Living on a farm has the tendency to make you become quite jaded and cynical about the cruelty of nature sometimes. There seems to be such harsh, unfair laws that often leave me feeling very disheartened. I’ve really felt it this time round during lambing season. Something can be perfectly healthy and happy one minute, and dead the next. Either being abandoned or attacked by predators and often, just for no apparent reason. Sometimes they just die. It seems cruel and unjust, and you feel very helpless a lot of the time.
So with Spring upon us I made an effort to mentally prepare myself for the up and coming season of new births, and therefore deaths too. There will be baby birds falling from nests being preyed upon by everything. Not all the lambs are going to survive. Kittens will be born, and often only a few of them make it. That’s the reality of nature, and living out here, on a farm, especially in Africa, I must just accept it.
I would only step in if the animal was literally on the verge of death and faced with no other chance of survival. So no more taking in stray but otherwise healthy lambs, their mothers were probably nearby somewhere. No more taking in kittens, even if they were squealing and shivering in the bush outside my window for hours. Their mothers should eventually come back for them. The hard truth is that even if I get over-involved they tend to die in a hand rear situation most of the time, so was I just prolonging the inevitable and even sometimes sabotaging their chance of surviving naturally?
Not to say that every hand rear hasn’t had a happy ending, there have been many success stories. But there’s always the guilt with the unlucky ones, wondering if I had just left them would the mother have come back eventually? Is it a case of more harm than good? So that was my new deciding factor, if I walk away now will this baby die for certain? If the answer is no, then I leave them.
But then this moral dilemma was actually put to the test recently. Walking in the middle of one of the camps I came across a tiny, new born kitten lying face down in a pile of manure, stone cold still with it’s umbilical cord attached. There were no buildings or any possible nest sites near by, so I had no idea how it had gotten all the way out here. Perhaps dropped by a predator? Either way if I left it here it was certain death.
I cleaned it and got it’s body temperature back up and tried my best to feed it with some cows milk and an egg yolk. Not ideal “kitten milk”, but the best I could do under the circumstances. I wasn’t feeling very optimistic about it’s future at all, and consoled myself with the idea that at least I was making it’s last hours a bit more bearable than lying out in an open field waiting for the birds to dissect it.
Later that day I found another abandoned kitten lying underneath the tractor in the barn. I searched everywhere and finally found the nest with the Mommy cat and the other babies. So I put both kittens in a crate and left them under the tractor hoping Mommy cat would retrieve them and put them back in the nest with her.
The whole day passed and they both still sat mewing and shivering in the crate. But I had to really hold myself back from getting over-involved and give Mommy cat a chance. That same afternoon Betty had vanished, we all called and called and started to expect the worst. I went to check on the kittens one last time before dark and saw a ginger bum sitting on the kittens as I peaked around the corner. Instant relief came over me as this must be Mommy cat finally seeing to her babies. But then it dawned on me that we don’t have any ginger females in our colony of barn cats!
So it must be BETTY!!!!!!!!!!!
My relief turned to panic as I imagined that she was more than likely half way through eating them already! Without a pause I snatched her from the crate, just to find both kittens unharmed, and actually looking quite content. Annoyed with myself for not making a better attempt at keeping Betty away from the kittens I marched her back into the garden and patched up the holes in the fence.
A few hours later she had vanished again, this time I knew where to look and sure enough there she was sitting with the kittens, licking and cleaning them in the most gentle way possible. As sweet as her intentions were, this wasn’t the best situation and certainly not encouraging Mommy cat to come and get her babies. But on closer inspection, I noticed one of the babies had been taken, but the original little black one I had found abandoned far out in the field was still there in the crate with Betty.
Determined to try and somehow get the mother to accept this little one again, I now placed it on a blanket resting on the tractor right under where the nest was and left the poor overwhelmed baby there for a few more hours. That night we went to check on it again, praying that the mother had taken it, as the temprature had now dropped to 5C and it was raining.
No luck. There it lay completely abandoned, shivering and starving and looking worse off than when I had found it in the first place. So what now? I’d given the mother many chances to retrieve her baby, but she clearly wasn’t interested. It wasn’t going to survive through the night so the next best thing was to just bring it inside and try our best.
Well Betty took to motherhood like a duck to water! Instinctively cleaning the little thing, and gently nudging it underneath her to stay warm. I tried in vain to keep feeding it, but not much was going down and it was getting quite distressed by the whole force-feeding ordeal. The next thing I noticed was it latching on to one of Betty’s nipples, and actually suckling! Surely not? But when I checked, she had started producing her own milk!!!
What a miraculous thing nature can be sometimes. A little dog, not even a year old, with no experience of having puppies. Yet she instinctively takes on not only something else’s baby, but an entirely different species too!
My faith in the universe has been restored! Three days on and Betty and puppy cat are doing really well. Betty sleeps with the little thing in her basket all night and day, and only leaves the baby for short periods to grab something to eat and take a trip to the toilet. Then she scurries straight back to her bed with a great sense of purpose. Well done Betty, what a sweet precious little dog you are!