Dealing with Death on the Homestead

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Animals have been an important part of my life since I was born.  There was not a day that I didn’t count my family members not just as the humans I loved, but also the numerous cats, dogs, fish, hamsters, gerbils, and more that shared our home while I was growing up.  My parents divorced when I was a teenager and my sister and I would alternate weeks between our parents.  Our two cats switched homes along with us, just like fluffy little siblings.

Anatole France once said:

“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened” 

These furry little friends make their way into your heart, and it is never easy when they pass.  For most of my life, I had a “normal” amount of animals so dealing with animal deaths was a very rare occurrence – scary and sad and hard to talk about.  When my husband and I started our little backyard farm and the number of animals we cared for got to be more and more, the unfortunate side effect was dealing with death more often.

Keeping livestock is different than keeping traditional pets, and there can be a steep learning curve.  For the first time you need to be worried about disease, parasites, extreme heat & cold, and of course predators.  Add to that livestock that are excellent at hiding illness or injury until they are right at death’s door, the difficulty of finding a farm vet in the suburbs, and the cost of treating dozens and dozens of animals and the death toll can keep rising.

This is possibly the most difficult part of homesteading, and the part that no one wants to talk about.  But I think it’s something that is important to prepare yourself for when you start to add animals to your farm.  As I write this, we have lost four hens in the past month, a very tragic record for our little farm.  Three were taken by hawks and the other one we think had a reproductive system defect that proved fatal.

Livestock vs Pets

I don’t raise my chickens, ducks or rabbits for meat.  While I do enjoy the eggs & fiber they provide that is not the only reason why I raise them.  So are they really livestock?  Are they pets?  For me (and lots of other hobby backyard farmers), they are somewhere in between.  They all have names.  I talk to them.  I enjoy visiting them.  I cry & mourn them when they pass.  But they are still not quite at “pet” level.   As much as I love them, I don’t put them quite at the same level as my dogs or cats.

When my dog needed $1800 knee surgery, there wasn’t a question in mind.  We were doing it, even though we had to finance it.  She wasn’t going to die if we didn’t do it, but it was really effecting her quality of life and that was enough for me.  One of our ducks has a birth defect that effects her legs.  She can’t walk very well.  She can manage but she can’t keep up with the other ducks.  She doesn’t seem to be in pain, so we have let it go.  If it gets to the point where she is in pain, we will have to put her down.  There might be a surgery that could fix it, but I would not spend $1800 to fix it.  To me this illustrates the difference between livestock & pets.  Pets are members of the family.  Livestock are loved and cared for, I give them a good life while they are here, their lives are respected.  I give them everything I can within reason.  It’s a difference that is hard to put into words, and I would have thought it was heartless before I became a backyard farmer.  Perhaps it is a difference that had to evolve to help me deal with their deaths, a way to protect my heart a little bit.

Predators

Ah the great Circle of Life.  It sounds so magical and natural when it’s sung about by animated Disney characters.  It’s not so magical when it comes to your farm.  You can take all the right steps, make all the right moves, but there is no way to 100% keep your outdoor animals safe.  If a predator is hungry enough, it will find a way.  In our case, this month a hawk has been picking off our bantams one by one.  We like to let our girls enjoy the freedom to explore the yard.  We knew that this came with it’s own set of risks, but had decided it was better to let them live as naturally as possible.  In the six years we have been keeping chickens it hasn’t been a problem until now.  A hawk has been terrorizing our girls and everyone is under lock down in the run for the foreseeable future.  We are hoping he will move on and we can let them free range again.  It makes me sad thinking about such a terrible end for their lives, but I know that while they were under our care they enjoyed each day full of fresh grass, bugs and dust bathing with friends.

Disease

Chickens, rabbits and most other “traditional” livestock animals are used to being at the bottom of the food chain.  They have been prey for so long, they have evolved to be strong in the face of illness.  To show weakness leaves them as an easy target for predators.  Because of this, unless you are really observant, you will likely not realize your animal is sick until it is too late.  To complicate this aspect of raising livestock, farm vets can be hard to come by.  The cost can also be prohibitive, especially when your animal is in the late stages of a disease and often unable to be saved, or if you have a disease that is effecting dozens of animals.

