Back home in South Texas, when the thermometer reaches fifty degrees, the ice, if there ever was any ice, disappears off the roads. Back home at fifty degrees, folks are wearing heavy coats and gloves, shivering before they walk into the mall. Western Montana is different. For two days now, with close to fifty degrees by mid-afternoon, the roads up in the mountains have turned into thick slush ice, the pastures are the same, and every step of man and beast is threatened with the possibility of a major fall, but the people are showing up without coats and in a few cases, in shorts. Things are different up here.
No shorts for the cowboys, though. In rubber boots they worked the cattle, trying to calmly urge them into the pens so they can catch a ride down the road to the corrals, there to have their hooves trimmed, see the vet, get the shots, take the medicine and prepare for the trip to their next “final” home. The cowboys took their time, got a little vocal when the cattle didn’t do what they should be doing and stepped back a little when the cattle decided that they would show the cowboys that cows will do whatever the heck they want when they want and no hat waving is going to stop them.
In other words, the cattle are “rank.” In cattleman talk that means they simply have little to no respect for people. It’s an attitude I well understand. Promised “sanctuary,” they were stuck in a pasture with hay and water fifty feet apart. Lot of hay, lots of water, no exercise, no care, no real human contact, nothing to do but eat hay, drink water, sleep and do it all over again – for years on end.
Sadly, the end result is grossly overweight cattle with zero muscle tone and really bad feet. We took care of the feet, thanks to a professional cow farrier with a tilt table hooked on the back of his truck. I won’t tell you his comments because people under 40 might read this and don’t need to be exposed to that kind of language.
Its been more than a few years since I’ve been around cattle. Ask me anything about horses and I could jabber for an hour. That doesn’t mean I know what I’m talking about but, like the majority of horse people, I like to think I do. I do talk with my horses though, and sometimes I think they actually listen. So picture me standing in the middle of this mass of cattle, on glazed ice, trying as best I can to express my good intentions. I might as well have been taking prayer beads to the Mosque. Two of them might have paid attention, one a baby and one a Jersey with beautiful eyes. The rest just stared, some with murderous intent.
All of them seriously need weight reduction and better muscle tone, but as far as I know there is a serious shortage of people who want to play Richard Simmons to a herd of disturbed and rank cattle.
There are many that simply won’t make it. Except for a couple here in Montana, those who want the cattle don’t live close – some in California, some in Virginia, some as far away as Florida. Over the course of the last couple of days I’ve had conversations with vets, cowboys and haulers. One basic premise underlies the thoughts of all of them – put the cattle on trailers for more than a few miles and they will not survive, and there is nothing more painful than watching a downed cow trying to survive. I didn’t know that before. I do now.
Cows aren’t like horses and camels aren’t like llamas. I get that. What I also get is that each one of us wants to live and for these particular animals, promises were made that they in particular would not be subject to the kind of inhumanity that most animals face. I also know that the promises made were not kept and that there are a whole bunch of people here trying their best to set things right. It isn’t the most comfortable situation to be in because some of these animals really don’t care to look in your eyes to see if you’re a good or bad person.
Which brings us back to the ice covered pasture – standing there watching steers than can’t walk and cows that can’t get up and once again I find myself wanting someone else to make the decisions. There is no one else. I point, the vet nods and agrees. That’s all it takes. That just isn’t right, but that’s the reality. For some, for far too many, the promise of salvation ends in the cold, wet slush of a forsaken, icebound pasture.
I return to the “sanctuary” and listen to the pigs cry out and watch the llamas watch me and listen to the deep drum of the emus and look over at the camels as they stand next to one another, forever vigilant and protective, and wish it had been different, wish that “sanctuary” meant what is should have meant, but I know that man, being what he is, has a hard time dealing with “dominion,” because it means more than being master. It means caring for animals, which the former caretakers didn’t do.
And I can’t explain it to the animals. I can walk out to the pasture and stand in their midst and listen to their sounds and feel their life, but I’ll never explain away the failure and make them believe that we can try and do better. It isn’t our words that make their life what has been promised; it is our deeds, and today, as yesterday, those deeds ended in death for those made too crippled and too weak to continue.
If I only had a zillion dollars to do whatever it takes to make things right. I’m certain that all kinds of people would pop up and exclaim that it’s a waste of money, that all these animals should be put down because the money could be better spent of all kinds of grand ideas. Perhaps they would like to come explain that to the cow that can no longer stand up, that is shaking because she’s down on frozen slush and her body temperature is decreasing by the second and she’s looking at you and crying out for help and there’s not a thing you can do except look at the vet and watch him nod and hope that death brings peace to those who will see no more sunrises.
This is beautiful country. The snow covered mountains, the tops hidden in clouds, the majestic trees – it’s breath taking to stand quietly and look around. Sometimes I’m afraid to stand too quietly in all this magnificent beauty, not because I feel in awe of everything God has made, but because in the silence, I sometimes think I can hear God crying.
Habitat for Horses, Inc.
PO Box 213
Hitchcock, TX 77563