Sunday, December 18, 2011

My Captain

Rarely do I remember the farm as quiet as it was while I buried The Captain. No goats cried, no roosters crowed, no dogs barked. Even the cow and the horse stopped bickering. It was as though all creatures on the farm realized my heart was far too full of sorrow to give any attention to them. This is not a happy story. It is traumatic and painful. I tell you not to extend my own sorrow, but rather to try to convey in some manner the relationship between farmers and our animals.

The amount of joy that The Captain brought into my life was profound. She was one of the most beautiful dogs I have ever seen. Her tail was constantly in the air, waving as she anticipated new adventures. Captain was my farm companion, following me everywhere. She was also a dog full of mischief: for the first 8 months of her life, I thought she was a boy! As she approached her first birthday, I was anxious to get Captain spayed. Augustus -- her brother -- had been neutered, but I did not want to risk any puppies from unknown fathers. Captain & Gus were absolutely inseparable. They were the last pups from my mother's Pyrenees bitch Dolly, thus they were truly special to me in so many ways!

The Captain was spayed on December 5th, and surgery went relatively well. She did have excessive bleeding, and required IV fluids, but this is not uncommon with large breeds. During her recovery period, Captain appeared to be doing exactly as expected. I had her on a chain in the barn, where she had access to the outside, but could sleep curled up with her brother in a bed of hay. Often if I was away from the farm for the day, I would tether either Captain or Gus. This helped to prevent any misadventures! On December 15th, I called my vet's office to let them know that I would cancel Captain's appointment for the next day. She was healing as expected, and I planned to take her stitches out myself. (Stitch removal is something I have done many times on the farm -- to animals and people!)

I awoke mid-morning on December 16th and fixed myself some oatmeal. I observed Gus standing outside the barn barking, but this was not highly unusual. He was looking toward our neighbors' home, and Gus does love to bark at their dogs! After pouring myself some coffee, I realized that Gus was continuing to bark and my other dog Jolie was now barking as well. Still in my pajamas, I left my coffee to stroll down to the barn and reassure Augustus. After petting him, I walked over to the corner where The Captain was tethered. I was excited to let her know that today was the day: stitch removal and release from the chain for a good run!

From a psychological perspective, there are times when the mind cannot process what the brain visually sees. In our human schemata, we can understand two separate concepts, but not when they are put together. "Green sky." "Summer snow." "Purple grass." Walking into the barn that morning, my brain could not immediately process what I saw. "Dog slaughterhouse." Captain was leaning against a bale of hay, and she raised her head & wagged her tail at me. This was perfectly normal. The pile of intestines laying in front of me and the blood all around was also normal -- but a normal from my past work at the slaughterhouse. I tried to think. Did Gus get intestines from something and bring them in here? Then my brain processed the blood that was covering the abdomen and legs of my beloved dog. I ran to her and fell on my knees in my pajamas. Captain was coherent. She knew me. She welcomed affection, but she was incredibly weak.

I turned and fled to the house. I threw off my fluffy white bathroom, and hurried to put my Carhartt overalls on to cover my pajamas and transfer to my muck boots instead of my slippers. I ran back to the barn again, still trying to understand what was happening. I gave the Captain some comfort and then gingerly lifted one of her rear legs to see what was going on. The intestines I saw told me that this was a very, very bad situation. In times of terrible trouble, we turn to those with whom we have travelled difficult roads before. I give all due credit to my step-father Joe that he managed to understand the incomprehensible goatherd who was crying on the phone telling him that she needed him to come NOW because something terrible had happened to her dog.

From across the farm, I could hear Joe fire up his Dodge truck almost immediately. I told Captain that I was there and Joe would be there momentarily. When he arrived, I held Captain's head as Joe positioned her to get a better look at her abdomen. With a clear view, it was much worse than I had realized. Captain's entire abdomen was opened up, with intestines gaping out. The complication was that she had been laying in a barn. Yes, doctors expose internal organs all the time during surgery -- but that is in a sterile, controlled environment. Captain was in a barn. Dirt, hay, manure . . . this is exactly why sheep producers fear prolapses in animals so much. It isn't that the internal items leave the body; it is that they are exposed to so many things that are dangerous for the inside of the body.

