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A Good Death?

In my college English composition course, my professor suggested that I read E.B. White’s essay, “Death of a Pig,” written in 1947. Even then, I was an aspiring rancher/writer, and my professor thought I would appreciate White’s more grown-up version of his children’s classic, Charlotte’s Web.  She was correct – “Death of Pig” is an outstanding story.  White, whose pig dies prematurely of an incurable disease, concludes, “I have written this account in penitence and in grief, as a man who failed to raise his pig, and to explain my deviation from the classic course of so many raised pigs.”  I thought of White’s essay this week after having to euthanize two young animals.  Death is part and parcel of raising livestock for meat, but premature death feels like failure.

The animals I euthanized were not very old.  They had been born with congenital defects that were resulting in their inability to nurse.  Without nursing, obviously, they would slowly starve to death.  My act ended their suffering, but I realized that euthanasia is the most unpleasant part of my responsibility as a rancher.  I use the word “responsibility” with purpose here – I think I have a profound responsibility to care for my animals throughout their lives – and through their deaths.  Sometimes I alleviate suffering by giving an animal an antibiotic treatment (which often saves that animal’s life).  Sometimes, unfortunately, I alleviate suffering by humanely ending an animal’s life.  While I understand this intellectually, euthanizing an animal feels like failure emotionally.  I think E.B. White understood this perspective.

The animals I care for have great lives, as far as I can tell – they have plentiful grass and fresh water, they have shelter in inclement weather and shade when it’s hot.  We protect them from predators with electric fences and guardian dogs.  We protect them from disease with vaccinations.  We remove their woolly coats in the spring and let them regrow in the fall.  They get to be sheep!  And we raise them for meat.

My friend and fellow sheep rancher Al Medvitz once told me, “People mistakenly think that death is the opposite of health, but that’s not true!  Death is part of life, and a healthy death is a good thing.”  I raise animals because I love them – in all their forms, including when I serve meat to my family and friends.  I’m fortunate, I think, to be more directly connected to this cycle of living and dying than most people in our society.

As the handful of regular readers of this blog probably realize by now, I often write about things that bother me as a way of working them out in my own mind.  I appreciate your indulgence.  I realized again this week what an amazing responsibility we take on when we choose to care for livestock.  I don’t care for this particular part of my livelihood (euthanasia, that is), but in some respects it reaffirms my love of a life shared with livestock.

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