When an animal dies here at our animal sanctuary farm, there are four important stages that I, as the caretaker, pass through. First, there is the intuitive recognition that an animal is preparing to die. The second stage allows for the animal to prepare spiritually in his or her own way while I provide necessary care. The third requires my presence at the end without disrupting the animal’s transition. And finally, there is the closure and ritual of the burial.
After the passing of a beloved animal, there is often one final step I take part in: the sharing of the spirit of that animal through art or story. In giving homage to a deceased animal, I am celebrating life.
I have been caring for elderly and special needs animals on my farm since 2004, so I have learned the many signs and nuances of impending death. I can affirm that many of the most spiritual moments I’ve had with animals are in their transitions from life to death. Each creature I care for, no matter the species, is important to me, but I naturally bond with some animals more than others. You can’t predict that connection, but when it happens it is a very special experience. Sometimes it is a donkey, a dog, a cat, a goat, a sheep, or a llama. Sometimes even a duck.
A few years back, I rescued three Pekin ducks from a neglectful situation. Ducks can be problematic when there are as many species in the barnyard as we have—they’re especially incompatible with livestock dogs. But the three ducks had their own personal pond to swim in within the goat paddock, keeping the livestock dogs mostly out of reach.
These three ducks were easy keepers, and I enjoyed watching them waddle around and swim and dive. They were friendly, unlike most ducks, and easy to catch and hold if needed. A couple of years after they arrived, I noticed one of the ducks would often separate himself by about twenty feet from the other two. Intuition told me he was starting to transition.
Within a week or so, the duck was falling asleep while wading in the pond, his head hitting the water. It was time to separate him from the other animals, as he could easily be trampled. I like to always keep animals as close to their specific herd or group as possible, but fowl are so small and vulnerable.
After putting him in a safe spot in the barn, I found him in odd spots and positions. He was still trying to be a normal duck, getting in his water dish but unable to get out. He had stopped quacking and eating. I wanted him to have some sun and air rather than sitting in a dark stall. So, together we sat outdoors in the breeze, where he could feel the air between his feathers.
We were communicating on a deep level, without words, like a prayer that both of us felt and believed. This silent communication is so hard to put into words because it is beyond words.
His head would pop up every now and then, and he’d look around—only to soon fall asleep again, stretching his neck to try and find a comfortable position. I slowly pet his back as he went in and out of sleep.
At one point, he lifted his head up and cocked it toward me. He let out two very weak, hushed quacks. For me, those quacks were an acknowledgment of my presence. It was a thank you. And in seconds, he was gone.
Animals know before most humans when a mate is dying, and they separate from them. They may check in on them, but they go on with their life. As his caretaker, and as a matter of respect, I carried his body into the barn so the other ducks could view him. Seeing the lifeless body of their mate, they smelled him, quacked a bit, and waddled out to their pond to re-engage with life.
I dug a small grave in the garden and picked some flowers. I told him he was a beautiful duck as I laid him down, covered his eyes with wads of chives and rose petals, and shoveled earth onto him.
I still think of that duck and that final thank you from one species to another.
Katherine is our November/December 2022 featured artist—read our interview with her here.