Chocolate’s Surprise

July 27, 2019


[note: We generally tend to focus these articles on up-beat stories. The goal is to convey the joy we find in sharing our home with the animals that play a key role in supporting our efforts to craft a sustainable way of life. But carving out a life here on the edge of the Cascadian Wilderness involves working out a relationship with the wild life that surrounds us. ]

The animals bring us a lot of joy, especially when the latest crop of babies are born. Over the years we’ve learned that if someone doesn’t take delight in holding a newly hatched chick or a new born lamb that’s wide-eyed from the wonder of it all, then Windward is probably not the best place for them.

Still, as joyful as the birthing season is, there’s a vast difference between Disney’s version of Nature, and nature as it plays out in real life. So please be aware that this is a bitter sweet story that doesn’t have a happy ending. Still, I feel a need to share Jules’ story with you.]

Chocolate is our youngest doe. She was too young to come into heat last fall, but evidently she decided to play “catch-up” and got pregnant as soon as she was able. We’d rather that young does wait out their first breeding season, and gain more body mass and all-around confidence before taking on the challenge of giving birth and raising kids. But it turns out that Chocolate had other plans.

Jules makes a surprise appearance

Jules makes a surprise appearance

One morning in mid-July, Kiri was doing the morning feeding, and was about to toss a flake of alfalfa into one of the feeding troughs, when a high pitched cry told her that the trough wasn’t empty.

Left to their own devices, the goats and sheep would have their babies in January but dropping newborns into the snow is rough on the survival rate. So, we try to arrange to have our lambs and kids born in March, after the danger of heavy snow is past. But now and then nature plays out the hand differently.

The goats and sheep are not amused by our practice of delaying the breeding season for two whole months! Eager to get on with it, the girls will often parade themselves along the separating fence, and an overly eager goat has been known to jump the fence, so we try to make sure that they’re well separated.

Chester, our full grown buck, is too mature and dignified to go jumping fences, and he’s old enough to know that the delay is temporary, so he’s patient. But our young, back-up buck, well he’s another story. He’s too small to fight Chester, so his best shot is to try and get to the girls early on. When no one was looking, he figured out a way to get to with Chocolate, and five months later…

Constraining Chocolate so that Jules can learning how to nurse

Constraining Chocolate so that Jules can learning how to nurse

We used a halter to “persuade” the young mother to join her kid (first time mothers are usually clueless about what’s going on), and went through the process of making sure that all was well.

The udder was filling in nicely, and both teats were clear and producing. Often they’re naturally sealed with a wax plug, which can make it difficult for the newborn to get their first drink.

So I spent some time helping to bring baby’s lips to momma’s teats. Little Jules seemed quick on the uptake, but there’s a lot to figure out—like how the teats are between the back legs, instead of between the front legs.

After Jules had an initial look-around, I milked out an ounce of colostrum from her mom, and used the feeding tube to get that down her. Colostrum is essential to passing antibodies from mother to baby, and the sooner that’s done, the better. It’s also energy rich, so making sure that Julie had something in her tummy would help get the internal systems going. There’s a development cascade that’s triggered by the milk, so the sooner, the better.

A couple of hours later, I came back and checked on how the learning-to-nurse process was going. Jules was energetic and doing better at nursing, but still tended to latch onto the teat from the side instead of the end. It’s a complicated process for a little kid to figure out.

The key thing was that Jules was progressing and persevering. After I’d confirmed that she was on track, I milked out another 60 cc’s of colostrum and got that into her before leaving mother and baby to continue working out their new routine.

Chocolate and Jules getting the hang of it

Chocolate and Jules getting the hang of it

The next morning, Jules was doing just fine, and even Chocolate was getting used to the routine. The fact that I’d bring her some sprouted grain to munch on helped considerably.

Checking Chocolate’s udder, I could see that Jules was focusing on the port teat (Chocolate’s left side) and hadn’t gotten around to tapping the starboard (right side) teat. Okay, Chocolate’s equipment was evolved to supply more than one kid, so the trick was to draw off some of the milk. I used the feeding tube to load up Jules with 100 cc’s of milk, and set her down to nap.

When I checked on her that evening, Jules had squeezed out of the birthing jug and was standing outside wondering how to get back in to be with her mother. That’s a common enough thing, and since Jules was still within the main goat enclosure, we figure it’s a good thing for the babies to get some exercise. I take it as a sign of their vitality, since if they’re feeling poorly, they tend to curl up in the corner rather than go exploring. Curiousity is a core characteristic for goats, and Jules was a precocious kid.

I put her back in with her mom, and Jules went right to nursing. I was especially pleased to see that she was paying some attention to both teats, instead of just the port teat. I took that as a good developmental sign, and wished momma and baby a good night.

The hole that Jules squeezed through

The hole that Jules squeezed through

The next morning, when I went to check on them, there was no sign of Jules. We spent the next hour looking for her, checking any space that had enough room for a baby to squeeze into. No joy. Every other time we’ve had a kid go exploring, they’d soon come back to momma to nurse. This was very different; it was like Jules had just vanished.

The only conclusion we could come to was that one of the large owls that prey on our squirrel population snatched her up and flew away with her. As young as she was, Jules weighed next to nothing, and was well within the carrying capacity of the large owls that hang out in the forest surrounding Windward and hunt ground squirrels.

Ground squirrels can’t live up here on the plateau without access to water, and for them Windward is a magical oasis in the forest. If we didn’t aggressively trap them, they’d wipe out our garden, so we have a string of live traps around the garden to catch them. Kiri’s gotten quite good at dealing with them, having trapped more than half a dozen a day numerous times—much to the delight of our pigs.

Because Windward is prime hunting grounds for owls, the owl that is able to claim this territory is usually quite large and aggressive, and helps keep the squirrel population in check. This is the first time we’ve lost a newborn goat to the owl, and we’ll have to factor that possibility in from here on.

A few years back, we raised a flock of India Runner ducks, which went fine right up until the owl moved in. The ducks quickly learned that the owl would come for one of them once it got dark, and they did their best to hide away under a shipping container as the sun went down.

One of the most persistent problems we’ve had with raising animals involves the predators who come in to raid our animals. This year we lost a dozen guinnea hens in one night. Three years back, we had a troup of ravens move in and make a practice of raiding our hen house, which is why you’ll see the bodies of a couple of ravens hanging over the laying boxes. Ravens are smart; they get the point and hunt elsewhere.

It’s very frustrating, in that we want our animals to free-range and keep the bugs in check. But there’s not much we can do to stop the predators other than lock the animals up in the evenings, and even then, skunks and weasels are aggressive diggers who’ll burrow their way into the coop.

One result is that we try to not get too attached to the newborns, but now and then, one of them will just be so engaging and charming that our reticence gets overcome, and we feel a special attachment growing. That’s what happened with Jules, and losing her like this was shocking and sad. My way of starting to deal with the emotional component of losing her will involve sealing up the birthing pen so that even the smallest lamb or kid won’t be able to get out that hole. But that won’t bring Jules back. All we can do is to honor Chocolate for being a good mother, and look to see how she does next spring.

Not much else to say, but I did want to share Jules’ story with you and express my commitment to doing better next time. One of the hardest things about working so closely with these animals is the reality that when we fall short, they’re the ones who pay the price. And that can really hurt.