A late call

When we sell sheep to new shepherds, I wish they had an instruction manual describing in excruciating detail the many things that they need to do, to know, and to watch for in their first two years. If such a manual existed, it would be hundreds of pages long. The initial period of shepherding is the time of greatest risk to the sheep, when the flock is at the mercy of luck and little more. By the time the first two years have passed, the new shepherds have learned by doing and have usually survived many a crisis. They have developed their own knowledge base from which they can draw as they care for and save the usually-expanding flock in their care.

Since I know the dangers that lurk during this initial period, I add these new shepherds to my “emergency call list” — a list on my phone that will ring through, day or night. Although my phone shuts off from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m., these are the people who have the option to wake me whenever something arises in the hopes that I can try to help them avert whatever crisis looms. In this way, I hope to use my knowledge along with their observational skills as a teaching tool, hopefully saving their sheep in the process. Of course, this whole plan assumes that the people will actually call me before the crisis escalates — they must tap into the knowledge base before it’s too late; and honestly, when you are new to sheep, it’s hard to know exactly when a crisis looms.

Because of this, I encourage people to call before things seem dire, when they seem just “kind of off.” I know people don’t like to wake me in the middle of the night, but honestly, I would rather this happens than get a call when it is too late to intervene. I would rather be sleepy than have a dead sheep on my conscience. I remind them repeatedly to please call if there is any question, but they don’t always do so.

Rick and I have been traveling (the reason for this late blog post), and after many late nights and early mornings, we decided to get to sleep early and catch up on some of our lost sleep. Since we were in the Eastern Time Zone, we were an hour ahead of Iowa, and closing the heavy drapes and falling asleep at 9:30 p.m. seemed like heaven to both of us. Until my phone rang at a little after 10.

I was in that very deep sleep that I often experience during the first hours after I drift off. When I’m there, it often takes me a while to come fully awake — I can speak, but I’m not always coherent, and my mind is only half functional. As I answered the phone, I registered that I was talking to one of this year’s new shepherds, but I didn’t comprehend much more than that.

Slowly the story became clear. The husband and wife had been outside looking over their flock before dusk and noticed that one of the Romeldale lambs had seemed to be watching the fireflies — or was she? As they observed more carefully, she seemed to stagger a bit — a little drunk perhaps? What was up with her? The more they watched, the more it seemed that her behavior was not quite normal. They caught her, and the wife noticed that the lamb’s eyes were twitching a bit and not really focusing. The wife is a nurse, and in her heart knew that the lamb’s symptoms were not a good thing. She didn’t know why, but in spite of her husband’s thoughts that “maybe it would pass given some time,” she called me. And thank goodness!

They had a new flock, grazing along and within timber where piles of leaves and moist ground were common. Their new llama had likely chased away any deer, but I knew that this type of environment was perfect for the possible presence of meningeal worm. This internal parasite is pretty harmless to most whitetail deer, but when they get into sheep, it is a crisis. There is little time for treatment since once the first symptoms arrive, the worm is already destroying neurological tissue within the brain or spinal column. The symptoms can vary dramatically based on where the worm has made its home in the host — but regardless, it is deadly unless stopped early. If allowed to run its course, the worm invades some tissue that is necessary for life, and the sheep dies or needs to be euthanized.

Thankfully, these new shepherds called me early and we started treatment that night. Could this be some other neurological issue? Sure. Sheep polio — a vitamin deficiency — comes to mind. Since it’s easy to treat for both, they’re working to kill the worm over the course of 5 days using heavy doses of a dewormer that crosses the blood-brain barrier, and at the same time, they’re providing thiamine and a cortisone to reduce inflammation.

I get about one call each year from someone who ends up having a sheep with meningeal worm, usually in late August or September. By the time they call me, it’s usually too late — the sheep cannot stand or is blind or deaf. Seldom do I have anyone call because their sheep is slightly staggering or staring at fireflies. But that is what saved this lamb, at least so far. Right now I hold out great hope. Because they recognized that things were just a bit off, they may very well have saved Petal’s life.

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