Elderly sheep and hard decisions 7/11/10

The two virile, over-fed Border Leicesters departed on Monday to live on a farm with others just like themselves, to our great relief. It’s a “fiber farm,” rather than a production operation, and the children are involved in 4-H and are used to handling big, strong sheep. Since both these sheep had fleeces so lovely they sold on the day of shearing, I know the new owners will enjoy them, also. The other sheep there are young and strong, just as boisterous as ours, so they’ll be better matched to a joyful life of head-butting and grazing, which all young sheep enjoy!

Now that Biden and ‘Bama (you guessed it–one white sheep, one black–we got them just before the ’08 election) are in a new home, my four remaining elderly sheep now have a peaceful barn again. These sheep were all born here, and are beyond the days of butting heads as entertainment. However, they had aged to a place where they could no longer protect themselves against young sheep who were in their prime. Because of this, a month ago, we lost Leah, our white Romney, aged 13, one of our first sheep.  She couldn’t get out of the way in time, and was knocked down by the stampede in the doorway of the barn. We didn’t find her until morning, cold and wet from the thunderstorm that occurred that night, lying right across the doorway of the barn. I rolled her over onto her feet, and she stood up and walked into the barn. She picked her comfortable spot and lay down in the corner, and I toweled her off, and put a pat of dry straw on her to keep her warmth in, while she dozed. By noon she was up and around in the barn again. Two nights later it happened again, she had a worse head injury than the first, and was only half-alert. We called the vet to put her down, since her arthritis had already been a problem, and now it appeared she also had a dislocated shoulder.

I have trouble with these decisions, but animals have no concept of suffering for some purpose. They only want to “be a sheep,” and when they can’t get up, butt heads, graze in the pasture, or defend their food dish from the others who want the same food, although there are three other food dishes right there, they stoically suffer pain. They withdraw into themselves, they can’t get to the food or water buckets, and it’s not long before they pass away. But in the meantime, they’re in pain, they’re hungry and thirsty, the other sheep literally walk right over them, stumble over them, roll them over as they walk over them, and come up to them and butt them hard in the side or the back, because this is a normal barnyard. I choose not to let a pet suffer the bullying of the healthy sheep who know this one is helpless, and they want the space she takes up, as well as her food.  I’ve learned a good deal about life in the workplace from watching these barnyard players.

Only five weeks later, we had to put down one of the 12-year-old triplets, Spot, because of severe arthritis. I’ve been doing “nursing home care” for him for the past month, bringing him food and water. He had also been knocked down in the door of the barn one night around that same time, and we found him the next morning. His last couple of days he never even left the barn, so we decided his time had come. As I always do, when one of the sheep has to be put down, the sheep got a feast.  I went to the far end of the yard where Spot hasn’t been able to get to for months, and got all his favorite munchies from there, filled a cart full with goodies for all of them: sweet gum, tulip tree, pine branches, briars, honeysuckle, other tall weeds, and the string beans from my garden that have finished bearing, and a couple sunflowers the goldfinches had already eaten. They ate all they could hold of good greens, and are happily resting now. It’s the best I can do to send him off with a tummy full of what he most loves to eat, and having had a feast with all the sheep, more than they can eat, so there’s not the ruthless competition for the favorite greens. Also, I don’t feel quite as bad about putting down a sheep we’ve loved for 12 years. He was the “dominant wether,” always proudly at the head of the flock. And now he can’t even walk. So we called the vet to come and put him down.

So the four remaining sheep are wondering where all the rest of the sheep went, and the barn looks bigger than it used to. We’re in the process of adjusting our amount of feed down to be enough, but not too much, for the ones we still have.

Late that evening, I went down to the barn like I’ve had the habit of doing for the past couple of months, at around 11 p.m., put more ice in their water in the barn, just checked on everyone. They were looking around for Spot, looking inside, looking outside. I thought they had known what happened when we took him out, but I guess they don’t remember long. Who knows the mind of the sheep? I talked with them, scratched them behind the ears, put the last of their three dishes of grain all together in one and put a little more bicarb on the feed (to prevent bloating), since they had more greens today than they’ve had at the same time for a month. We’ve gone from eight sheep to four, in a month, a big change for us, as well as for them. They’re all healthy, just all elderly. So we’ll now be able to bring them up in the yard again soon, when it cools off a little. Spot couldn’t make that walk any longer, so we didn’t leave him alone in the barn with the others up the hill. Dirk watered the clover today…  We’re in a drought again, so there’s not very much grass in the yard in any case.

I hope this heat spell breaks soon–I get tired just opening the door, and feeling that hot, wet air that’s so heavy to even breathe, never mind walk and do gardening in.  The house next door is still vacant due to  foreclosure. We grazed the sheep on their side lawn for a while, then Dirk mowed it, and I’ve been trimming low-hanging tree branches of things the sheep like, also I cut down the young trees growing up in her flower beds, to feed to the sheep, so it doesn’t look quite so desolate, and the sheep get a wider variety of nutrients.  So life goes on. I don my sweat band, gloves, and spray my long pants with Permanone, and head for the garden,  rich in black soil from all these years of composting the good manure from the barn to make vegetables years later. I remember fondly the spinning workshop a few years ago when Ron and Naomi Bloom came from NYC to spend a weekend, and not only did Ron learn to spin, and Naomi took pictures of the shearing we had that weekend, but also she stocked up on earthworms for her vermiculture activities in New York! Even in March, I know where to find lots of earthworms, and we gave her many to take back in a milk jug with one side removed, for easy transport–even with a handle in place!  Naomi later published a story about their adventures here, in:  For the Love of Knitting, Cornell,K.ed. (2004), Stillwater, MN: Voyager Press, “The Accidental Spinner, pp.53-60. Follow Naomi’s activities in knitting, spinning and gardening on her web site,  http://cityworm.com/ronspins.htm. I enjoy reading about her knitted earthworms, her little condom/purse pockets (I use a similar pattern for shelter women as I teach crocheting there).

It’s a good feeling, to be in a circle of shepherds, of knitters, of gardeners, of spinners–it makes the world feel like a more friendly place.

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