Thursday, March 15, 2012

Facing Death

I have always been an animal lover. As a girl, I collected a menagerie of animals, including rabbits, pigeons, ferrets, cats, dogs, horses, and a one-legged duck. It was well known that I might come home with a new animal at any time. Anthony, having mostly known me as a city girl, did not truly understand this aspect of my nature. He's starting to now, though.

This time around, I am starting out slowly (perhaps having two small children is one of the reasons for this?). Last year we only acquired two cats and five chickens. I have plans for many more, but haven't quite gotten around to it yet.

Until a couple of weeks ago, when a neighbor informed me that another neighbor would be reducing their herd of Shetland sheep (aka putting them in the freezer) and wanted to know would I take the super sweet one that her daughter loves?

Without missing a beat, I said Yes!

Somewhere in my future were plans to raise sheep. Perhaps not this soon, but why not? Especially when I read up on Shetlands and learned that they are good mothers and easy lambers, incredibly hardy, and good for wool and meat. I wanted to raise some meat lambs anyway and also want to get into spinning, so acquiring some sheep seemed natural. And we also have so much pasture (and two resident sheep of my parents') that it would be easy.

So last weekend, our lovely neighbors trucked over the beginnings of our sheep herd (I didn't get any pictures because it was raining so hard, but oh I wish I had! You should have seen those sheep in their oversized pet carriers - Shetlands are small). Maggie, Patience, and Laura where introduced to their new home.

Having animals enriches my life. The cats, the chickens, and now the sheep have made our experience here more joyous and alive. I love taking care of the animals with my kids. It gives us purpose and teaches us so much. We had a great time feeding our new sheep hay and grain so they would get used to us and love us.

Patience and Laura were pretty convinced they wanted nothing to do with us, grain or no grain. But Maggie was different. She had been loved on by our neighbors' daughter from the time she was a lamb, and she was a sweetheart. Clear greenish eyes, lovely curly creamy wool. And she loved grain. She would eat it out of Jai's and Mina's hands, and she would stick around for lots of loves afterwards. We were all taken with her.

Yesterday morning I woke up to find Anthony peering out of the bathroom window. "What is that out in the field?" he asked, although I'm sure he already knew. I took one look, threw on my coat and ran outside, praying, don't let it be Maggie.

It wasn't. It was Patience. Her eyes were glossy in death, and her hind-end had been eaten away.

Farther down the hill I found Maggie. She was untouched, except for the wound on her neck that had killed her. Laura huddled miserably with the other two sheep (who are huge compared to the Shetlands and thus fairly safe from attack). It had snowed the day before, so I was able to look around for tracks. Even though everyone around here is quick to blame cougars for sheep deaths, I'm pretty sure it was coyotes. Most sheep are too large for a coyote, but the Shetlands are little.

The morning felt sinister. The crows gathered on Patience. I felt sick.

It's easy to think of the predatory animals as the bad ones, the sheep as the poor sweet victims. But I know this is part of living out in the woods with animals. This is part of being a farmer. Death is part of life. The coyotes were only being coyotes.

After Jai came home from school, he looked at the sheep with me, and we talked about death. We have never hidden death from him, although he had never before had the opportunity to see such a graphic show of it. He took it matter-of-a-factly and with much curiosity (although he did say he wished it was Laura who had been killed instead of Maggie). We talked about Spirit, God, and how Maggie and Patience will be buried and turn into the earth from which they came. Death is life, and life is death.

Before burying Maggie, we sheared off her beautiful creamy wool. In doing so, I felt like I had faced one of my demons. As I said earlier, I have always been an animal lover, and death of an animal was something that traumatized me, something I avoided. But now, after having dealt with my dead sheep, in the company of my children, I have empowered myself. I honored Maggie by shearing her wool. I took care of my animals by taking care of their deaths. I am sad, but I hold no anger towards the coyotes. They were only acting out their true nature.

Maggie and Patience, I thank you for the joy you brought us. I thank you for the experience of caring for you. I thank you even for your death, and the learning and experience it brought me and my family. May you rest in peace and in love.

p.s. Now I will not only be getting more sheep, but also an Alpaca for protection....stay tuned.


  1. That's so sad about the sheep! I have to admit, I did laugh at the fact that Jai wished it was "Laura". What a little Smarty pants :)