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Animal care goes on, and offers respite, from virus

  • Andrew Sawler shaves Lola, a shih tzu from Norwich, at Complete Canine in Plainfield, N.H., Thursday, May 21, 2020. Lola also got bathed and a finished haircut during her visit. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson

  • George Ziegle, of Norwich, left, drops off his shih tzu Lola with Sarah Lewis to be groomed at Complete Canine in Plainfield, N.H., Thursday, May 21, 2020. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

  • Andrew Sawler takes his basenjis Kyoto, left, and Ditto, right, out for a mid-morning break at Complete Canine in Plainfield, N.H., Thursday, May 21, 2020. Sawler lives above the business, where he works as a pet groomer. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

  • Amber Hoyt clips cows into their stalls before feeding and milking with her son Everett, 1, on her back in Tunbridge, Vt., Thursday, May 21, 2020. The Hoyts produce organic milk from about 60 cows at a time, and have worked under a quota from their distributor for years, so have not been required to dump milk or reduce their herd size since the beginning of the pandemic. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Brooks cools himself by a fan as Amber Hoyt does barn chores with her son Everett, 1, on her back in Tunbridge, Vt., Thursday, May 21, 2020. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/25/2020 9:15:27 PM
Modified: 5/25/2020 9:15:23 PM

When the novel coronavirus closed down much of the world in mid-March, Sarah Lewis never considered not going to work.

On any given day, there are 50 to 60 dogs depending on her and her co-workers at Complete Canine, a one-stop shop in Plainfield for boarding, training, grooming and nearly every other service for man’s best friend.

There’s a human element to that call to service: Some of the owners of the dogs in their care were stuck away from home, unable to travel, Lewis said. But caring for the dogs is at once a duty and a joy.

“We had no choice,” Lewis said this week. “We had to be here.”

At the same time, there’s no place she’d rather be than at her employer of three years.

“I feel like it’s been wonderful,” she said, calling Complete Canine “my place to come where it’s a stress-free world.”

For many, caring for animals has provided a sanctuary from the coronavirus. Not only do animals provide comfort with their warm, reassuring presence, but the routines of care — walking dogs, turning out horses, milking and feeding cows — help owners maintain a steady schedule, one less easily influenced by the outside world.

“In general, I think there’s something about that daily routine, the idea that my dogs rely on me,” said Andrew Sawler, who has been a dog groomer for 31 years and has nine Basenjis of his own. The Basenji is an African hunting dog, an ancient breed, considered among the most resistant to training. They have “selective hearing,” said Sawler, who works at Complete Canine and lives on the premises.

During the past two months of social distancing, Sawler has had visits from dogs he has groomed for years. “All of them brought some of that steadying quality to my day,” he said.

“Something in them,” he said of dogs in general,” draws something out of us.”

The same is true of caring for farm animals. The routine tends to ease the mind out of other cares and worries.

“The chores part is steadying, just because it goes on day after day whether there’s coronavirus or not,” said John O’Brien, who keeps sheep and horses on his Tunbridge farm. O’Brien is also a selectman and represents Tunbridge and Royalton in the Vermont House.

While the daily chores of feeding and turning out are a comfort, emergencies are more challenging. Taking a dog to the vet for a cracked toenail and a tumor last month involved leaving the animal in the foyer and stepping away so the vet clinicians could step in to collect him. Having the sheep sheared was similarly complicated by the recommended physical distancing, O’Brien said.

Farm life is by its nature isolated, centered on a particular place away from the concerns of the wider world. There’s an entire literary tradition — the pastoral, dating back to Virgil and running through the Psalms to 18th- and 19th-century British poems and novels — that explores the tensions between rural life with its daily and seasonal rhythms, and the shock of wars, plagues and other upheavals.

At the moment, farm life is even more self-contained than usual. For fencing supplies and other hardware, a quick trip to the hardware store, or even a weekly trip, doesn’t make as much sense, so O’Brien has been ordering more materials online.

In recent years, farms have had more people coming into their dooryards, whether to buy everything from vegetables to sheepskins, or to attend dinners, weddings or other events. That traffic has stopped. In addition to running the farm, O’Brien and his wife, Emily Howe, also host a wedding business, but with most big gatherings still on hold, “our whole wedding season is in chaos,” O’Brien said.

In a way, the greater isolation has made the daily routine of caring for farm animals that much more central.

“I think, for most dairy farmers, we’re pretty isolated anyway. We pretty much keep to ourselves,” said Amber Hoyt, of Hoyt Hill Farmstead, in Tunbridge.

Scott and Amber Hoyt purchased the farm in 2018 from Scott’s parents. Right now they milk 59 Ayrshires and keep another 60 to 70 heifers. They also keep half a dozen Icelandic horses.

To keep the farm going, Scott teaches at Brookhaven Treatment and Learning Center in Chelsea. Although students are still in residence, Scott has been teaching from home, which has made the farm schedule easier, Amber said.

They get their 1-year-old son up early, around 5 or 5:30, and take him to the barn for milking and chores, which are done between 8:30 and 9. A variety of tasks take up the middle of the day, and they return to the barn for evening chores and milking from 3:30 to 6:30.

“So there’s a good rhythm,” Amber Hoyt said.

Even so, the coronavirus is part of their ordinary awareness of keeping their farm and family healthy. Under normal circumstances “you have to be really careful of who comes in your barn and what might be on their shoes.”

Most people who have come to the farm to deliver feed or pick up milk are equally careful about physical distancing. To have the cows’ hooves trimmed, they had to put a halter on each cow, then walk them to where the farrier stood waiting and let the cow walk ahead into the chute. “You’re being mindful of who’s touching what,” Amber Hoyt said.

The coronavirus has made the already shaky business of dairy farming that much more unsteady. “We thought this year was looking up,” she said. But by the end of March, the bottom seemed to be dropping out. Their milk company is still picking up and processing, and there seems to be more interest from people who want to buy local food, but that won’t save all the farms that already were struggling.

In the meantime, the cows and horses still need their daily care, just as they always have.

“I think working with dairy in particular … it’s such a high-intensity, hands-on job,” she said, “you forget about what’s going on in the world.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.




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