Sitting in my cozy borrowed house on the Big Island of Hawai’i, I receive a distress call from a friend who is out of the country in Japan. One of her sheep has a potentially fatal disease. Can I go check on him?
I know nothing about caring for sheep; I would have to leave my cozy house and drive for 30 minutes; I don’t want to go to the large animal supply store; did I mention that I don’t know how to do this?
I let all the thoughts go through my brain and then I listen, to my body, to my heart. Of course, I will do all these things but not from a place of “should” or obligation, but because I can.
The sheep is afflicted with something called fly strike. Trigger warning, this is not a pretty picture. In jungle habitats, maggots will set up a breeding ground in the sheep’s wool which if untreated through wet conditions, can begin to eat their flesh. I arrived to the land and the young woman who was caretaking took me to where the sheep was. He was hunkered down in the woods, swarming with flies. He was clearly dying. His companion stood nearby in emotional distress but not afflicted by the fly strike.
This was not a fault of anyone involved, sometimes these things just happen and they can happen very quickly. I affirmed with the sheep’s owner that the sheep needed to be put out of it’s misery. I am a Buddhist, and it is believed that you should let beings go through the entire death process for as long as possible in a natural manner. But, I can acknowledge that it is my own desire not to witness suffering in another being, as well as my ability to end the suffering, at least at a physical level. Did I do the right thing. I believe so, but only time will tell.
I went to the nearby Humane Society and described the problem. They told me that they would be happy to help but that we would need to get the sheep to the Humane Society because they were not licensed to use the anesthesia offsite. I gave them my credit card and asked them to come help get the animal.
A young but strong woman came in a very large truck. I knew immediately, that between the three women there, we were not going to be able to get the 200 lb sheep into the back of the truck, but we tried. I sprayed the sheep’s back with an insecticide and when the flies parted, the sheeps skins was crawling everywhere with maggots. They had reached up to it’s neck and it was having trouble standing and lifting it’s head. It could walk short distances, but no way were we walking it into the back of the truck which was a lift up of 3 feet.
We stood around, the three of us feeling the suffering of this being. We wanted to help, but could not. The woman from the humane society left and said she would look into other options. I also looked into other options, one of which was to have the neighbor come over and shoot the animal through the head, and bury it on the land. This was not an option that I liked, so I prayed, and I chanted the names of helpful deities over the body of the sheep (Rufio). I sobbed and sobbed. For perhaps the first time in my life, I allowed myself to feel my own feelings in my own body. Yes, I was crying for the suffering on this animal, but really I was crying for suffering. Not even my own, just suffering.
About 20 minutes later the woman from the Humane Society returned with her male colleague and a stretcher. We managed to lift the body up into the truck. My new friend Ellie (the caretaker) and I followed them to the Humane Society so we could witness the sheep’s death.
Ellie is from Taiwan and although her English is good, it is also still easy to misinterpret. She thought that we were bringing the sheep in to be saved. It wasn’t until we arrive at the Humane Society that I realized this and had to tell her that we would be putting the sheep to sleep, or assisting his death. I asked if she had experience with this and she told me a harrowing story of the death of both of her parents in recent years. I told her, she didn’t need to be there but she said she wanted to.
We went into the back and the sheep was still in the back of the truck. They said they would leave it there rather than move it again. The doctor was a woman in her thirties. She had a large syringe with a bright blue liquid in it. She explained that she would give the animal an overdose of anasthesia and that it would be quiet and peaceful. I have been with my own animals and others animals (dogs and cats) when the hospice vet has come to the house and used all kinds of fancy drugs to slowly and peacefully assist the death of an animal. I now know, that they are doing that for the human’s benefit.
The young woman who had helped bring the animal in the truck, straddled the sheep, Rufio, while the vet found the vein in the front leg and administered the overdose. Ellie and I stood at the end of the truck bed. It took a minute or less for Rufio’s breathing to stop. The body continued to shudder for awhile. Ellie and I took turns getting into the back of the truck and sitting with Rufio’s body. I hoped and prayed that he was free, truly free and that my actions were right.
I messaged my friends in Japan and let them know. I took Ellie back to their place. And, then I went back to my cozy borrowed house in Hawai’i and slept for a long time.
The yoga teacher Maty Ezrahty died suddenly a couple of weeks ago. Many people were shocked because she was young (55 years old) and vibrant and in the middle of a world teaching tour. There was no apparent cause of death, she simply went to sleep and didn’t get up again.
We want to believe that all the things we are doing, yoga, eating right, exercising, etc. will save us from disease and death, but it’s simply not true. The only way to save ourselves, is to cultivate a perspective on life and death which goes beyond life and death. We live in times where people are using all sorts of methods to try and stem the tides of time, to stay young and youthful and vibrant. But, the truth is, that this body will die. That is the most certain thing. And we don’t know for certain (we can have faith, but we cannot “know”) where the death of this physical form will take us. But, we do have a choice in how to spend each precious moment that we do have. Regardless of our circumstances, we can choose to live, truly live, before we die.
The Summer Day by Mary Oliver
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?