In Memory of Shirley

Reader Contribution by Tracy Houpt
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Good days on a farm are often extremely good. Bad days on a farm are sometimes extremely bad. It reminds me of the poem my mother used to recite to me: There was a little girl, and she had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead; when she was good, she was very, very good. … But when she was bad, she was horrid!

We had a bad day recently, when we said goodbye to Shirley, our 3-year-old Boer goat. Shirley got a bum rap in this life. This past fall she contracted a parasite, meningeal worm, which is carried by deer. Lucky for them, it passes through their systems with no harm done. However, slugs and snails can spread it by crawling over deer droppings; if a small ruminant accidentally ingests one of those slugs or snails, the parasite gets “lost” in him or her and wanders around the spinal column, causing itchy lesions that often result in some level of back-leg paralysis.

Last Christmas Day I noticed one of Shirley’s back feet dragging a bit as she walked. Four days later, she was, for all practical purposes, a two-legged goat. That’s pretty sad in any circumstance, but at the time Shirley went down, she was five weeks away from delivering her first babies. These were to be the first kids born on our little farm, and they had been much anticipated. Because Shirley was our only pregnant doe, we had all of the proverbial eggs (ahem, kids) in one basket.

We are fortunate to have a veterinarian who knows a lot about goats and raises them himself. He knew which de-wormers to prescribe that would be safe for the unborn kids. We administered the two medications, then spent the last five weeks of the pregnancy worried about complications like a prolapse of some sort. Shirley just soldiered on, eating heartily and nourishing her growing babies. (Goats with meningeal worm typically eat and drink normally.)

On day 149 of her gestation, we were pretty sure the kids were on their way. By the time the vet got to us, all he had to do was reposition the breech kids, and we welcomed Opie (a buckling who looks like his Boer mama) and Ellie (a doeling who looks more like her Sable Saanen dad).

Because Shirley’s udder was on the ground, the kids couldn’t nurse. Immediately after birth, the vet tube fed Shirley’s colostrum to them, then the bottlefeeding routine began. They were born January 31, and the month of February was filled with snow and sub-zero temps. The trips to the barn in the middle of the night were difficult, but once I got there it was always rewarding to watch those kids attack their bottles and then allow me a few cuddles.

The vet had recommended letting Shirley stay with her kids in case they did learn to nurse, and even though that didn’t happen to the desired extent, she proved to be a good mother. She was careful not to hurt the babies when she dragged herself around their stall, and she was the best heating blanket they could have had on those cold nights. She taught them to nibble hay when they were about a week old, and gently cuddled them for their frequent naps. We have some precious pictures and videos of the three of them together. (Watch “Shirley the Mermaid Goat” on YouTube.)

Warmer weather arrived, and Shirley started to drag herself outside and even partway down the hill to nibble green growth. She always wanted the kids nearby, and they didn’t wander too far from her. She always had a big mouth (I say that with fondness), and if they got out of her sight, there was no mistaking her motherly concern. She took her job seriously, and we loved her for it.

We knew we couldn’t keep a two-legged goat indefinitely, but the issue of when to say goodbye was taken out of our hands a couple of weeks ago when Shirley developed a fatal complication related to her paralysis. It happened rather quickly, and for Shirley’s sake I’m glad for that.

Ellie and Opie are doing fine, although Opie in particular seems to miss his mama. He inherited her big mouth (again, said with fondness), and so the noise vacuum left by Shirley’s passing has been filled rather quickly.

On the day Shirley died, one of our hens hatched five chicks. We took a minute at the end of that sad day to reflect on how life and death often occur side by side, especially on a farm. We miss you, Shirley, but we picture you now on four strong legs … and that makes us smile.

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