Note: Many readers will find this essay absurdly anthropomorphic. I hope you will look for my upcoming blog post on that topic.
In 2004, Aries arrived at CAS with 40 other animals from a failed sanctuary. He was a small, beautiful sheep, with loose, curly wool, enormous, penetrating eyes the color or wheat, and a gentle, unassuming nature.
For years, Aries lived with best pal Lumpy and the rest of his flock in a large pasture at the northern end of our property. In ones and twos, the flock shrank: a pair was adopted, then another; two elderly sheep died. And over those same years, both Lumpy and Aries became old men who eventually earned a coveted spot among the Underfoot Family, the ever-changing group of animals who live in our main barn and who, during the work day, do essentially whatever they choose. It always fascinates me that with a large farm to roam, most of them, no matter their species, choose to be underfoot. Among all the creatures who reside at Catskill Animal Sanctuary, it is the Underfoots whom we know most intimately. We weave through them -- these sheep, goats, chickens, turkeys, pigs, even the occasional horse -- as we clean and bed stalls, rake the barn aisle, lead other animals out for the day, load vehicles with hay. We shoo them from the kitchen after they've maneuvered their way in in hopes of raiding feed bins; we kneel to offer kisses or strokes of the head to goats or turkeys peacefully resting in a pile of hay. For the last two years, Aries has been a beloved member of this family. In a gang of enormous personalities (the boisterous and verbal turkeys Ethel and Henrietta, drama queen Hannah the sheep, crooked-legged Atlas, the special needs goat, and others), the kind and self-possessed Aries was a refreshing counterpoint: tranquil, self-possessed, a perpetual smile on his face.
It had been two days, both bitterly cold, since Aries left his stall; two days since he ate any food offered him. This morning, though, was warm and sunny, and farm manager Sara Hamilton marveled as she watched Aries struggle up on shaky legs, hobble down the long barn aisle, and slowly circle the barn.
"Kathy, I'm not at all one of those animal people," Sara said to me later. "But it was pretty clear that he was saying goodbye."
Along his way, he must have spoken with his friends, for when he returned to his stall to rest, they followed him in: Barbie the hen, Henrietta the turkey, Atlas the goat, and Lumpy, who had barely left his side in the two previous days. Barbie the hen lay no more than three inches in front of Aries' face. We humans have no idea how they knew, but it appeared to all of us, not just Sara, that the entire Underfoot Family did indeed seem to know that their friend was leaving.
When I walked in the barn, Dr. Rosenberg was standing outside Aries' stall. Aries looked quite comfy in a pile of fluffy hay; staffers Abbie, Michelle, and Sara, and volunteers Teddy and Andrew were with him. When I walked to the door, Aries stood and moved purposefully toward me until we simply couldn't be any closer, and I was overcome by the love that radiated from the gentle beast. That he was aware of and at peace with what was imminent was not unusual -- others before him have been as well. What was unusual were his efforts, all morning long, to say goodbye to the farm that was his home, to the beings who were his friends.
Michelle confirmed this. "He's been doing this all morning," she explained. Making the rounds. Acknowledging relationships. Saying goodbye.
"I love you, friend," I whispered.
As Aries grew sleepy from the initial injection, some of us offered quiet memories, words of love. Others simply held him. When he was ready, Mark gently shaved a small patch of wool from his neck and injected the solution that would stop Aries' heart. More soft words and tender hands enveloped the old sheep.
Though it had been many months since Aries could walk without pain, on this final day, it took five times the required dosage for a sheep his size to still his mighty heart.
For a few hours, we left Aries' body in the stall so that his animal friends could do what they needed to. When we returned from lunch, Atlas, the special needs goat, was lying between Aries' front and rear legs, his head resting on Aries' belly. The birds rested in a semi-circle around the two friends.
On his final day, an unassuming sheep with a perpetual smile showed us what he was made of. Peace. Wisdom. Empathy. Dignity. Gratitude. Astounding grace. When my time comes, I hope I possess the strength of character to leave as he did: acknowledging and thanking those I loved for sharing my journey, and letting them know that on the next leg, I will be just fine.