Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Peri's reprieve

Ken literally had the whetted knife in hand, ready to put her out of her suffering. The wheelbarrow was standing by to cart her body to the compost heap down by the woods. I was already starting to cry for the loss of my favorite ewe.

But Peri was not finished yet.


The leg that had been mysteriously lame for some time now had--instead of getting better--suddenly started to swell and fester. Today, the swelling burst, leaving a horrible gaping hole that stank and already swarmed with maggots.

When I smelled the stink and saw the hole that went all the way down in between the leg bones, I went to get Ken. "I think we have to kill Peri," I said. "I don't think we can save her now."

For more than a week, I had not been able to find any cause for her sudden severe lameness. The leg did not appear to be broken, and had no obvious sign of injury. It was not until today that a fellow shepherd suggested that perhaps she'd been snakebit. As soon as I heard that, I was sure that's what had happened. It made more sense than any of my other guesses.

It's a hard fact of running a farm: No matter how much I love my sheep, they are not pets. They don't get the kind of extreme measures of veterinary care that someone's favorite cat or dog might get. Particularly right now, when the farm is hurting so for money, we have to weigh very carefully the costs vs. benefits of how far we will go to keep an animal alive that may not ever give any value back to the farm.

That's a hard, hard reality for an animal lover like myself to cope with, but my commitment to the farm as a whole has to come before my commitment to any one animal.

In Peri's case, she was already teetering on the borderline. You see, Peri may have an excellent build, superb bloodlines, and be one of the prettiest sheep I own, but she has one fatal flaw. She has very poor heat tolerance.

Icelandic sheep prefer cool weather. After all, they've lived in chilly Iceland for 1,100 years and were only imported to this continent two decades ago. So it's no big surprise that Virginia summers, with months of sweltering 90-degree, high-humidity weather can be a challenge for this otherwise hardy breed.

Some strains of Icelandic sheep do very well in the heat. I have started selectively breeding some of those bloodlines to build my flock's heat tolerance. But poor Peri is not one of those strains. Every year when the worst of the heat hits, she develops all the symptoms of what I call "the summer syndrome"--weakness, weight loss, parasite overload, anemia. Each year, I treat the problem and Peri recovers. But each year it gets harder and requires more intervention. At some point, I had to consider whether I wanted to continue propagating this bloodline in my flock.

Watching Peri struggle with her "summer syndrome" this past month, I came to the difficult decision that, if she recovered, I would keep her for one more year, breed her one more time to one of my very heat-resistant rams in hopes of getting a couple of replacement lambs from her that would have better heat tolerance. After that, Peri would be culled for the good of the flock as a whole.

That was when, overnight, she suddenly came up lame. We put her in a pen by herself where she wouldn't get jostled by other sheep and wouldn't have to walk very far to get feed. But as her heat-stress symptoms abated, her leg got worse... all the way up until today.

We were planning to cull her next year anyway. So when I saw how bad her leg looked today, it seemed like the kindest thing to do would be to move up the execution date so she wouldn't have to keep suffering.

But Peri had other ideas.

Literally, Ken had the knife in his hand. The wheelbarrow was there by the fence. Tears were streaming down my cheeks as we opened the gate. "Is this the right thing to do?" I asked Ken. "I mean, we can't save her, can we? Her leg is so bad!"

At that moment, Peri hopped up on her three good legs, hobbled over to her pile of feed, and started eating. In her manner was nothing of a sheep that has given up the will to live. Normally a fairly shy and skittish sheep, now she looked at us cheerfully, as if to say, "So, you've come to fix this little problem at last, eh? And about time, too."

I couldn't bear to do it. Ken, equally soft-hearted, said, "Let's try to clean it out and bandage it. The worst thing that can come of it is she'll die. But she doesn't look like she's in that much pain yet."

So Ken put down the knife, and I went to fetch bandages. Ken held her in place while I cleaned the wound as best I could, applied antibiotic ointment and bandages, and gave her shots of antibiotics and an anti-inflammatory. Times like this are the reason that our pantry has ended up being more of a veterinary supply depot.

I don't know if Peri will survive this. What I do know is that her courage, grit, and will to live are the epitome of everything I admire so much about this breed.

Any human in this situation would be prostrated and in shock from the pain and fear. When I left Peri for the evening, she was hungrily eating her bowl of grain as if nothing at all was wrong.

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