Jim assisted this morning with chores before work because I’d injured my lower back in the last week and wasn’t supposed to lift more than 5 pounds over the next 2 weeks. What is 5 pounds? I don’t know what a bucket of water or a bale of hay weighs, but I’ll guess it’s significantly more. I refused to be waited on and though Jim volunteered to do all of the chores, I said I certainly could fill grain bowls and deliver them.
After we’d fed Olivia, we both paused to watch while she rose to her feet, but little Orion, her 8 ½ week old alpaca cria, stayed put. He hadn’t gotten up by the time we were finished with chores, either, and I sat on the floor and stroked his neck with the back of my hand. Come on, little guy. Don’t you want some nibbles? I asked.
After Orion had weaned from the supplemental bottles we’d been giving him three weeks ago and began nursing exclusively, I made up some chevre from half of the leftover goats’ milk and froze the rest. Thinking I’d make up a bottle for him this morning and see if I could get him to take it, I asked Jim to please bring me the extra gallon from the big freezer in the garage before he left for work.
I searched the internet and discovered a vet about 2 hours north and contacted them to come to the farm within the week. I told the receptionist that I just couldn’t tell what was going on, but that it seemed that I needed assistance with supplements or vitamins or something and the vet I’d been using had not returned my calls since last week. Dr. Joe would contact me, she said, when he got back from his call. I used a knife to chunk up some of the frozen milk and put it in a pan to warm up, made a bottle and went out to the barn.
Lately I’d been leaving Olivia and Orion’s stall door open to the aisle way so that they could get out and stretch during the day or evening when I wasn’t out there doing chores. I wasn’t ready to put Olivia in the paddock to be with the other alpacas full time yet because she had a limp that I was treating. I didn’t want her to further strain her leg and I also didn’t want to discourage any nursing so that Orion would get the full benefit of her supply. I worried that allowing them into the herd/paddock would make Orion have to work harder to get a meal.
When I arrived to peek through the barn windows, I saw that Olivia had ventured into the aisle, but not Orion. I opened the door and she bolted back into her stall, which was typical. She is still quite shy of me after almost 9 weeks of so much hands’ on. Usually little O, as I called him, was out and about with Olivia for recess. My stomach filled with dread, as they say. It filled up in spite of the pep talk I gave myself as I walked down the aisle way to their stall entrance. I looked into the center of the stall and saw our beautiful baby, flat and prone, and there I just collapsed with grief.
I’m not versed in the body chemistry that comprises grief in living beings, but there have been a few times in my life when I’ve been wrecked with the experience and this day was one of them. I had no idea how hard hit I would’ve been, and I fell apart all over that barn. The pig, who’d been grunting and squealing for me to let her out and feed her while I had entered the barn and discovered Orion, ceased to make a noise. The sheep who had been baah-ing in response to my arrival in the barn also silenced. The alpacas and goats quit mewing and meh-ing and stood stock-still, staring at me while I collapsed onto the ground with little O in my arms. Olivia mewed and mewed at me while I sat there, clutching and crying. I had no idea I could feel so much despair so quickly. I responded to the sight with no clue that I would react so dramatically. My reaction frightened, sobered the animals, it frightened me as well. Though I’d been anxious and concerned over the past couple of weeks over Orion’s lack of energy and animation, what appeared to be a decline but I couldn’t be sure, I was unprepared to find him dead.
I tried to think clearly but I just couldn’t. I picked little O up and walked around, walked out the stall door, out the back door of the barn and around the grounds but caught Olivia’s concern through the cracks of the doorway. I remembered when my kids and I were studying Ancient Egypt while they homeschooled and how we always used to remark that they had full-time mourners, wailers for funerals. I recognized my image in Olivia’s eyes as being so frightening and I realized that she didn’t know where I was going with her little boy. I made my way back into the stall. I held him for a long time, just standing there, so she could inspect him. She went to the window of the stall to look out at the paddock, touch noses with the assembled alpacas in the window, and I thought there’d be no harm in letting her out and observing.
