Friday, February 27, 2009

Andy The Goat, 2001 - 2009


Andy spent every day out in pasture with his friends. To the left is Odie; Half Pint is the black horse in the background. That's Argus in the center.

ANDY THE GOAT died suddenly Wednesday morning, quietly bringing to an end our eight-year odyssey with a goat who truly believed he was a horse.

Years ago, a local cattle rancher brought me a tiny baby goat, orphaned after his mother was killed by a mountain lion. She had named him "Orphan Andy." He fit in the palm of my hand, and for weeks, we took turns bottle feeding him.

Metamorphosed by love and good pasture, Andy grew into a strapping young man, tipping the scales at 180 pounds. Andy became an escape artist, prompting the installation of thousands of dollars of new fencing. He killed a couple of young trees along the way, and once, in a daring escape, managed to decimate my heirloom rose collection. We joked that Andy's nickname was "You F$%#@&G Goat!" Love and frustration filled my veins in those early days of goatkeeping.

Andy learned that he could open stall door latches with his lips. He once let six horses out of their stalls. I came home to the entire equine population running around the barnyard. Of course, Andy had opened the feedroom door as well, prompting a grain-bin raid. Fortunately, I arrived home in time to curtail any damage to equine or property.

When Andy's goat companion, Billy Bob, died several years ago, he was left alone. Last summer, I decided that he was lonely and would be happier living with my neighbor's goat herd. I dragged Andy down the road, assuring him he'd love being with his own kind. He eyed the strange creatures suspiciously, refused to get near them, then jumped the five foot fence and ran for home. I put him back with the horse herd and never mentioned goats to him again.

Andy loved the horses and truly seemed to feel he was one of them. He particularly loved Half Pint the Percheron, who was always careful not to step on his friend, and who went out of his way to share with Andy any treat that came his way. Half Pint guarded Andy in the pasture, and when frightened, Andy would run and hide between Half Pint's legs.

At night, Andy, having been turned out with the horses for the day, returned to the safety of the barn, where he bedded down in a stall and paddock with Odie the Mule. Odie, not as starry-eyed as Half Pint in his relationship with Andy, nevertheless treated the goat kindly. Each evening, the two, with half-closed eyes, shared a mound of hay pellets. Afterward, Andy would settle down in the corner of the stall, in a special mound of straw just for him.

The rest of the horses barely put up with Andy. A few, Argus and Ridge included, openly disliked him, sending him dirty looks and the occasional hoof raised in threat.

Lately, Andy, who tested positive last year for Caprine Arthritis Encephalitis (CAE is a common joint and lung disease in goats), had been coughing at night and wasn't usual perky self. Dr. Miller, who also treats goats, was summoned. On Monday, he examined Andy, noting a muffled-sounding heart.

Still, Andy seemed happy and energetic enough to drag me around the stall as I attempted to restrain him. Half Pint the Percheron stood nearby during the exam, looking mildly amused.

Treatment and drugs were discussed. We talked about lungworm and pneumonia and heart problems in goats. A plan was made, drugs dispensed, and Tuesday evening I bid goodnight to Andy, happily munching his late evening treat with Odie at his side.

It was to be our last time together.

Sometime around 9:00 am on Wednesday, between the early morning feed and my mid-morning appearance to clean stalls and school horses, Andy was called home. I found him at 10:30, lying on his side in the stall, still very warm, so shortly gone from his body that it took my stethoscope to convince me that Andy was truly dead.

Alone in the barn, save for the frightened mule who had just witnessed his friend's death, I allowed my shock and sadness to overtake me, shedding loud tears over Andy's lifeless body, saying over and over "Oh Andy, I'm so sorry!"

The mule watched me from the paddock, his huge brown eyes wide with questions. Was he grieving? Shocked? Sad? Confused? Had he sensed this coming in the days prior, as I had? Odie had refused daytime turnout, instead staying in the paddock with Andy on Monday and Tuesday.

