Fred and I were standing at the side of the auction barn staring at five great, huge Yorkshire sows that were waiting their turn in the sales ring. Each of them seemed to have an injury of some sort. One had a gaping wound in her shoulder. Another lay on the floor, her massive left flank quivering constantly. A clear indication of pain. The immediate question in my mind was, were these animals brought here because they were injured or were they injured in the process?
Any one of them could have been Daphne, or Emily, or one of our other sows. I wondered breifly if any of them had ever been scratched behind the ear, or given a treat of five-day old cinnamon bread, the way we do for our brood sows on occasion. I think at least one might have been, as she came tentatively to the fence and looked me right in the eye, standing there as though expecting...something.
Behind us, a wild sow resting quietly in the floor of a trailer. Around her, were eight brand new wild piglets, shaky and confused as they wandered about on the strange hard surface of the plywood floor. It was clear that the sow had given birth during transit. There was no water or food in sight.
Without doing an actual head count, I guessed that in the pen next to the sows were thirty some pigs in the neighborhood of forty to sixty pounds. The only surface of the floor not covered by pig were the two southern corners. The toilet areas for all those pigs. In order to to keep from lying in their own feces, they were stacked like cord wood...three deep in some spots.
Fred could not seem to take his eyes off the old sows.
"There's something seriously wrong with taking an old sow who has provided service and God knows how many litters of pigs, and having her end up here...like this. Like so much dead weight." He said.
"What do you mean?"
I peered at him anxiously in the pale-yellowish light eminating from the inside of the auction barn, afraid of what he was going to say. He shrugged.
"It just seems wrong." He said, not meeting my eyes.
"Let's go sit back down." I said, not wanting to hear at the moment, the rest of what he had on his mind. I was afraid it would be too close to what I was thinking. There was no way to keep from making comparions between these sows and ours. Sows that we know almost as well as we know our children. Their habits, their quirks, their personalities.
I don't know what we're looking for when we go to these places. We tell ourselves that we're looking for a place to sell our animals. That's why when we heard about this one, a new one in the area, we went to check it out. Initially, we were very impressed. It was clean, and well-lit. The staff walked about briskly in new t-shirts with the name of the auction barn emblazoned across the back. The animals came in one door, were displayed on a concrete floor covered with fresh cedar chips and then, after the bidding, were hustled out another door with clockwork precision.
We returned to our seats on the bottom row of a bleacher, so close to the bidding ring that I could smell the breath of the animals as they paraded through. I tried to tell myself that this place was different. It was shiny and new and the animals would benefit from that. It was a good auction. A 'better' one.
Then, as I always do, I started watching the animals closely.
It began with the goats. Some of them so young that they had clearly been weaned too early. I did my best to turn a deaf ear to their plaintive cries for their mothers. Some of the older goats were limping, one out of four legs displaying some obvious sign of injury. Nannies with udders that were grossly misshapened. Billys that were missing a horn, or were underweight, or just so dam ugly that only their mothers could have truly found something beautiful about them.
One young nanny came in, tripping and falling as she passed the threshold. She righted herself and went to the middle of the ring, staring out at the faces peering back in at her. Her ears flicked backwards breifly as the auctioneer started his rapid sales delivery. For almost two full minutes she stood stock still, taking it all in. A price was settled on and she was ushered out the other door, and I couldn't help thinking how she interpreted what she saw, as she peered through the fence at the buyers.
We waited for the great sows to appear. I don't know if it was morbid curiosity, or a sincere need to know the price they would fetch, but wait we did. Until almost eleven p.m. Finally, the first of the old girls announced her arrival with a enraged squeal. She burst through the door causing the three ring attendants to sit up and take notice of her immediate whereabouts. Despite the gash in her shoulder, she moved like a queen, prancing back and forth, daring anyone to get in her way.
The auctioneer started the bidding at two hundred and twenty-five dollars. This sow had to be in the neighborhood of five hundred plus pounds. It was clear that the owner was aiming for at least fifty cents a pound live wieght. When the bidding stalled at one hundred and thirty dollars, the auctioneer banged his gavel abruptly.
"No sale! It takes two-twenty-five folks."
"No sale, number twenty-six!" Announced the auctioneer's aid over the loudspeaker, and the old sow was herded back out the other door. My immediate thought was that she would be crammed back into the small pen she had come from, and maybe forced to wait there for the next auction and maybe better results. Would anybody tend to that shoulder? Would she survive for another two weeks?
Fred and I got up and walked back to the holding area again, where the four other old sows still waited.
"Can you seriously picture one of our animals here?" Fred asked.
Of course I wanted to say no, but out of frustration I vented.
"What else is there!?" I demanded. "We can't just keep them forever! If we can't handle culling our herd we may as well just give up! We can't feed them indefinitely if they are not producing, Fred. They could live for fifteen years. We would go banckrupt."
He got quiet for a moment, still staring at the sows, and then said something that brought a feeling of releif mixed with anxiety. He spoke so quietly, I had to lean close to hear him, and when he spoke, my eyes stung with tears.
"Maybe we're not cut out for this."
For the first time, he put into voice what I have suspected all along. Instantly I remembered the day he had to leave the property when one of our boars had to be put down. How bad he felt the day he had to shoot a pig that escaped. How he refused to put Low-Rider down when he was born missing half his back legs.
I remembered how long he waited before making the decision to put Clementine down, and even then he didn't do it, he let Jake do it. It took me two years to convince him that J-Lo had to go, and even though he finally agreed, she's still lying out there now. I tried to remember even one incident of him performing a mercy killing and could think of none, and the truth hit home like a punch in the stomach. My husband does not have the heart for this life.
That only leaves me. The question is, do I have the heart for it? Can I be the one to make the hard decisions? Can I be the responsible party? Was it fair of me to assume that he would always be the one?
We're off now, to buy feed. A three hour round trip and there will be some serious discussing going on. I don't know what our future holds. We may have to make some hard choices. We may have to consider another life-style. Fred may have just been speaking the words of a weary man who has a great deal of compassion. Maybe his words were hasty, but history indicates that he spoke from the heart.
I don't know what's going to happen.