Why I shot my lamb.

Stories from the farm.
May 4 2007 12:36 PM

Why I Shot My Lamb

And why I want to shoot my neighbor's lamb, too.

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Harry and Peggy had a different perspective. They measured humanity by how much they were willing to do. Their lamb also grew sluggish and weak, seemed to have trouble seeing, and began losing big patches of fleece, leaving him defenseless against the winter cold. So, they brought him into their house and kept him in a spare bedroom, fashioning a bed of blankets and bringing him water and fresh hay. Online, where they found a number of mailing lists and sites that shared their frustration at a vet's inability to do more than prescribe antibiotics, they ordered herbal remedies, plus vitamins and milk supplements, and they began an alternative therapy regimen. Lamb 83 spent the winter in the guest bedroom, drinking milk and medicines from a bottle and eating a bit of hay. Harry and Peggy cleaned the room regularly, but it was hard to keep it from becoming a smelly mess.

They told me that they felt their responsibility was to not give up on the lamb, no matter what. I heard people praising their devotion. Our large-animal vet and I were troubled by their actions. She understood the couple's dedication but said it made her uneasy. "You can't ever be sure, but that's not a healthy animal," she said. "I think he'll die shortly, and he'll suffer in the process. And so many animals don't get minimal health care."

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Although I hear it all the time, I was taken aback—a bit chilled, in fact—to hear a fellow guest on a recent TV news panel declare with pride and passion that to her, and to millions of others, "Our pets are our children." I love and live with animals, and I'm committed to giving them the best lives I can, but they are not my children. I would be truly horrified if my daughter thought for a moment that the loss of even a beloved dog was equivalent to her life or death. Besides, running a farm with dogs, donkeys, sheep, cows, cats, and chickens, I literally can't afford to look at animals as children, even if I wanted to. Real farmers who depend on livestock for their livelihoods have to be even more rigorous.

In March, Harry and Peggy brought Lamb 83 back outside to the sheep pen. I saw him for the first time in several months. It was disturbing.  He was stooped, his head hanging. With patches of his skin still bare, he needed a special coat that wrapped around his midsection.  Obviously weak, half the size of the other lambs born about the same time, he struggled to stand and walk. There was no way this poor creature could have survived a day in a sheep's natural and dangerous world, outdoors, mobile, part of a flock. 

My god, I thought, he looks like a concentration-camp sheep.

How curious that good people were looking at the same animal from such wildly opposing perspectives. Harry and Peggy, doing what they thought right, had put enormous effort into this lamb's survival. I wished I had kept him. And I wished I had killed him.

This was the third time I've given away a lamb as a pet, and it's always come to what I'd consider a bad end. The first spent so much time in an indoor mudroom that he lost the ability to live like a sheep and was killed and eaten. The second, walked around on a leash by adoring children, never learned to flock with other sheep for protection and got killed by a stray dog.  In both cases, I wound up thinking that the people who'd raised them, however caring, ultimately had been more concerned with their own emotional gratification than the lambs' needs.

Harry and Peggy are still my friends, good people who love animals. The saga of Lamb 83 doesn't change that. But I'll never again give away one of my lambs as a pet.

Jon Katz’s latest book, Going Home: Finding Peace When Pets Die, was published by Random House last October. You can visit him at www.bedlamfarm.com and http://www.facebook.com/BedlamFarm or email him at jon@bedlamfarm.com.

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