I live at 1300m above sea level on about 285 acres of mostly bush, about two kilometres off a rural road to near-nowhere in the Snowy Mountains. On three sides of our property we are similarly forested. We have all the flora and fauna advantages of a predominantly natural Australia landscape, but also quite a few feral animals, some of which are brumbies (feral horses). Brumbies are largely unwanted as ferals, negatively impacting on farming, fences, and native animals, plants and landscape. They are particularly threatening to our Kosciuszko National Park, in which our state government wants to cull (shoot) them. Horse lovers don’t want this. Anti-cruelty people don’t want this. “Historical legacy” fetishists don’t want this. One of their arguments makes a significant, good point – the shooting of them has been demonstrably cruel when previously done by the government in other parts of the state, and there’s little reason to assume or trust that their methods have changed.
But the brumbies multiply and in winter some starve, and in feeding themselves they cause other animals to starve (this goes as well with the feral deer, arguably a greater problem in most areas). They foal, they feed, they starve, they break legs, they get sick, they die. I’ve a brumby skull from a gully down-valley, where the rest of the bones remain – it must have fallen into the gully a couple of years ago, possibly broken or dislocated its leg, then slowly died – there’s no-one down there to know how it all happened, just me discovering the sun-bleached bones the following year when down there to spray weeds. It can only be conceived as quite a cruel way to live and die.
We’ve a small herd that is often up near our house yard (the bigger yard, about five acres). Their names (as named by us) are Harry, Hermione, La Toya, Germaine, Ginny, and Sunny. Until a few days ago there was also Jennifer (mother of La Toya). La Toya and Germaine are young, born about two years ago. Harry is the stallion. Hermione is the matriarchal mare (possibly mother of Ginny and Jennifer). Sunny is Ginny’s adorable foal of this year. There is movement – occasionally we don’t see Sunny and Ginny, I think them occasionally moving to another herd down-valley. Jennifer has always lagged, and we would not see her for a couple of weeks. They all have their characters, and physical characteristics. They are “ours” insofar as feral animals that won’t come close and always remain nervous of human presence while still retaining sympathetic connections to domesticity can be ours.
But Jennifer has always been a bit sickly. She has long had a bad wound on her back, sometimes ugly weeping pus and frequently being scratched at. And last year she went down for a small bit, seemingly uncomfortable and kicking out regularly, but occasionally getting up and moving a few metres. There are no real resources to deal with any such sickness – you cannot get close to them, and they are “wild” in that, as ferals, they are quite dangerous (stallions, like Harry, and dominant mares, like Hermione, might attack you). So for a sickness that still allows normality we mostly just hoped she got better, because despite being feral animals nobody wants animals to suffer.
A few days ago Jennifer went down and stayed down. La Toya hovered, grazing but close. Initially we thought Jennifer was foaling as certain aspects of her physical condition seemed to indicate that was possible (and certainly Harry often has it on his agenda). But when she didn’t foal or get up overnight, when I was able to actually get up close to her, to pat her gently on her nose without her lifting her head, we were made to realise we would need to call in our local, rural vet. When he arrived he diagnosed her as definitely not foaling, and certainly terminal, likely infection, possibly one that had made it into the spine from her back wound, and would need to be euthanised.
La Toya hovered, nervous, concerned to the point that we needed to watch her closely in case she got defensive.
The vet had already suggested I could leave it with him, however though I knew she was a feral animal, a wild animal, an animal that may have died anywhere else on the property “naturally”, I felt somehow responsible for her and said I’d stay – if it was “my” brumby, on my property, whose death was effectively called by me, I felt I owed it to her… something, I don’t know, I had to watch that death take place.
But the vet couldn’t euthanise her with sodium pentobarbitone – it stays in her body for many months, after which, her body unable to be moved to anywhere other than elsewhere on the property, it will then possibly kill any animal that feeds on it.
And so he sedated her, twice, which didn’t shut her eyes but calmed her to non-awareness while her muscles twitched – her legs, her tail, her lips – and her teeth ground together like they were chewing cud, and her eyes remained open unresponsive to a vet’s checking touch. He then anaesthetised her neck, to ensure no pain would be felt in that area. And then he exsanguinated her with a scalpel. This was not a neat process – it was clear there was deep hide, sinew, much anatomy that required cutting. It was probably much shorter than it felt long. And she bled strong from this open gash, her drug-slowed heart still pumping her blood like a small fountain, a splashing noise made as squirted from one side of her broad wound upwards to the other head-side of it. Until it didn’t, and eventually her movements stopped, though her eyes remained open the entire time.
La Toya had moved away slightly, but stayed close. We left her to investigate, for whatever that gave her.
This was not an experience I’d had before, relieved from experiencing its rawness by chemical euthanasia used on late dogs. It is not one I wish to experience again (though I would if necessity and responsibility required it).
(Later Harry was up there, grazing near La Toya. I saw him walk up to her, and they nuzzled lips. I do not know what this means, only that from an anthropomorphic perspective it was heartening.)
There was no way to move her suddenly large, heavy body. She’d lay down in an awkwardly accessed part of the property, where everything but wrapping a rope around her neck and dragging her behind our ute was not feasible. Last year we’d had a large Eastern Grey Kangaroo die inside the houseyard in a similarly awkward position, and only discovered it by odour, and when the start of decomposition had made movement impossible. So we covered it with a large pile (two foot over and around was the recommendation) of snow grass and mown grass clippings, burying it in a composting grave. This, with a bit of top up, was effective at eliminating the odour, and going from the pile’s appearance now, effective at composting the body.
So these last few days we’ve been piling snowgrass, grass clippings, compost on Jennifer’s body. We’ve emptied a compost heap onto her, mowed grass clippings into the catcher from the push mower instead of our usual ride-on, collected cut snow-grass off the tracks we started making last year. We fenced her with five old internal doors on their sides, bolted together, to try hold her and her pile in, and protect it from our inevitable wind-warning winds. We’ve started digging out around the house water tank, where the previous tenant had piled plant matter and dirt near half-tank high. And we’re hand-mowing the house yard. And we’re piling loads in the back of the ute – driving out and around and up the hill through the trackless snowgrass and avoiding deadwood and exposed granite – and piling it on top of her. Our backs are pained, and there’s so much chaff in our eyes and yet there’s still more of it to do tomorrow and…