Where Do Old Goats Go?

The rocks made it hard to pull the “RADIO FLYER” wagon through the pasture. The trail had become familiar that year. It seemed that none of the medicines worked. Slowly we lost more and more of our sheep and goats to the hated intestinal parasites. Ever since I could remember I tried to save all the sick and injured things on our ranch. When it was no longer reasonable to keep trying I would load the dead or dying creature into my wagon and make the trip through the rocky pasture to the “bone yard” near the back of our pasture. This was one of those trips.

It was probably useless from the beginning. As I would learn years later, the damage from Nodular Worms is not reversible. Once the stomach lining was badly scarred the old goat was certain to become weaker and weaker until death added her to the collection of carcasses and bones at the end of my trail. But ten year old boys think they can do anything and I had believed I could save the goat.

She had two kids that appeared pretty strong. That meant that she was using a lot of her energy to make milk for them. At feeding time she had come in dragging up the rear of the long line of goats coming to be fed. Even at ten a ranch kid knows that the weak need help. When the gate was closed behind her my father and I caught the old goat. She struggled for a few moments but seemed to sense that it was useless in her weak state. After the feeding frenzy stopped and the other goats drifted away we managed to catch her two kids as they came looking for more milk from their mother. They seemed not to understand or care that their food was draining her last energy reserves. As we loaded the goat family into the pickup the difference between the high energy kids and their weakened mother was striking.

The Caskey Place was about 2 miles from the Home Place. Like most Central Texas families of the time we had several “Places” leased for pasture and farming. The Caskey Place was one of my favorites. It was almost two hundred acres of good pasture. More importantly it was the site of an old Indian camp and it was common to find arrowheads while tending stock or building fences. The other thing that made it special was that my father had been born in the old bungalow ranch house in 1923. The barns and corrals were the best we had. The fences were good. The water supply was good. Everything about the Caskey Place seemed good. But underneath all the prosperous looking exterior was a pasture so heavily contaminated with microscopic parasite larvae that we were going broke from losing our stock to the unseen creatures.

The ride in the back of the old pickup only took a few minutes. I rode in the back with the goat. She almost seemed to understand that I wanted to help her. When we reached home we put her in the pen reserved for the sick and injured. She was weak but ate readily and seemed to settle in pretty well. It was my job to tend all the stock in the pens around the house. Each day the old goat grew weaker and weaker. Each day I became more and more determined to save her.

Over the next few weeks it became clear that we needed help. We found more and more weak and dead goats. Calling the veterinarian was a rare occasion but his time things were serious. Dr. Dunlap came out from Belton. He always drove a new Cadillac filled with his equipment and medicines.  It seemed as if God had arrived when “Doc” stepped out in his white shirt and tie to walk through our goat pens. After looking at the flock he proceeded to cut into some recently dead goats. He was still in his white shirt and tie but in his exalted state no dirt or gore would have dared to soil him. It was truly impressive! After due deliberation he rendered his verdict–Nodular Worms– our worst fear. We had been medicating with phuenothiazine and nicotine sulfate every few weeks to no avail. But like the wonder worker we knew him to be “Doc” told us about a new medicine that would save our goats– thiabendazole. Within days our losses slowed and the sick pens emptied out except for the old goat from the Caskey place.

By now the kids were eating some on their own. It was time to separate them from their mother to save her strength. For the next few days and nights there was the constant plaintive call of mother and babies trying to reunite. As the days passed the kids began to fend for themselves. We loaded them back into the pickup to return them to the Caskey Place herd. As we drove off the old goat stood quietly. Life had moved on. Other kids in other years had been weaned. Somehow I think she knew these would be the last weanlings to be parted from her. A sadness filed her brown eyes. It was still there as she bounced along in my wagon.

The new medicine helped most of the herd. Maybe it was her age. Maybe it was the extent of the damage to her digestive tract. Maybe it was the number of kids that she had produced. I fed special food. I repeated the thiabendazole over and over. Nothing worked.  The days went by. Weeks went by. And finally it came. The stark reality of hopelessness settled in when she could no longer rise. Only then did I realize that our time together had made this nameless goat special to me. She was no longer just another of our hundreds of goats. She had become a part of me and it seemed that I had become a part of her. The reality of her impending death put a large lump in me throat and blurred my vision.

She was part of my responsibility. I had done this task before and knew it was time to do it again. While it may seem strange in today’s word, most ten-year-olds I knew had access to guns. I had my own, a highly prized 410 gauge shotgun. With a 3 inch shell in my pocket I took the weapon from the closet in my bedroom and pulled the red wagon from the yard to the tree in the sick pen where the old goat was semiconscious on a mat of hay. In her wasted state it was easy to load her into the wagon. The trip through the pasture was harder. The rocks! The cedar brush! The blurry trail! Then we were there! I found a place under a large oak and propped her up as comfortably as possible. We just sat there a while. Thinking. Wishing. Then it was time.

The aim was careful. Just a quick flash and she stiffened briefly as the crimson ran down her face. The wagon bounced over the rocks easier without the load. But the trail was still blurry.

In over 30 years of veterinary practice I have been called on to end the lives of hundreds of animals. People often ask if it bothers me. Of course it bothers me! As a ten year old on a trail in the back of nowhere I walked alone with an empty red wagon and prayed that someday God would grant me the ability to help his creatures. That prayer was answered. I couldn’t count the births. I couldn’t count the repaired bones or removed tumors. My prayer really was answered. But in the quiet sobs of a family in my exam room I still feel the trail blur. I’ve learned not to look at the sad eyes. I’ve been trained to say the right words. But in the quiet places of my heart there are still rocks on the trail and the wagon still bounces with a painful emptiness.