Friday, January 15, 2010

Sue Weaver: Memorializing Animal Friends

Baasha, last week

Seven years ago, after moving from Minnesota to a larger farmlet in the Arkansas Ozarks, I decided to pursue a dream. I’d always admired sheep and wanted to get some of my own. Not just the two nice pets I’d adopted shortly after our arrival but pedigreed sheep, sheep to breed.

A friend in Minnesota raised Cheviots, and I liked them. An Internet search for Cheviot breeders within driving range proved unsuccessful, but I did locate a person with Miniature Cheviots 200 miles away. I visited her Web site, and I was smitten. I arranged to buy a bred, coming seven-year-old ewe and a ram lamb to breed her with later on. It was the best decision I think I ever made.

That ewe is Brighton Ridge Farms #59 “Baasha,” and she is special indeed. She is my favorite: the sweetest, kindest, arguably most beautiful sheep on earth and the mother, grandmother, or great-grandmother of every other sheep I own. And sadly, she’s now nearly fourteen years old. At fourteen she’s a Methuselah of sheep. Baasha still enjoys her life but is very arthritic. When she can’t get up by herself — and that eventuality is coming soon — then we’ll call the vet and have my old friend put down.

There are those who would say (and do say, far too often when people are grieving) that “it’s just a sheep” and “you have lots of others” or “you can buy more.” But she is family, a loved one, and losing her already seems more than I can bear. Yet it’s part of sharing lives with animal friends, even animals of species others think are food. As rescuers, we’ve been down this road many, many times before.

Baasha cleans her brand-new daughter, Baatiste.

It never gets easier, but we find that having mementos of our absent friends helps ease the pain of losing them, especially later on when we can see or handle something that brings cherished memories to mind. But having mementos requires advance planning. If there are animals in your life, consider collecting keepsakes while you can. Take photos — take lots and lots of photos. Start when you get your animal, and continue throughout its lifetime. If you don’t know how to shoot good photos, ask photography-minded friends to do it for you (most will be happy to help) or polish up your own photography skills. There are lots of Web sites set to show you how. For instance, visit Google and type "take photos horse" (or dog, cat, rabbit, or whatever your pet may be, in place of horse) in the search box. Horse-related tips apply to shooting frames of other livestock species, too, though you’ll have to squat or sit on the ground to do it well.

Save your images in one place so they don’t get lost: place prints and negatives or slides in a photo album or storage box; for digital images, burn a CD or devote a special flash drive for each animal friend. With photos you can create a memorial Web page on your own Web site or at any of hundreds of add-your-own-pet-memorial sites (find them by googling "memorial pet site"). Commission your animal’s portrait; animal artists work from photos anyway. Compile a scrapbook incorporating photos and such special items as dog show ribbons, a lock of your horse’s mane, or a snippet of alpaca fiber.

Create lasting mementos. Have any of hundreds of photo-personalized items such as throws, jewelry, mugs, Christmas ornaments, and, especially, bound photo books made at places like Snapfish and PhotoGifts.

Collect photos of your animal, her ancestors, and her progeny; then scan and upload her picture pedigree to your Web site, like this pedigree of Imaginashan, or in a three-ring binder like the one I made for our late, great Gabet Gai-Lonna (it’s 3 inches thick!).

Or try mementos containing something of your friend herself. The first year we sheared our little sheep (I’d purchased two of Baasha’s daughters by then), we shipped their wool to MacAusland’s Woollen Mills to be woven into natural-colored blankets for our beds. Or have hitched horsehair jewelry made from your horse’s tail hair (google "horsehair jewelry your own horse"), commission a needle-felted llama made of your llama’s fiber, or knit a scarf incorporating undercoat from your dog.

A much younger Baasha with new daughter, Raven

Purchase an attractive box to save and store simple mementos: the puppy’s first toy, the kitten’s blankie, baby teeth, your horse's shoe, or the special lamb’s shed tail (yes, I really keep them!).

Or choose a pawprint kit like the inked print kits sold by Jacobella or a press-the-paw-in-clay model like a ClayPaws and Richard Lamb New Traditions kits. Clay-based kits accept hoof imprints exceedingly well.

Then you’ll have wonderful memories you can hold in your hands when your pet is gone. It eases the pain when something tangible remains. It really does.

Sue Weaver sold her first freelance article in 1969. Since then her work has appeared in major horse periodicals, including The Western Horseman, Horse Illustrated, Chronicle of the Horse, Flying Changes, Horseman’s Market, Arabian Horse Times, The Appaloosa News, The Quarter Horse Journal, Horse’N Around, and The Brayer. She has written, among other books, Storey’s Guide to Raising Miniature Livestock, The Donkey Companion, and Get Your Goat! to be published in 2010. Sue is based in the southern Ozark Mountains in Arkansas.

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