the dying chair

A few posts ago Jennifer asked about how killing the deer made me feel or think. I had wanted to write about the issue of life and death on the farm beforehand, but am glad I waited—and am glad for the prompting from Jen—until I had a few more experiences under my belt.

Let me start by relating some of the ways I’ve encountered life and death at Mangarara Station.

Greg runs about 3400 sheep for beef (lamb and mutton) and 350 beef cattle. This volume means that a lot of what goes on with the livestock is unsupervised. For example, Greg hires a pack of rams to mate with his ewes once a year, but allows the vast majority of the ewes to raise their own lambs without his aid.

This sometimes produces problems. Ewes that recognize somehow that their young are unhealthy or defective will simply walk away from them in the paddock, leaving them to starve to death without easy and immediate access to their milk.

(Sometimes, in fact, temperamental ewes will walk away from their young for no apparent reason at all. If we think God’s justice is a mystery, just look at nature—no justice in sight, it seems…)

Part of my job has been to drive the ATV around the paddocks and pick up dead lambs (and ewes, where such is the case) to deposit in “the pit”—a hole in the ground designated for burying deceased livestock. This has acquainted me thoroughly with the amount of death on hand here at Mangarara Station.

But if that weren’t enough, I had an even more personal encounter with death—amidst the most life-filled chore around the farm.

In a paddock behind the house, we hand-feed the lambs whose mothers walk away from them or die before their weaned. And anytime Greg or I notice a lamb in a paddock without a mother, we bring it up to the paddock behind the house.

Currently, there are about five and a half lambs that it is my sole duty to feed twice daily (2750 milliliters of hot water + milk powder + six baby bottles = six woolly tails wagging gleefully).

This is one of those heartwarming jobs that you think of when imagining farm life. The kids often help (they’ve made names for most of the lambs: Napkin, Angelina, Pia, Jessie, and Cookies ‘n’ Cream), and it’s good fun all around.

The tragic turn came when Greg brought up a newborn, black-and-white lamb to add to the group the other day. The kids immediately named him Cookies ‘n’ Cream (the Cookies ‘n’ Cream in the paddock now is version 2.0).

But Cookies ‘n’ Cream 1.0 only lasted a few days. Greg speculates that he might have overfed him (which happens occasionally), but lil Cookies ‘n’ Cream also could’ve been doomed from the start—again, the ewes know when a lamb is unfit, so it’s no surprise that the ones we rescue rarely survive.

Anyway, when Greg noticed he wasn’t doing much better than when he found him, he put him away from the other lambs. When it was time for feeding, I asked him where Cookies ‘n’ Cream was.

“Oh, I’ve put him in the chair for dying lambs. I’ll check on him later. Just go right on and feed the others.”

Later Greg said Cookies ‘n’ Cream had “probably died” by now.

Probably?

Now, Greg is insanely knowledgeable about farming, and his instincts bypass mine infinitely. But I couldn’t help but feel that he could have done more to save that little lamb. At any rate, I kept it to myself and forgot about it for a few days.

The other day I was out fetching firewood and noticed a little cloth beanbag chair in a shelter beside the woodshed. In the chair was Cookies ‘n’ Cream (1.0), looking rather peacefully deceased.

So that was “the dying chair”: a comfortable, warm spot for doomed little lambs to spend their last hours.

We can’t save all the doomed little lambs. Death is everywhere on the farm, and it’s impossible not to grow a bit callous to its reality. But as humans—precisely because we are humans, and not mere animals—we are called to create a more humane space for the animals that meet death under our watch.

Back to the deer.

Last night Greg, Rachel, some of their friends and I attended a showing in Havelock North of a documentary called Food, Inc. about the American food industry.

(If you’ve read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Fast Food Nation, or anything by Wendell Berry, you’ll already be aware of most of what’s in this film. But I would encourage you to at least encourage others who may have not read these books and authors to watch it—especially folks in our parents’ generation. Even if we’re lazy and don’t act on our knowledge of industrial food issues, our generation has at least been primarily convinced by the arguments. Our parents’ generation, on the other hand, has not.)

Of all the images and scenes, one stood out to me. It was taken by a hidden camera inside a meatpacking plant. A man stood on a ladder while a skinned cow, hung by the legs, passed by on a pulley. The man had a chainsaw (or some other mechanized saw) and sawed right through the center of the cow.

The footage just showed this one cut, but it was clear that this man’s job was to make a cut just like this once every 15 seconds or so.

That means he sawed four cows in half every minute.

Now, let’s bracket the consequences of such toil on the human heart and psyche. Let’s just talk about the cow.

By the end of skinning and gutting that deer, I had developed immense admiration and respect for the beauty and grandeur of the animal—which boils down to the beauty and grandeur of God’s craftsmanship. It was tedious and careful work, making sure to cut the skin back from the muscle without damaging the flesh, to remove the organs intact, and so on. I earned my dinner that night.

Did this meatpacking plant worker develop the same respect for the animal in the 15 seconds he spent sawing it in half?

Unlikely.

The reason I choose this example is that it has nothing to do with CAFOs, nothing to do with the effect of factory farm conditions on the animals’ lives, but rather demonstrates the destructive consequences the sheer size and time frame industrial farming imposes on animals even after they die. This, too, is included in the humane treatment of animals.

Butchery doesn’t have to constitute warfare on the animal kingdom.

Believing that is the only reason I’m not a vegetarian yet.

Hart kids in my Subaru.

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2 responses to “the dying chair

  1. Thomas Dixon

    Good to read this stuff man. Sounds like a meaningful gig.

  2. “we are called to create a more humane space for the animals that meet death under our watch.”
    thank you. all was put beautifully.

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