It is best to leave an animal alone when it is giving birth, and also when it is dying. The manner in which a mammal dies is best kept private, there are simply moments there that should not be shared. Of course death can be shared in other ways. One may even look directly into the eyes of another just at the moment of death, and see clear to eternity: desperate, desperate eternity.
A lovely little beast expired today. One that had only recently joined my menagerie. She was an odd one no doubt. If anyone were to accuse me of anything regarding the animals I keep, it would be that I am extreme in the adoration and care that they receive. The sin I commit simply that I care for them a bit too much. They race to me from a distance, and joyfully leap into my arms. To feel that burst of energy from them, when their exertion reaches my chest, is to feel love and appreciation from another warm creature in a most profound way.
The doe goats cannot leap anymore, though one of them at least still likes to be carried, even now that she weighs over 60 pounds. When I do carry her, she curls up in my arms, in spite of her unreasonable size, and rests satisfied in my embrace.
It was late summer when Tip-Toe appeared to me. She was ghostly; undead. It is honestly difficult to communicate the degree of malnutrition she was suffering from when she appeared. Her ribs where splayed out like a deck of cards in a magician's hands. Her eyes sealed shut with crusted mucus; white blood cells coagulated day after day, as she staggered in the woods seeking sustenance. Her hunger had become so extreme and predictable that she would instinctively turn and begin consuming her excrement immediately after defecating. I have never seen hunger like this in any being.
Initially I was baffled by what she might in fact be. A rodent of some kind was my first impression, but why would a rodent walk straight up to me, and cower at my feet, pleading for my assistance, as if it were the last bit of forgiveness she needed to earn salvation?
In a moment or two I realized she was a dog, a small dog to start with. She directed those encrusted eyes toward mine, contorted her body plaintively, and trembled. As soon as the trance of uncertainty was broken, I reached down and seized her fragile frame. She was so thin that I was literally afraid I might break her. Her spine was palpable through her entirely absent abdomen. Every ridge and peak was visible in her pelvis, and she was smooth and hairless over almost her entire body.
She must have been out there a long time, her nails were an inch long on every toe. As a result she walked awkwardly, seemingly stabbing the ground with her tender digits. She accepted my affection instantly, wrapping her body against mine, adhering to me warmly.
In all of the time that I knew her, maybe about three months, I never saw her tail wag, and she never licked me. I have literally had dogs since I was old enough to remember, at times having a dozen or more, and never met a dog that did not wag its tail or lick the one who fed it every day. I understand now that the traumatic stress this dog endured could never be shaken, though this realization came to me slowly.
She had peculiar habits, presumably formed in her time alone. She would relentlessly search for food in her environment, even when she was too full to eat any more. She stood at the foot of anyone with food, brazenly barking a tepid squawk, declaring herself starving and deserving of a bit of whatever they had. Once she had gained admission to the office at the nursery, and a spot on a pillow next to the wood stove, she would never accept anything less than that most comfortable repose. After tucking her bony legs up underneath her, she would take one last long glance up at me, as if to verify that this was in fact okay, and I approved of her actions.
She developed a predictable pattern of incontinence, and with help from Amee in the office I was able to carefully manage her for these months. Her condition improved, markedly even, and it seemed she would make a full recovery. The hair grew back across most of her body, everywhere but her ears in fact. Though her eyes remained clouded, the infection that over time had sealed her eyes shut with a crust of mucus appeared to be resolving itself. Her mood became chipper, and without a doubt she enjoyed every moment of the day.
At first I imagined she might be a late middle-aged dog, maybe seven or so. In time though, I came to realize she was quite a bit older. The clouds in her eyes betrayed a decade or more, and her underlying fragility made her seem to be at least a dozen years old.
How could this have happened? Why didn't something kill her in the woods from which she emerged? How could it be that no one saw her? She had become invisible with time. Strangely, she had an incredible propensity to disappear, then reappear in a remote and unlikely spot, a ghost maybe after all.
She repulsed the first people I introduced her to. There was nothing cute or lovable about this creature, she was a breathing, hairless corpse. Even with the crust delicately picked from her eyes, the wounds that had developed beneath them wept for days. Weeks passed before she had hair, very fine light hair, growing again over most of her still emaciated body.
Predictably, people who met us during her convalescence would recite a familiar line, "She was lucky to find you." Strangely, I always contested that it was in fact me who was lucky, to find this desperate soul, and be so certain that my purpose was to first comfort and nourish this diminutive creature. An ethical mandate that I could not resist.
I have always wanted to have the best, strongest, fastest, sleekest, most productive, heaviest, meatiest animals in my company. In order to have the dogs I want, I raise them. In order to have the goats I want, I breed them. The extraordinary beast has been my purpose for my entire life. Yet, this animal immediately occupied the most treasured and admired ring in my kingdom, she became the priority among a collection of the finest domesticated animals. I carried her with me until she could walk, and then she followed me around slavishly until the rains came, and she discovered the big dog pillow by the wood stove in the office. The Akita came to know that any even modest infraction against her, a bump or forceful nudge, would earn my quiet but unmistakable disapproval, and Akita do not wish to be disapproved of.
My two youngest Akita, who happen to be at a most unruly and athletic age, welcomed Tip-Toe into their pack, sharing fallen apples with her in the pasture, and greeting her with wild enthusiasm. They always seemed to be expressing a deep concern for her. I have found my dogs treat other beasts the way I treat them. Which is why I respectfully stoop to greet any animal that will approach me. The dogs see this and behave accordingly.
Tip-Toe wore a sweater, lovingly fashioned for her by Emily. She wore this sweater elegantly, it was very hip. An oversize collar of thick wool rose about her neck, up under her chin. When she slept, it was a soft pillow, replacing the meat and fat that had been lost to starvation.
It was a few days ago now that I noticed something happening. Her progress suddenly halted. There was no question about it in my mind, the plateau had been reached. Certain organs were simply not going to recover. Then, a small lump under her thin skin, along her spine, emerged as a lesion on the surface. Dry, and growing very rapidly.
I let some people know that she was not going to make it, but expected her to have a few more days. Instead, yesterday morning she did not to get out of her bed and walk in the pasture with me, then she waited for my assistance to get out of the truck once we got to the nursery. Eventually, she was on her pillow, and spent the entire day bundled up by the wood stove. In the dark evening, after everyone was gone, as I lifted her into my arms for the trip back to the truck, she seemed stiff, rigid.
When she was tucked in last night she was still alert and mobile, when she awoke this morning her back legs were paralyzed, by dusk she could not stand. Earlier tonight she died.
In the beginning, when I looked at her, I spontaneously wept. The amount of suffering she had endured, the amount of suffering she was still enduring, seemed too great for her small frame to bear. When I held her, and her body wrapped into mine, ribs against ribs, she was comforted. I could feel the relief in her. For a brief time this lowly creature taught me compassion, and I could not feel more lucky to have found her.
Goodbye Tip-Toe, I love you.