Dead Animal Farm
The goat screamed all night. It sounded like a human child yelling at the top of its lungs. I’d never heard him do that before, so I knew something was wrong. My parents got up first and checked on him while I waited, but they didn’t see anything wrong. Then I went out into the dark field to see for myself. The pygmy goat was walking in circles, followed by the two Angola sheep that never left his side. He would plant his back feet stiff in the ground and scream, then take a few steps and repeat.
I rubbed his belly to calm him and he pressed up on my kneecap with his small horns, something he did when he was hungry or playful. I eventually left him and went inside to bed, but I couldn’t sleep through all the screaming. I wanted to do more for him, but my parents said we should wait it out.
In the morning, I cleared out a corner of one of the barns and laid out some hay as a bed. I brought him in and he lay down. At some point he stopped making noise, but he refused to move. I convinced Mom to take him to the vet about twenty miles away in Hamilton; it must have seemed like a waste of money to take a $40 goat in for an emergency vet visit, especially since he didn’t have a real purpose on the ranch other than his self-appointed job of shepherding the sheep. In fact, he was an annoyance.
Chip dented all the trucks on the ranch by climbing on top and stomp dancing. He ate all Mom’s baby aspen trees. The tree guards that worked to keep the sheep away were no use – he would find a weakness like a safecracker breaking into a bank vault, then exploit the weakness to dismantle the guard. When he was bored of the sheep, he’d lead them through a hole in a cattle pen fence and hop away, leaving them stranded until someone came and lifted them out.
All of this seemed intentional. The goat was extremely intelligent, and no one questioned that he knew what he was doing. He seemed to spend all his time finding ways to amuse himself, often by pissing off my parents. None of Chip’s antics affected me directly, but I didn’t defend him when others complained. I still liked him, and I kept a pocketful of alfalfa pellets with me when I was out doing chores so I’d have a treat for him when he’d wander by with the sheep.
He’d also ride the horses. He’d wait for one of them to lie down in the shade of the tackle shed on a hot day, then he’d climb on top and wait. When the horse would eventually stand, Chip would balance himself on its back and ride as far as he could. I probably should have filmed it, but I didn’t have easy access to a camera.
I recently heard a radio show on NPR about a caller who once said he saw a goat riding a cow. The producers of the show became obsessed with finding out if this could have really happened. They even changed the logo of the show to a goat riding a cow because it was “the craziest thing they’d ever heard.” When listening, I thought: of course a goat was riding a cow, that’s what goats do.
When we took Chip to the vet in the morning after his screaming, the vet said Chip’s urethra was plugged with minerals from the hard Montana well water. He’d been trying to pee all night, but nothing could pass through. When he calmed down it was because his bladder had burst; now his internals were poisoned with urine. We brought him home, and I put him back on his bed in the barn. I stayed with him until he died.
Dad helped me put the body in the back of the truck, and we drove up Tin Cup Road behind our property. I dug a grave and placed a marker. Kind of dramatic to dig a grave for a goat. I don’t remember burying any of the other farm animals that died on the ranch, except maybe the chickens, and that was only to keep the dogs from dragging the carcasses around. But I was only thirteen and Chip the goat was my pet, so it seemed appropriate to treat him the way one would a dead cat or dog.
It’s strange that I never visited Chip’s grave. I can’t remember anything about where it is exactly. When I asked Mom about it a few years ago, she was confident that I never buried him at all. She said we let the vet put him down and dispose of the body. Could that be right? Mom said we buried one of the cats up Tin Cup – maybe I was thinking of that trip. Maybe. I have a clear memory of sitting with him in the barn, running to get food when I was hungry, and coming back quickly so I wouldn’t be gone when he died. But maybe I just felt like I should have been with him and fabricated a false memory.
Growing up on a ranch meant being around lots of dead or dying animals, but the goat was the first pet that belonged solely to me, so I felt some responsibility for his well-being. Even if he was an asshole.
I once slaughtered fifty rabbits in one day. A local pastor had gifted the rabbits to my parents in an attempt to encourage them to become breeders like himself. The rabbits lived in cages next to the chicken coop for a few weeks until my parents gave up on being rabbit breeders and decided to butcher them all.
