We had an experience this weekend that was heartwrenching and yet tremendously hopeful.  After a long frozen winter, this weekend spring arrived – the temperatures reached 50 degrees, the sun filled the sky, the breeze was warm, and the snow melted, showing signs of greening grass beneath.  All the barn cats lazed about soaking up the sun in their favorite spots — all the cats except Mickey.

Mickey was our first barn cat.  He came to us almost a decade ago as a gift from our insurance agent – a 3 or 4 year old orange tabby.  Mickey was super friendly and would hop in your lap whenever you sat down and he would purr and knead away.  He was famous in our barn for his special skill of climbing the ladder from the barn aisle to the loft, one rung at a time.  He would sleep in the loft at night and hop down each morning for the ritual community cat feed.

On this glorious spring day, Mickey was not sun bathing, but rather was hunched in the tack room, breathing heavy with mucus running from eyes and nose down his chest and paws.  I knew when I saw Mickey that this was very serious.  I called our vet who agreed to see Mickey right away without an appointment. 

When the vet pulled Mickey out of the cat carrier, she saw a coughing sneezing cat who was weak and dehydrated.  She told us frankly what we already knew which was that he was “fighting for his life” and was a “very very sick cat.”  She told us that we had to separate him from the other cats.  We discussed euthanasia.  In fact, many in the room advocated euthanasia.  It was Saturday and many felt that Mickey would not survive the weekend.

I watched Mickey as the vet scrubbed his nose, took his blood, and gave him a shot of antibiotics.  Mickey struggled but also purred and kneaded the edge of the metal examination table.  I continued to watch Mickey.   The vet put Mickey back in the carrier – discussions of euthanasia continued.  I watched Mickey.  He kneaded the towel in the cat carrier, sneezing and coughing, and then started to groom himself – that is it I thought – he still wants to live, he is cleaning himself even if ever so weakly.

We brought Mickey home from the vet and put our barn cat on a blanket and pillow in the bathroom.  We plugged in the vaporizer, turned up the heat, gave him subcutaneous fluids, and left him to heal.  Saturday night Mickey did not eat.  Sunday Mickey did not eat.

But Sunday night — Mickey ate and ate and ate.  He purred when we came to visit and to administer more medicine.  He kneaded me and sat in my lap.  As I write this blog entry on the way into work on Monday morning, Mickey is eating and kneading.  Mickey told us that he wanted  to live and we have given him the chance.  Mickey is now a house cat for his “forever” – whatever that may be.

We have a permanent resident at The Grand Illusion Horse Rescue named Oaka.  She came to us in the Fall of 2004 from Canada as a 22 year old mare who had been discarded from a PMU farm.  A PMU mare is a mare used in the production of premarin – a menopause drug for women.   Life is wretched for a PMU mare.  The PMU mares are typically confined to small standing stalls 24-7 from September thru May.  While in the stalls, the mares’ urine is collected for use in the premarin product.  The mares are kept pregnant every year of their lives because a pregnant mare’s urine (hence PMU) has a higher concentration of estrogen which is needed for the premarin drug.  The PMU mares are sent out to pasture from mid-May thru August to foal out and to get reimpregnated for the next year.  If a mare cannot get pregnant, she is often sent to slaughter.

In their lives, PMU mares have little positive human interaction, their hoofs are rarely trimmed, their foalings are not attended, and they do not learn to lead or to be ridden.

When Oaka came to our Rescue, she was clearly the product of two hard decades on the PMU lines.  When I first saw Oaka standing at the back of the old stock trailer that transported her from Canada, my heart sank.  She was checked out, depressed and exhausted from the trip.  She just stood in the back of the trailer, head hanging, eyes glazed.  When I moved toward her, she shyed away, she turned away from me to face the corner of the trailer  – not to kick or strike out – simply to hide away.  When she turned away, I noticed a large gash on her side that looked fairly new.  I expected that it would be challenging for us to care for the wound if she was afraid to let us near her.

Though challenging, we loaded Oaka onto our trailer and brought her home.  That first month with Oaka was difficult.  She would not let us near her.  We could not clip a lead rope to her halter and could not adequately clean her gash.   So, we hosed her gash down from about 15 feet away and put antibiotics in her feed to ward off infection from the injury.  For that first month, Oaka stayed in a small paddock by herself.  She also retreated in fear from equine companionship.  Whenever I fed Oaka, I called her name, figuring tha she would learn to associate me with food – always a good thing.  In that first month, Oaka’s world was very limited.  Since she did not trust people or other horses, she stood alone, back to the world – until one day she decided to open up.