Having another human there helped my brain to comprehend the enormity of this tragedy: my beloved dog had to be put down, and soon. I asked Joe if he would do it for me. As I held The Captain's head, I knew exactly what our timeline was. Joe would drive down Berger Road, turn onto Oregon Road, proceed up his driveway, enter the house, go to the guncase, pull out the needed bullets, pick up the gun, return to his truck, and drive back to my barn. I told The Captain how much I loved her, how much joy she had brought to my life, how grateful I was for her. I wanted Joe to hurry so her pain would end. I never wanted him to arrive so I would lose her. Again, I heard his truck fire up in the distance as he headed our way.

I am a farm kid. Too often as a child did I see my grandfather pick up a gun and place it in the crook of his arm, knowing he was headed to put down an animal. It was always the right decision, but it was never an easy choice. The thing you have to understand about farm kids is that we eat our pets. Every child must go through that first experience of loving a sheep or a lamb or a cow -- and then realizing that animal ends up on the dinner table. Every child on a farm must learn that there is a circle of life . . . which includes animals and humans. We are farmers and we must be responsible enough to make the humane choices for all creatures. We learn which creatures are safer to love, and which are meant for human consumption. It is not desensitization. Rather, it is because we are so sensitive that we accept the profound nature of God's creation. We accept our role in the circle of life, and we learn to make the tough decisions. But it never makes them easier.

The memory of my grandfather might have toughened me for the reality of being a human that loves an animal that must be put down, but it has never made it easier. As Joe walked up with his gun in the crook of his arm, I looked straight into Captain's eyes and allowed my tears to cascade freely on her face. I kissed her, stood up, and walked outside. I threw my arms around Gus, and waited for the sound of a gun firing. The sound that meant I would never see Captain & Gus run together again, the sound that meant I would never hold my dog again, the sound that meant we were being cruelly denied a future together.

I am a butcher. I know how long it takes an animal to die. I know this because I have held my knife to slaughter hundreds of animals. I returned to the barn when I knew Captain would have bled out. It did not take long; she had lost a great deal of blood all ready. Joe opened his arms, and I went into his hug, crying freely for my beautiful girl. An hour before, I was fixing my breakfast, looking forward to a relaxing morning before a big catering job. Now I was standing before my dead dog, with her blood on me, barely understanding what had transpired.

Joe & I began searching the barn. Every possible scenario went through my head. The Captain had been fine when I checked her at 9:30pm the previous night. I called my vet. None of us could come up with a good answer. She knew this barn. There was nothing we could find that would have caused massive trauma if she impaled herself. Gus was clean; it was not a dog fight. It was unlikely a wild animal would come in the barn. Captain wasn't anywhere near the cows or horse or goats. Did something happen internally and she began pulling at her stitches? Did she catch a stitch on something and she began tearing at them? Her abdomen was completely opened. There were two separate piles of intestines in different areas of the barn. There was no clear answer. Which really didn't matter in the long run, because it would not bring her back.

Joe offered to help me dig her grave before he departed, but I knew I needed to do this for The Captain. I chose a spot next to the wood fence, by the goats. Never have I dug a grave in my life that I haven't had some difficulty. That day it was tree roots, and a large metal object that I ended up pulling out of the ground. Grandmother wanted to help, and she bravely made a solid effort on a corner of the grave. I had shut up the barn so Gus would not go in, and was glad this prevented Grandmother from seeing the body. I did not want her left with that memory, nor did I elaborate beyond the fact that something terrible happened and Captain was dead.

