Sunday, June 7, 2009

Owning a gun

I grew up in a family that didn’t own guns. Dave had a Red Rider BB gun when he was a kid, but we never had a gun in our house until the day after a predator got into the chicken coop.

Dave and I woke that night almost thirty years ago to the sound of chickens screaming. Well, chickens don’t actually scream, but they were obviously upset. We grabbed a flash light and rushed out to the chicken coop. Before we even got there, we could smell the problem – a faint hint of skunk on the air.

The loudest squawking came from the far corner of the chicken run. When Dave directed the pale beam of the flash light in that direction we saw a mass of black with a bold white streak. Dave ran back to the house to get his bow and arrows – the only options other than my Buck hunting knife for defense of our chickens. Neither of us was interested in a knife fight with a skunk.

It’s not easy to accurately shoot an arrow thirty feet through a chicken wire fence at black target on a moonless night illuminated only by the failing beam of an old flash light. Dave shot six times. He killed the skunk and the five chickens the skunk had hidden beneath his body in the tunnel under the back fence.

The next day, Paul, Dave’s little brother who was working for us that summer, buried the skunk, the chickens, and the arrows, and Dave bought a rifle.

The rifle is stored in pieces in our house. I am vastly uncomfortable with it, but have learned how to carry and shoot it safely. Actually, when I shoot it, my target is always safe. You can’t shut your eyes as you pull the trigger and expect to hit anything.

I am vastly uncomfortable with the rifle, but have come to recognize its value.

Old farmers often nod sagely and tell me “a down sheep is a dead sheep.” When my flock was young, I didn’t believe them. Most of the health problems we had were related to pregnancy and we could almost always solve them. In my mind, a dead sheep meant a bad shepherd. But as our flock aged, I have learned that health problems in adult sheep outside of pregnancy and lambing are more apt to be fatal because nobody knows what to do for them. No one is willing to pay for the lab tests necessary to find out what metabolic disorder is plaguing a ten year old ewe. It isn’t cost effective, it isn’t practical, and sometimes it isn’t even possible.

Last week, Dave found a ewe in the barn who was bloated. During pregnancy, sheep sometimes bloat when they get pregnancy toxemia. We induce labor, hydrate them, and relieve the air in their bellies from metabolic shut down. If they deliver their lamb soon enough, we can usually bring them through the bloat. The other time sheep might bloat is when they eat too much feed too rapidly - corn after a fast, or fresh alfalfa when they haven’t had any for awhile and their intestinal bacteria aren’t set up to digest alfalfa. This kind of bloat is more mechanical. They either get a clump of grain stuck in their throat, or lots of gas in their stomach. in either instance, we slip a3/4” diameter tube down their throat. It either dislodges the clump of grain, or emits a foul smell of badly digested alfalfa. If we get the smell, we pour vegetable oil into the tube. It forms a layer on top of their stomach contents and stops the gas from forming. We keep the ewe on her feet and walking, and eventually, the bloat disappears.

So our first step when Dave found a bloated ewe was to intubate her. Nothing happened. I poured in some cooking oil and waited. The bloat continued to worsen. When a sheep’s stomach and intestines swell, they have less room in their abdomen for their lungs to expand. Sheep suffocate when they bloat.

We watched her, slowly expand. Bloat guard, a veterinary preparation didn’t help. We could hear where the gas was gathering. When we thumped her belly with our fingers, it made a hollow sound over the tautly stretched areas. We slid a large gauge needle into the hollow sounding spots on her side. Gas rushed out.

We could relieve the bloat, but we still had no idea what was causing it. We continued to relieve the bloat over the next 24 hours, but the ewe was getting weaker. When Dave first found her, she ate hay and drank water. Twenty-four hours later she wasn’t interested in either. This was not a disease I knew how to cure. This was an old, old ewe. She would not have lambed again in any case. Finally, we decided to stop her suffering. We could have had the vet out to put her down, but that was expensive and it was of course Saturday evening and I hated to call a vet away from his family for a problem for which I knew the solution. Dave took his rifle out to the pasture and shot her.

Being able to put an animal out of its misery is a good reason to own a gun. I am not a brave enough person to shoot a sheep when necessary, but I am grateful that Dave is.

1 comment:

  1. Skunk,chickens,flashlight, bow and arrow and you guys, I have a vision of a Norman Rockwell painting.