We lost a bottle lamb this week.
It hasn’t been a good year for us as shepherds.
We lost the bottle lamb we had at easter, too. And last week, the sole remaining ewe from our original flock of four. At least those two were expected though.
The ewe was ancient for a sheep. We never expected her to live past early fall. She didn’t have a lamb this year; too old, probably. And she struggled to keep weight on over the winter. We were letting her live out one last summer on pasture, because she seemed happy and not in any pain. We didn’t see her go down. She wasn’t ill first. We didn’t witness any suffering. She was alive and grazing at morning chores, dead that afternoon. There were no signs of struggle. She seems to have gone quickly, and by all evidence naturally. It was a graceful and poignant end to the long and good life of a wily ewe.
The bottle lamb this spring, on the other hand, deteriorated over time. Even despite the great lengths to which we went on his behalf both before and during his battle with what we now know was likely navel ill. It’s a topic worth a post all its own — on the tough decisions tied to routine antibiotic use — and there will be one here on it sooner or later. For now, suffice to say that even if less graceful and poignant, the writing was on the wall at least as clearly with that lamb as it was the old ewe, and to some extent that always makes it easier. Though the emotional toll of a death is amplified when you’ve poured your heart, soul, and sleepless nights into an animal, in those instances you also have at least some peace with the knowledge that you did everything, and often a few things beyond everything, to save the life.
This lamb went quick though. From tail-wagging and run-jumping to his death bed in a couple hours. From “is he constipated?” to “he’s definitely dying” in less than one. There aren’t many things that will take an ovine life so quickly, and these losses are harder when you don’t see them coming. Harder because there’s no time to prepare yourself, sure. But also, harder because there’s less time to learn; fewer opportunities for weaving a moral out of the story.
Sometimes the lessons we learn are simple — if an old ewe has to die, there are worse ways to go than a final summer retirement on pasture, for instance. And sometimes they’re more complex — the art of finding a thin line to walk between minimal antibiotic use and risk to animal welfare, as in the example of the Easter lamb. Big or small there is always something we can glean to become better for next time. It’s just not nearly as satisfying when that lesson is that sometimes there are no lessons.
You do it right and something terrible still happens. Circumstances can be beyond your control. He had his first round of vaccination against the bacteria that would be his demise and was quickly getting to the age where he could have a necessary booster. He didn’t have a mother whose immunity he could draw on in the interim. We didn’t change his feed or the size of his meals quickly or abruptly. Still, the bacteria proliferated in his gut and caused problems. Sometimes the lack of a lesson is the lesson.