Loving an animal is easy. It doesn't matter the type of animal - birds, fish, furry mammals of all sizes are fair game. We read our babies books that contain images of animals, and sing them songs about Old MacDonald. We are hard-wired to love, nurture and protect species other than our own. And when we find one that is injured, there's no stopping our hearts. We fall madly, deeply, and protectively in love.
It doesn't matter if the people around us doubt the injured animal's chances. Miracles happen, and they only ever happen because someone loved the animal and believed in the miracle in the first place. How often have you read a story about a dog left for dead that healed itself and disappeared into the woods? Never. But Facebook is full of people-connection recovery stories, for one simple reason: we love to love our animals, and we love to share the joy of them with others. We name ourselves their parents, and even our extended families get involved. I have seen "I Love My Grand-dog" bumper stickers on more than a few cars. And it's true! I love my mother's dog and consider her part of the family, just as I do my own dogs. (Would my mother's dog be my dog-sister? Wait, that might be taking things too far...) But the point is, animals bring out love in us, pure and simple.
This spring, when babies were flushing out of nests and growing like weeds, a little duckling on our farm became the subject of much doubt. She was unable to walk, but she was eager and determined. I was tempted to say those fateful words that creep when we need a defense mechanism to steel us against what we know is a low-hope cause: "She's just a duck." As farmers, we often have to make that call to forestall heroic measures long before we would if the animal was our pet. That doesn't make it easy, but it is the nature of what we signed up for, in many cases.
Jess didn't see it that way.
On the morning that Jess asked if she could "just snuggle her for a bit," I watched a bond happen. It was nearly instant. Jess and Stevie, Stevie and Jess. If the duckling had imprinted on her own mother before that day, it was forgotten. Jess was love, protection, nurturer. Jess was Mom. And Jess accepted that role with a whole and open heart. Over the next month, she bathed and fed Stevie, encouraged her to use her hapless legs, researched vitamin and food remedies for whatever could be ailing Stevie, fashioned a carry-case for her to ride along on errands, and never gave up hope that Stevie would grow out of whatever was causing her to be so off-balance, she couldn't walk or stay upright. I never saw Jess without Stevie. When we dropped our sons off at Boy Scout Camp, Stevie rode along and charmed the families. When I went out to do chores, there would Jess be, painstakingly helping Stevie learn to swim in a kiddie pool.
Sometimes our best just isn't enough. Sometimes it's not up to us to heal, and there comes a time when our hearts push new information to our brains: it's time to let go. For a farmer, that message might come very early on. But for an invested heart, that information has to wade through a mine field of hope, love, determination, and courage first.
Jess came to me one evening last week in tears. Stevie had taken a turn for the worse. In her attempts to right herself off her back, she had self-inflicted a deep eye wound. Her back had developed a sore from being stuck there in the night, unable to right herself. The vet's determination was that the problem was with her ears, perhaps, and that she would not overcome her handicap, even if the infections were healed. Stevie was suffering, and it wasn't going to improve. Jess' heart had pushed that information, and with love, determination, and above all, courage, Jess had to make the call to let Stevie be at rest.
It's tempting to say to ourselves, "Well, she was just a duck." It's easy to say, "I never should have tried." But we know in our hearts that it's never "just" anything. The grief is real, because the love was real, and the trying was worth it. Jess made a courageous decision in taking on Stevie. She offered Stevie a life. It may have been short by our standards, but if Jess had not stepped in, Stevie would never have known water, grass, warm blankets, Boy Scout camp, or sleeping snuggled in Jess' lap. She would never have perked her head up and peeped with joy when she heard Jess' voice across the room. She would not have lived at all, because she would not have brought the joy and love and hope to Jess that only Stevie's little life could.
And so, I honor the little life of Stevie, who rallied and fought to be a duck. But even more, I honor and admire Jess, who walked freely and whole-heartedly into love and courage.
Jess, you did the right thing in trying. You did the right thing in knowing when to let Stevie go. The love that Stevie brought to you remains. I witnessed your patience and kindness, and was reminded of their deep and abiding value. You are a keeper of ducklings, a champion of the weak, and the mom of Stevie. Hearts are with you, and thank you for the life you allowed her to have, because in doing so, you added that much more love and hope to the world.
A month ago, our little silver Swedish duck hatched out four ducklings. About few days later, we received a text from our farm-family neighbors, who were out by the pen watching the babies' first outing to the pond. "One of them is stuck," he wrote. "He needs help."
I went out to the pen to find that one wee baby was indeed left behind and struggling in the long grass. Her mama and the ever-present guardian geese weren't alarmed, which should have been an alarm bell for me, but I was too focused on getting her back to her nest to think about it. I helped her to the duck house to join her family, and that's when I realized that she wasn't stuck at all. She was unable to walk. She struggled around the house in an attempt to get back to the warmth of her nest, but could only flail in circles. Eventually she rolled out through the fencing, back onto the cold ground outside the duck house. I scooped her up and took her inside to a brooder box.
She had no apparent injury, but her legs didn't seem to want to work. She'd flop onto her back and flail her little feet, then shoot herself across the box once her toes got purchase on the bedding. When she tipped her head up to drink, her neck flopped sideways and over she went. She couldn't hold herself up to eat or drink - she could only flop into the dishes, then flop out again - but if I held her still she was ravenous, so clearly she wasn't ready to give up. I bought vitamins to counteract a possible niacin deficiency, held her at her dish when I could, and gave her the stand-by stuffed moose that had comforted two other abandoned -lings in the past (goose Elinor and Dudley success story, the abandoned duckling Pip).
I gave her a couple days, but because I could not be with her all the time, I watched her decline and, finally, decided it was time to let her go. The problem then turned to how to put her out of her misery, when she clearly wanted to survive. As I was struggling with this conundrum, (farm family) Jess came by to visit. She took one look, heard my verdict, and announced, "I'll take her."
I will be totally honest: my unspoken response was "there's nothing you can do to help." Nature was just not on this little duckling's side. But I didn't count on the determination and love of Jess, who is most definitely was on her side. Jess named her Stevie (the jury is still out about her gender, so it's a good goes-both-ways name), wrapped her in a towel, tucked her under her chin, and took her home.
It's now three weeks later, and although Stevie still isn't fully right, she is growing under Jess' amazing care. Like Pip's savior Randi last year, Jess has stepped in as a guardian angel for this little duckling. She's still not able to walk properly, but she's eating and getting a lot of loving support from Jess. Stay tuned for updates on her progress! #ducklingstevie
Ray is part of the Ray and Randi duo, who actually don't live on the farm. They have a micro-homestead in Gilmanton, but are VERY active over at IFP and are guest bloggers for them.
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