I didn’t know I would be putting Nessa down tonight. I didn’t know that when I fed the animals this evening I’d find her thumbing her nose at her bowl of grain. She didn’t want it.
I didn’t know that I’d sit in the stall with her and she’d lay next to me and cuddle and put her head in my lap while I took her temperature. 97.7 Low. I took it again and again. She just lay as still as could be while I kept poking her with the thermometer.
It was then I noticed that she had a tiny bit of mucous discharge. She was probably due in 3 weeks. No udder yet. But getting big.
I watched her move away when Paisley came over to be cuddled. She just changed positions and lay against the wall facing the other way. It was ok, I needed to do a few things and get going. I watched her strain a bit and then realized that maybe she was in labor and that she was just small.
I kept an eye on her. I watched her from inside the house on my camera that was trained on her stall. She shifted only occasionally from one side of the stall to the other to sleep.
At about 9:30 she began to writhe and flop from side to side, extending her neck, contorting her body and twisting. I ran out to the barn thinking she must be in severe pain, perhaps responding to labor and would need assistance if it was not too late.
I got to the barn and contained her, cradled her head and stroked her neck on the ground, moving her into the aisle space where I could have plenty of room and light. My hunch was not that she was in labor but that she was choking. Her breathing was strained and slow and she had a bit of spittle. I concentrated on trying to keep her calm and called the vet.
The vet could be here in 45 minutes and so I stroked her neck and her chin and her breast over and over, trying to give her some comfort and keep her from thrashing. I attempted to give her a pelvic exam but her flopping and flailing were preventing me from having any success, and as far as I could tell there were no advanced stages of labor exhibited. No fluids, no dilation. Her abdomen was distended as though maybe she suffered bloat, though I knew she was pregnant. My mind was racing through possibilities for her discomfort and erratic behavior.
When Dr. Jason arrived, I told him I thought she was choking and I had been feeding a stomach tube into her mouth as well as I could on a few occasions to see if I could loosen any matter that might be lodged in her airway. He set to checking her eyes, gave her a pelvic exam and determined she was not dilated. He took her temperature and it was 101, normal. He noted her thrashing behavior.
He didn’t like her eyes. He could tell she was fighting something besides choking behavior and when he stomach tubed her with a larger, more rigid tube, he got all the way to her rumen and we just heard normal gas. The one thing he noted that I had not paid any extra attention to was that we couldn’t open her mouth.
Her jaw was locked, lockjaw. We reviewed her vaccination history. She was all up to date on her tetanus, her rabies vaccinations.
We reviewed the list of things that could be leading to her behavior without clear diagnosis, just many possibilities.
The valium did not relax her jaw, her tension. She still struggled to breath.
I told Dr .Jason we needed to let her pass. I wanted him to euthanize her.
We brought her expired body into the tack room for the night, wrapped in a towel as well as we could. She was big with babies. We lay her on the floor and closed the door so I wouldn’t worry about anything getting at her in the night.
It was going on midnight. Dr. Jason helped me attend to another lamb that had been born about 5 weeks prior. Mary. Mary had gone to see him on Day 2 of her life for an Entropion eyelid condition, which he’d helped remedy by injecting penicillin along the bottom lid. I told him I had been having to dose her daily with Teramycin and trying to “train” her eyelid out so it wouldn’t curve in, irritating her cornea. He took a look at her and said she definitely should’ve been farther along in progress so we fished out the penicillin from the medicine cabinet and he tucked her under his arm and gave her a fresh application. Little Mary looked like she’d been in a neighborhood brawl afterward, but the job got done and she now has a better shot at recovery.
And now it is the next day.
This morning Dr. Jason texted me early to ask if he could come by and take her brain for a necropsy.
It seems he didn’t sleep well last night, either, for wondering. He wanted to rule out rabies and I understood. I also wanted to rule it out. For safety’s sake. Even though Nessa was vaccinated and the whole farm is vaccinated, we don’t want to wonder.
He came by and we moved her body out to the other side of the compost pile. I am still trying to figure out how I can get back there with a tractor to make a grave for her. The earth is so wet that everything is sinking in at this point and I know I can’t dig it by hand or I’ll wreck my back.
I couldn’t not let him take her brain to test, though, because I wasn’t sure what my grave-digging timeline was.
While we’re at it, I asked if we could get her brain checked for Scrapie as well. Not a condition I wanted to think would be on this farm, but it is not a day for pretending I’m above it all. It is a day for being a humble farmer.
I’ve reached out to my Vermont Sheep & Goat Association in an effort to share my experience in the hopes of possible enlightenment, but also to educate. Often I have found the network to be so supportive and the best resource for troubleshooting agricultural problems.
They’ve been so kind, offering condolences and descriptions of similar experiences, wishing for the best outcome for the necropsy testing. Beautifully written letters detailing similar losses of beloved ewes or does, brief responses of concern and care.
Cheering words came from dear Carol, a local knit night friend, “tonight Ness will romp with the great Aries.”
And as long as I can look up into the night sky, I will have that to remember her by.
I didn’t know I’d be saying goodbye to Nessa last night, nor her babies that I had not met. But I do know it’s not the end of the world. I know there are many things to be thankful for in her life. She was the friendliest sheep I think our farm has ever seen. Her presence will be missed. Her legacy of love and enthusiasm live on in her lambs of last year, Nieve & Noche, who wag their tails when you pet them, dash to you for cuddles, climb into your lap in the same way their mama did.