I took Odie out of the paddock, and brought Half Pint in. He approached the goat carefully, almost in disbelief. Using his big meaty nose, Half Pint lifted Andy's triangular head off the ground, over and over and over. He seemed to be trying to wake him up. Half Pint is known for these antics when he's been taken to say goodbye to horse friend's body. He once climbed on top of our old mare's body and half lay down on her.

Half Pint really did love Andy. He put up with him like no other horse here ever has, strange considering that Half Pint is not particularly gentle. He stood for a long time with Andy's body, nudging him and breathing into his nose. Then, he took a big deep sigh and walked away. "I'm really sorry you've lost your buddy," I offered. He regarded me with a pained expression as he retreated to the farthest corner of the paddock to sun himself.

I'm long past wondering if animals grieve. I've seen it too many times to doubt that they have relationships and connections that transcend our limited understanding. Watching Half Pint and Odie cope with the loss of Andy this week, I have no doubt that they miss him tremendously.

Late that afternoon, Dr. Miller reappeared, this time wielding gloves, two hunting knives, and a serious pair of tree pruners which would, under different circumstances, have had me green with a gardener's envy. I'd asked him to do a necropsy on Andy, the first time I've ever had a necropsy done on one of my animals. I'd decided I could not bear, this time around, to cope with the haunting mystery of death. I wanted to know why.

"Are you sure you're OK? I rarely do this with a client present," said the vet as he prepared for the necropsy. I was strangely OK about being present for it, feeling as though I was honoring Andy by bearing witness to this last chapter of his existence.

I had carefully laid Andy's body out on a sheet of plywood, next to a large grave half filled with water due to recent rains and high groundwater. The vet eyed the watery grave dubiously, then began his job. Inside Andy, a universe of life unfolded, stunning me with its unforgettable landscape: The bold crimson liver; the delicate, winding intestines; the sea anemone bladder. A bright green river of liquified stomach contents spilled across the plywood and into the grass, unable to resist the strong pull back to earth.

Dr. Miller removed the bladder, inverted it, and held it on the tip of his finger, pronouncing it "very healthy. No stones or sediment!" I felt a surge of pride. I'd always been careful not to feed Andy anything that could lead to bladder stones --- a common cause of problems in male goats.

Next came one lung, a healthy and delicate shell pink, surprising us both. I'd expected it to be diseased, or full of lungworm, but it was beautiful. I held it in my hand, surprised by how light it was, like a marshmallow. The vet finished examining it, then tossed it into the grave, where it floated on the murky water.

So far, a healthy goat, save for some impressive stores of fat for which the vet shamelessly chastised me. Though I'd not realized it, Andy was fatter than he should have been. Ruminants also store fat around their organs.

Finally, Dr. Miller arrived at Andy's heart, his tell-tale deep sigh making me instantly privy to the cause of death. "It's huge," he said. "It's what you'd call an enlarged heart." A normal heart should be the size of a softball. Andy's was at least three times its normal size and was the size of his head. It was pitifully abnormal in every way. Even to my layman's eye, the heart looked gray and sick and incompetent. It was surrounded by fluid; the sack that cradled the heart was in turn surrounded by a thick layer of fat. I was astonished that Andy's heart had worked at all.

Andy died of congestive heart failure. Dr. Miller assured me his death had been quick, but it pained me that I had not been there with Andy to comfort him as he exited this life.

My dear goat, once so tiny that he fit into the palm of my hand, had held my heart for eight wonderful years. In the end, I held his heart, so fragile and diseased it literally crumbled into pieces in my hands. I am honored to have known Andy, who joined us suddenly and left us just as suddenly, making me all the more aware of my own mortality and the incredible force of life that lies within us all.

Orphan Andy, 2001 to 2009



Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Wonderful Number 6,000

Last week Argus happily greeted Dr. Miller and stood quietly and politely to have his blood drawn. This in itself was gratifying because getting a needle into Argus' jugular vein has traditionally been an exciting affair. I waited anxiously for the results of the blood panel.

The next day, a jubilant Dr. Miller called with the good news ("What's the best news you can imagine?" was his greeeting): Argus' white blood cell count was down to 6,000 --- well within normal range. Argus has beaten internal pigeon fever, once and for all! He will continue on 2-3 weeks of twice-daily antibiotics just to be sure.

