As an investigator

As a caring shepherdess, I wear many hats. At various times, I must be a nutritionist, a labor and delivery nurse, an advertiser, a geneticist, and the list just goes on and on. One of the things I most like about shepherding is that there is seldom a dull day, and I never know what aspect of my work will be called for at any particular time. It definitely keeps things interesting!

Within the past 24 hours, probably my most obvious role has been one of investigator – in a couple of different ways. This morning, I walked out into the chicken yard to find quite a lot of soft black feathers blowing in the breeze. Now, it was possible that one of my darker chickens was molting, but honestly, there were a lot of them, and a lot of feathers tend to make me anxious. I immediately began to look for Veronica, knowing that of our chickens, she was the only black hen – and I could hear Brewster the rooster crowing on the other side of the coop.

I entered the coop, but Veronica was not there. This was unusual, since she is one of the chickens who nearly always greets me at the gate to the enclosure; if she isn’t there, then she is in the coop laying an egg. This morning, she was in neither place. I finally found her lying dead in the southeast corner of the chicken yard and my heart broke for my friend. I will miss her.

The many black feathers fluttering in the breeze let me know there was a problem in the chicken yard this morning.

Yet, I immediately donned my investigator’s cap. It wasn’t enough to know Veronica was dead – I needed to know why and how to try to prevent what had happened from coming to claim any more of the flock. As I looked, I could see that the life and death struggle began on the north end of the yard, and continued down the east boundary, finally ending with Veronica lying at the base of the lilac in the southeast corner. As I looked her over, I could see that whatever it was had eaten her head and crop – a sign of raccoon predation. In that corner on the outside of the yard fence sat the big lilac bush that I have been debating trimming. It provides shade for my chickens on hot days, but it also provides predators with good climbing brush that takes them up near the top of the yard fence. A talented raccoon could probably jump from the lilac into the yard. It would be quite the spectacular jump, but if the raccoon was light enough to get up high and agile enough to miss the hot wires at the top, it was in – and that is what I think happened.

I immediately removed what remained of Veronica and trimmed the lilac back so that even the most talented raccoon would have to hit the electrified wires on its way in – a sure deterrent. My investigation concluded, I swapped hats for my farmer’s chore hat and finished up outside, then coming into the house to attend to my emails. There in my inbox was an exchange between two friends that I knew would require that investigator’s hat once again.

Months ago, we found an ill ewe lamb on a Saturday afternoon. She was scouring a dark green liquid and was running a high fever. I have a mental Rolodex that immediately begins flipping whenever I encounter a sick sheep, and this was no exception. There are two common causes of scouring in sheep: coccidiosis and E. coli. Each of these has its own color and odor, and I know them well. Although we don’t have a lot of cases in any given year, we’ve seen each of these enough times that they are easily recognized and treated – and this wasn’t either of those. The color was all wrong and it didn’t smell right either. In the end, I treated the fever with an antibiotic that I had on-hand, since I knew the vet’s office was already closed. I figured that if it didn’t work, I would call the after-hours number the next day – but it did work, and within about 24 hours of initial treatment, the ewe lamb was as good as new. Problem solved!

About a week later, we found a ram lamb with similar symptoms. He had the same dark green liquid running out of him and an even higher fever – so high that I was concerned that it would cook him from the inside. We treated him with the same antibiotic and also with an aspirin equivalent. Once again, he bounced back quickly, but the fact that I had now seen two cases in my flock – and that I had never seen or heard of this before – had me wondering. I asked my vet when I next saw him.

The problem was, however, that his response was that it was an FUO – a fever of unknown origin. Since I had discovered a successful treatment, he suggested I just continue to treat in the same way. Yet, I couldn’t help wondering what the cause of this fever might have been. It seemed bacterial, since it responded so well to the antibiotic, but I had no idea how to chase down the cause. That’s where the email came in.

The email in my inbox was a conversation between a shepherdess friend of mine who had also seen this in her flock this year and another shepherdess friend who happens to be a vet. At this point, I have seen or heard of this mysterious bacterial infection in four or five flocks this year – but never before this year. I really want to get an idea of what it is and why we are suddenly seeing it in flocks this year. My investigator’s curiosity wants answers – it isn’t enough for me to know how to treat – I would also like to know how to prevent and why it is now here. Our veterinary friend suggested a conversation with our local vets to get the supplies needed to culture a stool sample and possibly draw blood from the next lamb we find with these symptoms. We’ve already done fecal samples from infected lambs and they were less than illuminating, ruling out coccidia and other typical sheep parasites.

Although the investigation into Veronica’s death has been – I hope – closed, the investigation into the mysterious illness in these few lambs continues. I hope we never see it again, but if we do, we are ready to investigate further. After all, it’s part of my role as a caring shepherdess. It’s what I do.

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