When we first took Willow in and I started bottle feeding her, I became the closest thing she had to a mother. I took that responsibility seriously and did the best I could to give her the care she needed to recover and thrive, but couldn't help but be very aware of the fact that I wasn't a goat. I wouldn't be able to teach her how to forage, show her what to eat and the right time to eat it, or teach by example, the plants to avoid eating at all costs. I wouldn't be able to nurse her and know instinctively when she'd had enough. I wouldn't be able to support her while she learned the ins and outs of the social hierarchy of our goat herd. I wouldn't be able to assure she'd ever be accepted by them. These are all things that a dam or mother goat will do for her young, and I wished I could somehow do for Willow. While wishing didn't turn me into a goat, it did seem to turn a certain goat of ours into a mother. To our amazement, Bridget has taken over that role for Willow and watching their relationship evolve over this past month has touched us deeply. I realized, while talking about it with Scrapple's Dad last week, that we hadn't shared much of their story with you. Actually - I haven't shared much at all (postcards don't count) in the past weeks! A good long update has been way overdue. This seemed like a good place to start.
When Willow arrived at the farm, she was barely 3 days old and couldn't even lift her head to eat. She was found alone in the woods, far from her mother and the rest of her herd, unable to stand or walk. We can only speculate as to what exactly lead to her abandonment, but our best guess based on details our neighbor was able to give us is this:
Her mother, a "first freshener" (meaning, this was her first time giving birth), didn't have enough milk to feed both Willow and her brother. This is not entirely uncommon as a first freshening goat's udder capacity is nowhere near its full development. We speculate that the buckling (Willow's brother), being the stronger of the two, was able to monopolize their mother's milk supply. Willow, with inadequate nourishment, became weak and couldn't keep up with the herd. At this point, something happened that resulted in Willow's head injury and subsequent temporary paralysis in her hind legs. Based on the 2 long scratches on one of her hind legs and our neighbor witnessing a large bird (Redtail Hawk or Turkey Vulture) make off with Willow's brother just days after we took Willow in, we think she was picked up and then dropped by a bird. Little Willow had a rough start, not only for the first few days of her life, but also for the weeks of work it took her to finally regain movement in her legs and be able to walk again.
I first experimented with letting her nurse on Bridget the morning after our first night together. I was worried that she hadn't taken enough milk and could see that she was stressed and confused by the needle-less syringe that we had to feed her with (her mouth was so tiny). I thought that maybe being with another goat would comfort her, that the familiarity of an actual teat would calm her and encourage her to eat.
The problem with this experiment was that a goat won't let just any kid nurse! They're very particular and usually will not take another goat's kid unless you're very sneaky about it. And by sneaky, I mean waiting for the goat to give birth and then smearing the potential adoptee with the goat's own afterbirth (so it will smell like one of her kids), and popping it on one of her teats when she's not looking. Sneaky. All of our goats had given birth months before Willow's arrival, so that wasn't an option. My only hope was Bridget's sweet nature and maternal tendencies.
For those of you who are just joining in, Bridget was the first goat on the farm. She also has a pretty interesting story of how she came to be ours. Unfortunately, it too is a bit heartbreaking. You see, Bridget lost her one kid, a doeling (girl), this year. According to her owner it happened just towards the end of her first week of life. One day she was bouncing around, healthy as could be, and the next she was gone, leaving Bridget confused and distraught. It was a week after this that I first went to look at Bridget and our history together began. Her congested udder, the condition that necessitated such an intense start to our relationship, was a result of the loss of her little doeling. Without her baby to nurse, every day the milk she was producing just collected in her udder, making the experience physically as well as emotionally painful. Luckily, Bridget overcame all of this and is now the friendliest and possibly most beloved goat we have here on the farm.
That first morning, I brought Willow into the barn swaddled in a blanket and set her down next to me while I got Bridget on the stand. I had thought that Bridget would be curious and come over to investigate, but she just ignored Willow and jumped up to be milked. I got the bucket and started milking. When she seemed relaxed into the routine, I put Willow in my arms under Bridget's belly and popped a teat into her mouth. Willow's eyes lit up - this was the real thing! From that point on I supplemented regular bottle feedings with one on one nursing time with Bridget twice a day.
For the first few weeks, Bridget continued to ignore Willow. I'm sure at first it was confusing to her. Who was this baby? Who's baby was she? Where did she come from? I waited and waited for something to click, but when it didn't I just assumed that that perhaps I was asking too much of Bridget. It was amazing enough that she would let Willow nurse (I tried with Mayday and she literally tried to trample Willow, and got my hands instead), and I could be happy with that alone. But then one day Willow wasn't in the barn when it was time for her milking, and Bridget started "calling" to her. It was a noise I'd never heard her make before. It was a very very soft and sweet version of her call to me when I'm taking too long to get her on the milking stand. Willow started calling back and when we brought her into the barn, they nuzzled a bit before Bridget got up on the stand.
The good morning nuzzle continued until Willow was able to walk by herself. Now, when she can hear me bringing the goats in from the pastures, she races out to the gate to greet Bridget (both calling to each other along the way) and have a mini grazing session.
Up until a week ago, Bridget would only let Willow nurse when she was on the milking stand. Willow would try when they met up at the gate, but Bridget would back away every time. Then, just the other day, this happened:
And now it happens morning and night. Day by day, Bridget helps guide Willow's instincts (don't eat the jimson weed!) and eases her gradual transition from house to herd. These two make my heart swell every day. I'm so thankful for their progress and the relationship they have forged. I love my goats.