We stood in the paddock for about 40 minutes, little O in my arms, the alpacas and Angora goats in the paddock taking turns visiting me, sniffing little O, standing in a queue to pay respects. It felt surreal. I don’t know what led me to take that still, soft and small body out there in my arms and stand like that, but there was no doubt we were having a wake for Orion.
TB, the tall, dark drink-of-water-alpaca, as I refer to him, stood at my elbow the entire lot of time and bent his head low to my arm, to my face, to little O while the other alpacas came and went to visit. Interestingly enough, Olivia fled from the assemblage and put herself on the other side of the paddock where she first spit twice in the face of Jessie, the father of little O, and then to the other corner to eat hay and throw an eye our way every now and again. Jessie never did come and pay his respects until the last moments when he more or less waved through, barely pausing. Eventually Olivia did come closer and looked at me, looked at little O, mewed and then turned away.
At that time I felt I could leave. I walked out of the paddock, through the stall and then sat by the barn doors in the aisle way for an hour or so, caressing the baby’s fur. I thought about what to do with him, what to do.
It occurred to me that I’d be willing to drive him to Cornell if they thought they could use him for educational purposes. I called the Pathology department at the veterinary school. They must get some very odd calls. The receptionist was so kind about my trembling voice, told me she’d contact me as soon as possible to let me know if they could use him. She did call me back pretty quickly and said that their anatomy lab was closed for construction and they just didn’t have room for him.
I called Tufts University. Same thing. They didn’t have room for him.
Meanwhile the vet called me back from the clinic 2 hours north that I’d contacted this morning. Dr. Joe was comforting and offered condolences, apologizing for not being able to come to help sooner.
Jim arrived home to help. He’d hardly gotten to work before I’d told him the tragic news. He got me a blanket to wrap little O in and we lay him on the ground while we went into the house to figure out how we would bury him.
Knowing my back wouldn’t allow for digging and also that the ground was mostly frozen, Jim contacted a neighbor to borrow his backhoe. We wouldn’t be able to get at the job until after he got home after 5:30. So Jim took a trip to pick up grain from the feed store and I went into the house to have some tea and write some letters to dear friends and family to share the sadness.
One very supportive alpaca farmer friend contacted me back right away and told me about a neonatal clinic on Martha’s Vineyard that uses deceased cria in their teaching. As soon as I read that, I chased down the contact information and made an inquiry. Within half an hour, the owner, Barbara, of Island Alpacas, called me and we had a long conversation about Orion and how he could be of use for the clinic. We cancelled the neighbor’s backhoe and wrapped Orion and put his body in the freezer to preserve him.
Barbara told me of the clinics and the value of having a real cria body for demonstration, how past breeders have been able to safely deliver cria on their own farms because they’d attended the learning seminars and had hands-on practicum. I had concerns about Orion’s body after the clinic and how he might be disposed of. I prepared to volunteer and go pick him up afterward. She shared how they could bury him in a pet cemetery, how I could send along prayers written or flowers or poems or anything to be included with his burial, or if I chose, they could have him go to a crematorium off-island and I could pay to have his ashes sent to me. I confirmed with Barbara that we would be in touch regarding details to send Orion to their farm.
Because of my gregarious nature I cannot stop myself from sharing, with everyone, my joys, my exuberance about work and life. It is also because of this I feel incredibly grieved that I also have to share sadness of life events.
Damn life lessons.
When will I stop learning them?
When I stop caring. I won’t stop caring. I have tried. I have learned that the older I get, the more I care.
That Orion’s life and death would not be in vain is my comfort. An outpouring of love from friends and family. Hard days of farming. Brutal winter weather with a gorgeous present born in the midst of it.
Footnote: This essay has been to share the conclusion of Orion’s life here on earth. In little O’s honor, there is now “Orion’s Fund” to donate to on the Island Alpaca website for the neonatal care clinic. If you know of any alpaca farms or farmers that are considering alpacas, please refer them to the Island Alpaca workshops and neonatal clinic to support and participate in their offerings. Or if you are ever in Martha’s Vineyard, please visit and support Island Alpaca.