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Baby Bump

Windy, our 1 year old Saanen goat, is the first mammal that we’ve ever gotten pregnant on purpose.  (Well, besides me, of course.)  In fact, she’s the first animal I’ve ever owned that has even been capable of becoming pregnant.  Even my pet rabbits have been spayed and neutered.  Most of the people in the pet world today (the world that I come from) are very pro spay/neuter- especially here in New England.  In recent years, we’ve done such a great job of promoting sterilization in the northeast that it’s almost impossible to find a mixed breed puppy that has not been imported from another part of the country.  Go us!  The problem of overpopulation and unwanted pet litters is slowly becoming a thing of the past.

Windy 1 month until kidding
Windy- 1 month until kidding

But the problem that lurks on the other side of that achievement is one that never occurred to me until recently.  About 5 years ago, to be exact- the time when my husband and I decided to start a family.  I had no direct experience with anyone or anything that had been pregnant or had given birth.  Nada.  Sure, I knew people that had babies, but I wasn’t close enough to them to hear the nitty gritty details of how it felt to have another living being inside of you, or what actually happened in the months leading up to labor and delivery.  I had a lot of research to do.

Fortunately, we have the internet these days.  Or perhaps that’s unfortunate, depending on where you choose to look for information on said internet.  (Note to self- do not follow links to birthing videos or read horror stories of labors lasting longer than 36 hours while you are in your third trimester.  It’s too late to turn back and it isn’t a helpful way to stay positive about your impending future.)

Needless to say, I learned a lot about pregnancy in a short time.  But reading about the gestation period, measuring the growth of my waistline and comparing the current size of my growing baby to common fruits and vegetables just wasn’t the same as having witnessed an actual pregnancy before.  People didn’t used to be so isolated from the natural way of things in the past.  The way it used to be included numerous pregnancies surrounding each family, even if it was the animals in the barn doing most of the birthing.

My baby bump 2011
My baby bump 2011

Animals can teach us so much about the way of life.  Yet in recent decades, we have changed our relationship with our animals to such a degree that our experience has become more about control than reflection or learning.

It is frowned upon to leave your pets intact.  Veterinarians, trainers and rescue workers alike spout the many good reasons to alter your animals at an appropriate age.  For years I have done the same, (and I will continue to do so, but with the word pet clearly annunciated.)  There are too many uneducated owners and not enough responsible homes to start hailing the praises of leaving the family dog or cat unaltered.  (For more information on spay/neuter risks and benefits take a look at this article by the Veterinary Information Network: http://news.vin.com/VINNews.aspx?articleId=27205)  But…

There is something to be said for witnessing the miracle of life in person before you go through it yourself, or with a loved one.  And I don’t just mean watching a chicken hatch from an egg (although that’s pretty cool too).  In mammals, the entire process of gestation, fetal growth, labor/delivery and finally nursing and nurturing a newborn is amazingly in-depth.  Being mammals ourselves, there is a lot to be learned from other mammals that experience a similar reproductive cycle.  And if there is a purpose for encouraging an animal pregnancy (like to produce more high quality animals , and/or to produce milk) then it is not irresponsible to do so.  In fact, it can give us a glimpse into a part of life that we have grown unaccustomed to seeing, and therefore are uncomfortable with.  Knowledge and experience are at the basis of building a comfort zone.  No one should have to go through a pregnancy without having some knowledge and experience of what it entails.  Goats and sheep and pigs and cows may not seem to have a lot in common with us humans in this area.  But I beg to differ.

I have watched Windy closely over these past 4 months as her belly has grown along with her adolescent body.  She has filled out, gotten taller (and certainly wider) and the lanky legs that she toppled in on are now solid and square beneath her.  She holds her head a little higher and moves a little slower as she learns to find her new center of balance.  Since she is shaped more like a swollen tick than an elegant deer these days, you might imagine that she isn’t quite as agile as she once was.  But surprisingly, she manages to jump around just fine.  (She moves much more naturally than I did at that stage of my pregnancy.)

I know the day that she conceived and I know the day that she is due.  I have a mental calendar that checks off weeks and months as May 29th (the day that we expect her to deliver) approaches.  We still have a lot to learn about livestock and this will be our first live birth experience here at home.  (Luckily we have some great support from friends that do have experience, in case we run into any problems!)  I don’t know if Windy has any idea what her body is going through at the moment, or what the inevitable end to this experience will be.  But I do know that nature will take its’ course and instinct will kick in when she needs it most.  That’s more than I can say for most people’s experience in modern day hospitals.

