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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A lamb. Click image to expand.
A lamb from the author's farm

I gave away lamb No. 83 last fall, along with his twin and his mother. I don't plan to do that again.

I have 26 Tunis ewes, rams, and wethers (neutered males) on my upstate New York farm. To keep the flock at a healthy, manageable size, I sell some lambs to market. I keep the rest so that my border collies and I can practice their sheepherding.

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I made an exception last year, though. Harry and his girlfriend, Peggy—I've changed their names—had moved from suburban Westchester to a small farm near me with a barn and 10 acres of pasture. They bought three horses and, like me, found the rhythms of their days beginning to center around animals. Warm, funny, and smart, they became good friends, part of the community of refugees, misfits, and idealists building new lives in the country. I noticed that they'd brought the contemporary urban sensibility about animals with them: a love approaching reverence, and a conviction that preserving their lives at almost any cost is a moral imperative. They saw their animals, including several dogs and cats they assured me had been abused before their rescue, as family members.

Harry and Peggy developed a visceral distrust, partly Internet-fed, of virtually all companies that manufacture pet food—the recent recall confirmed their suspicions. They were skeptical of veterinarians, too.

They loved visiting my place, and they yearned to adopt some sheep, especially lambs. (Since I sold some for meat, I'm sure Harry and Peggy saw lamb adoption as a rescue, too.) "Awww," they crooned as lambing season progressed, "they are so cute!"  And they were right: Grown sheep don't do much for me in terms of personality—I don't even give mine names, but track them by their numbered ear tags. But lambs are playful and curious. They literally gambol.

"We would so love to have some lambs," Peggy wheedled.  She seemed particularly drawn to a ewe, No. 72, who'd just had fraternal twins, Nos. 82 and 83.  "We would take great care of them."

The lambs would continue nursing for several months, so if I gave any away, their mothers would have to go with them. But I thought the couple would indeed care well for these three. So, Harry and Peggy took the sheep home in their truck and, as good as their word, fenced a stretch of pasture for them. They bought quality hay and grain for winter feeding. They named the sheep, brushed them, brought them apples and carrots.  And they thanked me often for their new additions. 

But during the winter, Lamb 83 got sick with a mysterious infection. The same illness hit one of my own lambs, too. Both animals grew weak and disoriented. I called the large-animal vet, who examined my lamb and confessed she didn't know what was wrong. We both knew the veterinary axiom—Sick Sheep Seldom Survive. In my experience, it's true. My lamb could barely stand. He seemed confused and uncomfortable. I put him in a lambing pen, administered antibiotics, tried bottle-feeding. But over four days, his condition worsened. Patches of his fleece were peeling off; his eyes grew rheumy and his breathing labored. 

I carried him out behind the pig barn—he weighed almost nothing—told him how sorry I was, and shot him twice in the back of the head with my .22. He died instantly.

The vet was in full accord. Killing with a gun was swifter, less frightening, and therefore more humane, she said, than having a stranger poking around for a vein to give a lethal injection. (It was not the first time that farm life had challenged my earlier, more conventional notions of what was humane.) Shooting a lamb is not an easy thing to do, yet the decision was not hard to make. This lamb was suffering, there seemed no effective treatment, and he could endanger the rest of the flock.

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