Paisley is our 3-year old Shetland ewe that is due any day now. She and Nessa were both due this past week, and after Nessa’s unexpected passing, I worried about Paisley’s health. It is difficult, sometimes, to separate my own anxiety from my barnyard’s mood and I have to be careful not to project too much. However, Paisley was off her feed, she would dump her bowl over, she wasn’t eating her hay or drinking her water. I rushed ahead to think that if Nessa had had toxemia, perhaps Paisley was a candidate as well.
My Vermont Sheep & Goat Association fellowship supplied me with many suggested diagnosis for possible maladies that caused Nessa to decline so quickly last week. One often repeated suggestion was Pregnancy Toxemia. If the ewe were overconditioned, or underconditioned, and due with twins, the risks were quite high that that might’ve been a problem. It was hard to know, after the fact, as not every symptom added up to that. My vet had not surmised it at all.
However, it was something I could test for and so one very kind member in the VSGA was willing to run halfway from her farm up north to meet me and pass off some test strips to test Paisley’s urine for ketones and to rule out or to determine if she was experiencing effects of Toxemia. Coincidentally, the instructor for the Pies & Dyes Workshop which we were hosting this past weekend was able to make the rendezvous for me to pick up the package.
Anne Choi, our spinning instructor from Middle Brook Fiber Works in New Jersey, was not out of her car for 5 minutes before I’d wrangled her into coming into the barn with me and catching urine in a cup while I coaxed a pee out of Paisley. It was pretty quick work, as though we were in the business of catching urine from a sheep every day. Welcome to the farm, Anne!
We tested the urine with the test strips not once, but twice, and I was relieved to find that the tests revealed trace – negative amounts of ketones. That meant I would not have to dose Paisley with propylene glycol to treat for Pregnancy Toxemia, as I had read I might. It was a protocol of 12 ml orally, in a syringe, twice a day. Something I imagined Paisley would have resisted.
Still she was despondent and didn’t eat.
Of course a very good reason for that behavior would be that she was depressed because her companion had just suddenly passed away. But for the drama and anxiety surrounding Nessa’s mysterious demise, I would’ve certainly ruled her behavior to that.
It is a week later from Nessa’s passing. I have gotten the call from the vet to say that the Rabies tests were negative. The biggest relief is that I don’t have to wonder that Paisley might’ve had Rabies, too, given that she & Nessa shared a living space. Of course I won’t have to go about getting myself vaccinated now, as well.
A day after I’d put Nessa down, I wanted to try to bury her body. I couldn’t get the tractor out to where I needed to bury her because of the mud and getting stuck, and I couldn’t heft a shovel enough to do the job by hand. It burdened my heart and my mind that her body was out behind the compost pile, waiting for me to put it to rest.
I didn’t want to, but I wanted to, check on her. Knowing that there were many states of decomposition I might find her body in, I steeled myself to see what I would see.
Nessa’s body was completely gone. There wasn’t hide nor hair of it where the vet and I had laid her.
And now I know where that expression comes from.
Such a clean removal was very curious to me. I decided to steel myself yet again, and I walked out into the woods. There were no clues to follow so I was definitely in a position of wandering. Finally I came upon a clearing. In the clearing I saw it, the carcass of Nessa.
I knew that I needed to get closer to inspect her body. If there was any reason for it to have gone this way, not the way I had imagined at all, then I needed to salvage something from it. Some lesson, some clue. I knew I didn’t want to have to find her fetuses, I felt that would really be a blow for me. But I knew I might. Chances were slim, but I readied myself.
Most of her body had been cleaned and eaten by, I guessed, coyotes. I couldn’t even find most of her hide. Her organs were still intact and I looked closely, took photographs. They did not appear to be stricken with White Muscle Disease, another possible malady that might’ve take her life, they looked to be large and healthy. Probably the most striking thing that I noted, though, was the massive amount of fat/tallow that was still in place. So much that I couldn’t even imagine how she would’ve had room for fetus or fetuses in her cavity at all. I took more photos. I thought it might be easier to study them at a later time because standing near her decimated body was troubling enough for me.
Some years ago I read a book called “Sky Burial”, a story told to Xinran, is about a woman, Shu Wen, who travelled Tibet for 30 years in search of the details of her husband’s death. The term, “Sky Burial” refers to the tradition where scavenger birds are allowed to feed upon a corpse in a religious ceremony. The body returns to the earth and the spirit is sent on its way. It is seen as part of the process of reincarnation.
I often think about that story, that tale of returning to the earth and the earth benefitting from the existence of life. I often think about the sacredness in each living thing and how the living, breathing form of a being is only part of the entire presence of a being. The way we bring joy to those anticipating our birth, the way we are meaningful in the space of our life, and the way we are remembered and able to share and teach in our passing are equally important.
Instead of feeling heavy that I was not able to prepare a grave and lay Nessa in it, planting flowers above her like I might do, I am letting Nessa go to the sky – the vultures and crows I am seeing are probably stronger for it, the beasts of the ground as well. And if there is nutrition in their scavenging, it is better to be providing that in a recently passed carcass than some neighbors’ living pet being preyed upon, or my own flocks for that matter. There are many ways to look at the situation. I can see it as a fault or a fact of life.
I do know, and recollect, that while Nessa was in my arms when she was being euthanized, I had spoken to her and looked in her eyes and was able to tell her how much she’d been loved, what a wonderful sheep she had been, a good mother, a sweet member of the flock.
I know just where I will plant a flowering tree in her name this spring.
Paisley is seemingly fine, just starting to really show she is ready to deliver this week. (To watch Paisley on the LambCam, click on this link: Paisley – LambCam.) I am working hard not to transfer all of the tension of the last week into the present, to simply assess and stay busy so as not to Monday-morning-quarterback the whole past week’s events. When she is full and doesn’t want to eat, I am thinking less that she is harboring toxemia, more that she is one ewe that has no competition in her stall and is getting all she needs without rushing her bowl. She has a soft countenance and bright eyes. Her ears are alert and not droopy or down. Her swollen abdomen and udder tell me that life is thriving inside her womb and soon we will be welcoming little ones. I am checking her every four hours at this point. I am hopeful.