By Fiona Stocker
What happens when you move to Tasmania on a hunch, with a husband who aspires to be an alpaca whisperer and a feral cockerel? Can you cook the cockerel for dinner, or has it got rigor mortis?
It was quarter past ten one Wednesday morning when I happened to glance out of the kitchen window and catch sight of Lorna, still Tasmania’s grumpiest alpaca, standing awkwardly in the paddock. The forelegs and head of an unborn calf were sticking out of her back end. It was at that point I knew we’d be late for playgroup.
And so it was that I spent the next hour engaged as midwife to this ungrateful mare. It was a series of tasks I hadn’t expected to have to demonstrate that morning.
Since nothing in my earlier life or the arts degree I’d completed at university had prepared me for delivering an alpaca calf, I rang Oliver to find out what to do. Oliver had chosen to go out that morning on a cabinet making job, to see a client who wanted a kitchen. It was just like him not to be there when one of his precious livestock chose to deliver, I thought, stabbing at the numbers on the keypad. Had he given a thought to what might happen if his alpaca went into labour while he was contemplating laminated benchtops? I severely doubted it.
When I got through to him, he was typically unfazed and clearly expected me to be also. ‘There’s not much to it, really,’ he advised calmly. ‘They have a much easier time of it than you did.’
Typically, an alpaca gives birth between the hours of eight and eleven in the morning. That gives her cria the rest of the day to get up and about, learn how to walk and suckle, identify a predator and find the water bucket. In the late afternoon they might even gamble around the paddocks if they’ve found their feet. In almost every case, the birth is problem free and requires no intervention.
Having gleaned this from Oliver, I ran over to his workshop with a set of keys, to find the iodine he’d told me I would need. Kit toddled noisily behind me. I forced myself to stop and wait for him, as he paused to admire the purple sprouting broccoli and the white cabbage butterflies flitting around it with destruction on their minds and evil in their insect hearts. Minutes later after this brief interlude, we reached the workshop door. None of the keys I’d brought with me opened it. Swearing under my breath, I ran back to the kitchen, telling a confused Kit to wait where he was, and then befuddling him even more by racing back a couple of minutes later flustered and red in the face. Finally a key worked in the lock, and I rifled hurriedly through the jumble of contents in the cupboards, wondering what an iodine bottle looked like.
After what seemed like an eternity, with iodine in hand we traipsed back down to the willow paddock. ‘Stay there, darling!’ I instructed sweetly, pointing Kit towards the wire fence.
‘Come in?’ he questioned keenly.
‘No darling, stay outside while I go and see Lorna.’ I fumbled with the lock on the gate.
‘Want come in!’
‘No darling, Lorna is having a baby and I need to help her.’ Not only did I have to attend an alpaca birth, I thought to myself, but I now had to explain events in terms a one year old could understand. It was all a bit much for a morning when I’d expected to go to playgroup for some finger painting and a cup of tea.
Kit stood obediently at the fence, a little agitated by all the dashing about. Down in the paddock, meanwhile, Lorna’s delivery had also become a high speed event. As I approached, a black, wet baby alpaca cria, its fleece all crinkled from the crush of its passage through Lorna’s bony pelvis, plopped onto the ground and began waving its head from side to side, presumably gathering its thoughts.
Lorna looked round towards her back end with her customary disgruntled air. Almost immediately, she turned away again, apparently distracted - probably by the contractions delivering the afterbirth, I surmised, and congratulated myself on my own knowledge of the processes of birth kicking in. Then she began stalking around aimlessly with her back legs apart. Seizing my chance, I approached the new born cria, in a crouched position. The only job requiring human intervention in an alpaca delivery, Oliver had informed me, was to spray the newborn’s umbilical stump with iodine to prevent infection. Even this wasn’t essential. They usually fared okay if the iodine had run out or you were out seeing a client and your wife wasn’t available to step in as a midwife. Still, I’d been charged with this alpaca birth, and was determined to fulfil my every duty.
Staying calm and trying to keep a low profile, I took aim and sprayed. The cria flapped around in panic and Lorna turned on me, waddling over in an ungainly posture. I carried on aiming and spraying. After all, what could she do? She was in labour! The answer came when Lorna towered over her cria towards me, craning her long neck until her scowling black furry face was inches from mine. Then she bared her tomb-like teeth and screeched like a tram coming off the rails. I backed away, cowed but victorious. She’d scared the pants off of me, but I’d scored a bull’s eye with the iodine.
‘Mummy!’ wailed Kit.
‘It’s alright, darling. Lorna’s protecting her baby.’ I flung myself through the fence between the bottom section and the horizontal top wires, and crouched to give him a cuddle, only too happy to take a breather. The second most significant task of the morning was yet to come. ‘The main thing is to get rid of the afterbirth,’ Oliver had instructed, ‘or the flies will get to it.’
I had no idea what an alpaca’s placenta was like. How tough was it? What would happen if it ruptured? I had no desire to find out. Bang on cue, Lorna’s straining rear end spat out an object a few feet away from us. It plopped onto the ground with a firm wet splat, a grey, bulbous, membranous sack the size of a football, still attached briefly to her back end by means of a long red, bloody and sinewy rope. It was all starting to resemble the scene from Alien which I’d so far successfully managed to avoid watching.
I was keen to avoid accidents here. I thought back to my own afterbirths. I hadn’t actually seen either of them, thankfully, but I knew they’d been carried away in buckets. Clearly a container of some sort was required. I doubted we had a bucket big enough for what Lorna had produced. It would have to be the wheelbarrow. It would be a large and easy receptacle for the dumping of the afterbirth from a shovel, and it would facilitate easy tipping at the other end. I hadn’t ever had to think through anything like this before, but those were my expectations.
We trailed back through the vegetable garden to fetch the wheelbarrow from the woodshed. Kit was well and truly fed up with being segregated behind the fence and only too happy for a change of scene. ‘Get in, mummy?’ he asked beseechingly. Being pushed in the wheelbarrow was a favourite treat. I put my hands into his warm little armpits and lifted him into it, alongside the longest handled shovel we owned. Then I pushed them both back to the Willow Paddock.
The ball of afterbirth lay at some distance from Lorna and her cria. I gave Kit strict instructions to stay next to me, which he complied with wordlessly. Even at that age, he sensed that Lorna was a creature not to be trifled with.
With bated breath, I placed the shovel on the ground before the placenta, and scooped. Miraculously, it remained intact. Slowly, and taking the utmost care to keep the shovel level, I lifted. It weighed a great deal and trembled appallingly like some horrific blancmange. I had thought ahead and put a layer of straw in the bed of the wheelbarrow. As I tipped the shovel, the placenta plopped onto it with an abhorrent wobble. Falteringly, I laid the shovel alongside it and grasped the wheelbarrow handles. We were ready for the short walk to the bonfire site in our bush block.
‘Mummy, I get in ‘gain?’ Kit’s innocent face looked up at me. There were plenty of times he’d sat in the wheelbarrow on a pile of weeds or grass, or even split logs. But having him sit with his little legs either side of a placenta just seemed a stretch too far.
‘No darling, there’s something yucky in the wheelbarrow today.’ But Kit was having none of it. He’d been in the wheelbarrow only a moment earlier and now was forbidden. To his infant mind this made no sense, and why would it? He began to make his feelings known about this injustice, loudly and continuously. It was a strange and noisy procession which made its way through the gate into the bush paddock: me with a wheelbarrow-load of placenta, Kit traipsing behind wailing for a ride, and one very curious dog.
We made it to the bonfire site, where I dug a hole in the ash. As I tipped the wheelbarrow up, the scratching of straw on metal marked the clean departure of the afterbirth into its ashy grave. I shoveled ash, soil and debris over it, placed Kit into the untainted wheelbarrow, and we made our way towards the vegetable garden gate. Just before we reached it, I realised Midget wasn’t with us. ‘Bloody hell, the dog!’ I turned to beckon her. The corrugated plastic of the water tank blocked my view of the bonfire site and I bolted past it, heart in mouth. Midget was poised over the site of the recent burial and just raising a paw to begin digging. I yelled her name. Praise be, Midget appeared to have adopted me by now as her alpha female, despite my driving her into trees and using her for rounding up my children. She came to my side immediately, leaving her gruesome quarry untouched.
Back at the alpacas’ paddock, the newborn cria was up and about, and attempting to suckle from its disgruntled mother. I rang Oliver and told him he was a father again. There was a note of suppressed excitement in his voice. I strongly suspected he was trying to reign in his excitement in case it seemed greater than at the births of his own children. In truth, I could have understood. It was a faster and more fuss-free affair certainly than one of our own birth experiences, even if the levels of screeching and spitting were similar.
It was quarter past eleven when Kit and I pulled out of the driveway and hit the dirt road on our way to playgroup. When it comes to excuses for being late, you could hardly get better than unexpectedly having to deliver an alpaca, I thought to myself. I was looking forward to eking out the story of the placenta with glorious detail about its hideous quivering and wobbling.
We sat, we playgroup mothers and a couple of fathers, on picnic rugs spread out over the lawns in front of the Rosevears homestead. Older children cavorted in the playground, and a rapt audience of mums and a couple of curious pre-schoolers were hanging on my every word. I was just hitting my stride. I’d got to the bit where Lorna had delivered the afterbirth and Oliver had told me to dispose of it when I was interrupted by Isobel, an Accident and Emergency nurse and keen horsewoman. Isobel had different ideas about how to dispose of an afterbirth. ‘Didn’t you let the dog eat it?’ she asked, handing her freckled daughter a fruit bun.
There was a muffled groan from a few of those present, and then a silence fell over the assembled group. I like to think I wasn’t the only one taking pause for thought. I pictured Midget, our middle aged retired lady sheepdog and her mild mannered ways. True, she was partial to a bit of wallaby road kill that she might haul from a ditch when we were out walking. I thought of the gigantic placenta in its membranous sack. Surely that would be beyond her? But then I remembered her, poised over the fire pit with her front paw lifted, about to begin digging. Clearly there was hidden appeal in an afterbirth and I made a mental note to be extra vigilant about this in the future. I definitely didn't want Midget vomiting that up on the garden beds.
Feeling somewhat cornered, I offered the only response I could think of on the spur of the moment. ‘Err, it was a bit big,’ I mumbled feebly.
Isobel didn’t skip a beat. ‘Oh you get big dogs,’ she said. Her voice had that airy, sing-song quality about it that nurses use when they tell you you’re about to enter the third stage of labour and you might feel a slight burning, tingling sensation, when actually it will feel like your cervix has become an incendiary device. It had a steely edge too, which presumably came of handling body parts and effluents belonging to other people on a regular basis.
I knew better than to argue with Isobel. I’d heard her stash of anecdotes about catheters, which she brought out after a couple of glasses of wine at mums’ nights out. There was no way I could outdo her on shock value. She was playing on her home turf.
As we drove off down the dusty driveway when playgroup closed, I reflected on the morning’s events. Despite having two children of my own, I’d never been a birth companion to anyone. Even if I was only attending a bad tempered alpaca mare who was completely uninterested in my services, it felt like a momentous occasion.
I was pleased to have completed the practical tasks charged to me, handling myself in that rural space involving wheelbarrows, bonfires and placentas, where my previous life had seen me employing little more than post-it notes and desktop computers.
I felt I’d learned a little more about country ways as well. Never again would I assume I was the first to do something when it came to attending livestock. Clearly it would pay to remember that most folk had lived in these parts a lot longer than me; that they’d seen things I couldn’t imagine. Never attempt to beat a horsey Accident and Emergency nurse at her own game, I resolved. She’ll beat you hands down for shock value every time, even if she has never delivered an alpaca.