Friday, February 27, 2009


Dave and I walked out to the barn with heavy hearts. We had decided that the best thing to do for Available and her lambs was to take the lambs by caesarian section.

“The longer you wait,” Dr. Weckwerth, one of our veterinarians told us, “the less chance the lambs will have.” We knew that Available had no chance. Her muscles just weren’t working well enough for her uterus to contract and deliver her lambs. She couldn’t regulate her own metabolism. She was old. We had never had a ewe survive a caesarian, even one done by a vet in his office. If we didn’t get the lambs out of Available, she would die over the next week from a uterine infection and her lambs would die too.

“When we choose to do something, we take responsibility, and it’s hard,” Dave said to me as we stepped into the barn, “but not doing something is also making a decision.” We couldn’t make the decision to not do something. We had to stop Available’s suffering and try to save her lambs. Fortunately, we had a choice that would do both, but it wasn’t an easy choice.

The ewes had begun moving into the barn for the night. They were oblivious to what was going on in the hospital pen where Available lay, shivering and struggling to breathe under two heat lamps.

I stacked a pile of old towels on the straw covered floor next to Available. Her golden eyes watched us, unafraid or too sick to care. I held her on her side as Dave gave her the anesthetic. Then he picked up the scalpel and made an incision through the walls of her belly and into her uterus.

“Here’s a lamb,” he said as amniotic fluid washed onto the floor. He handed me a yellow stained lamb and returned to the uterus, looking and feeling for a second baby.

I grabbed a towel and wiped it over the baby’s head, trying to clear the amniotic fluid from his lungs. The I started rubbing the little body with the towel. His neck flexed and his head jerked. “Yes!” I gasped with him.

By the time Dave pulled a second lamb from it’s dying mother, the first lamb was breathing and trying to lift it’s head.

I swiped the towel across the second lamb’s head , pulling the amniotic fluid away from it’s mouth and nose. The I began rubbing the second lamb’s body, encouraging it to breathe. His mother would have done this with her tongue if she could have. This lamb had to make do with a shepherdess and an old blue towel.

Finally Dave pulled a third lamb from it’s dead mother’s uterus. I grabbed a dry towel and repeated the process I’d used on the first two lambs. But this lamb didn’t start to breathe.

It seemed perfect, a big healthy looking lamb with a pure white, tightly curled fleece; but it just didn’t breather. It’s head hung limp. I rubbed and scrubbed and dropped the lamb onto the ground a few times. It opened big brown eyes. I could feel the beat of it’s heart, but it wouldn’t take a breath.

Dave knelt in the straw and covered the lamb’s mouth and nose with his own mouth. He breathed in and I saw the lamb’s ribs move. He repeated the breath again and again. This time, when Dave raised his head, the lamb’s nostrils twitched and her ribs expanded. She was breathing on her own.

I settled the lambs under three heat lamps and continued drying them while Dave cleaned up the hospital pen and spread fresh straw on the barn floor. Then he went to the house to mix up some colostrum to feed the newborns. They sucked enthusiastically from the bottle and settled down in the golden straw, shivering a little, but all alive and all healthy.

The decision to kill an animal that we have struggled to save is the hardest decision we ever make with the sheep. The decision to cut into an animal in a way that you know will cause her death is almost unbearable. But the sheep are our responsibility and we must make those decisions. And sometimes, those decisions prove to be good, both for the suffering ewe and for her three healthy babies.

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