Having grown up with animal-filled farms abutting our property, and adding to that our own four-legged menagerie, I learned early to keep a weather eye for all animals. And I learned to step in and do whatever needed doing, because the consequences of not doing could mean death for an animal (and injury or death for the unsuspecting motorist zipping around a corner to find an animal in the middle of the road).
For instance, take the time I saw two legs sticking out the back end of a cow. At ten years of age and too afraid to pull the stuck calf from the cow’s rear, I at least had the presence of mind to run and get the farmer. It was a breach birth; the cow and her calf could have died without help.
And I can’t count how many times somebody’s horse, cow, dog, etc., decided to break through a fence to go on a walkabout. It didn’t matter whose animal it was, or how many times you might have fetched it and put it safely back — if it was out and you were the one who discovered it, you were expected to get that animal back to where it belonged. In return, when one of your animals got out, you could count on the same help.
Going on animal roundups was just part of my youth. Sometimes they were fun. Often they were tedious. Always they were living lessons on what it meant to be “your brother’s keeper” in regard to both humans and animals. It was about learning how to step up and do the right thing. It was about not turning away, and excusing yourself by saying someone else would take care of it. It was a way of thinking and being that has deeply affected how I live and act in the world.
I thought nothing about any of this until Cait got old enough to notice, which happened when she was about five. We were traveling to visit family where I grew up. A sheep had managed to find itself on the wrong side of a fence on a busy road. I stopped the car and tried to negotiate it to a safer place without luck. So I drove up to the farmhouse next to the field.
As I parked to get out, Cait suddenly dove down in the back seat. “Mom! What are you doing?” she whispered. “We shouldn’t be here. We don’t know these people. We should go!”
As it was a well-worn reflex to help or get help, it hadn’t occurred to me to explain what I was doing.
“Cait, I have to let these people know their sheep is out.” I said. “As soon as I find someone to get it, we’ll be on our way.”
“Mom!” Cait whispered from her hiding place. “You always tell me to stay away from strangers. We don’t know these people.” She peeked her head up from the back seat floor. “Please, let’s get out of here!”
As I looked at her face, I realized that she wasn’t scared. She was embarrassed. Embarrassed that her mother was perhaps transgressing some cultural norm. (I should confess that I’ve been known to transgress a cultural norm or two, so her response wasn’t totally out of left field.)
Once I saw that she was really all right, I got out of the car, knocked on the door and told the woman that her sheep was out. Her thanks was heartfelt.
Continuing on our way, I explained to Cait about the difference between strangers out of context and in context. And then I explained to her what my father had often repeated to me: “If not you, then who?” In other words, if each one of us doesn’t step up to help, who will? Why should we expect someone else to take care of what we decide to pass by?
The next time another situation like this happened, Cait (then eight) and I were once again on our way to visit family where I grew up. This time a foal was on the wrong side of the fence on a busy road, and her mother was obviously distressed at the separation. Once again I stopped, and tried to get the foal back inside the fence without luck. So I drove down the long drive. Cait once again dove down behind the back seat. I knocked on the door but no one was home. I was about to walk down to the barns when a truck drove up. I waited for the person to exit the truck.
“What are the odds!” I said laughing.
“I figured it had to be you when I saw the car,” Mike said.
It wasn’t the owner of the house, but a friend I’d grown up with. (We were both many miles from our respective homes.) In his youth, he’d shared in more than one roundup of our wayward horses. Together, we got the foal and mare reunited.
When Cait heard that it was Mike, she reappeared from her hiding place. When she realized that he was doing the same thing — stopping to help– I could see her reassessing that maybe this wasn’t such a strange thing to do after all.
Last week, on a trip to see family, we passed a horse that was lying down in the field. All the way down, with head on the ground. While it’s normal for horses to lie down with head up, it’s not quite as common for them to lie totally flat. It can be indicative of a problem. I slowed as I went by and looked out the rear-view mirror with concern.
Cait looked at me and said, “If not you, Mom, who?”
“You read my mind.” I smiled, patted her leg, did a quick u-turn and went back. The horse was still lying flat out.
“What do you think the matter is, Mom?”
“Probably nothing, sweetie,” I answered. “I just want to make sure she doesn’t have colic.”
I quickly noted that her breathing was neither labored nor rapid and shallow, and that her eyes were clear. She wasn’t in any observable pain or distress. She just felt like lying down flat.
Seeing that I wasn’t “doing” anything, Cait asked, “Shouldn’t we go up to the house and get somebody?”
As I pulled out of the driveway back onto the road, the horse got up, shook herself off, and walked while she grazed. “Nope, she’s fine,” I said. And I smiled at my twelve year old daughter. She’d finally internalized for herself that helping was the right thing to do. The normal thing to do.