Kim, Dolly, and Caramel
The Cowboy Troubadour
My neighbor for nearly the last twenty years is a tall, broad Cajun man named Kim. The best way I can describe him is a blonde Wyatt Earp, but 6’3” and 250. He’s a nickname-slinging retired lineman, always donning long-sleeved button-ups and Levi’s. Carries a singing voice that will make you feel like a cowboy gathered around the chuck wagon after working a few thousand cattle out west. He gives good handshakes, the kind that make you feel like you’re just a kid that’s learning the gesture for the first time. Kim has a lot of quirks (I did say Cajun, right?). I could spend an hour describing him before even getting to the stories. His most notable quirk, in my assessment, is the way in which he keeps animals.
Kim has dozens of chickens and fowl (maybe hundreds), a couple pigs, a few donkeys, lamas, a morbidly obese goat (that died on the Fourth of July), a peacock and guineas that come to my house on weekends and holidays, and best of all—a majestic herd of Watusi, an ancient African bovine of spotted brindle hide, endowed with a headdress that would make the record-holding longhorn “Tuff Chex” blush. Kim raises them for no reason at all other than his enjoyment—the gladdening of his heart. He doesn’t concern himself with breeding or working to express certain genetic traits, he doesn’t take animals to sell at market, he doesn’t show them at fairs or parade them, and most assuredly, he does not eat them. He’s very serious on that point. These animals are his friends, they are not his food.
Kim had a couple losses this past week. Two matriarchs of the Watusi herd died. Dolly and Caramel (pronounced with all three syllables and a twang on the end), both in their twenties. Caramel was put down by the vet earlier in the week after she slipped in the mud and was too weak to stand, even with the aid of the tractor. Dolly died the same just two days later. However, I put Dolly down.
The Economics of It
In the past, I’ve silently critiqued Kim’s animal husbandry. As long as I’ve known him he’s kept large herds or ruminants with no intention to harvest. “What a waste,” I would think. I wince at the notion of spending thousands of dollars on a house dog or a working dog. Of course I’m going to have strong feelings about raising an animal meant for harvesting for decades, spending thousands of dollars on wintering, feeding, veterinary services, not to mention the hours of work and chores. “What’s the point?” you might hear me mumble under my breath when Kim’s funny farm was brought up in conversation with other neighbors.
An animal has numerous uses. Food production, of course, whether the regular yields of eggs and dairy, or the harvesting of the animal for its meat . Genetic work and flock building lend themselves to economic productivity in many ways. Larger beasts can do heavy lifting, plow pulling, and be used for transportation. Even the smaller ruminant and poultry can even be used for forage management, field thatching—the list goes on. I’ve strongly resisted the notion that an animal can be for enjoyment. Sure, enjoyment could be a byproduct of some other sort of functional usefulness, but never the sole purpose. I’ve recognized my hypocrisy in my pragmatic disposition as one might find me wasting a couple hours leisurely watching a movie, taking a nap, or eating at a restaurant occasionally. The inconsistency is not lost on me. I find leisure in many things, but I’ve refused to take leisure in animal husbandry and I’ve only been slightly less staunch in requiring that my wife and children do the same. I’ve resisted the idea of finding joy in animal husbandry for joy’s sake because of my over concern to the costs of it. It just never made sense. There is no way raising an animal could return enough joy for joy’s sake with any sort of parity to the economic input.
But I’ve never raised an animal in the same manner as Kim. I’ve never known an animal for over twenty years.
A Somber Day
Kim called me in the morning to ask if I’d be willing to come over and shoot Dolly. The vet was just too expensive to pay twice in one week. The way he asked wasn’t sad. His words weren’t sad. His tone was not sad. I found sadness in the fact that he called me. Kim, who I have and will always admire, the man who has a fix for just about anything, was asking for my help—something he has never needed. I felt inadequate, but I knew why he was asking me. I drove over immediately. He requested that I assure him that my rifle would get it done and I knew where to shoot. I told him that it would and that I did. He handed over his trust and gestured towards the barn, his gaze looking miles past where he was pointing.
I made my way alone to the rear of the barn, rifle pointed down. Two rounds in my pockets—wondering if my bringing of two indicated I was not suited for the job. There I found Dolly. A beast I’ve seen out in the field thousands of times. She was on the ground, weak, laboring to breathe. A drastically different view than the proud silhouette standing against the sunset at dusk that I was used to. Her skin was marred and torn from Kim’s efforts to help her up with the tractor—a routine she and Kim were familiar with.
I’ve taken the life from many animals, typically for harvesting. Usually animals that are named with numbers but sometimes letters. Animals that I’ve enjoyed raising but never an animal I’ve loved. I can’t even say I had any emotional connection with Dolly up to this point, either. Sure, a majestic creature, but still just a cow. I approached and kneeled next to Dolly. I stroked her brow to see if she was comfortable and calm, or if she’d try to kick me. She gave me no response other than a heavy sigh. She was teary-eyed and tired. Putting this animal was different. It was difficult. Difficult because Kim loved Dolly, and I love Kim.
He waited about five minutes before coming around to the back. I can imagine in those passing moments he was anxiously reasoning if he should have tried once more with the tractor. Or should have called the vet one more time. Thoughts that suddenly ceased with the echo of the rifle. Once he met me around back we stood around Dolly for a few minutes and talked about her. Just the normal stuff. How old she was, how many times the vet has seen her this last year. How he thinks she slipped on mud after the thunderstorms. Not much in the way of sentiments or laments, but I knew he was sad. I apologized. He said “Thanks, I-man” (my nickname from him for the last fifteen years). Then, we worked together to load her up and take her to the brush pile from this last year’s walnut lumber harvest. We put her next to Caramel who we’d put there just two days before. I’ll burn the pile here as soon as it dries up outside.
I’ve shed a few tears over these reflections while writing this. I hope some of you find some meaning or lesson from it. Mostly, I hope I can keep track of this piece so my kids can read it one day—that’s my primary purpose in my writing anyways. What is the lesson? Quite frankly, I’m never certain what the lesson is in any of it. All these things are still being revealed to me every day as I toil against the curse of the ground. For now we will look at it in this way—Kim takes dominion like I do. He stewards the earth and loves God’s creation like I do. He works the land joyfully like I do. But he lives this agrarian life with more gentleness and patience than I do. He names animals. He talks to them. He gives them treats from his pockets. He worries for them in a capacity besides the terms of their economic impact. He lives alongside them. Kim’s animals come to him when he calls their names. Kim has stripped the “fear of man” from his herds and flocks. My animals flee in fear at the sight of me (go unpack some theology from that juxtaposition).
Kim mourns his animals when they die; something I am experiencing for the first time.
The Lord used Kim to teach me this week.