It was the summer of ’02. I was working as a Livestock Volunteer at Heifer International’s learning center in Rutland, MA. It was my last summer at the farm before I made the life jarring leap of leaving for college. It was the end of an era. I had to make the most of the rest of my time at my “home-away-from-home.” I threw myself into my work with a new vigor sparked by the recognition that “things were never going to be the same.” I think this is why my memories of this summer are some of the most vivid that I possess.
At any given time we could have anywhere from 20 to 300 people on the farm (during fairs that number could be in the thousands.) Between schools coming for tours, private groups coming for overnight or week-long sessions, or the comings and goings of volunteers and staff members, there were almost always people around.
This could be good or bad, depending on the situation.
I was in charge of a group of about 20 people who were spending the week camping on site, working on the farm and in the gardens, and experiencing the Global Village and all the educational sessions that Heifer had to offer. Sometimes these groups come in with some previous farming or gardening experience, but more often not. This was one of the latter.
When you have a group with no farming experience living ON a farm for a week, it can be pretty overwhelming (for the group and for the staff member in charge of the group)…especially depending on the week…(chicken or turkey slaughter weeks might not be the best time to be a newbie around a farm) And even if it is not a pre-planned guts n’ gore type week you just never know on a farm.
…I have seen people throw up and pass out when shoveling out goat pens…Farming ain’t for everyone!
Anyway; I always tried to keep animal related tasks relatively tame when dealing with a group with no animal experience. In this case, we were moving our herd of about 30 sheep from their grazing paddock back into the barn for the night. As this was something that the sheep did every day, they were pretty well trained to run back to the barn and there wasn’t that much herding actually necessary. (I always got a kick out of watching people run back-and-forth and around in circles, waving their hands and generally freaking out, trying to urge a group of sheep forward; a group which, if you had just opened both gates, probably would have trotted right into their pen without a hitch (they know where their grain is)…however, if you let (said people) run around like lunatics for a while, despite actually making the task take longer they really get a sense of accomplishment…so I usually just let them do it.)
It was during this time of people running around sweating and waving (and sheep stifling giggles and milling around in circles) that I noticed something not quite right. There was a head sticking out of the back end of one of our sheep! I moved around the herd (from where I had been leaning on a fence post doing a worse job of stifling my giggles than the sheep) to get a better look.
One of our older Icelandic Ewes (a tiny old thing) had a lamb’s head sticking out of her back end. No feet, just head! As she ran, the head bounced up and down lifelessly. It was a horrible and slightly sickening sight. We weren’t expecting lambs at the time…but anyone with animals knows that “surprise” animals are a fact of farming. No fence can withstand the super escaping powers of a horny male animal in rut….just sayin’
When lambs are born properly their two front feet come out first, just in front of their noses. If you can only see the head, it means that the front legs are jammed up inside the mother somewhere. Not a good thing.
I had no way of knowing how long the sheep had been in labor, or how long the lamb had been stuck. The sheep had been out on pasture all day. The lamb could have been stuck for 4-5 hours easily without me knowing. With just the head out, the possibilities of a pinched umbilical cord were high and, without the oxygen provided from the mother this lamb wouldn’t have lasted more than a few minutes.
I had no thought of saving the lamb, I only knew that I needed to get it out so I could save the mother. She would be at risk for some major and nasty infections with a gaping hole directly into her body, or worse, a rotting lamb half inside of her. I had to get that lamb out as soon as possible.
I called to my group to “take a break” and go hang out at the picnic tables for a little bit. It was a group of multiple families with many younger children. I didn’t want the kids to have to witness some of the more gristly aspects of farming if they didn’t have to. Dead animals are never fun. Dead baby animals are even worse.
As soon as the group moved away, the sheep (as expected) trotted off towards the barn at a healthy clip. Originally I thought I would catch the ewe as she followed the herd through the gate…but as I lunged for her she skirted to the side and I missed horribly. Partially I missed because I hadn’t expected her to move so freely, partially because I didn’t want to grab her too roughly and hurt her…and okay…partially because I just missed.
As the herd trotted past the picnic tables, members of the group began noticing something was not right. I heard gasps and other shocked noises.
“Crap” I thought, “Here we go.”.
But instead of gasps of horror, I quickly realized that they were gasps of excitement. As I ran past after the herd I heard snippets of comments along the lines of “Oh! I think that sheep is giving birth!” and “Isn’t this incredible! We’re going to see a lamb being born!”
“Crap, crap, crap, crap, crap!” – Me
I peeled off and ran up to the Father in charge of their group and hastily explained that this was “not a good situation” and that “the lamb was already dead” and that the group should stay here because things were “not going to be pretty!…blood…guts…gore…etc.”
He nodded and agreed to keep the group where they were…an agreement which was (apparently) not accepted by, or binding to, the rest of the group (as I realized when I looked up later, wrist deep in a sheep, to see the group clustered around the gate of the sheep pen….)
I got the sheep into their pen, and shut the gate. At this point another of the Livestock Volunteers had come to see what was wrong. I explained the situation to her quickly and sent her off for towels and anti-septic spray.
I caught the ewe, after multiple attempts, and had the other volunteer hold her head. I quickly said a prayer, to the gods of antibiotics (and to…well…God), and ran my dirty hand along the lamb’s neck and into the ewe.
This whole time the lamb made no movement, no reaction to my touch. I felt no sense of life in it’s body as I ran my hand along it’s face and neck. This only confirmed my earlier suspicions that I needed to focus solely on the health of mother, and that it was too late for the baby.
