... the life of a cow-girl. The Pet News Contest, March 2021
|One minute we were milking our cows—as calmly as two wannabe dairy farmers could, performing their second-ever milking. In the next instant, a stranger raced into the dairy, his face red, sweaty, and flustered; his voice loud and harsh with distress. His words clutched our hearts with a cold, hard fist.
“Jeez… come quickly! I’ve just hit your dog!”
My world stopped turning and fear pounded in my ears, drowning out the pulsing rhythm of the noisy milking machine… until hubby, Kanute whipped the milking cups off the cows currently in the dairy. What raced faster, my heart or my feet? To our precious young dog, laying frighteningly still on the road’s grassy edge.
Dearest Gypsy, our Kelpie X dog. From birth to death, our faithful friend and partner. My hands were the first and last Gypsy knew—holding her with the greatest love at her birth… and at her death 17 years later.
The first time I saw her, was in her umbilical sac. I cleared her mouth and tickled her nose with a dry stalk of grass to make her sneeze and take her first breath of life. What an effective and simple trick our vet had taught me only weeks earlier. I saved SO many of my small ‘rescues’ with this action, thankfully achieving a 90% success rate.
“All those puppies,” I say, still shaking my head in wonder, “… and Gypsy, the largest of the litter.” Poor little mother Candy—my stomach hurt from tightening in sympathy. So distressed by these foreign contractions, Candy wanted to bite, maybe kill the first perceived ‘culprit’ that emerged. So thankful I was there to whisk it out of her reach.
Within moments, Candy’s next delivery ensured nothing else mattered. In a lull after number four, she began a thorough clean-up of her babes. Now I could sit back and enjoy the sight. With a little help, they found a swollen teat to latch onto, and began blindly sucking. Four babies. How wonderful for a first litter. I felt like a surrogate mother/granny, so pleased and proud of my little ‘mother-girl’.
“What a clever little love you are,” I crooned—the midwife, comforter and mopper of brows (both hers and mine), but suddenly Candy’s eyes darkened and rolled in distress once again. The puffing and hunching and straining began… again! Five? There’s going to be five babies? Well, no. The final countdown was eight black, squirming puppies. Our joint motherhood had begun, and continued when Candy couldn’t keep up the milk supply, requiring my supplementary bottle feeding.
Kanute’s voice breaks into my faraway thoughts. “How tough was it when the other ‘guppy puppies’ had to go? You cried each time.” We gave some away and sold others. It felt like selling our children. I see again the pain and betrayal in Candy’s eyes when she realised her brood was shrinking. We had to keep one… and Gypsy had stolen my heart from the beginning. As the largest of the litter, she received the least attention, and as happens most often, became the most affectionate and needy of loving. We pledged ourselves to each other until ‘death us should part’.
“How perfect was her timing in our lives?” My eyes mist over. It still hurts. We had just received the latest test results confirming there would be no children from the two of us. All that pent-up love had to go somewhere, and my two woofers were the grateful recipients.
We loved Gypsy through her naughty chew-everything puppy stage and nursed her through accidents that could have killed her. Only my arms could hold her when the vet came near. She would have bitten anyone else to escape those evil clutches. The reproach in her eyes declared me unforgiven for at least ten minutes, until her love was too much for her, and licking and loving resumed.
* * * * *
On this first night-milking, after a few false starts, but a lot fewer traumas than our a.m. effort, we were into the swing of things, when that truckie burst into the dairy, terrifying cows and humans alike.
“She’s still alive,” he shouted over his shoulder as we rushed outside, “… but I think she’s pretty badly hurt.”
Somehow we finished the milking whilst dealing with our injured dog. A pile of hessian bags in the corner of the milk room was her bed. Some paw pads were near torn away, hanging by threads, and she had cuts and grazes everywhere. Alarmingly, there was a trickle of blood from the side of her mouth. At first we feared internal injuries and were distraught. What a relief when we found a tooth had cut the inside of her mouth. Soreness and increasing stiffness made every movement difficult—and she was SO shocky, needing to simply rest quietly. Respecting this, we repeated a constant circuit—from dairy to milk room, checking her progress and comforting her.
This nightmare thankfully eventuated in nothing broken (following careful examination and observation). Would have phoned the vet—IF we’d known who and where he was… Gypsy was a sore and sorry girl for some days, but soon she recovered. It would be many, many years before arthritis would remind us all of her old ‘war wounds’. Somehow Gypsy had escaped from the captivity designed for her safety back at the house.
Some months later, in some exceptionally cold weather, we allowed our dogs inside at night. One evening as we relaxed in front of TV, all farm chores done, Candy suddenly approached me, quivering violently, her eyes dark and worried.We decided it was an urgent call of nature. Or maybe she needed to be sick. Out into the dark they both went as normal before bed, with one tragic difference. Only Gypsy came back. We never saw Candy again. Nor did anyone else.
The waiting and searching and barely functioning around our loss continued. We never found her body and never learned what happened. Gypsy and I grieved openly for months and privately forever until it was clear Candy’s loss was permanent. Our love for her was such, only another dog could help the three of us; and our first German Shepherd, the beautiful and special Sheba, came into our lives. Again, the biggest of the litter—and true to form, she was SO affectionate; willing to be everybody’s friend every day of her long life.
Gypsy, however, was not ready to give her heart away to another dog. This idiot puppy was simply a precocious invader of her territory. I feared a disaster, as Gypsy bared teeth and growled warningly whenever baby Sheba approached. Inevitably, her loving nature and Sheba’s irresistible charms conspired to create the best of friendships, having clearly established their demarcation zones. Gypsy was the alpha—the matriarch—and would remain the kind but firm ‘boss’ of all our animals for the next 14 years of her life. Long Live the Queen! And Gypsy surely did.
