This almost unbelievable story begins with the rain that has robbed the pastures, and then the hay of nutrition and minerals. That abundance of rain has created a domino effect – low nutrition hiding in the form of a lush-looking hay pasture or bale = starvation and an increase in parasites.
In mid-March, just as the corona virus lock down began Felix and Fritz, the two wethers in the goat herd who were housed behind the barn during kidding season became very weak and started falling down when they tried to walk. Who knows how long this has been going on but the minute I noticed it my first response was to feed them a small amount of commercial feed to try to bring them back from what appeared to be near-death.
While it could have been one of a couple of things, I was sure it was the hay that led us to this horrible situation. The day after I started slowly feeding them small amounts of richer food they foundered. Fritz died in the night and Felix’s front legs were paralyzed by the next afternoon. I intuitively knew what had happened in spite of the experts telling me it was something else.
What to do? Everything I read said to euthanize him, but he was a bottle fed male that never missed a chance to stare into my face and offer me affection and kindness. He was my hiking buddy in training. I stayed awake at night trying to imagine how I could either make those ankle bones re-attach to the muscles so he could walk again, or hook the exhaust from the diesel mule up so he would just go to sleep.
Tough Times Await
It was a tough time with Trisha, may favorite goat dying, Pinkie on the brink of death from near starvation too and then Fritz dying. Along with the news of the corona virus spreading, it felt like everything piling on. That kind of grief can cloud decisions but I have a few things that guide me as a goat herder and one of them is that I won’t give up until they do.
On a sleepless anxious night, trying to imagine how I could overcome what I don’t know, and find a way through to Felix walking again I remembered a short video I’d seen from the Goats of Anarchy’s Facebook site. They showed how they took a new kid from total paralysis to running on her own in about six months by strapping her into a cart and helping her learn to balance and walk.
I was so inspired by that video at the time and now it made me decide my next move, and it wasn’t euthanasia. The next morning I put a metal t-post across the stall where Felix was housed and used a small hammock as a sling so I could lift him by myself as often as possible. That way his legs would be extended and I could massage them with comfrey salve more easily. Perhaps I would learn something useful from him in the process.
By now he was off eating anything that wasn’t fresh, and he had explosive diarrhea. That put us in even more dangerous territory. Four times a day I gathered fresh weeds – dandelions, chickweed, yellow dock, violets and comfrey to feed him. Every day I was grateful that it was beginning to be spring because I would have had nothing to feed him. He ate with a vengence. Dessert was small pine branches.
There’s no going back
From the beginning of this new process to keep him going he kept trying. The minute he saw me with the hammock he would hobble away on his knees, but he was too frail to fight me so we muddled on. There had to be more I could do, and although I was still doubting he would live, I had to try.
At this point he found his “voice”. He was a quiet calm goat, but now Felix wanted to be heard. As soon as I came to the barn he called out to me to come to him. He moaned as he ate. He mumbled when I shut the gate to leave. All of these things and more made it difficult to give up.
Remembering that Goats of Anarchy video one night I realized there were places to order things to help “handicapped” animals. The next day I did some research and discovered I could send off for a harness for “handicapped” dogs.
If it worked I could run the hammock through the top of the halter (where the handle was located) to lift him up more evenly plus I could lift him up to try to walk with me.
I put out a post online to ask people to help me find a stroller or a walker so I could help him remember how to walk. And I splinted his legs so give support to his ankles.
Friends to the rescue
Some friends showed up in the middle of the worst of the virus statistics with a stroller they had fished out of the trash. With a reciprocating saw we re-configured it so I could easily put him into it with his legs reaching the ground. Felix was nervous about being placed on it, but he didn’t fight me. As I slowly pulled him along something in his brain woke up and he started to move his front legs in a more normal way.
For two weeks, twice a day I lifted him into the stroller. And for two weeks the most he did was cooperate. I was about to give up when I noticed that as he crawled on his front legs he placed his hoof firmly on the ground as if he might try to stand up. He looked at me in surprise. He tried again. For another week he used this method to move around rather then completely on his knees. One day I decided to leave the gate open so he could feed himself more easily in the high pasture grass in the parking area. That change gave him more motivation to try harder but there were no real changes.
By the third week I was beginning to think it was time to give up. The stroller was giving him encouragement but he hadn’t moved past putting his hoof flat on the ground. He had grown used to trying but ending up face first into the grass.
By now he’d gained enough weight that it was a challenge to put him into the stroller. In many ways that was encouraging, but making it more difficult to help him. One day I came to feed him and he was outside in the grass calling to me.
My first thought was that something was terribly wrong, but just as I came around the corner of the barn he stood straight up and looked at me as if to say, “What the hell have I just done?”
I asked myself the same question as I tried not to get too hysterical. The books, the experts, the “authorities” on Facebook all said, “Put him down, he can never walk again.”
Two more days in and out of the stroller to cross the parking area to the high grass. Two more days of hobbling with his hoof flat on the ground. At one point he looked at me and told me to take the splints off – that he was going to be fine.
I thought about it that night when I couldn’t sleep. It’s not like animals hadn’t “told” me things before that helped me help them heal but so much was invested in Felix’s progress I felt like I was risking it all in a high stakes poker game, and if I got it wrong it was the end of the road for my darling boy.
The next morning he looked me square in the face and seemed to remind me that this was the day he no long needed the splints. “Those splints, the comfrey, the minerals and nutrition from all that food you gathered, and, yes, even that damn (yes goats can cuss) stroller had done their job” and this was the day to prove it.
I stayed for awhile after chores to see what was next. He made his way to the gate with his hoof placed flat on the ground but not lifting himself up. I brought some willow slips to entice him as he started across the parking area, and at that moment he lifted his body half way up and hobbled across like a crippled old man with bent knees, but he was standing in a weird way. I couldn’t stop sobbing.
Time to know when to give up…
That night he did the same thing back across the gravel, and as I watched my heart sank. Granted he was tired from a long day of making his way all the way to the green house and back. His ankle bones seemed disorganized and he struggled until he fell face first, skidding along without complaining.
The next day I brought the supplies to make a new splint system. It was clear the night before that I was wrong and now we had to begin again. I was in deep thought about how I could use pool noodles to support his ankles when he came around to the gate, and he was standing straight up.
While he has stumbled a few times since then, he has never fallen face first. He lifts his front legs up onto the stall door to try to hurry me at feeding time, and looks over the top to give his special “hello” call. My heart jumps at the sight of it all.
I’m still feeding him special food three times a day, and he is eager to rejoin the herd. We’re taking it slow for now. Felix says he’s ready to go for a hike and he can’t understand what’s stopping us.
Felix has taught me a lot of things over the past 2 ½ months. He’s reminded me to listen more because the solutions often take place in those moments. And he’s told me in no uncertain terms that all life matters. My heart is full as I see that he’s still standing when I go to feed him. It is a sight that will nourish me the rest of my days.