Welcome to Painted Hand Farm

Painted Hand Farm is a 20 acre Civil War era farm located in Cumberland county, Pennsylvania. We raise meat goats, veal calves, turkeys and organic vegetables using humane and sustainable agricultural practices.

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Thursday, June 06, 2013

A Hole I Didn't Want To Dig

"We aren't house-proud.  If we were, we wouldn't abide the scratches on the door frame, the holes in the screen, the darkened shine of worn spots on the chair. We would wince at the mottled carpet and fret at the hair clinging to our clothes.
We don't. If anything, we lovers of dogs are a tolerant lot, finding greater value in the unabashed affection of our friends than in immaculate sofas. Shoes can be replaced, but heroic retrievers are timeless.
Without dogs, our houses are cold receptacles for things. Dogs make a fire warmer with their curled presence. They wake us, greet us, protect  us and ultimately carve a place int our hearts and our history. On reflections, our lives are often referenced in parts defined by the all-too-short lives of our dogs." 

The page out of the Orvis catalog with this passage is well-worn as I have held on to it for years. Many of you who have read those words in cards and letters from me know the occasion for sharing. Sadly, today I pulled the glossy page from my box of treasures and read it to myself before laying down the words in this blog post. 

Why is filling in the hole always much harder than digging it? 

Unfortunately, I must report that this week I've lost one of the truly great companions I've had the pleasure of working with here at Painted Hand Farm for the last ten years--my livestock guardian dog, El Jefe.

In his element in all his glory.
 While he was, indeed, The Boss, known as "Heff" for short, folks often wondered if it wasn't short for "Hefner" as he swaggered her way throughout the fields, ruling the pastures and lounging as if he didn't have a care in the world.

An AKC  registered Great Pyrenees, Jefe sired four litters of pups, many of which I continue to follow throughout the course of their lives through modern technologies and social networking.

El Jefe and Dora along with some of their brood.
He was coming up on ten years old this year and I had been watching for signs of him slowing down, but he just went on like he always did--running the fence line, hopping up on the shelters in one swift jump--he made it all look so effortless despite his advancing age.
"What do you feed this guy?" the vet asked the last time he'd checked out the dogs on a farm visit.
"Lots of bones and raw food," I responded recalling the horror of several visitors as they watched while he'd drag around a steer's rotting  head for several days working on it to extract every morsel of meat before gnawing away until there was little more than a round nub of unidentifiable bone. He preferred his hoof chews still attached to the foot and leg. He'd hog the whey and buttermilk I'd set out during my dairying days, fending off anyone who dared venture near until he'd  had his fill. But his all-time favorite treats were the 'fishicles'--frozen whole fish I'd squirrel away in the deep freeze for those dog days of summer when I wondered how on earth he survived under all that fur. He would toss them in the air, then rub his big slobbery jowls all over the icy treat before savoring it by nibbling away with his front teeth on the frozen flesh.
Despite his massive size, well over six feet on his hind legs and weighing in once at 185 pounds, he was the gentlest of giants caring for kids and kittens alike. Once when a couple of drunk local teens hopped the fence in an effort to swipe a baby goat in the middle of the night, I found Jefe sitting on top of one who failed to navigate his way back over the fence; no biting, just shear intimidation and weight.

It was his size that always gave me pause as to how I would handle him as an elderly dog, however, he remained active and agile up until the end when a stroke took him down swiftly.

"Canine strokes are different that human strokes," the vet said, trying to assuage my panic, "Keep him quiet for a few days and monitor his eating and drinking. If he doesn't improve, call me."

Over the next twenty four hours it became apparent he was getting worse, the paralysis preventing him from eating and drinking as food and water fell from his mouth with each attempt. He struggled to crawl out of his excrement and when our eyes met, he spoke to me--"Don't let me live like this."

As someone who makes a living from raising animals, I can honestly tell you that when it's time, animals will tell you in no uncertain terms. However, it is our humanity, our anthropomorphism and our selfish fear of loss that pushes us to cling to their life no matter the cost or consequences.

As much as I would have enjoyed having him as an all-around farm dog and companion, El Jefe was true to his ancestry of independent working dogs who preferred living with the livestock. Snow, rain, sleet, heat, hurricanes...none of it bothered him as long as his charges were safe, including me. He's one of the reasons I've never had many qualms about living here alone as I knew if I ever raised an alarm, he'd go over any fence or gate to protect me as I had watched him do for so many years when something--gun shots, fireworks or thunder & lightening--stressed his herd. 

Oh, how I am going to miss my big bundle of furry dog hugs. He now rests in peace in the garden along with the rest of my beloved four-legged companions who have also crossed over the Rainbow Bridge. He will be dearly missed.