It's been just about a month since we had to put one of our lambs down. It probably sounds twisted to grieve over losing an animal destined for the dinner table, but it's possible and, I would submit, common.
First, there is the waste. In a small (ok, tiny) operation like ours, every animal that doesn't meet its intended destiny, be it harvest or breeding, makes the rest of the livestock that much more expensive. If you've forked out money for vet visits in the bargain, it's doubly painful.
But, there's more to it than the bottom line. Small-scale ranchers and farmers have a real relationship with their animals. And, it's the case more often than not that the cause of death never really reveals itself. So, a keen sense of failure and failed responsibility as swell as frustration falls over every situation that ends in wasted death.
It was December of last year when we put our first lamb down. A mysterious illness, three weeks of coaxing for recovery, and ultimately Strawberry died alone in a stall in the middle of the night, a mere shadow of the healthy ram lamb he'd been in November. His twin was fine - still is today.
Three months later his mama Blackberry gave birth to another set of twins. She walked away from both of them and refused to be reunited (but that's another post). And darned if the same mysterious demise did not afflict this second two-tone ram lamb. Once he "went down" into the straw, though,I knew better than to expect him to get back up. We tried, of course, but this time we didn't draw it out for weeks, we didn't get up in the middle of the night to administer vitamins and medications. We didn't let him die alone in the dead of night.
We cleaned him up and made the judgement that his skeletal legs, withered and weak, were clearly never going to support him again. We brought him out into the afternoon sun, laid him down in an especially succulent patch of grass and scratched his ears while he enjoyed his last meal. Life is not the movies, so Mark walked off with a shovel and dug a grave while I did my best not to cry too ridiculously, talking to little DaveBarry and stroking his cheek while he munched.
And then he was dead. Quickly, in the sunshine, happy. Over. In the morning, there were 12 and now just 11. But, no suffering, no death watch.
You never want to lose any of them until they've led a good life and are ready to meet their destiny. But, promising them a good death means delivering on that commitment when it's their time, not yours.
Running a small farm has aged me, I'll be honest. I think because it demands that I be a true grown up. Eating food that is completely separate from your day to day activities in some real way is to be infantile - to be innocent and unaware and shielded from what is required to produce that food. I'm older, but I'm wiser too, and grateful for that loss of innocence.