Monday, January 25, 2010

The Dilemma of an Aging Population

There is a big problem in the United States. The median age of farmers is well into their 50s. This means lots of wisdom, but less endurance. As serious as the problem is in our country, Leaping Lamb Farm has its own aging problems. I could speak here about the farmer and his wife, but, in point of fact, our companion animals are older than we in their life span and I foresee loss and sadness in the coming months.

Moralecia is our queen bee. She's a feisty Arabian at 27 years who still makes our geldings crazy when she flips her tail and squeals. But this winter has been hard and she has lost weight. Her hips show through her skin and her back is starting to sway. We have added senior feed and alfalfa to her diet but nothing seems to change. It doesn't help that we don't ride her much anymore. I could use the mud as an excuse, but our neighbor vet just built a covered arena. I thought being out "to pasture" was a well-deserved horse retirement, when in fact it often leads to lost muscle tone and frailty. These days Moralecia returns from a day on pasture covered from ears to tail in mud. At least she finally has a tail. I think our trainer, Sandy, thought the horse would never have a tail below her hocks. It was the last photo I ever sent to Sandy before her own quick death from cancer, and I'm sure she had to smile. For the tail, or for the life the horse was living in the country?

I have written several blogs about Chaco, the other horse we hauled here from Arizona. He was one great jumper when he was younger, but his jumper life pretty much ended when we moved. I thought the problem of jumping logs had to do with the unfamiliarity of the object. Now I realize his sight was quickly diminishing even before we left the Southwest, just never that apparent in a riding arena. Get us into a natural setting and the shadows from the trees, mingled with shades of green everywhere, make the terrain indistinct and logs for jumping unclear. Recently Chaco's moon blindness, common in Appaloosas, makes navigation anywhere unfamiliar difficult and even familiar paddocks have issues. Is the gate opened or closed? Are there sheep in the path? One small concession has been to leave the horse's chin and nose whiskers untrimmed. Better to feel his way around than walk into a wall. Not sure how long we can go on like this, but hesitant or not, his personality still seems intact. Where's dinner?!

Bezel is our grumpy old man that likes to sleep in farmer Greg's lap all evening even though I swear that cat has just finished sleeping all day. His black face and fur are flecked with gray. His coat is rough and needs a good brushing, but he hisses and growls when I pull at the mats. Our young cat, Bubba, preys on Bezel for play until Bezel screams like a little girl , never defending himself, just screaming at the outrage. His casual sleep style, 20 out of 24 hours a day, will probably prolong Bezel's life longer than most country cats. He has turned over all mouse catching to Bubba and the most effort he makes is to follow us on walks, sometimes, into the forest with his little belly swaying back and forth. I get so nervous we might lose him in the woods, I often carry him half way home.

Patches will probably not make it until spring. At 16, she has lived a good life, especially on the farm where she proved that shepherd breeds instinctively know how to push a flock of sheep. For years she saved us running long and wide, but now, because her hearing has gone she is as likely to send the sheep away as she is to push them in the right direction. She still comes on walks with me in the morning but we need to keep an eye on her off trail. She has a hard time getting over downed trees and sometimes walks off the wrong way. Her coat is matted and she is underfoot in the house. She steals the cat food when she can and empties waste baskets if we leave the house for any length of time. We have been dosing her with pain killers for her hips, but now wonder if we are prolonging a life of agony. She's been a good dog and has been a favorite of our guests and their children when she camps out on their deck for hours on end. I'm sure the hand-outs from little kids hasn't hurt.

I hate it that our animals may need us to do the right thing when the right thing is to end their life. I can't even count the pills left in the jar for Patches. We agreed that when they were gone we would not continue a life without quality. But, what's quality? A car ride? A walk in the woods? A soft dog bed? This will be a hard one but I think she is close to telling us. The best I can hope is a farm death, where the last thing she sees is her familiar bed, friendly faces, and the light being turned off.

Vet Liz, the neighbor, the cynical vet, has suggested we just dig a very large hole in the pasture if death passes over our geriatrics all at once. It's gallows humor, I know. I want to remember that our animals have been lucky in their lives. They have galloped across big fields. They have swum in creeks and walked high on mountain trails. They have had gourmet mouse meals. They have been brushed and fed and allowed to sleep places they aren't allowed. And they have all provided wonderful companionship, and loyalty, and character to our human lives. It's our responsibility to take care of them the best we know and can. That's our solemn promise - to watch out for them and do the right thing no matter how sad the end, or how wonderful the memories.

Photos: top- Moralecia grazes behind her much younger suitor, Tater; top middle- Chaco in the back pasture; bottom middle- Bezel asleep in a blanket on the couch; bottom- Patches hanging out on the cabin deck (photo taken by a guest and sent to us!)

All Rights Reserved. Copyright 2010 Scottie Jones


stevietaylor319 said...

So hard. We recently put our lab to sleep. 2 years ago we put our other older dog down. These 2 dogs were the last animals that knew me before I was married and had a houseful of kids and a farm. It is like saying goodbye, not just to the animals, but to the life you once had. I wrote about my sentiments here:
Perhaps it will help to know we have all been there.

Animal escapades said...

Stevie, I love your blog. You have humor, compassion, and passion all mixed in one. I cried when I read your post, as did my kids. Patches is finally at rest. We will plant a rhododendron on her grave in memory. Thanks.