For now I am soaking up the calm before the storm.  I am spending time watching her grow and feeling her belly.  Each night as I feed her her grain and ready her for a place in the milking stand, I revel in the stolen glimpses I get of her baby bump undulating in the dim light of the barn.  Each time I feel the kid kick or shift suddenly, I remember how it felt to have my own baby adjusting inside of me.  It was scary and uncomfortable and amazingly wonderful.  I am so very grateful that I am able to relive those feelings by sharing our animals’ experience first-hand.   I only wish I could have learned from her earlier or was somehow able to give her a glimpse into what was to come.  But experience builds strength, and strength builds character.  Our hope is to experience this together for many more years.  By then, our character should be unshakeable.

Waiting for fetal movement
Waiting for fetal movement
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The Traumatic Moment I’m so Glad I Had

The sun was shining, my windows were down and I was singing along with the radio as I drove to my good friend’s house in the next town over.   I was a senior in High School and I was feeling a little wild and free after getting my license and starting to become more comfortable behind the wheel of my “new to me” 1988 GMC Jimmy.  Or at least that’s how I remember it.

Behind the wheel of my first car, for the first time.  1998.
Behind the wheel of my first car, for the first time. 1998.

Time and traumatic events have a way of skewing your memories so that you aren’t really sure what exactly happened in the moment.  But you do remember how you felt and your mind does it’s best to fill in the details once you’re ready to process the actual event.  This is how I remember the moment that changed my view on eating meat forever.  You’ve been warned.

My friend lived on a little farm in New Hampshire when we were growing up.  Her dad built the house that she lived in, which was surrounded by fields of flowing grass, a small stream and several significant old trees.  Behind her house they had animals- a miniature horse, some chickens and pigs.  It was beautiful.  But I was completely naïve to farm life at the time, and didn’t take much interest in the animals outside other than to peek in on them every now and then when I visited, oohing and aahing at their cuteness.  Occasionally I’d try to give their miniature horse, Rascal, a scratch from the other side of the fence when he was feeling friendly.

From time to time they had baby piglets at their house and my friend and I would go out to the pen by the roadside to watch them play.  The mother pig usually got up from her spot in the dirt to come over to check us out (probably to see if we had brought any snacks for her) and then would lose interest and mosey around the pen snuffling through some random mounds of soil.  The piglets would bound about, continually re-excited by their siblings’ sudden animation.  If you’ve ever seen a piglet play, you know that it’s hard not to crack a smile when you watch them propelling themselves over obstacles as though their backbone was made of solid steel and their two front feet were bound together.  It’s almost like they resemble the tiny pink plastic children’s toys that come in a standard “farm animal” set instead of the other way around, since they seem to gallop without moving any joints at all.  (And if you’ve never seen piglets at play, let me direct you to this adorable video on YouTube for 4 minutes of uninterrupted grinning: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IFkhaRUN_Q4)

While we were oggling the babies, the mom seemed to savor the “me” time that came with our diversion.  I can’t say for sure, but think I remember replaying this scene several years in a row with the same mama pig.  As I grew up, focused on my seemingly very important life, she lived her own.  She watched the seasons change.  She lay in the sun and felt the breeze.  She grew babies in her belly and nourished them with her body.  And probably just at the time that she needed a break from all of the chaos and attention that a litter of piglets created, they would go off to their new homes and she would be left in peace again.  I try not to anthropomorphize animals too much, but I do like to imagine what makes an animal content and how they would choose to live if allowed to decide.  I like to think that most animals on family farms have it pretty good.

One of our first pigs 2013
One of our first pigs 2013

Fast forward to teenage Christy, out for a drive to visit her friend on a beautiful sunny day.  I don’t remember if it was summer or fall.  I don’t remember what we had planned to do.  The rest of what I thought was important at that time fell away.  Because that’s when my view of that picture perfect country road turned a corner and showed me something I had never expected to see.

There she was.  Momma pig.  Hanging.  Her back legs were chained to a backhoe bucket that was lifted in the air.  Her throat was slit so that her head hung disconnected from her motionless body.

It was like someone had just punched me in the gut while my heart attempted to run back home, where it was safe from such carnage.  I couldn’t comprehend what I was seeing.  They wouldn’t do this.  Why would they do this?  This was supposed to be a place where babies were born and the grass grew and the birds sang.  There wasn’t supposed to be an end to that fairytale fantasy.  Especially not an ending like this.

That’s where my memory ends.  I don’t remember if I actually got to my friend’s house that day or where else I went, if I didn’t.  But that image will haunt me for the rest of my life.  And you know what?  I’m so glad it will.

