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.

Listen to the MP3 audio version of this story here, or sign up for Slate's free daily podcast on iTunes.

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.

Advertisement

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.

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."

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.

  Slate Plus
Slate Archives
Dec. 22 2014 3:01 PM Slate Voice: “Santa Should Not Be a White Man Anymore” Aisha Harris reads her piece on giving St. Nick a makeover.