You’ll recall that Jack had issued me an offer that I definitely could refuse — an invitation to witness the killing of a calf persistently infected with the fatal disease, BVD.
To say I love animals is an understatement. I once subjected my poor Mammy to the cold shoulder for a good hour after she made no attempt to avoid hitting a rabbit that ran out in front of the car. That doing so would have been reckless on her part as a driver was besides the point.
As a youngster, I got a secret thrill from birds flying into our kitchen window, as it meant I could slip into “vet” mode, popping the poor, dazed creatures into a cardbox box where they could come around, have a bite to eat and head off again once they’d shaken off their concussion.
I was fascinated by the natural world and its inhabitants. Before I had any real pets to occupy me, i.e. those of the non-goldfish variety, I would gather up caterpillars, keep them in empty ice-cream containers, feed them leaves, and check their progress each day, fascinated while they plumped up and formed their chrysalises before eventually emerging as butterflies when I’d then release them back into the wild. If they harboured any ill-feeling toward me for plucking them from the wild in the first instance, they never let on.
So, needless to say, the prospect of seeing an animal’s life end —regardless of the context— was not one that appealed to me.
However, I was going out with a farmer. This wasn’t something he looked forward to either, and yet, it was something he had no choice but to deal with. And I wanted to be there for him — to empathise with sincerity, and to understand, as best I could, the challenges of his world.
So I decided to take one for the team.
Which is how on a Thursday in August, after my working day wrapped up, I headed out to Kildare, and braced myself for bearing witness to one of the cold, hard realities of farming.
Disclaimer: this piece was deemed “too graphic” for publication in a national paper, and does go into detail on the humane slaughter of a sick animal, so if you think it may not be your cup of tea, you might consider passing on this particular read. I won’t be offended, I promise 🙂
“Imagine there’s an X between the eyes,” Tom said, pointing the bolt pistol at the invisible mark on the animal’s forehead. Nervous, and grateful for the direction, I did as instructed. I had only just locked my eyes on the unsuspecting calf when the single shot was fired, cracking and echoing in the evening air.
Stunned into unconsciousness, the calf dropped to the ground, its legs kicking and flailing — involuntary movements, and the final movements, of an animal that just 15 minutes ago, I’d seen running and leaping about the field.
“Which one is it?” I’d asked Jack’s father as we stood in the doorway, watching as Jack worked to separate the calf and its mother from the rest of the herd.
He pointed out the little brown calf with the white face, and the dark patch under his right eye — the liveliest one of the lot.
“Will you be coming over to the yard to watch?”
He shook his head. “No. I don’t need to be seeing that,” he said. “You spend your days feeding them and rearing them — keeping them alive . . . I don’t need to see that.”
I did, though. I’d decided I needed to see it. I was in a relationship with a young farmer. This was his world, and his reality. I wanted to understand it, to be able to visualize the things he told me about, to be able to better relate to him and empathise with sincerity when things got tough. The culling of 6 PI calves certainly fell into that category.
After Tom had fed the pithing rod through the hole in the calf’s head, destroying the spinal cord and killing the animal, he asked if I’d like to feel its heart. He explained that although the creature was brain dead, the heart can continue beating for another few minutes. I came around the front of the creature and pressed my hand to its still-warm body. As I felt the weakening beats, I noticed its eyes — clouded over, glassy, lifeless — and its tongue, lolling out the side of its mouth.
I commented that it no longer looked like a calf, with the life gone out of it like that.
I was surprised by the lack of blood. Just a small spattering on the ground on the other side of its head, and a little trickle that ran from the pea-sized hole in its forehead and mixed with the rainwater in a puddle below the animal’s snout.
As we walked back to the house afterwards, Jack asked if I was ok. I was, actually, which was somewhat surprising, given that I’d just witnessed my first slaughter.
But when I went to bed that night, sleep didn’t come easy. It wasn’t the calf that played on my mind, however, but my dog, Dustin. A beloved family pet, he’d been put to sleep suddenly last summer, at the age of 17. My brother, sister, and Mammy were with him when the vet administered the injection. I was not. Living in Dublin, and without a car, it would have taken me a good few hours to get home to Derry, and after hearing the vet’s diagnosis, and knowing he was in pain, I didn’t want to prolong his suffering.
The rest of my family thought it was best that I wasn’t there, anyway. They thought it might be too upsetting for me. And until tonight, I’d have been inclined to agree with them.
I’d surprised myself back there on the farm. I’d managed to keep my emotions at bay by focusing on the fact that what was being done, while undoubtedly tough on the farmer and those who looked on, was the right thing to do – for the animal itself as well as the national herd.
It was that mindset that enabled me to watch and process something that previously, I might’ve thought myself incapable of doing. I felt stronger because of it, and as I waited for sleep to come, I wished, not for the first time, that I’d been present at the vet’s that previous summer.
Of course it would’ve been hard. Of course it would’ve been upsetting. But it was also the right thing to do for an animal that was suffering. And it would have been worth it all to have been there with my little friend in his final moments.