Two years later, Oaka was a social participant in farm life.  She had learned to trust people – even to like people, and all the positive attention.  She had learned to trust other horses and had found a comfortable spot in the herd where she could share a hay pile with a friend, groom and be groomed, and stand with the herd under the shade tree.

Sadly, in that same year, two years after Oaka came to us, she began to lose her sight from uveitis. We could not stop the progression of the disease that turned the lights off on her world.  In about nine months from its onset, Oaka went blind in both eyes.  For a very brief period, maybe one week, when Oaka first sensed that she was losing her sight, she became fearful once again.  Her blind eyes opened so wide in fear and trepidation.  But, we worked gently and patiently with Oaka through this time.  Again, we called her name when we brought food into her stall so that she knew that we were coming.  We called to her in the pasture so that she knew when it was time to come into the barn at night.  We also got Oaka’s pasture mate a bell so that she could hear Lidia Mae as she moved around the pasture. 

Today, Oaka enjoys people and horses even though she has been blind for three years.  She loves to be groomed and fed and spoken to softly.  Oaka’s life is so much richer and more connected now that she trusts the important forces in her life – people and other horses.  Trust was the bridge that changed everything for her.  Oaka no longer retreats with her head hung low to the back of the stall, but now moves with purpose to the stall door to greet us – even if she does so guardedly to avoid any obstacles that she cannot see – but now does not fear.

I had an experience this spring that was truly shocking.  I got a call from a friend asking me if we “needed” a cat.  Now, anyone who knows us knows that we do not need another cat (or horse or dog).  Of course, that question is  the lead in to a conversation that goes something like “so tell me about this cat — what is the cat’s story? what does the cat look like? does the cat have any diseases that the other cats could catch?” – – the usual questions I ask all the while trying to figure out if I “should” say no to this one when I really want to say yes – again.

Well I said yes to “Sally.”  As it turns out, Sally was found in an old chest of drawers that was donated to the Salvation Army.  She was skinny, sneezing and practically weightless.   Apparently, when the Salvation Army determined that Sally (named after Salvation Army in case you were wondering) had been donated  with the furniture, the “owners” said “yeah well we don’t want her anymore.”  So we took Sally and her sneezing self in at the Farm.  After about three weeks of a steady diet of wet food (we don’t usually “do wet food”), Sally came out of the tack room to explore the barn.  Nine months after her arrival, Sally has gained weight and fur and is second in line to the large dry cat food community bowl.  Truth be told, we still leave a small can of wet food out every night in the tack room for our little treasure.

Did you ever notice that when there is blustery snow or wind and rain, the horses stand together, shoulder to shoulder with their backs to the storm? Their heads hang a bit below their withers and they look away from the storm and toward the brighter horizon.  The herd offers a good model for weathering storms in our lives.  When we encounter turbulent and difficult times we will gain strength from standing together with those close to us.  Shoulder to shoulder together we can support and bear more.  It is also helpful sometimes to move forward, heads down, looking away from the bad weather and toward the brighter horizon in the distance, knowing that brighter days are ahead and that we have a plan for the next storm which may come next season.

Welcome to The Daily Shepherd.   This blog is dedicated to exploring the Life Lessons Learned on the Farm.  I believe that many of life’s most important lessons emerge from the daily rythms of life on the Farm, as days string together from season to season.  Rarely does a week pass at Shepherd Farm when I am not moved by some interaction between two horses, between a horse and his owner, between a dog and a cat, or between these animals and mother nature.  The animals are great teachers when we are open enough and present enough to hear their message.

This blog was inspired by two sources.  The first is a blog and book by Shreve Stockton, The Daily Coyote.  I picked up this book when I was standing in line waiting to check out with my holiday gifts last year.  Yes, it was an impulse buy.  I was drawn to the book by the beautiful cover – which portrayed a baby coyote lovingly held by Shreve.  I was immediately drawn to the substance of the book because, like Shreve, I traveled to Wyoming for work and was awed by and enamored with the Big Country.   There is a drama and strength to the land that does not exist here in Maryland.  As I devoured Shreve’s book on a few subway commutes into DC, lost in the words and forgetting my cramped urban surroundings, I resolved that I would finally write that blog that has been knocking around in my head for years.

This blog is also inspired by the concept of Robert Fulghum‘s All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.  My daughter is now in Kindergarten and she is learning life’s lessons daily – from her teachers, her friends, and through trial and error (or as we like to say good choices and bad choices).   Fulghum’s simple and profound wisdom is so refreshing and relevant in a world that seems to barrel ahead in pursuit of advances that promise greater efficiency, but in truth bring with them more stress and less time really living.

In the entries that follow, I will share my observations and lessons as they are revealed to me at the Farm.