Tough Night at the Barn

The vet had to put down my three-year-old ewe, Kiwi, last Friday night. It was completely unexpected and I’m still baffled.

I liked Kiwi. She was a twin daughter of my ewe Clover and had a broad, friendly face and lop ears. She’d delivered her first lamb, a single ram, on February 23, with no trouble. (See photo above, taken hours after birth; all the sheep were shorn two weeks later.) She was a good, solicitous mother and her lamb, like her, had a wide Romney face and soon shared her round, stocky build.

On Friday I did evening chores as usual. The sheep rushed into the barn first, then the horses, then the cows. I was about to shut the gate when I realized one ewe and lamb were still outside. It was Kiwi and her boy.

When I went close I saw that Kiwi was trembling and standing stock still. She was also bloated as if she were suddenly pregnant again, this time with twins.

Oh my goodness. Bloat.

All owners of ruminants (cows, sheep, goats) fear bloat. Essentially, something goes wrong with the three-stomach plumbing, digestion stops, and the animal fills up with gas. The internal pressure can quickly suffocate and kill them. Often the first hint of a problem is finding your animal dead.

I called my vet.

“Do you want me to come out?”

“Well — ” A emergency call, I knew, would be at least $200. Money is so tight. It would take him 45 minutes to drive out. Maybe I could figure it out on my own.  “I’ve read about dealing with bloat.”

“You won’t be able to do it yourself.”

“OK. Yes. Thank you.”

It was past supper time now. DH was in New Hampshire. After a hectic week Lucy and I had planned on a quiet mother/daughter evening. Oh well.

While I waited for David, the vet, to arrive, I turned the horses and cows back out, and then pushed and pulled poor Kiwi into Punch’s small box stall. In the box next door was Smoky, a yearling ewe due to lamb at any moment. Kiwi walked stiffly, in obvious discomfort. When she got into the stall she collapsed, exhausted. Her belly was blown up tight.

Normally when you separate a lamb from his mother there are frantic bleatings. However Kiwi’s lamb had taken advantage of her immobility in the pasture to nurse his fill. He slept quietly with the flock.

The barn driveway was mired in deep mud. David had to park his truck near the road and slog down to the barn, carrying a bucket and his tools. He and his partner have taken care of my animals for 25 years. We’re all about the same age and moved to the area at the same time. David set down his case and knelt next to Kiwi.

“Hmm,” he said. He’d brought an adjustable halter but there was no need for it. Kiwi just lay there, miserable. He palpated her distended abdomen.

“It’s bloat, right?”

“Well, she’s bloated, all right — but I’m not sure it’s bloat.” He took her temperature. Over 105°. Bloat doesn’t cause a fever. “Hmm.”

He shaved a swath of Kiwi’s fleece high up on her left side, and washed the area. Then he stuck her with a large-gauge needle. (This is what I’d read about doing.) If Kiwi’s rumen were filled with gas, we should have heard her deflating like a bicycle tire. No. He stuck her several more places. No. Kiwi grunted uncomfortably.

“Sorry,” David apologized to the sheep. “Just one more.” It didn’t work.

He hiked back up to his truck and returned with a length of narrow hose, to try tubing her. The hope was that if he could get the tube into her rumen (first stomach), any trapped gas and froth could escape.

Kiwi barely fought him as he fed the tube down her throat. A bad smell came out of the tube, but very little gas.

“I don’t think she’s filled with gas, I think she’s filled with fluid,” David said grimly.

“What do you think it is?”

“I’m going to try one last thing.”

He shaved another place, low on her belly, and washed it. He inserted a needle and drew back on the plunger. Something dark filled the barrel.

“I think she’s got peritonitis,” he said. “She’s filled with fluid and running a high fever.”

Peritonitis! We talked about what could have caused it (a kick from Punch? Perhaps; or maybe she swallowed a bit of wire or even developed an intestinal ulcer that burst). But whatever it was, there was no walking back from it.

This is a rural area. David asked me if I had a friend with a gun — bullets are just as quick and painless and much cheaper than medical options — or if I wanted him to put Kiwi down.

I decided I didn’t quite know Damon well enough to call him out of bed to shoot a sick sheep. I asked David to put her down. Then I held her, soothing her with my voice, while the narcotic took effect. I’ve held so many animals in such circumstances. Kiwi sighed and slipped away.

David and I talked while he cleaned up and packed his tools. I glanced through the boards of the stall into the next box. Well, well! Contractions were starting.

“I think my yearling ewe is about to give birth.”

“Yes, any minute,” said David. I walked him out to his truck and he left.

Lucy had fixed her own dinner and met me anxiously at the door when I got home. “Is she OK?”

“No, baby, I’m sorry, we had to put her down.”

Lucy burst into tears on my shirt-front. I hugged her.

“I know, sweetie, it’s very sad. But listen, Smoky’s in labor! I’ll wash my hands and eat some dinner, and then, if you want, you can go down with me and see her new lamb.”