I was given a small wooden bat that looked like a billy club from an old gangster movie, and instructed how to slaughter a rabbit. I don’t know where my parents got this bat or how they knew the correct way to slaughter rabbits; perhaps this was part of the exchange with the pastor.
Mom and Dad and I set up in an assembly line: I would kill the rabbits, Dad would gut them, and Mom would clean them. I’m pretty sure Dad offered to do the killing if I would do one of the other jobs, but I didn’t feel up to field dressing four dozen rabbits.
I held each rabbit by its scruff and bashed its skull from behind. They’d make an “Eep” and go limp. They never squirmed, but they had big-eyed shocked expressions when I’d grab them out of the cage and hold them out. Once I whacked them, their eyes would go glassy and sometimes the tongue would stick out. I’d place the carcass on a flat stump and chop its head off with a hatchet. The heads went in a plastic trash bag and the bodies in a wheelbarrow bed.
Fifty times. Whack, eep, chop, plop. I asked my parents if I could keep one rabbit as a pet. I didn’t really want a pet rabbit, but saving one of the animals seemed like an appropriate act of kindness, like the president pardoning a turkey on Thanksgiving. Somehow it evened out all the killing.
I picked out a small gray one, mostly at random. He was named Jar Jar Binks by my younger brother and lived in a cage above the box where hens were placed when they hatched chicks.
He lived a miserable existence, locked in that tiny cage. He didn’t like to be petted and he was scared of other animals that came by his enclosure. I’d let him out in a yard every once in a while. About half the time I couldn’t catch him again and he’d spend the next few days hopping around the property until I could finally corner him. Then he’d go back in the cage for a few weeks. I thought about just letting him run free, but my parents would remind me that a mountain lion or coyote would eat him one night since he didn’t have a rabbit hole to hide in.
I was relieved when Mom told me she found him dead in his cage one morning. I could only assume he died of boredom. I realize now that killing him with the rest of the rabbits would have been more of an act of kindness than letting him live in that cramped cage. There was no saving him.
I remember watching the movie Jurassic Park with my family. There’s a scene where the paleontologist character is showing a group of students the skeleton of a raptor. He tries to explain how terrifying the creature is, but a student butts in and jokes, “It looks like a giant turkey.” The students all laugh. My dad said, “Sounds terrifying.”
It’s hard to convince some people how frightening poultry can be, but anyone who has lived in close proximity to them understands. Turkeys are obsessed with shiny objects and will chase a person down if they see reflections off a belt bucket or jacket button. Roosters and male turkeys also have razor-sharp talons, hooks that jut out from the back of their feet, and when aggravated, they will do a flying jump attack where they point their talons straight out at their targets. There’s a reason cockfighting is considered such a brutal sport.
Luckily, I never had to deal with the turkeys on a regular basis, but one of my chores was to open the chicken coop in the morning and close it up at night. I hated dealing with the rooster, who would sometimes leap and peck my hand when I lifted one of his hens to check for eggs. It’s like being hit with a pocket-sized jackhammer. Even when he didn’t peck, the anxiety and anticipation made the job excruciating. I took to carrying a baseball bat with me into the coop. I was just looking for a reason to end that bastard. I even took a swing at him a couple times when he jumped at me, but I always missed by a few inches.
Once, a neighbor girl, about five years old, almost took care of him for me. Her family was over for dinner, and she was out playing in the yard when the rooster ran at her. She’d been terrorized by a rooster before at her house and wasn’t taking chances, so she went into our garage and found a golf club. Her parents spotted her in the yard chasing the rooster, club raised over her head, and stopped her before she was able to whack it.
I complained about the bird to my parents a few times, but I usually got, “Everyone around here has roosters, and they deal with them somehow, right?” Right.
I was finally rid of the bird on the day Dad took over my chores while I was at an overnight church event. I got back and the rooster was gone. When I finally got the story from Dad, it went like this: he opened the coop in the morning (not carrying a bat, as would have been wise), and when he walked back towards the house, the rooster leaped from the coop, performing the flying dagger attack. It hit my unsuspecting dad in the back of the thigh, tearing through his jeans and into his flesh about an inch, knocking him to the ground. The rooster attacked again when Dad was on the ground, but he was able to deflect with his hand.
