Childbirth as Ritualistic Performance Among Animals

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Labor can be defined as manual work or the act of childbirth. Labor is a natural, ritualistic performance among humans and animals alike. I was recently invited by my coworker, Jessica, to witness a live canine birth in her home to welcome eight puppies into the world, in support of the animal shelter we both work for. Jessica’s kitchen area had been converted into a birthing suite for the pregnant mom (Mama) complete with a Whelping box to deliver in, plush sheets, copious amounts of food for Mama and rainbow colored neck bands that would later adorn each puppy as they were delivered. The room was quiet but Mama was beginning to show signs of manageable discomfort.

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On August 9, 2018, I witnessed a live canine birth that would solidify my support of shelter work and spaying and neutering animals. Mama arrived at our shelter through a rescue group from southern California where there were very few resources, particularly for a pregnant dog. A typical gestation period for canine mothers is approximately fifty-seven to sixty-three days, and we received Mama at our shelter when she was roughly 60 days pregnant. She could go into labor at any minute. The x-rays done on Mama indicated she was carrying a litter of eight-ten babies, only weighing eighteen pounds herself. Mama was already in the advanced state of pregnancy and the shelter secured Jessica as a Foster parent to let her deliver her puppies naturally. However, this went against the shelters policy and mission statement of overpopulating and breeding. If Mama was only a few weeks into her pregnancy, the shelter would have considered aborting the pregnancy and spaying Mama dog in one procedure.

A pregnancy in a canine can be detected by twenty-eight days by an abdominal palpation and an ultrasound could be performed between twenty-five and thirty-five days. Visual indicators of pregnancy include increased food intake, weight gain and increased nipple size. Each puppy is formed in their own amniotic sac, formed in the mothers uterus to protect them from movement. Each puppy also has their own placenta, to receive nutrition from the mother. Mother dogs know to instinctively tear the amniotic sac and to lick the puppy to stimulate breathing and blood flow. At this point, she will also chew the umbilical cord to separate the baby. Her labor began at 8:14pm on a Sunday night in summer. Mama would pace the lengths of the kitchen enclosures and her breathing became short and rhythmic as the contractions became more severe and frequent. She was ravenous, as mother dogs typically avoid eating in the hours prior to going into labor. After approximately thirty minutes, her water broke, indicating the puppies would be joining us shortly. The first puppy arrived at 9:02pm, a small black and white male. Mama did exactly what was natural and expected of her. Once he had been fully cleaned she laid back in her whelping box and he began nursing immediately. The nursing process is repeated every few hours until the puppies are weaned off their mother’s milk around seven to eight weeks, when they are able to eat solid food on their own. Mother dogs also produce a form of milk called “colostrum” in the first crucial hours of birth. The colostrum is chock full of vital antibodies and can transfer from the mother to the puppies to give them “passive immunity” that aids in their growth and survival in their first few weeks of life. Puppies need to receive colostrum within twelve hours of being born, otherwise their digestive systems will not allow sizable antibodies anymore. Her second baby made his debut at approximately 10:20pm, another black and white male, smaller than his brother.

The third baby came roughly fifteen minutes later, and Mama began the third round of rituals. This time around, she clamped down too hard on the umbilical cord and the puppy began to bleed profusely. Jessica had the skillset and knowledge to fix the situation she had received from the Humane Society. She instructed me to go to the bathroom and find the dental floss, while she stayed with Mama and the puppies. She had me cut off a piece of floss about four inches long, with which she tied off the umbilical stump that inevitably saved his life. It was now 1:15am.

The fourth and fifth puppies were born within roughly forty-five minutes of each other, two more boys. At this time Jessica and I didn’t know how many more were to arrive or when. After changing the sheets, we fed Mama again, and banded the newborns in their colored neckbands. This step is done by many Foster parents of large litters to identity the puppies while they are still very young. We sat on the floor, waiting for the next arrivals.

At 2:36am another few strong pushes from Mama and out popped the sixth, finally a girl! At 3:05am the seventh boy was born and the next and final male puppy arrived at 4:11am. She finally relaxed into the whelping box, ceasing to yelp or groan. After nearly eight hours in labor, Mama was officially done. The smallest boy and second born, passed three days after birth. He was too tiny, and although he was trying, did not receive the nutrition needed for survival. Jessica removed the baby, and Mama attempted to lick the face for stimulation as she had done when the puppies were born.

Mama did show signs of mourning behaviors, pacing and whimpering in his absence. These behaviors were short lived and she returned to her healthy puppies to groom and nurse where she knew she was needed. The seven remaining puppies are thriving. They have opened their eyes, gained appropriate weight and will receive there first round of medical treatment at four weeks old. When they are weened, Mama the puppies will be spayed and neutered and put up for adoption shortly after. Mama’s labor encompassed the dual definition of labor. It was not only the act of childbirth, but a lot of hard, manual work.

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