Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Breeder's Christmas

It doesn’t seem to matter how many times I’ve attended and assisted in a whelping, each time one of my girls is expecting I become just as anxious as I ever was. In truth I am more so; the more I have learned and seen over the years regarding what can go wrong (and very badly wrong) the more nervous I am for each impending birth.

The day before Christmas Eve my most recent litter arrived. It was textbook…at first. Her temperature dropped 36 hours ahead, giving me fair warning to stay close at hand. She began nesting and fretting, clinging and whining on cue. I spent the night on the floor with her when I knew it was probably too early and I should get my rest in a real bed. So far, so good, everything seemed normal. But on the morning of her due date, though she was sleeping and seemed peaceful and alert, my own inner barometer was dropping. Something seemed amiss, though nothing overt that I could point to. Cymri’s expression had shifted from that “something really strange is happening and I’m terrified” to “ahhhh, I get it. I am capable, I am Mama Dog” and she appeared confident and strong, waiting for the progression of events she somehow knew would come next. Still, I stewed. My turn to pace and fret.

I called the clinic, put them on notice that I had a girl in first stage labor and anticipated I may need assistance at some point. Then, I grabbed Christmas cards, my address book, and tried to settle in to wait. Obligingly, Cymri’s contractions started almost immediately. Strong but intermittent at first, then increasing in frequency and intensity. Each time she bore down I was sure this was it, but as the hours stretched into the afternoon and there appeared to be no progress, my concern escalated. I could palpate the puppy, face first as it should be, yet she didn’t seem able to bring it over the pelvic rim in spite of vigorous contractions. I administered sub-Q calcium, which bolstered her efforts tremendously and still no change in the pup’s position. Since I couldn’t quite hook a finger around the pup, I wrangled with external manipulations to aid her contractions. No go. By now it was mid-afternoon and the clinic would be closing earlier than usual for the holiday. I pulled out the mini-sonogram that I had received the previous Christmas and was relieved to find a normal heartbeat…at least one pup wasn’t stressed yet. Couldn’t find any other heartbeats.

I called the clinic again, helped Cymri into the back of my Pilot, and tore out for town. As is usual in a vet clinic the day before (or after) a holiday, it was packed. Cymri and I hung out; she hunkering to the ground to push and strain every few minutes, me cranky and pushy with the employees who were only trying to show concern. Get my dog on the surgery table! Tell those other people this is a flippin’ emergency and get the doc in here with Cymri where he’s really needed! I wanted to shout at them.

Finally he came to check her, did another ultrasound, and miraculously enough located two heartbeats. Around the same time I noticed movement, so I knew at least some pups were still alive. With “the pups aren’t stressed, I’ll be back” he left to go back to the other patients. My pacing and fretting began again in earnest. I’d seen this scenario before, and immediately had myself convinced we were headed for a repeat performance…in years past I’ve had both a cat (I used to breed Abyssinians) and a dog at a crucial point in labor when I knew veterinary intervention was needed; in two cases I was told all was well, only to end up back at the clinic again a few hours later with a mother in distress and the babies already dead….the poor mother still has to go through a Caesarian but has no babies to show for all that pain and effort. I wasn’t about to let that happen a third time.

Eventually, hours later (ok, maybe it was thirty minutes or so) he began prepping Cymri for the Caesarian and the staff stood around like cheerleaders. With a towel drapped from arm-to-arm I waited for the first newborn. One of the technicians is a breeder and normally the two of us make a great tag-team in resuscitating limp babies (anesthesia depresses the central nervous system). But she wasn’t working that day and I had two new receptionists to help me – the sole technician was assisting the surgery itself. The first pup came out limp and blue; before I’d even dried her the next pup was extracted and passed on to a receptionist. I traded the one I’d gotten partially cleaned for the new one. Neither looked viable to me.

I am not a calm or accepting midwife. I grabbed Dopram, placed drops under the tongues of each of them. I demonstrated how to hold them head down along the thigh and thump their ribs to stimulate drainage of any amniotic fluid they may have inhaled. I shook the one I held. I did mouth to muzzle. A third pup was handed off with the announcement that was the last of t hem, so my “team” and I concentrated on passing the three limp, soggy, blue babies back and forth while I tried every trick in my thirty years of experience. The first gasp brought smiles to my helpers. I was just incredulous; I had given them up for goners. Gradually, periodically, each would gasp and I began to hold some hope. The girls, sure that this meant all was well, began discussing names.

That was last week, and this week I have three fat, squirmy babies and a wonderful, attentive, devoted mama. Life is good.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Fall is dog season; in my experience it's the only time of the year the dogs and I agree completely on the utter joy of being outdoors. Spring, for all its rejuvenating energy, is mud season in these parts and though I welcome its warmth and renewal, I dread the muck and mess the dogs drag in. Summer, my time of year, is when my darling canine partners seek out the nearest shade tree and look at me like the reptilian throw-back I may well be. And winter...the bitterness of these past few days, the killing, bone-cracking cold...every instinct my hardy ancestors passed along to me says "get thee inside near a fire!"

