I’ve been thinking a lot about what we owe to other creatures on this planet. As humans, we certainly have positioned ourselves as the arbiters on the matter of life or death for just about every other being on the planet. Some creatures, one could argue, make this decision easy – no one thinks very hard before smacking a mosquito or squashing a spotted lanternfly and almost everyone is in universal agreement that pandas and elephants are worthy of conservation and admiration. But what about those creatures that exist in the grayer areas of life? Where does the distinction between nuisance and dangerous lie? Where do we draw the line between pet and livestock? Do we base an animal’s worth on the benefit it brings us and is that always at a set point? Does how we treat our fellow beings, both human and non-human, really just boil down to our own internal conflicts and inconsistencies?
Magic, or Mr. Magic as I called him, was my favorite goat. This past weekend I had to put him down. He, as many wethers do, suffered from urinary blockages. Three years ago he had very expensive goat surgery at Cornell University’s Farm Animal Hospital. A year ago he had a very bad UTI that luckily responded well to antibiotics. I noticed that he had not been peeing for a couple of days and contacted the vet who was swamped with emergencies but agreed to try the same antibiotics as last time. The vet was able to come out to examine him and take samples of blood and fluid that had accumulated in his belly. She called with the news that his bladder had ruptured and even though surgical repair was possible, his electrolyte levels made surgery dangerous, and he was at risk for sepsis due to bacteria in his urine.
Putting down an animal is a such a uniquely human action we take upon a non-human being. It is, many times, the most humane choice to pick out of a hat of bad choices. Sometimes I wonder why we allow animals this unique way out, but for most humans we insist on the extension of life at all cost. Perhaps it is our view that animals are lesser that makes us more comfortable taking on the roles of judge, jury, and executioner for a goat while dawdling in indecision about the best course of treatment for terminal cancer or what to do with the matter of lost quality of life for our fellow human beings.
I always joke that the goats are just very expensive lawnmowers, and this is actually mostly true. They may also keep the chickens and ducks and geese safer by eliminating overgrown brush that would make a predator feel more comfortable sneaking through, but for the most part, the goats serve no real practical purpose around here. They amuse me, but when it comes down to it, I much prefer the antics of the ducks and will readily admit that I am not really a goat person. But still, despite my ambivalence about their utility or my appreciation of them, the goats are creatures in my care and this is not a matter I take lightly. It may seem strange to be capable of both raising and slaughtering chickens and ducks for meat, and at the same time crying when a duck was hit in the road or when I had to put down one of my geese when she was no longer able to walk. But maybe raising animals puts you in a position to perceive the gray areas of where non-human beings exist in relation to our own ability and willingness to care for them as well as our understanding of what quality of life means for a goat or a goose . Could I have insisted on the surgery for Magic? Yes. Could I have kept an immobile goose alive? Probably. But even the ride to the vet office for surgery would have terrified Mr Magic the goat and recovery would have been painful and bewildering for him. And, yes, maybe keeping the goose alive would have been doable and maybe I could have taken cute goose in a stroller pictures, but the goose was used to a certain level of autonomy and goose-like behavior, and what kind of life is it for a goose who cannot walk to the pond?
So Mr Magic was put down in the most humane way possible – a shot of sedative and then another shot to stop his heart. The drugs weirdly worked quicker on the goat than they had on the goose. I cried and wondered about the many things that I should have done differently, berated myself for not noticing his state sooner, and then dug a hole to bury him in and planted a tree in memory of Mr Magic.
And then the other goats immediately attempted to eat the memorial tree and as I cursed at them I marveled at our human ability to see the grays in all parts of life.