I was seven years old, when my mother remarried and her new husband legally adopted Ross, my six-year-old brother, and me. A year later, we moved out in the country to a 165-acre ranch. The following summer, I was walking through our alfalfa hay pasture alone to swim in the creek. I’d just reached the water’s edge when I noticed a downed black sheep on its side, breathing rapidly.
Not wanting to scare her, I slowly walked closer. I was horrified to see bloodied wool from deep puncture wounds around her neck. I told her I would get my “Dad” and we would help. Racing back home, I told my Dad about the hurt sheep, knowing he’d help as I believed fathers do.
My Dad told me to show him where the injured sheep was located. We raced through our alfalfa pasture to the creek side to the dying sheep. I cried, “Look, Dad!” She’s hurt and we can help her get better.” My father was a large, well-built man who stood 6 feet 2 inches tall.
Without hesitation, he leaned his massive frame over the sheep, grabbed it by a front leg and dragged it to the creek. While I stood in horror, my Dad held the sheep under water. After several minutes, he dragged the drowned sheep out of the water and onto the bank of the creek. I collapsed onto the dead sheep’s body and cried hysterically. Without a word, my Dad turned and walked away. My trust for that man was forever broken.
By the time I was 10 years old, I’d collected 16 cats, however, it was with Tootsie, my orange and white barn cat, I’d formed an especially tight bond. Many of the calves Ross and I raised were taken away and slaughtered while we were at school. Tootsie gave birth to six gray and white kittens and I was overjoyed with my newly expanded family. I didn’t want my Dad to know they’d been born, however. I couldn’t bear to have anymore of my animals killed. Therefore, I secretly moved Tootsie and her babies from under the house to the second story of our barn.
To maintain Tootsie’s strength, I woke up earlier than my family and quietly took fresh milk upstairs to the barn every morning. Not seeing any of my family members as I made my way, I believed I was alone on my secret missions. Tootsie and her newborn babies rested in the hay bed I’d made for them.
Tootsie’s kittens were now 10 days old and still their eyes were naturally closed. I made it a point to hold each close to my heart, all the while making sure not to pay too much attention to one in particular. My babies were equally special to me.
One Saturday morning after spending time with Tootsie and her babies, Dad surprised me by saying to bring the kittens to him. I wondered how he knew about them. I went inside the house and pulled the Easter basket off my book shelf. Nervously, I slowly walked passed him to the barn and gathered the kittens. I gently put them into my Easter basket lined with a tiny blanket so they would stay warm and continue sleeping. My stomach felt sick as I carried my babies down the stairs of the barn.
As I was close to the front porch, I noticed my father using the garden hose to fill a green five-gallon bucket to the brim with water. Once the bucket was filled, he told me to hand him a kitten. Gingerly, so I wouldn’t wake the baby, I gently lifted one out. Trembling with terror, I handed him one of my six kittens. Still, I didn’t know why he asked for them.
With his massive fingers, he held the kitten under water with a first finger and thumb firmly around its tiny neck. One by one, as I was forced to hand them over, he drowned each of my babies. Within minutes a pile of lifeless, wet kittens was on the sidewalk. Without a word, my father turned and walked away.
I kneeled on the sidewalk and wrapped my scrawny arms around the dead, wet babies. Silently crying, I put the kittens back into my Easter basket and covered them with the tiny blanket. Carrying the basket in the crook of my left elbow, I walked to a burial site and lay down in the dirt doubled over in heart-breaking agony.
The loss of Tootsie’s kittens was the first of many disasters in her life. She loved to sleep in the wheel well of Big Red, our large tractor. One morning the tractor was fired up for work, however, this time Tootsie didn’t jump off at the sound of the engine. Instead, she remained unseen in her comfortable sleeping position. When the tractor rolled out of the barn, Tootsie’s hindquarters were crushed.
Locating her to say good-bye before heading to school, I lifted Tootsie’s mangled body to my chest and raced into the house. With his stern expression, my Dad flatly announced Tootsie needed to be destroyed at once. Noting the terror in my eyes, my mother told him she’d take care of it. As my Dad did every Monday morning, he left for his weeklong business trip to the Bay Area. Unfortunately, he returned late every Friday night.
Heading down our long driveway, my Dad’s car faded from view. When I was certain he was gone, I asked my mother what she was going to do. I always trusted my mother as she, too, was an avid animal lover. She picked up the telephone and called the veterinarian in town. He told her he’d stop by later that afternoon.
Ross and I left to catch the school bus. I wondered what news I’d have when I returned later that day. Sadly, it turned out the vet said there wasn’t much he could do. I told my mother I’d take care of Tootsie. I knew I could help her recover from this injury.
A week later, Tootsie’s backend was infested with maggots. Once again, my mother called the vet. He said to flush the infected area with a rinse and keep Tootsie inside away from the flies. While my father was away on his weekly business trips, Tootsie was kept in the laundry room next to the kitchen. Before Dad returned home every Friday night, I moved Tootsie to the second floor of the barn.
She was unable to walk therefore, I brought her plenty of food and water. While my Dad was home, I didn’t visit Tootsie. One month later, Tootsie was healed, however, she lost her tail. This made no difference to me. Truly, a miracle had taken place. We never mentioned Tootsie’s outcome to my Dad.
The following year, Tootsie was pregnant again. Unfortunately, because her backend was so badly damaged in the tractor incident, she was no longer able to pass kittens through her birthing canal. Tootsie and her kittens died under the house and the smell is how I located them.
My Dad had to pull up the carpet in the office, cut a hole through the wood floor and gather their bodies to put into a plastic bag. I stood silently next to him as he removed the last of Tootsie and her babies and then carried them away. He didn’t realize it was Tootsie’s remains he was scooping out of the crawl space and I didn’t breathe a word about what I knew.
Many animals, and for that matter many people, don’t have a choice regarding where they live, with whom, and how they’re treated. Ones circumstances are often not their choosing, resulting in tragedy. As an adult, I’m the vital force for my family, our animals and myself. I vow to surround us with tender loving care. My life experiences taught me to accept nothing less.