After the grave was dug, I walked Grandmother back to the house. I made her promise to stay inside, and then I hunted down some fabric with which to wrap Captain. After my grandfather passed away, I often wore his pajamas. They were big and baggy on me, but comfortable and comforting. I found two pajama bottoms of his that I had worn out with years of use. I carried the blue & white striped fabric to the barn. There, I wrapped Captain's abdomen with one pair to prevent her intestines from falling out as I carried her. I laid her body in the grave and wrapped it with more fabric. I said goodbye to my forever friend, and began shoveling the dirt back onto the grave.

It seems as though moments are sharply clear from that day, and yet everything runs together. I remember the complete silence as I threw the dirt onto the grave. I remember the blood that soaked through my Carhartts and covered my baby blue pajamas. I remember that Gus wouldn't come near the barn. I remember the pain of the blister that was forming on my hand. I remember trying to see clearly through the tears that flooded my eyes. My girl was gone. I didn't know why. And this didn't stop the world. I still had to feed the goats. I still had to go to work. And the worst part was that I had to tell Christopher.

Farmers aren't like other people. We choose lives that are difficult, because we believe they are better. We delight in work that most Americans couldn't endure. We may disagree, we may aggravate each other, but we support our farm community in ways that are unique. And we are a deeply religious bunch. I don't know a single farmer that claims to be an atheist or an agnostic. It would certainly be easy for some to say we are a simple bunch, and thus follow religion blindly like sheep. But sheep know their Master's voice, and we have cared for the earth & God's creatures for far too long to be oblivious to His hand. Perhaps this is why we adapt to the realities of life and death in ways that others cannot comprehend. We rejoice at every animal born, we cry at losses, and yet we raise animals specifically for the purpose of meat. There is a greater power that teaches us the lessons of the circle of life, and allows us to do our work.

My Christopher has adapted admirably to dating a farm girl, but he was not born to this life. His family had one dog as a pet during his childhood, and that was the sum of his animal experience prior to knowing me. Losing Captain was further painful to have to tell Christopher about what happened. He has no reference for dealing with the painful losses that are a part of farming. After all, this was not a goat raised for food . . . this was our puppy that we expected to love and work with for at least a decade. As cruel as life can be, Chris did not get my messages to call me before he went to the farm. He discovered an empty chain, blood still soaked into hay bales in the barn, and a new grave. And when he called me for an answer, I was already at work trying to set up for a holiday party. As traumatic as my day was, I did get to go through the journey of discovery, death, and burial -- Chris did not have this.

If any part of me would have thought it was humane in any way, I would have kept The Captain alive for Chris to say goodbye. I am a farmer; I know animals. She needed to be put down. As much as I hate the memory of that day, I know I made the choices that I had to make. If I had tried to take Captain to the vet, it would have been the wrong choice. I would have loaded up a dying dog, driven her a long distance to an emergency clinic, spent thousands on an unlikely surgery which would have risked massive infection, and even if she survived she would never have been the same. And I doubt any dog could have survived that. It was the choice I had to make, but it was not easy.

This is a terrible story. I cried many, many times just trying to put down the words. Words save memory and convey understanding. And I want you to understand. I want you to understand why I love animals. I want you to understand why I can love something that I raise for food. I want you to understand why the same hands that deliver babies can also raise a knife to slaughter. I want you to understand why I hate coyotes so much for eating my goats, when I intend to do the same thing. I want you to understand how I can calmly make life & death decisions, and yet angrily condemn the animal "rights" organizations that claim farms desensitize children to death. I want you to understand why I could cry while I butchered Thunder the Sheep, and then feed him to my dogs. I want you to understand why we Harrisons love our dogs so much, and then put them down ourselves. Because maybe if I tell you, and you understand, then I have some hope of other people beyond you understanding. Then we farmers can farm without constant fear of being misunderstood by the public. And then The Captain will not have given her life in vain.


  1. This is very sad but I understand. From one animal lover/farmer to another. Thankyou for sharing.

  2. Beautiful Katherine. I embrace my own experiences with your tough times and it reminds me of why we are here, to live and die. I can remember many animals we had to euthanize and its always hard. Thank you for your story.