Once he scrabbled inside, Dad took out my rifle, went back outside, and blew off the rooster’s head. I hope there was some symbolism in his using my gun, but I think it was just more appropriate for the job than his bolt-action 30-ought-6.
Everyone around here has roosters, and they deal with them somehow. Sometimes the way they deal with them is with a .22 caliber.
Hens can make bad parents. We kept ours mostly for eggs, but when we did try to raise more chickens, almost all of the chicks were pecked to death by their mother within a few hours of their birth. We’d try to get to them as soon as we knew they were hatching, but were usually too late. Sometimes, we’d save chicks that weren’t dead but were in bad shape.
Us kids would collect the mutilated chicks and put them in shoe boxes under heat lamps. Some would be half gutted and others were missing wings or legs. It looked like a miniature infirmary from a war movie. We probably should have euthanized them in some way, but when our parents would bring it up, we’d stall. “This one doesn’t look so bad. I think this one might make it.” None of them ever did.
We learned from a family friend that ducks often make better parents than chickens, so we tried putting the chicken eggs under the domesticated duck that lived in the chicken coop. Sure enough, she hatched the chicks and protected them from the hens. She even got them to line up behind her and follow her around, which is not natural behavior for young free-roaming birds.
It was going well until the day she marched the chicks down to the pond when no one was watching, a first swimming lesson for what she thought were ducklings. Plunk, plunk, plunk, plunk, plunk. Dead chicks floating in the water. At least she tried.
We had a black cat named Linus, after the Peanuts character. I don’t remember much about him growing up other than that he once let my sister put clothes pins all over his body when she was a toddler. My parents were so shocked he didn’t fight back that they took a picture of him in that state and had it framed. What I really remember is the picture. When Linus was older, he mostly stayed outside but would sometimes scratch on a door to be let in at night if he chose.
Our house had a corner office room where a computer was set up next to a washer and dryer and a door that led to the garage, where deer and elk bodies would hang during hunting season if Dad was lucky that year. When I saved up money to buy a copy of the game Half-Life, I holed up in the computer room for an entire weekend, playing late into the night. There were no lights on in the house other than the computer screen, and I had headphones so I wouldn’t wake anyone.
I was freaked out. Aliens and zombies were leaping out at me, and I was continually startled. At one point, I took the headphones off to give myself a breath and heard the cat scratching on the door to the garage. I walked over to let him in, but the game had made me terrified of the dark. I felt my way to the door and flipped the light switch to the garage; there was no way I was going to open a door that led into pitch blackness.
I opened the door. There was the cat. And there was another cat: a mountain lion standing under a hanging deer carcass. I was so scared that every fuse in my brain burnt out. With reflexes honed from hours of Half-Life, I slammed the door and jumped back.
Scratch, scratch, scratch. I’d shut Linus outside again with the cougar. I had to let him in, but all I could think of was the larger cat leaping into the house when I opened the door. I probably reached for the handle three or four times before I worked up the nerve to open it. When I did, Linus was there, but he didn’t come in. He was frozen, probably in fear. I couldn’t make myself look into the garage at where the cougar might be, but I snatched up Linus and slammed the door again.
I replayed the event in my head and came to the conclusion that I might have imagined the mountain lion. The game had gotten me worked up and I spooked myself. The next morning when I woke late due to the gaming bender, I told Dad I thought I saw a mountain lion in the garage.
He said, “Yeah, I know. I saw the tracks this morning.”
Over the years, my parents have transformed the property into a tree farm and nursery. They sold the horses and sheep, put down the duck after a dog tore out its feathers, and stopped replacing dying hens. The only animal on the property now is a young cat they keep around for mousing.
Today, I live in a city with a spoiled Great Dane who whines when the heat in the house drops below his comfort level. I’m not sure how I’d feel today if I had to kill an animal, or even watch one die. I told the story of slaughtering the rabbits to an adult friend. She teared up and angrily asked, “Don’t you feel like a murderer?” I inquired if she was a vegetarian. She said she wasn’t but buying meat in a store is different than killing an animal yourself.
None of my stories of farm life feel unusual to me, just day-to-day stuff. It’s only through other people’s reactions that I sense how unique my experiences were. I just remember feeling lucky that I didn’t have to chop off chickens’ heads with an axe, bleed them out through the neck, and pluck them by hand like the kids at the farm down the way. That would have been gross.