I don’t like that memory.  I don’t really want to visualize that moment ever again.  It was traumatic and heart wrenching and terrible.  But at the same time it was real and raw and honest.  There was no shame in the taking of that life.  It was done out by the roadside, on their own property, in the grass and sun and breeze.   Looking back now I can appreciate the reasoning behind why she was butchered and how.  I can also filter some of the emotion that I felt that day to see how it was probably as good a death as that pig could have experienced- never having to board a trailer bound for a slaughterhouse or wait in a holding pen in a new place, stressed and anxious about what her lied on the other side of the trap door.  What I hold onto most about that experience is the message that it sent to me.

I always knew that meat came from animals.  I knew that animals had to die in order for us to eat them.  But I didn’t want to think about it and never really had to.  Growing up my parents did their best to protect me from the cruel aspects of human nature.  Many parents do.  I respect that.  But I’m not sure it’s how I want to raise my children.

I feel as though shielding our children from hard truths is setting them up for a traumatic event like this to happen to them later in life.  No, I don’t expect my four year old to wield a knife and butcher a pig on his own as a right of passage.  I don’t even expect him to witness it, or hear about it in detail, until he feels emotionally ready.  But I do want him to understand it.  I want both of our children to see an animal’s entire life cycle- the birth, the learning to walk, the playing in the dirt, the days spent lounging in the sun, the cold winters when they’re burrowed in shelter, the highlights and low points that come with growing up and sometimes growing old.  And yes, ultimately the death of the animal.  Especially if they are going to be eating the meat from that animal.

It’s a hard balance to give your child enough information to understand that death is a natural part of life, but not so much that you create someone who is numb or uncaring.  We’re doing our best.

Jake playing outside fall 2013
Jake playing outside fall 2013

After my own traumatic episode, I took some time to think about what I had seen and how I felt about it.  Why was it hitting me so hard?  I had eaten pork for my entire life up until that point and I respected my friend’s family and the life that they had given that sow.

I’m not sure exactly when my dad told me that he was buying a cut of pork from that friend’s farm.  But in my head it was as soon as I walked in the door from that drive.  I got upset and accused him of paying for that pig to die.  Being put in a very hard position, he did his best to calm me down, saying that it really wasn’t any different from meat that you buy at the grocery store.  “You’re right” I said (although I disagree now that I know more about the process and the difference between those two life cycles).  “I just won’t eat any of it anymore.”  I put my foot down and sealed it with seething teenage outrage.  And I stuck to it.  I did not eat pork again until just this past fall- 15 years without even a taste of “the other white meat” (or of beef).

My primary reason for not eating beef or pork was that I just could not imagine being able to condemn or kill a pig or a cow for the sake of taste.  I did not need it to survive, and felt better about myself for excluding it from my diet.  I had other feelings about different types of meat (like poultry and seafood) and really searched within myself to decide if I could kill the types of animals that I ate, if it came down to it.  I’ll get into why I have recently changed my mind about pork and how I’ve adjusted my attitude towards meat in general at another time.

But the overriding lesson that I’ve taken away from this life experience is easier to see in the big picture.  If I had been prepared for what I was about to see that day by the roadside, and understood the reasoning behind the process, I don’t think it would have affected me like it did.  That’s what I want to change for my children.  I want to enable them to make their own decisions based on knowledge and experience.  I want them to search within themselves and ask questions and find answers.  I want to support them in whatever decisions they whole heartedly believe in.  Jacob and Kalina have known the animals that provide the meat that is served at the dinner table.  They know that we don’t just go out and buy a hamburger because we haven’t taken the time or energy to raise and process a cow.  And I try to involve them in decisions about what type of meat (if any) we should eat.  They may end up becoming vegetarians, as many of my friends that grew up on farms have.  That’s okay.  They may choose to eat one type of meat and not another.  That’s okay.  Whatever they decide, it will be the right decision for them.

Kalina and Harley watching the pigs fall 2013
Kalina and Harley watching the pigs fall 2013

I know that my parents took my outburst and radical decision personally, which I still feel badly about.  But even then it was not about anything that they did or didn’t do.  It was a personal choice based on my individual ideals.  I hope that they realize now that they gave me the inner strength to make that type of life altering decision and nourished the deep seeded care for animals that drove me to it.  It is because they cared so much that I put such significant weight on that one choice.  I hope that I can give my own children the same level of conviction in their values while building their knowledge that they base them on.  Pursuing truth and asserting individuality are foundation behaviors that we will cultivate with all our hearts.