For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.
At some point, all of our residents will leave us. They will either find loving homes, or they will end their lives at White Bird. Regardless of how they leave, their departure allows us to reach out to other horses in urgent need. But saying goodbye to those horses who stay with us for life is one of the most difficult tasks that we face as providers of humane care.
White Bird is an urgent need rescue. We accept horses on the basis of how badly they need our help, without regard to their potential adoptability (an assessment that we consider to be subjective, anyway). But urgent need horses come with a disproportionate number of health issues. Often, these health issues make them unmarketable to begin with, which is why they have often ended up in so much trouble before we’ve taken them in. Sometimes, they simply need to be made current on the routine stuff like hoof and dental care, vaccinations and supplemental feeding. In other cases, their issues are chronic or more serious. Horses in this latter group are less likely to find homes and often remain with us. And sometimes, their lives are cut short by their medical conditions.
We know that horses are hard-wired to be prey animals. A horse that is sick or in pain is also often an anxious horse who instinctively knows that he or she is now the weak member of the herd, likely to be eaten by whatever predator is lurking nearby. So addressing pain and discomfort is especially important in equine medicine. Despite their size and strength, horses are fragile, with structurally inefficient limbs and a delicate digestive tract. As a child, I used to think that all those cowboys who shot their horses with broken legs were just being mean. As an adult, I know that they did this as a final act of kindness, using the only tools at their disposal.
When one of our horses develops a medical issue, we assess its condition, apply any needed first aid, then make him or her comfortable while we are sorting out the problem and developing a strategy for solving it. Sometimes, we fail in that last step because we are either unable to accurately pinpoint the cause, or because there simply is no cure for the problem. In those cases, we must sometimes do the only humane thing possible and ease him or her gently out of this life.
In the nearly ten years that we have been in operation, we have said this final goodbye to many of our friends. It never gets easier. Making the decision to end a life is an enormous responsibility. It is a humbling act of finality that we approach with great care and respect. And we mourn the passing of every individual.
Last night, we said a final goodbye to Copper, the elegant old Tennessee Walking Horse with the huge, soft eyes and gentle soul. Like so many of our horses, Copper arrived in a malnourished state that we initially chalked up to poor denture and diet. But his blood results were worrisome. He was anemic and had a low a platelet count. He had occasional nosebleeds and blood in his urine. His rear leg swelled intermittently and despite drinking well, he remained dehydrated. His appetite came and went. Our veterinarian diagnosed him with vasculitis and he was treated with steroids and antibiotics. While the steroids stopped the bleeding, his other symptoms stubbornly remained, suggesting that we had either not addressed the entire problem, or that this treatment was correct but ineffective.
Throughout this period, Copper was appreciative of our efforts, but never showed more than halting progress and sometimes he regressed. We tried a second class of antibiotics, but our veterinarian could offer no further options for his treatment. Within the last couple of days, it became apparent that he was losing ground. Last night, we knew for certain that we were not going to be able to to help him further and that he was tired and in pain. Copper’s life ended in quiet dignity, among his friends.
Copper was with us for seven weeks. During this time, we came to know him as a stately old gentleman with a genuine fondness for people. We wish we’d gotten to know him better. Despite his poor condition, you could stand back and still see the commanding horse that he had once been. I like to think that he’s out there somewhere in all his former glory, possibly running, as Allie suggested, with Secretariat- or maybe the Tennessee Walking Horse equivalent.
For every horse that leaves our rescue, there are ten urgent need horses waiting to take his or her place. Many of these horses will thrive and find wonderful homes. Their successes will lift us and inspire us to keep going during the more difficult times like these, when we must accept our limitations as humans and as caregivers, and when we can only provide for our friends a gentle passing, rather than the miracle we’d hoped for.