenery.