Our best nanny is a nanny goat

There was no more obvious place for the hen with a broken wing than Cynthia's stall, which has served as a kind of hospice for injured and ailing animals ever since she made it her home in 1994 - at just about this time of year. I say made it her home because coming to our farm in the dead of winter was all Cynthia's doing.

Charlie and I had driven to a country auction to buy supplemental hay for our milk cows, not another mouth to feed. But as the bidding opened on the little Toggenburg goat, she took a bead on us. "I'm yours," she signaled from the arena with every fiber of her perfectly composed being. Somehow we knew from locking eyes with her that she was absolutely right. We proceeded to outbid everyone who'd come to buy goats - just for this one.

I no longer remember what we paid for her. The dollar price assumed a kind of grand irrelevancy almost from the first, as she exited our trailer and crossed the threshold of our barn with an air of purposeful and patient fulfillment. She might as well have spoken what she clearly had in mind: "Here, finally, is home."

She wasn't a young animal even then, but she gave birth to a billy goat a few months later, scooping a nest in the hay for the delivery. It was to be her last kid. When it was weaned and Cynthia's milk ceased to flow, she took on new responsibilities. You might say she found her true calling once her dairy career ended and the first broody hen snugged down in a corner of her stall with an animal's uncanny instinct for safe haven. Cynthia knew what to do.

She stood guard over the hen and her clutch for hours on end, discouraging the roosters, dogs, and whatever skulked about the barnyard at night from coming near the nest. When the chicks hatched, they became as accustomed to Cynthia's hovering presence as to their mother's warming breast and protective wings.

When they finally grew big enough to peck about the barnlot on their own, Cynthia settled back into her leisure routines happily enough.

But the die had been cast. From then on, we knew to bring any young, weak, or injured animals - anything in need of nurturing companionship - to Cynthia's stall. She always knew what to do, even if it was a matter not of getting well but of easing a passage. Her finest hours, in fact, covered a two-week vigil with a bull calf that took ill almost immediately after its birth one winter's night. The little fellow was too weak to suckle, so we milked the fresh cow and bottle-fed him in Cynthia's stall.

Despite these ministrations and a vet's attentions, the calf passed away, but neither alone nor uncomfortable, under Cynthia's charge. Awake, her eyes rarely left him. Dozing, her head nodded just above his, in the halo of his shallow breathing. When she slept, she lay up against him, lending him body warmth and letting him know he was not alone.

The stall next to Cynthia's has served over the years as a kind of recovery room for ailing cows. We could as easily put the animals in a barn pen across the milk parlor from the goat, but we sensed they'd do better and heal faster with her.

A couple of weeks ago, I slid open the barn door to the sight of a young heifer standing on her own for the first time in a week, staring over her pen wall directly into Cynthia's answering eyes.

The hen with one wing asunder also found natural refuge in Cynthia's stall. A few days ago it flapped awkwardly to the lip of the oval hay nest the goat had long ago made for her own winter slumbers, and slid into its warm depths. Rather than oust the invalid, Cynthia patiently dug out a second, shallower nest for herself and made do. Now, it's just a matter of time.

Under Cynthia's critical eye, I bring water and cracked corn to the resting bird. The wing, it seems, will heal, the hen will leave, and Cynthia can reclaim her bed in the hay once again.

We can't explain Cynthia's beneficent effect on the creatures she comforts. But by now, we trust absolutely that when her services are needed she'll know what to do. She always has.

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