Elbow Deep

Most of my days are currently filled with activities that less than a year ago I would have laughed, and laughed hard, at the idea that any of them would be a normal part of my life.  I had NO ranching experience, literally, truly NO idea about anything having to do with any of the animals at this ranch. I never, ever would have thought that I would know how to transport a yak, grind the teeth of an alpaca, herd a flock of geese, vaccinate, castrate, breed, feed, pigs, sheep, cows, bunnies, horses....NOT A CLUE. This morning when I woke I never would have expected that I would find myself elbow deep inside a birthing sow helping to pull out a piglet stuck in a birthing canal, but as with every other task on this ranch I figured it out as I went and surprised myself when I was done.

We have good relationships with most of our pigs, they let us handle them and their babies with no problem. Several of our older sows however are not as easy to work with, and once they have babies they typically do not want us to come into their pens or anywhere near them or their babies. The sow giving birth today was one of those pigs. I found her this morning with five new piglets. She appeared to still be in labor but as the day progressed she did not birth any more piglets. I spent several hours watching her to try and figure out if she was still in labor and asked for second opinions from Goose because I was so unsure. As they day progressed however she seemed to be more exhausted and much more willing to allow me in to give her massages and check up on her hands on. I spent a long time rubbing her belly and backside, and as I continued to do so I got a sense that she was asking for my help. I kept asking Goose for is opinion and trying to rationalize her behavior hoping to avoid having to accept that she might really be in need of my help. However that sense that she needed me grew so strong that eventually I could not ignore her unspoken pleas any longer and I pulled on a glove to prepare for a task that I had only read about. A task I had previously determined was not a task I would ever choose to undertake. I figured if she truly did want my help she would allow me to help her, and if I was misreading her signals she would stop me immediately upon the next step.

As I slipped my hand inside of her she was more than willing to allow me to do so. It took me several attempts to get past my squeamishness until my hand finally reached past her pubic bone. My entire hand was inside, up to the edge of my glove and I could feel nothing. That was it, I had done what I could, gone as far as I thought I could, and still couldn't help. I called our vet for the second time of the night and we decided to give her oxytocin to help with her contractions which had all but stopped by this time. I wasn't even sure that she was still in labor. Perhaps she had finished labor much earlier in the day and eaten her afterbirth. Perhaps she was just tired from birthing and I had no idea what signals she was giving off. Perhaps I didn't know what I was doing at all. Yet I still felt like she needed my help and I could not ignore that feeling. I gave her an injection of oxytocin and sat down to watch her.

The drugs took effect quickly and she reacted in grunts and movements of discomfort. I was hopeful she would progress now and finish birthing, but within the hour she had settled back down to exhausted panting showing little signs of contractions. I decided to try and examine her internally one more time.  This time as I reached the limit of the depth of my glove I felt something hard against my finger tips, a tiny snout. I tried to pull on the snout but it quickly slipped from my fingers and retreated. I tried again, and again I lost my grip and it slipped further back. Mamma sow was grunting and moving her leg to allow me more room to help her. I had no choice now, I had to help, I had to reach much further and deeper, with my personal limits as well as within the body of this 600lb sow. Elbow deep I was able to get two fingers around the piglets tiny head, I took hold behind his ears and I pulled. I pulled and pulled and pulled. The piglet moved down her body in my hand but as we reached her pelvic bone he moved no further. I tried pulling at different angles, I tried twisting, I braced a foot on the wall and tried pulling with all my might while pleading with the sow to push with all of hers. Nothing. I let go of the piglet and I let go of a string of curses as I walked out of the barn for a breather. My forearm was cramped from exerting so much energy and I was shaking a bit. I called in for some back up, I needed some "man muscles" so I thought, and I called Goose asking for his help. I returned to the barn to wait for him to arrive.

I got anxious for her as I waited and I decided to give it one more try. The piglet was still positioned very close to the opening and I was able to get a hold right away. As I pleaded with the sow for help I pulled and pulled. With a grunt from the sow the baby came loose and slipped out, I hollered in relief and joy. Mamma sow collapsed and allowed her breathing to finally slow some. Unfortunately in the long birthing process the piglet had died, probably several hours ago, but mamma sow was going to live.

I spent some time afterwards observing the sow who lay almost motionless, her eyes covered by her huge floppy ears. I poured a little water on her snout and she moved a bit. I poured a little more across her mouth and with a snort she lifted her head. I mixed some food with an electrolyte infused water and tried to hand feed her. This had her moving around quickly and soon she was standing and eating. This is when I noticed that her afterbirth had passed. The final sign I needed to know that she was done birthing and that she was going to live.

I headed home for a shower. I was tired, elated and amazed. Every day I giggle at the thought that I am a rancher, today I actually felt a little bit more like one.

A New Adventure

I am currently living at a remote ranch in Alaska taking care of over 90 living animals in the middle of this cold, cold winter environment. This is my third winter in Alaska and I feel l like I am just getting comfortable with thriving in and really enjoying this extreme season myself, now I am in the process of figuring out how many other mammals survive in the North and how I can help them thrive through all of the seasons. Five months ago I knew nothing about working with animals. I have had a few cats in my life, and I just got my first dog. I went to a week long horse camp in the Girl Scouts when I was 12 years old. That was about all unless you count the many articles I had read and time I had spent dreaming about a homesteading lifestyle, but that was far from getting my hands dirty. I had never seen a large animal born in real life, never stood knee deep in "poop soup" while trying to herd a 600 pound pig down a narrow hallway, never chased a horned yak with a stick around a pasture, and I had definitely never held an animals legs apart while it was being castrated. I used to be a vegetarian for over twenty years, I never gave a thought to what it would take for me to create a lifestyle for an animal being raised for meat. I never imagined my life path would bring me here and I could never have guessed how much I would enjoy these new experiences.

What I did know was how much I loved the area where this remote ranch is located. My boyfriend Goose and I had spent the fall of 2015 exploring areas of Alaska that were new to us. We had no plan or itinerary other than to live and play in wilderness areas that we had never tromped through before. Several times over those months we found ourselves returning to one particular location, on the edge of the largest stretch of protected wild in North America, at the base of massive mountains, down a 42 mile gravel road. As we explored we found ourselves wishing that someday we could make this place our home. We assumed there was no work anywhere close to this remote region and we resigned to a hopeful dream of perhaps building a cabin here in future years when we were ready to escape the necessity of regular employment. Less than a year later we were offered a job care taking for this ranch which sits at the north end of that 42 mile gravel road at the edge of the wilderness we had only dreamed of calling home someday. We were thrilled with how our dreams had manifested so quickly and we were eager to jump into the unknown of our new journey.

Together Goose and I are learning every day what it means to run a ranch with pigs, yaks, alpacas, chickens, cows, horses, geese, ducks and dogs. We have learned that pigs can dig under, damage, push open, lift up or jump over almost any kind of fence or gate if they really want to. We have learned that geese can be easily herded down roads or across fields with a bucket of grain and a dog. We have learned how hardy these critters are in -35°F nights. We have learned about unfreezing water troughs, mucking out stalls, growing sprouted fodder for feed, driving a tractor, shearing alpacas, breeding pigs, building shelters and fences, deterring predators, layering compost, slaughtering birds, giving shots, lancing wounds, and most importantly how to bond with and create a happy life for many different animals. I have learned more in these past months than I ever could have imagined and we still have at least four more months of learning in the cold until we get to learn about the challenges and joys of working with nature through the fast and furious Alaska spring and summer sun. It is going to be an adventure, an adventure like no other that I have been on before and I am excited!