It was a big lamb, which definitely contributed to the current situation. She was such a small ewe. The idea of her successfully giving birth to this moose of a lamb naturally was crazy.
I eased my hand in gently (I hate going into sheep, I have big hands…not ideal for lambing assistance.) As I got further in, I could feel that the lamb had both it’s front legs tucked straight backwards and wedged against the ewe’s pelvis. Nightmare! In a situation like this you need to push the lamb back through the pelvis, working against the contractions of the uterus (which is no small task), before you can pull the legs forward and the lamb out.
(I took a moment just now to try and come up with an analogy to help someone who has never had their hand up the wrong end of an animal understand what it is like…I thought of no apt analogy.
It’s a hot, slimy, squeezing, uncomfortable mess.
You have muscles completely surrounding your hand squeezing from all directions. Getting your hand in is hard enough; but then once you are in, opening your hand and utilizing your fingers to manipulate something (that is all slimy and impossible to grip) is just plain frustrating!
I slowly began easing the monster lamb back into the ewe. Not wanting to tear anything, and fighting against the massive pushes from the uterus, made this a slow, delicate process. But, after what seemed like hours, I finally had the lamb positioned in a way in which I thought I could get at his feet.
First I went with my right hand. I could feel the unforgiving restriction of the pelvis under my knuckles. I could only manage to functionally move two of my fingers, but I could feel the lamb’s knee joint! Bingo! A little more of a push with my arm and I had my pinky finger hooked around that joint. And then, with a pull and a slight twist, I had one foot in the proper position.
One down, one to go…and this one I’d have to do with my left hand.
Same process, opposite side. Eventual success!
Now back in with the right hand, this time hooking both legs right behind the hooves with my thumb and pointer finger and pulling. Slowly the lamb moved forward. I timed my pulling to match contractions in order make things easier on the mother (and on my exhausted/cramping fingers.) We made progress together.
The front feet came out, into the summers evening light, and I heard a gasp. I looked up to see my group clustered outside of the gate of the pen, peering in eagerly and expectantly…awesome…
An equally excited gasp came from the “crowd” as the lamb’s head came into view. I just kept working in silence. What could I say really? How could I explain to these kids that I wasn’t even trying to save the lamb. That I had given up on him seconds after assessing the situation. That what I did now was purely for the health of the mother. That I was going to deposit this lifeless ball of fluff and flesh onto the floor of the pen and immediately turn my attention to Mama!
No words to console or prepare came to me, so I just put my head down and kept working.
Finally I had the lamb out past his shoulders. The rest came out quickly, as they do. I don’t even remember looking at the lamb as I pulled him out. I just remember feeling him in my hands as he slid clear, slimy, droopy, heavy for a lamb. My eyes were focused on the ewe, assessing damage. I dropped the lamb to the ground behind me without turning away from the ewe.
I heard the body of the lamb hit the ground behind me, immediately followed by an intake of breath! I wheeled around in shock to see the lamb’s body jerk slightly as it tried to suck air into it’s lunges!
“I don’t believe it!”
It could have been stuck in it’s mother for hours before I had even seen anything, and it had been over an hour since this whole fiasco had started! There was no way that this lamb was alive!
The lamb, apparently, disagreed.
It’s body jerked again, and I dropped to my knees at it’s side calling for “towels!” I stuck my finger in the lamb’s mouth feeling the flop of it’s tongue as I cleared out all the gunk. It gasped again, gurgling, fluid still blocking the air.
My “group” was stunned to silence as I jumped up and whipped the lamb around in circles, spinning, spinning! I must have looked like a complete lunatic to them. I remember their shocked faces, blurred as I spun.
I lowered the lamb to the ground and began rubbing it dry with towels aggressively.
It coughed, kicked, and then (as I eased off) lifted it’s head and rolled onto it’s stomach and bleated.
It was music to all of us standing there.
Whether or not everyone present had understood the danger that this lamb had been in, I don’t know. But in that moment there was no noise sweeter to any of us.
The lamb’s voice was not lost on the old ewe either. She whirled around and pushed me roughly out of her way so she could begin licking her baby.
“You’re welcome!” I said sarcastically, but the bite intended in my tone sounded lackluster as it was laden with relief and exhaustion.
It wasn’t long before the lamb was up on his feet nursing (it was, in fact, a “he”.)
My group, who had stayed through the whole clean-up process, watched in a kind of stupor that can only be brought on by animals and their moms in situations too adorable for words. But it wasn’t long before the conversation of “naming the lamb” began.
Names were thrown left and right. The typical “Fluffy” or “Lamby” were offered by the younger children in the group, while more sophisticated names like “Chops” or “Mutton” were occasionally added to the mix (…usually by me…)
Then; all of a sudden, the youngest boy in the group (who at the time was perched on the very top of the gate) called out “Let’s name it “Miracle”!”
“Oh dear God no!” I thought to myself…
“”Miracle” is a perfect name! It’s a miracle that he is alive!” another parent agreed.
The praise for the name quickly took on avalanche-esque qualities, as my desperate cries of “…actually I think “Fluffy” was pretty good…” or “Maybe we should sleep on this.” were lost in the hubbub.
Of coarse, in the end (like any cheesy movie), “Miracle” stuck. The impossibly alive creature; now nursing away happily (with his little white tail a’wagglin’) as the setting summer sun cast it’s warm glow into the barn. This lamb; in the midst of a crowd of strangers who loved him more than he could ever know, would now be known as “Miracle” the lamb!
…at least for the week…