It was six or seven years ago that I read Complications, Atul Gawande’s collection of essays. Gawande is a practicing surgeon who writes about medicine and public health, and one of the collection’s essays, “Education of a Knife,” is about the problem of teaching surgical procedures to newly minted doctors. Every would-be surgeon has to do every procedure for the first time, once. And once for the second. And once again, over and over, until he is good at it. He has to practice, and somebody has to be on the table in order for him to do it:
In surgery, as in anything else, skill and confidence are learned through experience — haltingly and humiliatingly. Like the tennis player and the oboist and the guy who fixes hard drives, we need practice to get good at what we do. There is one difference in medicine, though: it is people we practice upon.
And you don’t want to it to be you. You want to wait until your surgeon has honed his skills on other people and then have your appendix removed or your kidney transplanted or your hip replaced. Yet it is in our collective interest to have a new crop of surgeons every year, or we’ll run out of appendix removers, kidney transplanters, and hip replacers in short order. And so the patient of the new surgeon makes a sacrifice to the common good – although, if the bargain were put to him in those terms, he might very well change his mind.
That essay has come to mind often, as I’ve done so many things for the first time over the last few years. Not many of them are physical skills like surgery, which require a very specific kind of learning, based on repetition, that hard-wires the procedure into your brain. But even more general undertakings – designing a hydroponics system, building a hoophouse, making a souffle – have a better chance of success when they’re undertaken by people with experience. The Internet will take you only so far.
As I venture out way beyond my comfort zone, I’ve been grateful that it’s not people I practice on. The soufflé falls, and the worst-case scenario is take-out Chinese. Nobody’s going to die on the table.
But livestock is different. It’s not people, and I am very clear on the difference. But it’s live. The animals we raise are sentient, can suffer, and are completely dependent on our stewardship. When we bungle it, nobody dies on the table, but it’s not take-out Chinese, either.
And bungle it we do. There’s no way to venture into taking care of animals without making mistakes born of inexperience. Almost all the deaths we’ve had around here could have been prevented if we’d simply been better at our job.
I’m not being hard on us here. I know that mistakes come with the territory, and you do your best and try and learn from what goes wrong. But I am responsible for our animals, and it sometimes feel like they got a bum deal being stuck with us instead of, say, Jen over at Milkweed & Teasel.
The issue at hand, this time, is our first attempt to hatch fertilized eggs. We bought six turkey eggs about four weeks ago and popped them under Queenie, our broody Buff Orpington hen. About a week before we were expecting chicks, we found one of the eggs cracked open, so we were down to five. We did, however, learn that at least that one egg was fertilized, so we had hopes for the remaining eggs.
Then, four days ago and a day ahead of schedule, we had an actual chick! It was peeping and eating and drinking, and Queenie was being very attentive to it. We were hopeful that the remaining four would follow suit.
But then things went south. Queenie seemed to have trouble attending to both the chick and the eggs, and she abandoned the nest to keep the chick warm. We had set the Varmintcam up above the brooder, and we knew from the timestamp that the nest had been empty for at least four hours. Was the brooder too big? Did we put the food and water too far away from the nest? We didn’t know.
By this time, the full 28 days had elapsed, and we thought it was possible a chick might have survived, but didn’t have the strength to get out once it had gotten cold. So we tried opening one of the eggs. There was a chick, barely alive, and we tried to warm it and revive it, but our efforts failed and the poor thing died inside ten minutes. Was it a mistake to open it? We didn’t know.
Three eggs were left, and Queenie clearly wasn’t going to be able to keep them warm. But Kevin had the brilliant idea of putting them under Blondie, who was also broody and had hunkered down in a nest box in the coop. I also sent an e-mail to Jen, who assured me that chicks were sometimes much hardier than you think they’re going to be, and told me not to give up hope.
And I didn’t, but it was close.
After Blondie had been sitting on the eggs for a day, we checked on her. She was exactly where we’d left her, but she had moved two of the three eggs out of the nest, and had only one under her. We checked the two eggs she’d rejected, and they were clearly long dead. How she knew is beyond me – and I think she did know, because the one she was sitting on was alive. There was a little hole, with a little beak! And I heard a little peep!
We wanted to make sure the chick bonded to Queenie, so we gave it some help getting out of its shell and put it in the brooder with its little sibling and surrogate-mother-to-be. And Queenie took to it. She tucked it under her wing and kept it warm. An hour later, it was almost dry, and looked comfortable.
But by evening it was dead.
If you had told me this story, I couldn’t have imagined being so sad about a three-ounce, just-born turkey, but I actually had to hold back tears. When we’d found that second chick alive, I’d been elated – yes, actually elated – that our chick would have a playmate, and that little death of an hours-old creature affected me as much as any livestock death ever has.
Partly, I mourned the failure. I suspect we made a number of mistakes, because all the eggs were fertilized and all had developed substantially. Was the brooder too cold? Did Queenie get enough to eat and drink? Should we have put the other eggs under Blondie as soon as we realized Queenie was having difficulty? Should we have watched more carefully so we could have taken corrective action more quickly? But, our role aside, I feel bad for this little chick. I don’t think animals, with the possible exception of cats, should be alone.
We will get more turkey poults from the feedstore when they get a batch in a couple of weeks, and I’m hoping everybody will be young enough for the flock to integrate successfully. And I am glad that we got at least one chick out of the effort – and a mighty cute little chick it is, too. But I wanted to do better. I really wanted to do better.
On the plus side, at least I’m not a surgeon.