The first hen we lost was such a shock.  She was fine one day, the next day she was lethargic, and the day after she passed away in our arms.  We felt helpless and like we let her down.  I felt like a farming failure.  Looking back, I’m still not sure what caused it (mostly because I didn’t know what to look for).  We all cried and had a mini funeral as we buried her in the backyard.  As the years have gone by, we have gotten better at spotting illness early. Click here to lean about giving a chicken a check up  We have been lucky to have only lost a few hens to illness or injury, and for the most part, the ones we lost we at least feel like we did all we could.

Natural Causes & Extraordinary Circumstances

Even if you are able to keep your animals safe from predators and disease, death will find them eventually.  Hopefully your animals will all live a full and long life and can pass peacefully on their own, but that is not always the case.  Sometimes an animal owner has to make the difficult call to help them pass.  Sometimes baby animals simply aren’t strong enough to survive.  Sometimes you will lose a mom and her babies during birth.  Sometimes an animal is born with a fatal defect.  Sometimes animals get injured beyond repair and the only humane option is to help them pass.  There are so many “sometimes” situations, and the more animals you own, the more likely one or more of these issues will touch your farm.

The hen we lost last week was young, not even a year old yet.  I was away on a business trip when my husband told me her abdomen was really hard and swollen.   He thought an egg might be stuck. He brought her in the house so she could stay warm, he soaked her in a warm bath, gave her calcium & protein, lubricated her vent….he did everything he could but she passed away that day.  I think she probably had an issue with her reproductive system that only showed itself as she matured and was getting ready to lay eggs.  There was nothing to be done.

Acceptance

When an animal passes on our little farm it is still sad.  I wouldn’t say it gets easier the more it happens, but it does get easier to accept.  Death is a natural part of life.   I appreciate and love the animals we care for – for as long as we are allowed to care for them.

Homesteading is rewarding and not for the faint of heart. There are good days and hard days.  The hardest days are certainly the ones overshadowed by death, but they do make me appreciate the good days all the more.  The days I get to start my day being greeted by a cacophony of clucks & quacks, the summer afternoons where I relax in the sun watching my flock pick and scratch their way around the yard, the sweet evening nuzzles of furry bunny noses as I groom them – those are the moments that make dealing with death easier.

If I might quote those cute little singing Disney characters:

It’s the circle of life
And it moves us all
Through despair and hope
Through faith and love
Till we find our place
On the path unwinding
In the circle
The circle of life

 

And because I hate to leave people with sad feelings – here is an adorable video of crazy happy ducks in a puddle!  If that happy little duck tail doesn’t make you smile, nothing will!  🙂

 


6 comments

  1. Sharee Nichols says:

    It’s almost fitting I came across this today. The first of the year saw three of our chickens picked off by a hawk. About one a week. Then all of a sudden lost the rest of our birds but one. Started out a total of 20, lost some chicks at the beginning, then some adults due to pets, but nothing like finding your birds strown across your yard leading a path into the woods due to a predator getting into your coop. A hawk is hungry, this was pure sport and a waste. Our last girl has been an elusive fighter and we just found her with wounds on her back. She is housed now in a kennel in our back room. We seriously lost three puppies last year, lost all my chickens, and trying to explain that yo a 3 yo. Never had a chance to have animals on this scale and it is definitely a shock. We are looking to get sheep. I know it’s a part of life but I am going to be so heartbroken when I lose that first one and we haven’t gotten them yet. Thank you for sharing this and your story. Very relatable for me right now.

    • Liz says:

      Oh Sharee that is such a horrible year! It is hard enough dealing with it on your own but explaining it to children is nearly impossible. Hopefully with the sheep you will have better luck!

  2. Leilani Case says:

    I think it is really important to consider the emotional costs and benefits to having livestock. This is a thoughtful article that helps me consider what we are willing to do with the future of our little homestead. Thank you for this.

  3. Dana O says:

    My chickens too have recently been a victim to said hawk. One of my bantams got injured during the attack but luckily no deaths-thanks to the noisy guinea hens that I have a love/hate relationship with. For awhile I was nervous about letting them free range out of the run but honestly I don’t want them to live a life being “cooped” up. As you said “circle of life” and all but still it saddens and angers me to think of predators attacking my chickens.

    • Liz says:

      I am sorry you are having issues with hawks too. It’s late winter here and I know prey is scarce for them. I hoping we can let our girls out soon!

  4. Reese says:

    This is helpful..and in a way, it helps with other deaths too! Thank you, but where is the video? I dunno if I can access it…
    😐

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