Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A fearful thing

Snow White is the most beautiful sheep I have ever seen. She has a silver gray fleece, a dark gray head and white eyeliner around her eyes. She’s a small ewe, with a distinct personality. She has presence, elegance. If the other ewes were going out drinking, she would gently decline and no one would think the worse of her.
She’s been hanging out in the barn for the last week or so and I’ve been expecting to find her in the corner industriously licking a new baby every time I go out to the barn. This afternoon, there was a clear stream of amniotic fluid hanging from her vulva. It was time.
Dave and I allowed her to get on with her labor. We fed and watered the ewes in jugs. We moved three moms and their babies from jugs to the group pen to open up some jugs. We put in ear tags and docked tails on five sets of lambs. Snow White’s labor didn’t seem to have progressed ini that hour, but some ewes don’t labor well in the hustle and bustle shepherds create in the barn. So we left, determined to give her peace.
Half an hour later, when I returned to the barn, Snow White was in her corner, but still no lamb. I walked up to her, speaking softly. “Hello, Lady, let’s see what’s going on.” I held out my hand. Snow White watched me with her big brown eyes and then sniffed my hand.
I knelt beside her, reached under her taut belly, grabbed the legs on the other side of her body and pulled. Snow White fell to the ground. I leaned against her belly and pushed my hand into her vagina. Her pelvic opening was small. There was barely room for my hand and the lamb’s legs. One hoof, two. No head that I could feel. The legs seemed to be attached to each other far inside the clingy confines of Snow White’s uterus. No tail either. What was this presentation?
I clutched the tiny hooves and pulled. They pulled back. Obviously I wasn’t going to get this lamb out on my own. Dave’s hands are bigger than mine, but he is stronger than I am, so when we need strength, he does the pulling on hard deliveries. I leaned on Snow White’s chest. She smelled like clean wool, not at all like the barn. She turned her head and licked my hand, still covered with amniotic fluid.
“I’ve found the head,” Dave said, “but it’s not facing the right direction. These must not be front feet.” We were both trying to visualize what we had felt, to make sense of the angles and shapes under our fingers.
I could hear liquid sounds from Snow White’s vagina. She kept licking my hand. “Okay, I’ve got a head and a leg. I can feel the shoulder. Can I deliver it this way?”
“You should be able to,” I said, straining to hold Snow White in place as she strained to birth Dave’s hand and her lamb.
“Hold her.” Dave said through gritted teeth. He pulled the glistening black lamb from Snow White and handed him to me. I watched the lamb’s head swing, as if unconnected to its body. “It was moving before that last pull,” Dave said, tiredness in his voice.
We tried to revive the lamb. I rubbed its little body. Dave breathed into its mouth and nose. But nothing could fix a dislocated spine. The pull that had finally removed the lamb from Snow White’s body had broken its neck, shutting down heart beat and instincts to breathe.
We left Snow White licking her dead lamb. After awhile she would realize that this lamb would not get up and demand to nurse. She would try to find the little black lamb she knew she had birthed, wandering the barnyard, calling plaintively, a call that would not be returned. She would sniff all the black lambs she found, hoping to recognize her lamb, until finally, the instincts that drove her would ease and she would stop looking, stop crying.
I don’t know if sheep remember sorrow, but I do. Now, when I look at Snow White, I know that her elegance is touched with loss. It is a fearful thing to love that which death can touch.


  1. and yet we continue to love, deeply and strongly. Thank you for telling this story.

  2. Lovely post Joanie. So sorry for the loss.