GREENWICH, N.Y. — “My roots are in dairy farming, one of my limbs is in raising alpacas…and birthing babies keeps both of them going…”
Morning had the ordinary bustle of a farm ready to greet visitors…chores to get done in record time, kids to dress and feed (only 2 at this point in my life), alpacas to get into the pens, and cookies to make.
Pumpkins to polish and restock, mums to water, and corn stalks to bundle at the pumpkin stand. The tent was in place, and the spinning demonstrators were due to arrive at 9.
And it was day 2 of a glorious, sunny Columbus Day Weekend.
I first noticed Astor’s more than usual stand-offish behavior late morning. We had many visitors and I guess it was the first moment that I had to fully look around. She was hiding in the back corner of the small barn that the alpacas used as their run-in shed, up by the gate.
On a normal day she would have been way out in the field, grazing, as far away from people as possible. There was a reason we had coined the name “Astor the Disaster.” She really was a disaster with people, including myself. Always the first to kick and the first to spit at me.
I knew that she was due to have a baby in the next month, but I guess I wasn’t thinking with my baby glasses on that day. I went in for a closer look.
Alpacas are extremely stoic animals. They are hardy and typically do everything on their own with minimal warning.
Birth is no exception. Usually alpaca babies are born before noon, and if you are lucky, you are given 15 minutes notice that a baby is going to be dropped.
Any baby born after noon, would be watched closely, looking for a problem. Usually there was some factor of the equation that was terribly wrong and you should be prepared for the worst.
So, late morning wasn’t out of the realm, and after a closer, visual inspection I saw that she was bagged, by alpaca standards, and her vulva seemed slightly elongated…but not much.
I whispered to my husband that I thought we were going to have a baby. We both raised our brows. It was like Murphy’s Law; whatever can go wrong will, if a crowd is observing.
So, we kept watch…one eye on the mother and the other eye on the pull of customers. Nothing was happening.
And by now it was after noon—oh dear.
I went back into the barn, she looked at me stoically, hmmm I thought…
I waited. And I watched, more closely. And then she started the rolling. Okay good, I thought, this is good, baby soon.
I watched, I waited…nothing. And my apprehension grew.
After another conference with my husband, the dairy farmer, who has delivered and watched countless births, we decided that it was time to go internal and see what is going on.
As accustomed to birthing as he was, we both agreed that I should be the one to go in as my hands were much smaller and could maneuver better.
We closed the barn door, and the crowd began to wonder…whispers of a baby had spread, and we carried on with smiles.
Tyler, who was 5, and Jacob, 3 did a great job at hanging on the white fence, entertaining the visitors talking about all they knew about alpacas and babies, tractors and farming.
With glove and lube I went in and it felt like two eyes and a nose presenting themselves, and yes, I believe that I was feeling 2 small hooves coming right underneath. Seemed okay.
But not being a regular at this, I withdrew my hand, and with a shake of my head I said to my husband, “I think that the baby is presenting correctly…but maybe you should check too.”
So he did…he was the one that verbalized the “I think it is a head and nose…but maybe it isn’t.”
And there it was. The uncertainty, out on the table. We cringed.
We decided to give her another 15 minutes and see if our palpating would get things going. Tick, tick, tick..
It didn’t, in fact things went downhill fast from there.
We had a mild “roller” before the exam, which was normal, but she was becoming a fastidious roller, who was starting to moan and groan. And this was not a “first calf heifer” as we call it in dairy terms. Astor was an experienced mom, having already birthed 2 healthy babies prior to this.
I called the vet—Sunday, of Columbus Day Weekend and an hour away… tick, tick, tick.
The barn door remained closed, the crowd asked questions, and we did our best not to share our worry but rather spoke positively about the process of birth, and that sometimes even animals need a little help from a doctor.
Our husband and wife vet team pulled in , the crowd hushed and we shuffled them into the barn behind the closed door; our little guys came in too. Thank goodness for the babysitter and the women spinning yarn under the tent, they kept things flowing.
Our vet pulled on the rectal glove, lubed up and in he went, yes, confirmed, it was breach.
What we were feeling as eyes and a nose were tiny little alpaca pin bones and a tail head, with the back legs tucked underneath the pelvis.
Swiftly he reached in a little further, was able to extend the tucked back legs. Pushed the baby back in a bit and with a twist, he maneuvered the hips and unlocked them in the pelvic cavity. Out came a beautiful rose gray female…
And we held our breath…
Was she breathing? The boys were very quiet. We were all crouched down, staring at the baby, praying like the dickens that the little thing would give a twitch, take a breath, move her ear.
Our vet lifted the baby up, held her by the back legs, allowing all the fluids to drain out of her lungs. (come on little one, breathe)
He slapped her wet sides with powerful force to try and get something going.
And we held our breath some more…time seemed to stand still. Tick, tick, tick…
He put her back on the ground, my little boys watched, so serious, so quiet. Doc went to his black bag quickly, grabbed a needle and syringe and pulled out what I believed to be epinephrine and injected it into the baby…hoping that it would get the heart going and we would see a breath.
Tick, tick, tick..
(Come on little girl, take a breath)
Tyler and Jacob, at their young ages, they knew.
And we waited a moment longer…a sigh…nothing.
It was Jacob (3), who spoke first, and in his little voice asked, “Why is shes’ not breathing?”
It was then, with great heaviness, that we all took a breath, without our little baby alpaca.
With heaviness in my heart I just said, “Well Jakey, I don’t think that the little baby made it.”
No tears, no crying, our little guys knew…life on a farm.
And after that brief moment, when things seemed to stop around us, taking that solemn moment to acknowledge, our energy quickly shifted from a death, to a life that was left, in need. Our alpaca mother was up, humming, nudging, trying to get something from the little body, and she needed our attention. Water, fresh hay, clean bedding…and tending to.
Life marched on…
And when the barn door opened, we gave just a glimpse to our visitors, that it isn’t always tidy red barns, white fences, green grass and blue sky. Sometimes it’s just gray at the farm.