Her most amazing talent was as a fantastic dairy cow herder. Countless sheepdogs amaze with their skill and prowess at sheep-herding. Others, notably Blue Heelers, are experts with wild or domesticated cattle. Few possess the subtle skill and delicacy required to bring home a herd of dairy cows; keeping them moving quietly but steadily. The best milk production requires the girls to stay calm and NOT have udders swinging from side to side, sprinkling paddocks with their precious load.
How could I have brought the cows in for milking every morning… every night without her helping me? Can’t imagine. No matter the weather, she was always there. Gypsy started her dairy career with me, walking down the hills and through the swamps twice a day to round them up. She not only discovered she could do this job alone, but also that she enjoyed it—especially the generous praise afterwards. Ever at the ready for sending down to the last cow, Gypsy was a heroic herder. With a panoramic view from the top of the hill, I could see even any hiding down in the thickest swamp grass. “Right down, Gypsy,” I would shout, until she was behind the absolutely last cow. Her steady pace still allowed them momentary pauses for a munch; then another single woof would get them going again. Quietly, insistently, she moved them up the hill, towards the dairy, stopping her job at the last gate. On this one point she was adamant.
No way was she going through the dirt yard in Winter (even Autumn and Spring held questionable days). With only her nose through the entrance, she refused another step; instead, turning and stubbornly trotting back home. No matter how kindly I called her, her tail would wag vigorously, and she’d continue doggedly on her way. She knew who wore the tall rubber boots in our family... and it wasn’t her! This last yard (before the step up into the concrete dairy yard), was constantly churned into a wet weather quagmire by so many heavy hooves, twice a day. Remembering what that ‘dirt’ mainly comprised, I couldn’t blame her reluctance and revulsion—not with her four white paws! I echoed her feelings, minus the luxury of doggedly turning back. If ever she had a genuine reason to go to the Dairy, she walked the narrow strip of grass on the fence line with the skill of a tightrope walker, always and ever keeping those dainty feet snowy white.
When hubby, Kanute, appeared for the first time on his motor-bike, Gypsy refused to bring the cows home anymore. “No way, Dad... NOT when you have wheels!” with a reproachful look from those soulful eyes. No matter the tone of voice, all commands fell on conveniently boss-deaf ears, her wagging tail a dead giveaway that she had heard all. Only when I went on foot, would she come—maybe to protect me, or to keep her paw in, so to speak.
I’m amazed as I review all Gypsy experienced. Such an incredible exposure to change; a puppy who grew up with both doggy and human mothers; living in two States of Australia; absorbing and embracing moves from country to city to country life again; and surviving the loss of her mother. In the shortest time she accepted the addition of two new canine siblings, Sheba and Taffy; welcomed and loved our three adopted children, plus my widowed mother on her countless holidays on the farm. The addition of various cats, horses, pigs, lambs, calves, and goats never fazed her. She opened her heart to each one.
Time continued to march along for our Gypsy, speeding up in these, her later years. When arthritis flared cruelly then worsened, we thought she was heading for the end of her road. What a sad, sinking feeling I had, contemplating life without her. We knew the end would come one day—but not this way. Not so slowly and painfully.
Out of inspiration… or maybe desperation, Kanute checked out pain-relief from the vet, seeking relief of our worry and fear, too. An anti-inflammatory tablet a day and the comfort of sleeping in front of the fire on chilly nights renewed her comfort level. Our move to a warmer area had benefits for all of us, but the biggest surprise was Gypsy. Her new home in this milder climate, with a sunny verandah to lie on, gave her a new lease on life.
For another three years she was active, despite finally losing her Alpha domination. Sheba challenged her several times and had previously lost, although she towered over Gypsy... being almost twice her height. The final, successful challenge left Gypsy at the bottom of a short flight of steps—sore, no skin broken, but pride in her boss-cocky status destroyed, as Sheba stood triumphantly at the top of the steps, proclaiming herself the new Alpha female with a series of loud barks. How our hearts ached for our old girl, when Sheba finally won.
Time was catching up with our old love, and within the next few years Gypsy had two strokes. Each time we carried her inside, made her warm, comfy and loved, and then carried her outside twice a day for her necessaries. Each night I’d give her last cuddles and a tearful goodbye, and each morning dread not being able to wake her. Yet, after about a week, she’d recover—a little more deaf and short-sighted, a little slower—but in no pain. She was content to be the honoured old lady of our family. In people years, she was over 100.
On her last day she started coughing blood, and we knew we couldn’t avoid her arch-enemy, the vet, any longer. Thankfully, she was too tired to care. A consultation and diagnosis of a lung tumour forced the final decision. Our vet offered to give Gypsy her injection after we left, but mine had been the first hands she had ever known in the world… they HAD to be the last. The vet understood.
It was one of my best choices ever. The privilege of sharing the last gentle sigh of one so beloved to me—whilst holding her close to my heart was unbelievably beautiful. Painful as… but truly beautiful. Afterwards, while I was out in the car sobbing, the vet refused any payment for the service... and Kanute said there were tears in her eyes, too. All these decades later, the tears roll down my face once again for that dearest girl.
Gypsy’s legacy was to teach me I could be present at the death of a beloved animal or human—and that I could not be without a dog in my life. Her lessons of love, respect, comfort, adaptability to change, acceptance of whatever happens and gratitude for the ability to care and share... these precious gifts have shaped me and my way of living and loving.
One day Gypsy, I’ll look into those faithful loving eyes once again
... and we will relive our youth and our love for each other
... and maybe get the cows in once more... if only in our dreams.
I believe this.
Until the Rainbow Bridge, sweet one.