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Maggie and Meribelle

This story is an excerpt from a book in progress by Cayce Mell, who operated Oohmahnee Sanctuary from 1995 to 2005 along with her husband Jason Tracy. Jason and Cayce, along with the former-farmers mentioned in the story, Cheri Ezell-Vandersluis and her husband Jim Vandersluis, are also subjects of the documentary, Peaceable Kingdom: The Journey Home. During the ten years that Oohmahnee was in operation, Jason and Cayce rescued thousands of animals, and along the way developed a ground-breaking approach to relating to the animals under their care that focused on viewing and treating each animal as a individual worthy of respect.

Maggie and Merribelle
by Cayce Mell ©2010

It was a cool, crisp April morning when Jason first noticed the signs that Maggie was in labor. Maggie was one of sixty-three goats we had recently taken in from farmers Cheri Ezell-Vandersluis and her husband Jim, who had made the decision to discontinue using animals for profit after many years of operating a small dairy. These caring people were willing to suffer financial loss in order to spare their goats from the slaughterhouse, and had asked for our assistance in giving them a permanent, loving home. We were happy to help, and made the journey to Massachusetts to bring the goats back with us to western Pennsylvania. When we arrived at the dairy, we discovered that unlike so many farmers, Cheri and Jim had given the animals under their care names instead of numbers, and had come to acknowledge each one as an individual with a very distinct personality. As they prepared to say goodbye, Cheri made me promise not to separate certain family groups, and made a detailed list of them, including two sisters, Maggie and Merribelle, who were constant companions.

Some of the goats were pregnant when they arrived at our sanctuary, and we were very much looking forward to welcoming their babies into the world. After all, this would be the last time they would give birth and the first time that they would not have to endure their young being taken away from them to be sold for meat. Maggie, in particular, was looking very round in the belly, and we expected her to deliver at any moment. When Jason noticed that her labor had begun, he called for me, and we helped her into the barn. Assuming that Maggie would prefer to be alone to deliver her babies, we encouraged the other goats to give her some privacy by offering them a bucket of grain in their troughs outside.

Maggie lay down on a bed of fresh hay, and moaned softly as her labor progressed. My Mom joined us, and we tried to comfort Maggie as best we could. If she became too uncomfortable, she would stand up and circle the barn a few times, and then lie down again. Before long, we heard a curious noise... a sharp, scraping sound, like the sound that the goats make when they rub their horns on the side of the barn while scratching their heads. But this was somehow different. It seemed intentional. We heard the sound again, rather more insistent this time. I looked outside the window and observed all the other goats grazing peacefully together across the field–all but one. The third time, I followed the sound to the barn door. As I swung the door open wide, there stood Merribelle. She had been knocking all the while, seemingly demanding in no uncertain terms to be with her sister.

We decided that Maggie would let us know if she didn't want Merribelle inside, so we let her come in. What happened next will forever be ingrained in my memory, as it was the moment I realized how sentient farm animals truly are. For the rest of Maggie's labor, Merribelle assumed a role that can only be described as that of midwife. Every time Maggie cried out in pain, Merribelle would gently rub her chin down her sister's back. We stood speechless, in awe of this undeniable expression of love and kindness. Then without warning, Maggie let out a long moan, and Merribelle began charging around the barn calling "maaa, maaaaa, maaaa!" It didn't us take long to realize that something was terribly wrong. Jason got down on his knees for a closer look, and observed that several pairs of hooves had emerged, all splayed in different directions. Maggie's babies were breech!

As I stood there paralyzed with fear, Jason and Mom dove into action. Jason knelt down beside Maggie, gently reached inside the birth canal, and began to turn the babies. Maggie moaned a sigh of relief as he guided the first baby safely out of her body. Mom stood by with a warm towel, ready to receive the first newborn. I held out another towel just in time to receive the second baby as Jason delivered her. A third sibling soon followed. Merribelle began to help clean off the babies for her exhausted sister. They looked just like little miniatures of Maggie and Merribelle, black and white accented with brown markings. Maggie proved to be a natural mom, and began nursing all three babies as soon as she was able to get back on her feet.

Many farmers attempt to justify separating baby animals from their mothers by swearing that their bond would naturally be broken anyway once the animals were weaned. In our experience, nothing is further from the truth. Maggie and her babies, who we named Mason, Janet and Paco, were inseparable from the moment they were born. Even eight years after their birth they still slept next to their mother each night, and grazed alongside her in the field every day. Remarkably, Merribelle remained close to Maggie's babies for the rest of her life as well. When Mason, Janet and Paco were still young, she would often give Maggie a reprieve, and we would see Merribelle sitting with Maggie's kids while Maggie would wander away to graze by herself or spend time with the other adult goats. Maggie and Merribelle taught me that farmed animals are indeed capable of loving and caring for one another and forming deep and enduring bonds in much the same way as humans do.

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