My five-year-old Pilgrim geese, Andy and Kay White (named for the author of Charlotte’s Web and his wife), hatched eight goslings on June 7. There were three boys and five girls. I would stand leaning against the stall gate watching them.
During the second night, one of the little males mysteriously disappeared. I don’t have a clue what happened to him. Two days after that, I noticed that another of the males was considerably smaller than the rest. Obviously, his siblings were growing and he was not.
I named him Dinky. I could find nothing outwardly wrong with him. I put him directly in the feed dish, where he began eating obediently.
In the morning Dinky was dead. I know such losses are the way of nature, but I felt terrible.
We were now down to five female babies and one male. Kay and Andy took their family of six for daily walks in the pasture …
… and down the barnyard lane. I worried about ravens, but Andy was always vigilant.
Every evening they brought them into the barn for the night. The goslings grew and grew.
On July 1, when the goslings were 3.5 weeks old, I noticed one of the little girls tilting her head at a fixed angle. When you see animals every day, anything out of the ordinary grabs your attention. I wondered if her father had stepped on her. In his zeal to protect and defend, Andy will march over anything in his path — including his children.
The next day, the gosling’s head was definitely cocked to one side.
However she was still walking and eating, albeit with her head turned almost upside down.
I looked up the condition on poultry sites. When a bird holds its head upside down, it is called “wry neck.” Dodging Andy’s snapping beak and flapping wings, I caught the gosling and dosed her with the recommended baby vitamins and liquid Vitamin E.
By the following afternoon, her neck was a corkscrew and she could no longer walk to follow the family. She had started having convulsive, repetitive movements of her neck. It circled like a crank handle.
I took the gosling into the barn and put her safely in a large box, protected by a wire top from any of the passing chickens.
More internet research. I could find nothing that matched her symptoms exactly. West Nile virus? Clostridium infection? Brain damage through injury?
So: I decided to concentrate on wry neck. After all, her head was upside down. Of all the treatments I could find, the most praised method recommended prednisone, a prescription drug. Naturally, it was now Sunday afternoon on a 4th of July holiday weekend. I left a message for my vet on her emergency line.
A substitute vet called back an hour later, while I was mowing. I explained the situation. The vet admitted she knew little of poultry, but under the circumstances she was willing to call in a prescription.
I gave my name.
“No, the animal’s name.”
I had been calling the gosling Beatrix. (Given that her parents were named for one children’s author, I automatically chose another. And, yes, I do know that Beatrix Potter’s Jemima Puddle-duck was clearly a duck, not a goose, but it was hot, I’d been fencing, mowing, and driving carpools, and my mind was vague.)
When I arrived at the drug store, Dick, the pharmacist, whom I have known for thirty years, greeted me, “When they said it was for a chicken, I knew it had to be you!” I love small towns. I explained that Bea was actually a gosling, not a chicken. “Even better!” exclaimed Dick, handing over the bottle.
I gave her all the meds (Vitamin B, Vitamin E, and prednisone) twice a day for a week. It was very discouraging. I held Bea in my lap to eat and drink from a pan, but she was listless and uninterested.
I saw no improvement at all. She grew weaker and weaker.
Finally, to save her life, I began tube feeding her with a stomach tube. I mixed the meds with raw egg, threaded the tube down her throat, and force-fed her three times a day.
I ran into the substitute vet once during this period. She asked about Bea and I explained about the tube feeding. She gave me a startled, sideways glance. I have fielded such looks all my life. They are the looks that say: You know you’re being a little nutty, right? And in this case, with the added: All this work for a gosling? I smiled, thanked her, and moved on.
With the tube feeding, Bea was instantly stronger. Still her head remained upside down and her neck revolved like a crank handle. She could not keep on her feet but would tumble over backwards, neck writhing, peeping with fright.
On the fourth day of tube-feeding, and a week of treatment, I told her, “Bea, you need to give me some sign here. I need you to start eating on your own.”
It had occurred to me that maybe she could eat if she had a brace to hold her neck at least partly straight rather than flopping helplessly with her eyes near the floor. I used some two-inch foam pipe insulation, held in place with vet wrap. The brace instantly lifted her point of view.
Her head was still upside down, her neck still circled, she still fell over backwards, but the brace gave her just enough stability that she could see to eat and drink if I held her. Between all my other chores, I would stop in to help her every few hours.
After three days, she was strong enough to brace herself on her feet in a corner of the box, and eat on her own. This was a big milestone. She was reaching for food! This was a girl who wanted to live.
However, her head was still upside down and between ravenous feeds, her neck still circled convulsively, tipping her over and knocking her into walls.
The foam brace helped protect her head as it swung into the plywood. Her repetitive, uncontrollable movements reminded me of a patient I once saw who had a toxic reaction to Haldol.
Days went by. I watched Bea, my heart heavy. I was tired and there was a lot of stress and sadness in my personal life. I wondered if I had saved Bea only to consign her to a state of permanent severe damage. I knew if she did not improve, I was going to have to put her down.
Then one day last week I brought Bea a bowl of fresh water and she took deliberate steps toward it. What? Was she getting better? Or was it just a fluke and she happened to stagger in that direction? I always remember Garson Kanin, the playwright, talking about working on a Broadway play in out-of-town tryouts — and how easy it was to be deceived when absorbed in a project because while the play would become better, it still was not good.
It was easy to see that Bea still was not good. She would straighten her neck to take a sip of water and the shock of the success seemed to trigger “overflow” motion — she would lurch backwards even as the sip was going down her throat, and her neck would begin to thrash again.
Still, it sometimes appeared that in times of concentration — when eating, for example — she was increasingly able to hold her head steady. I told myself that now that she was eating and drinking on her own, she wasn’t really requiring much effort on my part. Maybe she would get a little stronger every day. Maybe undamaged nerves would take over for the damaged ones (this happened for my husband after being paralyzed by polio when he was a child). Or maybe whatever mysterious thing that almost killed her would slowly abate. Maybe I would not have to put her down.
Nevertheless, I knew this was wishful thinking. On Sunday, when I made my list for the week ahead, I wrote: Deal with Bea.
To my shock, yesterday I fed and watered Bea only to have her draw herself up almost straight — peeping with determination — and try to jump out of the box!
What? “Really?” I cried. I ran for some scissors and cut off the neck brace. Bea’s neck was not straight but her head was not upside down. Her neck was not circling. She was walking and calling for her family.
I carried her outside to the pasture to Andy and Kay and the rest of the kids.
Andy and Kay were nonplussed. They had looked into the hospital box every night (I had kept her box in the stall with her family) but otherwise had seemed to ignore their daughter for seventeen days. Andy particularly was suspicious. After her long ordeal, Bea was much smaller than the other goslings, and she did walk with a bit of a tilt and a stagger. Still, he refrained from attacking her. Her sisters pinched at her viciously, but Bea hurried out of reach, and soon they seemed to ignore her. Bea blissfully ate grass.
It felt like a miracle. I don’t know what exactly was wrong, and I don’t know what exactly saved her, but Beatrix Gosling is back in the flock.
I smiled all day. Thank you, God.