Lucy sniffled and nodded, wiping her face. An hour later we were in the truck, headed back down to the farm. It was now about 9 PM.

I had warned Lucy that Kiwi’s body was still in the adjacent stall. Allen was coming the next day and he had said he would help me bury it. (I couldn’t pull the body out that night or the coyotes would get it. Even if I were OK with that, the load of narcotics in her system would kill the coyotes.) I also happen to think that death is often more frightening in the abstract; I knew Kiwi looked peaceful. And, finally, I figured the sight of a new lamb would be such a happy distraction it would smooth over some of Lucy’s sadness.

Uh-oh. Wrong call. When we got to the barn there was no little lamb wobbling next to Smoky. Instead, Smoky was still lying on her side with two feet sticking out of her bottom. In more than an hour, labor had progressed almost not at all.

I forced myself to speak cheerfully. “Well, it’s her first lamb and she’s a teenager, so it’s taking a little longer.” Please don’t let the lamb be dead! “It’s probably a ram lamb. Rams tend to be bigger.”

We watched for about twenty minutes. Smoky pushed and panted. No progress. Those feet seemed stuck.

I opened the gate and eased myself into the stall. Often, in labor, even the nerviest ewe becomes calm and lets you help her. Not Smoky. She jumped to her feet, lifted her forelegs like a steeplechaser, and wildly tried to hurdle the stall wall. One thing I’ve learned over a lifetime of animal husbandry is that it’s the chase that is terrifying to them. If you have to catch an animal, you can’t dither — you must commit to it and keep the flight time as short as possible. I lunged at Smoky and pinned her hip hard against the wall with one knee. She happened to be standing in the grain trough at the time. Her hooves clattered and slid on the hard plastic but she couldn’t move.

I held the slippery protruding lamb feet with my left hand and reached up inside the birth canal with my right, searching for the head. I had explained to Lucy that the normal birthing presentation for lambs, goat kids, and calves was “diving position” — head down on top of the extended front legs.

“Yes, the head’s right here,” I said, puffing a little. “It’s just big and she’s small. I do bet it’s a ram. I’m going to see if I can help him.” Please don’t let the lamb have suffocated!

I teased the vulva back, while pulling down on the feet. A lamb has to pass over the pelvic bone in a curved arc, almost like a dolphin’s leap. Finally the nose appeared. A big lamb. I alternated pressure on the legs, rocking the lamb gently from side to side, still pulling down. And then with a gush and a rush, he was born. Alive!  Hooray!

I didn’t have a moment to glance up at Lucy but I was aware of the dark night, the drama, the fear and the blood, and hoped I hadn’t traumatized her forever. This wasn’t the peaceful birth I’d wanted her to see. However I gave her directions calmly. “Lu, can you please grab me a towel from the grain room?”

Lucy got a towel and I dried the ram lamb and dipped his umbilical cord in iodine. When I weighed him the next day he was 10 pounds. Not the biggest lamb ever but certainly large for a first-time yearling ewe.

Smoky’s response to my intervention was outrage. So what if I’d helped her?  The moment I went back near her or her baby, she lowered her head to charge me. An attack sheep!  “Yes, yes, you’re a brave good girl,” I told her, “but that’s not really necessary.”

Normally I would have simply watched and waited to see that the lamb nursed, but it was late and Lucy and I were both drooping. I pinned Smoky to the wall again and stripped her teats to make sure her milk had come in. Lucy brought me a bottle, I milked the ewe into it, and I gave the baby a small feed of colostrum. When we closed the barn doors all was peaceful.

One death, one birth. A long night. Only later, when I’d stripped off my filthy clothes to step into a hot bath, did I remember that it was Good Friday.

*    *    *

The next morning Kiwi’s now-orphaned lamb, ear-tag 06, was crying and searching for her. I caught 06 and tried to feed him on a bottle. He was six weeks old, however, and would have none of it. He squirmed away and continued to wail. My heart was heavy.

I struggled to roll Kiwi’s body onto a sled and drag her out of the barn. She weighed almost as much as I do. I tied lead ropes to the sled, knotted them in front of my stomach, and heaved like a pack pony. Eventually I managed it.

When Allen arrived I took him back to see the cute new lamb. He loves baby animals.

“But,” he said, straight-faced, “that sheep out front don’t look so good.”

As he intended, I couldn’t help but laugh. Sometimes when you work with animals, the jolting highs and lows can knock you out.

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2 Responses to Tough Night at the Barn

  1. Jessika says:

    Oh Selden! I’ve been there recently, and it’s such a tough job when you have kids you need to explain all this too–even when you can’t explain it to yourself.
    Congrats on the new life! so sorry about the ewe.

    • adkmilkmaid says:

      Jess, you’re going through 100x more than I am. A few years back I was dealing with a couple of very stressful family health crises and at the same time trying to protect a 9-year-old from being aware and I know something about that feeling of being responsible for EVERYTHING, including my child’s peace of mind. Please take very good care of yourself.

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