As a shepherdess, I work daily with beautiful creatures that think and feel in ways I can only try to fathom. It is my role in their lives to attend to their needs, both physical and emotional, and to keep flock life moving on with an even keel. The problem is that sometimes it’s hard to know exactly the right thing to do.
This past Saturday, the weather was unusually mild for February in Iowa, so we decided to clean out the barn, leaving it fresher and with much better air quality, especially for the newborn lambs. It also provides an opportunity to re-segregate the different groups in the barn by moving the panels that divide the groups. At this stage in lambing, the space needs of each group are much different than they were before the first lamb was born, and the nice weather allowed us to look critically at each group’s space requirements and set up anew.
As we looked over each of the groups, my eyes fell upon Gabby, who had just the night before delivered three lambs, none of which survived. Unlike many ewes with a similar experience, she was adjusting well to her loss. Instead of calling after every lamb she saw, hoping that it was one of her own, she stood stoically in her pen, eating, drinking and resting after her difficult labor. My heart went out to this old friend, and I shed a tear for her as I imagined myself in her position. Now that she had no lambs to mother, I thought I would do her a kindness and move her out of the barn with all of its lamb-focused activity. When a ewe loses all of her lambs, I’ve usually moved her up into the group of open (unbred) ewes in the old Storage Barn to finish out the season with their friends there. On Saturday, I opened the gate to her pen, and began to walk, calling her to follow.
The two of us walked out of the Sheep Barn, across the driveway, and through the yard behind the house. I went slowly because Gabby had been terribly stressed recently, and I could see that she was unstable on her feet — but she followed willingly. Willingly, that is, to a certain point. As we came within sight of the small gate that led to the open ewes, recognition flared in her eyes and she quickly turned, running back to the Sheep Barn.
I grabbed a bucket and again led her toward the Storage Barn, talking softly about my reasons for moving her. She would be happier, I assured her, if she didn’t have to look at the lambs every day, if she wasn’t constantly reminded of her loss. Gabby pushed forward in pursuit of the bucket, and although I believed what I told her, I began to get a gnawing feeling that perhaps — for Gabby — this might not be true.
When I got her into the paddock with the open ewes, the entire group swarmed her, rubbing against her and greeting her as only old ovine friends can do. I left Gabby there to adjust to her new circumstances, but I was soon to find that readjustment was not what Gabby had in mind.
In very short order, as the rest of the group made their way back to the hay and barn, Gabby made her way to the west-most gate of the paddock where she began to call out. There were many of us working in the barn, and there was no doubt in anyone’s mind what Gabby was trying to tell us: she was desperately unhappy about her circumstances. She wanted to come back down.
Yet, I left her there, and for hours on end, she called. I kept thinking that she would adjust — that having to see bouncing frolicking lambs every day after the traumatic loss of her triplets could not be a help to her. As tears ran down my face, I plunged into the work of the day and steeled myself against her calls, knowing that she would have to stop soon.
After four and a half hours, I couldn’t take anymore. I walked up to Gabby in the paddock to have a talk and get this straightened out, one way or another.
As I came to Gabby, she rubbed her head against me, then looked to the Sheep Barn. I told the old girl that I knew she wanted lambs but we both knew that hers were gone. She looked forlornly to the barn full of lambs and called again. To any observer, our conversation would have sounded very one-sided — but to me, there was an exchange between two friends. It wasn’t long before we came to a compromise, and I opened the gate.
Gabby followed me back to the Sheep Barn where all the lambs frolicked, the clean-out long since completed. I stopped at the gate leading to the pasture that housed the ewes still waiting to deliver. These girls had access to the lambing barn and access to the outdoors. They could come and go at their leisure, and they had ample views of the new lambs in the mixing pen. To me, this was the best of both worlds for my friend. And Gabby was happy. She slowly ambled into the barn and took her place at the hay bale with her friends, occasionally raising her big head to watch the lambs frolic and play. My heart no longer felt its intense ache for my friend; I had, in the end, finally found a way to do her a kindness.