The Joys and Heartbreaks of Old Animal Friends

Most of the animals that we choose to live with have life spans shorter than our own. As youngsters, we often start with hamsters and guinea pigs. Sometimes called “pocket pets,” they never outlast a childhood. Dogs are longer lived; but you go into the relationship knowing that the entire arc of their lives, from puppyhood to grey muzzles. will be seen on a fast-forward button in comparison to our own, slower trajectory. 

There’s a built-in sadness to seeing animals age, but there is also the pleasure of familiarity – there’s an understanding of who they are that one gets only with time and observation.  As I step outside, I know exactly where Marge is by her raucous clucks. No other chicken sounds like her. Lulu’s crazy antics no longer hold the element of surprise, but  continue to have me shaking my head and smiling. (So, when I see her sail out of the coop’s window and hit the fence before landing, and then hurry off as if nothing has happened, I don’t panic. It’s just Lulu finding a Lulu-like way to exit the coop.) 

The animals that keep me company are getting old. I nursed Eleanor back from death’s door last year, and now she is ailing again, but this time, it is likely arthritis from old age that is slowing her down. Buffy, saved from a flock that bullied her five years ago, and having recovered from a mystery paralysis last year, is now the grand dame of the coop. She struts stately around the yard and is unflappable. Even Lulu doesn’t annoy her anymore. I honestly don’t know how long my old girls will continue on. They’re not laying many eggs, but I like having them in the backyard. I like knowing them.

Candy is the animal that I worry most about. She’s six and half-years old. Lately, she’s been showing her age. Her weight is good, but her bones are more prominent. She’s less playful. She takes long sun baths – I think to ease arthritis. This is sad, but there’s also an upside. In her old age she’s learned to enjoy it when I scratch her behind her ears. She likes gentle stroking on her back. She relishes the fresh timothy grass that I hand feed her. She’s mellowed out. Sometimes she plops herself in the middle of a group of chickens. They all laze about in the sun companionably. I watch those moments with appreciation – I know they aren’t going to last forever.

And then there are the goldfish. I have a six year old koi. Probably the ugliest koi ever. It is big, white and ungainly and lives outside in my small pond. A great blue heron often fishes there, but this koi is too big and savvy to be harmed. Yesterday I read that koi can live to be 200 years old. My son’s grandchildren might be caring for this fish! It’s a nice thought. But I still want dogs, chickens and rabbits, despite the fact that I know they won’t be here forever.

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