And indeed I would, for I respect my ancestors, those tough opportunists. But, the dogs have other ideas. My dogs have grown coats that render them impervious. Not only impervious, they are audaciously, recklessly celebratory of this season. There is no question they are happiest in winter. They grin. They frolic. They bound and roll and plow and spin and make noises I do not hear at any other time of the year. They are in their full glory in the snow.

Because of the dogs, I pry myself away from the radiant heater that keeps life in my bones this time of year. I put layers over layers, a vest over those layers, struggle to zipper a shell over the vest, cram my fists into my pockets and curse as I leave the relative comfort of my fifty degree house. The curses cease when the wind rips the very breath from my lungs. Fingers stiffen in the short distance from house to kennel so that putting a collar on a dog becomes a battle, particularly when I’m hampered by the cumbersome layers and the dog is jazzed for the walk it anticipates. Said dog then launches itself with rapturous abandon, yanking my frozen limbs nearly out of my boots. I beg, I plead, I implore them not to make me move so fast when my muscles are still in a state of shock; I whine, I whimper, my eyes actually tear (it’s that cold!). I act altogether unlike any kind of dog trainer should act…

But then, a mile or so down the cold dark road, a transition occurs. At first that’s because I become so numb all over that I no longer perceive discomfort. But another mile or so further and I am entranced by the sky. This time of year there is a lingering light that creates colors in the dusk and early evening that is unequaled at other times. The depth and range of blue just after sunset lifts the eyes and thus the mind; no longer is this an exercise in physical endurance, being out in this cold inspires awe, awakens wonder. As Parrish blue bleeds into azure and cobalt, and finally indigo becomes obsidian, the miles click by and the dog and I become extensions of one another. His body movements reveal the presence of creatures I would otherwise have no means of recognizing. The excitement with which he responds to a vole differs enormously from the out-of-his-mind scrambling that scent of a deer evokes. Coyotes bring the hackles up, bear bring him right alongside me, a deep rumble of fear in his chest. We plunge on in the darkness, senses zinging.

By the time we get home a couple of hours later, I am so invigorated that I want to take a couple more dogs out. Cold? Pshawww! I am Woman, descendant of cave woman…tamer of wolves, walker of dogs…a little cold is a tonic for my strong body!

Now, where’s my hot tea and radiant heater….???

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Blue Moon

Full moon this week enabled me to get the garbage hauled to the curb at 2:30 so I didn't have to rise at dawn to make the pickup. I heard, or think I heard, that this month we'll have a blue moon. Or maybe it's next month. I never hear more than bits and snatches of news lately. Should I say that only once-in-a-blue-moon do I hear a news story in its entirety.

Does anyone use phrases like that anymore? My family did...colorful folk sayings, full of arcane meanings that my kids can't relate to. Hell, my peers can't relate. Every so often one of grandma's sayings slips into my conversation and invariably elicits a quizzical raised eyebrow from whomever I'm addressing. Sometimes I know where it arose, but often when stopped like that I realize I don't know the origins.

We rarely question origins. We believe that we know what's what. We base our actions, and in fact our entire existence, on the blithe presumption that what we accept as truth in fact is. Mom said so. My best friend's cousin's co-worker saw it himself. The newspaper/radio/internet had an article. But do we know what's real? Do we even want to experience the full weight of living, or might that merely interfere with the existences we eke out in our little spheres of self-reinforcing conceits? Anyone or anything that is perceived as foreign to our contrived internal system will be shunned, ridiculed, or outright attacked in order to preserve the small space within which we feel safe but which in truth binds us. In effect we gouge out our own eyes, plug our ears, cut ourselves off from that which might inform us of the wonder that awaits the curious, and the growth and evolution that rewards the courageous.

Earlier this night, in that moon-lit darkness that casts shadows, I walked with a friend; well, with two friends. One human, one canine. We three are usually utterly alone on the backroads and pathways, other than being passed now and again by hurtling metal shapes bearing semi-torporific human passengers home to their chemically-laced food-substitutes and their digital entertainments. We three inhabit a world that few seem inclined to experience. Even in warmer months when the sun doesn't set by 5:00 we rarely pass walkers, and in the fall and winter when we step outside, we might as well be the only humans left on the planet. No one seems to know the sound of the horned owls but for their recordings on Discover Channel. But we walkers are serenaded by one in the oaks beside us, another in the hemlocks across the swamp. The coyotes voice their opinions on the quality of the cottontails in the rhododendrons beyond the rock ledge. Beavers slap their tails in startlement as we pass.

My point, if I originally had one, was that being outdoors, at night, is essential. Being soaked by rain is essential. Feeling my hair ruffled by cool winds, or welcoming the sun’s radiance on my skin is essential. These sensations are real. Life is lived just that simply. Every moment I am given the opportunity to be alive, if I will but grasp it. Other animals always do. I live with dogs, with horses, with cats and rabbits and roosters so that I may remember how that’s done, how I may escape the bondage created by my own capacity to live in the past or long for the future. I choose now. Again, and again.