Saturday, May 23, 2009

A Spring Loss

The brilliant energy of spring has a way of denying any thought of death and dying. As I imagine the four seasons, loss easily takes its place as a powerful metaphor central to autumn’s arrival. But I live on a ranch where we anxiously await the arrival of new life every spring and with that unfolding there’s always an inherent risk of death. We just don’t find ourselves thinking about that. Instead, we gladly embrace spring’s invitation to hopefully expect the safe arrival of a new little one.

This year we anticipated both Lena’s and Candy’s foals. Lena had a beautiful sorrel filly in early April and mom and baby now run with mares. Candy was due the end of the month but historically she’s foaled about ten days early. So, this last week we began our watch. When I looked out the window to the west just after dawn yesterday I found Candy standing in the corner of the paddock with a baby by her side. I figured she’d foaled just before six a.m. She’s been such a good mare; we don’t worry too much about her. So, there they stood. The baby looked like a bay but its hind end looked like a roan; a bit of her sire’s coloring and a bit of her dam’s coloring. Candy had handily managed another foal at the age of eighteen.

The spring morning lapped the mare and foal with warm and soothing light. The baby nursed with legs wobbling beneath her and Candy patiently standing so she could learn to drink her fill. The first day of a foal’s life is critical to their survival. In those first feedings the foal takes in colostrum, a miracle of a mother’s first milk that gives the baby a boost to its immune system.

About noon, Andy rode nearby and saw both the mare and the baby down in the grass. The scene did not seem out of the ordinary; a bit of rest after labor and delivery. But later on when Pete and Andy went out to check on the mare and baby, they found Candy dead, her foal by her side. Pete walked into the kitchen and said simply, “Candy’s dead.” The moment was surreal: part of the intellect registering the information, part of it denying it. Candy, self-sufficient Candy always sailed through foaling. I said, “That’s so sad.” And I repeated it over and over again wondering why I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

Once the reality of the loss settled into the thinking and doing part of the brain, Pete and Andy brought the foal into the barn and began feeding the baby a powdered formula out of a wine bottle. The only nipple we had on hand was for a calf and was too much for the newborn. Our vet suggested a lamb nipple and so we contacted a local sheep rancher and asked if he could loan out a few nipples. And he did.

Our first chore was to get the foal to simply suck. So Pete put his finger in the foal’s mouth and rubbed her tongue and the roof of her mouth. After several attempts, he tried the warm formula and while the going was slow, the baby began to suck in fits and starts. After about ten minutes, she had a pretty good handle on a new avenue for survival.

That night we didn’t feel assured of her ability to survive because we didn’t know whether or not she had received all her mother’s colostrum. If Candy's foal didn't get enough colostrum, death could have very easily visited her too, within the first few days of life. So, the only choice we had was to continue to nurse her every 2-3 hours.

Thirty-six hours later, she’s doing well enough that she began to run about the stall and stand for a back rub and nuzzling. Dawn, our hired-hand and renter, feeds her several times a day and Pete and I take night and early morning shifts. Now that there’s a thin shaft of hope, we begin to imagine what she might look like as she matures; her cute head and beautiful bay and roan coloring making her perhaps an outstanding filly and mare.

After speaking with our vet, we understand Candy may have died from an inter-uterine arterial rupture which occurs occasionally in older mares. From what we know, we do not believe we could have saved her nor had a vet present in time to perform an emergency surgery. However, we will continue to ask ourselves the question as we process an unsettling reminder that life is as precious as it is transient.

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