Sunday, May 19, 2013


photo by Kate Andrews

Sheep don’t show age like humans. Christmas, our oldest ewe, doesn’t have wrinkles. Sheep’s  faces age by softening the edges. A young sheep has firm features, like a ceramic figure, an old sheep has rounded features, more like a stuffed animal. Even thin old sheep have soft faces. Most people age sheep by counting their teeth and judging the wear on those teeth. We’ve never learned the technique, mostly because we haven’t needed to. I don’t sell our cull sheep, the ones I no longer want in the flock. If they are bad mothers we turn them into “bad mother jerky”; if they have been good mothers, we keep them, but don’t breed them, their fleeces are shorn and sold each year and they continue to greet us when we enter the barnyard.

We think that Christmas had a stroke last summer. She walks on her front ankles instead of her front feet, but she doesn’t complain. She moves around enough to feed herself. I was afraid this winter would be really hard on her, but I think it has been easier than last summer. She suffered from the heat in the summer and our pastures are big enough that she had to move a lot for food and water. This winter, she lounged in the barn or in the sun on a hillside. When Dave fed corn to the ewes in the feed area, he spilled a little at Christmas’ feet. 

Lately, every day, when I go out to the barnyard I am surprised to find her still alive, resting against a wall or the hay feeder. When she lies on her side, she can’t get up very well and I think she has trouble breathing, so she is almost always resting against something.

A week ago, I saw a ewe chase Christmas across the field and butt her, knocking her over. Christmas fell onto her side, with her head facing down hill. She struggled, waving her feet, but couldn’t get up. With her head down like that, her abdominal contents would be pressing against her diaphragm, making it even harder for her to breathe.I rolled her onto her belly and brushed the hay off her fleece. She looked up at me, completely unafraid. I stroked her face, watched her brown eyes, noted her calm breathing. She licked my hand. Some day I’m not going to be there when she gets knocked down. Someday, she won’t be strong enough to crawl to the waterer.  

Some day Christmas will die and I can’t protect her from that. The only way that I can save her from suffering sometime in the future is to kill her now. It could be justified. She is old, at least fifteen. We don’t sell her fleece anymore because it is always full of veggies. We don’t breed her anymore because she couldn’t feed her lambs. It makes sense to kill an aging ewe, but I can’t. And I can’t ask Dave to. I could take her to the vet, and pay him to do it for me, but I'm not quite ready. 

In the last few days, Christmas has been stuck at the bottom of a hill in our home pasture, against the fence. Sometimes lying on one side, sometimes on the other. She still responds to me when I take her corn and water, still eats the corn and drinks some water when I get her up, but she doesn't get up and walk on her own anymore. Tonight we pulled her up to the barn in a big sled. She should be more comfortable there.

Aging is not for sissies, and neither is caring for aging animals.

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