It's 6:30 a.m. when I enter the barn to set up feed. An additional six inches of snow has fallen overnight; the white stuff is well above my knees. A dangerous layer of ice glazes the ground below it. Willow branches coated with ice glisten in the sun. It is another breathtaking beautiful, treacherous day in the worst winter any of us can remember.
Around the globe, scientists, doomsdayers, and conspiracy theorists are speculating about mass deaths of cows, songbirds, buffalo, fish and other animals. Theories range from the plausible -- extreme cold -- to the prophetic -- the end of the world is upon us. I, for one, would put my money on the toxic waste emitted into our waterways, soil, and air by agribusiness and hydrofracking, and would also bet that if these industries (or other corporate giants) are the culprits, the public will never know. Right at this moment, however, I have more mundane concerns.
I pull feed bowls down from the shelves by the dozen, and group them on the concrete floor. I turn on the water (no frozen pipes!!) then move to the medical shelves to grab various supplements: glucosamine, "bute" (an anti-inflammatory), probiotics, and so on. Seven large bins labeled chicken feed, goat and sheep feed, senior feed, etc., line the wall; many are subdivided inside. We believe in giving our animals the best care possible, and that belief demands customized diets and a feed room as complex as a professional kitchen.
By 7 a.m., staffers Michelle, Caleb, and Zach have arrived. "Thank you SO much for getting here early!!" I say effusively, knowing that folks driving from greater distances will be late. Caleb heads out to plow; Michelle backs two trucks to the hay room to load them with hay for our two outside feed routes; Zach stays behind to help me feed the sixty or so animals who live in or next to the main barn. So far, so good.
But by 7:10, the plow truck is fender-deep in a snow bank, and by 7:15, the tractor that was supposed to pull it out is stuck as well. We take the Chevy pickup, our workhorse, down equine alley, hoping to retrieve both the plow truck and the tractor. Unfortunately, it is already loaded with hay and grain, so the animals on our "barnyard" feed route will have to wait for breakfast.
At 7:20, we back the watering truck up to the barn, pull a long hose toward it, clip the hose to the 200-gallon cylinder that holds water for our outer fields, and wait. Nothing happens. The hose is frozen. So at 7:25, we unhook the hose, step down from the truck, walk the hose halfway down the long barn aisle and into the heated kitchen where it can thaw, along with Wallace the rooster, who was shivering when I looked in on his flock a few minutes earlier but is now perched in front of the heater with outstretched wings.
We do our best in these conditions. Still, by 8:30, the snowfall is getting heavier by the minute, two of us have slipped on ice, three vehicles have gotten stuck in snow, and a hay delivery has been postponed for the second time due to weather. We'll have to pay through the nose to get 100 bales, a 2-day supply, from a local retailer.
For safety reasons, we decide to keep our special needs horses -- blind, ancient, or both -- inside for the day. A volunteer comments that she wishes all she had to do was curl up in a warm stall and watch winter happen around her.
That can't happen, of course, at a sanctuary devoted to the well-being of the animals in its charge. For humans, the day begins early and ends late, the length of the daily "to do" list doubles as sub-zero temperatures and a restless sky conspire against us. Among the daily "extras" are blankets for the horses, extra bedding for pigs, chickens, goats and sheep, the shuffling of animals from outdoor shelters into our large main barn, the constant monitoring of our vulnerable animals. Of course, animals are far better equipped to withstand cold weather than we are, but -15 degrees makes me nervous. Ice must be broken, locks must be thawed, doors are frozen shut. Our fingers and toes ache, as does the skin on our faces. It's so cold that it hurts to breathe.
"We're getting up to 30 inches on Wednesday," announces Caleb, our crackerjack buildings and grounds guy and our resident jokester. Somehow, we all know that this is not a joke. "Are the animals okay?" people want to know. In fact, in this weather, I get the question at least three times a day. Sometimes, it's when I'm in line at our local health food store. Most often, volunteers and supporters e-mail us, and occasionally, we receive phone messages from folks we've never heard of.
So let me make it official: THE ANIMALS ARE FINE. We're making sure of that.
These are exhilarating, exhausting days. These are days that test everything from our tractor batteries to our mental fortitude. We are truly bone-weary. But somehow, we manage to laugh our way through this epic winter, fortified by our respect for each other, our devotion to the critters who call CAS home, and by the animals, who lift us up and cheer us on. Really? you ask. Yes, really! When Franklin the pig looks up from a fluffy bed of hay and grunts a "thank you," or Abby the horse gallops through the snow to greet her friends whom she's missed overnight, or Henrietta the turkey careens out of her cozy stall each morning because SHE JUST CAN'T WAIT TO SAY HELLO. They lift us up, cheer us on, prop us up for one more round in the worst winter any of us can remember.