For Argus, life has returned to a comfortable pace. He's still aloof, moving away from my touch at times, yet he eyes me with a kind face and thrills me with an occasional nicker when I prepare his evening bucket. He's forgiven me for torturing him with needles, and he even lets me blanket him now without being haltered (a miracle in itself).

Rain has finally graced the farm, bringing squishy mud and dirty horses. Though it's not enough to quench our drought-thirsty region, it's enough to make for slippery turnout and leg-wrenching footing. I realized the other day, as I watched Argus struggle, to some degree, to dance through the newly-wet pasture, that here was another first: Argus first real muddy winter. I smiled for him, knowing that he was enjoying himself.

This horse, who has been the recipient of love and support from thousands of people on every continent on Earth, has more work to do. So many have fallen on hard times, and people need to hear good stories that fill them determination and hope for a better future. It's a beautiful world out there, with so much to be thankful for. Could it be that a simple white horse is here to teach us that a beautiful life can emerge from the absolute depths of despair?


A smiling mother and daughter climbed out of a mini van after a long drive. Fans of Argus from afar, Kim and Ava had decided to make the trek to see him for real. Six-year-old Ava greeted me like an old friend (her mother later explained that she felt like she "knew" us from seeing the blog), thrusting two drawings into my hand. They hang on Argus' stall now, one picture of Argus and me in front of our barn, the other of Shelby (my daughter) and Odie The Mule. Those drawings make me smile every time I walk by them.

We enjoyed a pleasant afternoon of grooming, stall cleaning, and chatting. Argus (and later Ridge) enjoyed a whole hour of grooming (something I never have time for) with Kim while my daughter Shelby kept Ava busy with a ride on Ginger the pony.




Afterward, I coerced Kim into joining me in the arena for a ride. Odie the Mule was her trusty mount:

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Dry and Warm

Our dry, warm California weather continues, a blessing for sick horses but a curse for thirsty reservoirs and crops. January was the fourth driest on record. I stand in the normally muddy winter pasture and feel a sense of dread as I gaze out over bone-dry, fluffy soil. The sky above is blue and clear, and I say a silent prayer for rain. Everyone is gearing up for 50% water rationing. We're blessed with a robust water table here, but still worry about our well. A day in the 70s is not unusual. The horses are quickly shedding their long winter coats, leaving patches of hair where they had a brisk roll.

This is what our pasture normally looks like in winter:


This is what the same spot looks like today. I'm busy building cross country jumps and spreading wood chips with the tractor --- in February!


Argus continues to do well and gain strength. He is cantering in the pasture now, and goes out with the whole gang: Caleb, Half Pint, and Odie (Ridge, who has a fractured pelvis, will be on strict barn rest for a number of months). Yesterday, I opened up the summer pasture, and watched the four horses circle happily around the big field. Odie did his "crazy mule run," where he runs fast with his head sticking up in the air, while Half Pint lumbered along behind. Argus broke a sweat, making wide circles around the pasture. He is such an elegant mover. As I watched him canter a big, balanced circle around me, I imagined him all tacked up with a rider on his back, confidently tackling a cross country course.

This week, Argus will have more blood drawn. Among other things, the vet will be looking to see if his white blood cell count has dropped to within a normal range. If that is the case, we will continue with the antibiotics for another 2-4 weeks. If his white blood cell count has increased, it may indicate the bacteria's growing resistance to the medications, and Argus will have to go back on more injections of Naxcel. Let's hope for a good test!

Argus now eats his medication twice daily in a bucket of alfalfa meal with molasses. He knows this routine, and comes into his stall each morning with an expectant look on his face. He is shy about eating in front of me, so I feed him and then leave the barn for a while. When I come back, his bucket is empty, and he's waiting at his paddock gate, ready to go out for the day. He always looks pleased when I reach for the gate latch to let him out. I think he finally realizes that he will never be locked in again.

I am working on an update on all the horses who were pulled from Argus' old home. All but one have found wonderful permanent homes. I am collecting photos and will share these warm stories with you shortly.