Joy on the Farm
His huge fur ears were obvious from all the way across the long lawn of green pasture. Sometimes that was all I could see of him when I called, then the ears appeared, then the head, and soon he was walking his slow, methodical way towards me. I stood with my back to the goat pen where the mini goats were fighting over the feed that I had just scattered in order to give me time to climb through the fence into the burro’s paddock.
Slow but sure.
The dark brown body damp with Irish fog, the lowering clouds that marked the early mornings in Ballyfad, the light mist on my raincoat.
The goats had finished butting heads over the last of the feed and were now crowding the fence, demanding more.
Slowly he came, slightly favoring his badly injured left leg. The one he tore open after getting caught overnight in barbed wire. The one the vet said meant the owners should have put him down. The leg that sported a huge, swollen-but-healing wound.
They didn’t, he survived.
Ignoring the bleating goats, I turned my bucket over and sat, waiting.
The burro walked up calmly, then angled himself in front of me, presenting the body part he wanted me to work on today. Shoulder and withers. Okay, his faves, to begin with.
As I worked my nails into the withers, the bump where the neck joints the back, he wiggled his head and his chin shivered in pleasure. After a while his eyes closed. I sat down again and waited.
This time he walked forward, presenting the injured leg.
Hm. Okay. If I do this wrong I could get kicked in the face or worse.
I rubbed and massaged gently up and down the leg, stopping several inches shy of the injury.
The burro curved his head around and gazed at me, long floppy ears forward.
I ever so gently used the tips of my fingers to rub the healing skin- which was by now probably beginning to itch. At any second I expected a side swipe which I’d have no time to duck. I hoped there were good dentists in Gorey, the biggest town nearby.
His head dropped, eyes closing.
I continued to massage. Stopped. Waited.
This time the burro walked forward a few steps, then backed his ass (pun intended) right into my face. My nose was nearly pressed between his furry brown butt cheeks.
Shit. Well I hope not.
I scrubbed his butt from above the tail (cat nip for every animal I’ve ever worked on) to inside his back legs, and scrubbed his butt cheeks. Massaged the muscles. Gently worked the wound again.
He rewarded me with a fart right in the face, which I saw coming when he raised his tail but didn’t have time to duck.
Hmm. Fiber diet.
Well at least he’s relaxed.
We repeated this on his right side, until I was back up front again. This time he gave me his head- which he didn’t like having touched, but the angle indicated ears. He pressed his tiny muzzle into my belly and let me get my fingers deep into those fuzzy ears, moving his head up and down with pleasure.
When I was done, he just walked off. Some animals lick my hands. Some go to sleep. Doesn’t matter. I don’t need a thank you. That an animal allows this level of intimacy is my biggest reward.
When I’d signed up to stay at this listing through Sykes Cottages, an outfit which rents out all over the UK (and which I highly recommend in every way) I didn’t know that I was going to get a hobby farm as part of the package. Complete with goats, newborn sheep, and a flurry of pheasants, it was a chance to return to my farming roots. The owners were a young couple, and the stone cottages were but a stone’s throw from stables where I could go riding the Ballyfad Woods (I love Irish names) and even see a real St Pat’s Day Parade on the day itself. It was memorable. St. Pat’s in Ireland? You betcha.
My hosts were only too happy to let me do feeding chores, and to minister to this burro. It took a few days for the burro to understand what my hands were for. After that he simply presented whatever body part he wished to get rubbed. Animals are wicked smart. They also give back if you don’t push your luck. When he was done with attention, you needn’t follow. He was done with you. But while he was with me he was fully present, and intensely happy. There are few things I love more than finding an animal’s comfort level and providing what they request. They’re not at all hard to understand when you stop putting human values on what they do.
Invariably I would be inspected by a pheasant during the day. One night when I let the electric meter run down by mistake, I padded softly in the black dark and utter silence to put coins in again. I very nearly wet myself when one shrieked so loudly right next to the damned window (as above, the turd) that it took me several moments to regain my composure. I flipped the bird a bird of my own. It took me a long time to get back to sleep.
Those of us who grew up on farms appreciate the sights, sounds and smells of grass, animals, the barn, the sound of lambs demanding more of their mothers, the rise of the sun over the buildings and all the undeniable joy that caring for creatures brings. What I know is that growing up with big animals allows me to work with enormous creatures without fear, but with respect.
In a world where kids often have no concept of where meat comes from, and you can laugh at Facebook videos spoofing people into believing that a live baby pig can be dropped into a box and instantly turned into sausage (people really and truly are breathtakingly ignorant), getting out into the country to see the real thing is more than just a breath of fresh air. If you wouldn’t want to grind up a baby pig for sausages, where on earth, please, did you think bacon came from? The factory farms which produce pork for China are vast polluters (just ask Iowans who live near them) and the living conditions for most meat animals are beyond cruel. When kids- and their parents- see animals as living, playing, loving creatures, they are more likely to want, at the very least, humane conditions for them even if are to be slaughtered.
Very few of us go to Grandma’s farm any more. They hardly exist. Mine doesn’t either. However, there is something to be said for visiting petting zoos and real farms to see where meat and milk and eggs come from. Far too many of our children live in a fantasy world just as ridiculous as thinking that a stork delivers babies. While I choose not to eat what I can pet for the most part, I don’t impose that on others. I would, however, feel greater confidence in our collective humanity if we would inform ourselves about the way our meat animals are treated and what that says about us as humans.
Take a drive. Visit a farm. Find out what really happens before you cook your steak. It may change your life, your eating habits, and how you vote. You needn’t head to Ireland to do it (although I recommend it). The fresh air — and possibly the odd burro fart-may do you a lot of good.