Monday, April 2, 2007

Imperfect Gift

Lambing is like Christmas: you never know what's inside the package until it's finally time to open it.

But sometimes the gift is damaged. If it's really bad, you can return it. But sometimes, you have to look at the ding or chip on some unique, out-of-stock, discontinued item, and decide, should I keep it and try to glue it back together, or should I just throw it away, and not spend the time and energy to try to glue it back together?

Yesterday, while I was driving back from the soils workshop, twin lambs were born, one apparently normal and one with a birth defect. My evening chore person found them and was doing what he could when I got home.

There are obvious, but not in themselves apparently lethal, deformities of the lamb's tail base and lower back. My first concern was whether the lamb's "plumbing" was correctly hooked up internally; observation showed that things were flowing as they should. So the main problem was, and remains, the lamb's weakness and incoordination.

In a case like this, the humane choices are basically to provide supportive care and see what happens, or to euthanize the lamb right away. With supportive care, the choice to euthanize may need to be made anyhow at some point, if the lamb seems to be declining or suffering unduly. Supportive care means feeding, extra fluids if dehydration is apparent, drying him off, keeping him warm, and just generally making him as comfortable as possible. And figuring out solutions for each challenge as it arises.

This guy's head and right front leg had a strong will to live, though the rest of him barely moved. He couldn't stand, even when steadied, or put weight on his legs. His head pitched around somewhat at random. But he would suck vigorously on my finger. I milked the ewe (after a short rodeo adventure) and fed him with a stomach tube. Maybe a good meal would get the rest of him going?

Later, I tubed him again and then still later bottle fed him. Since he couldn't move around, whenever he peed, he was just laying in the soaked hay. So today, I gave him a nice warm bath, dried him off, and figured out a way to diaper a boy lamb (incontinence pads bound on with pieces of old t-shirts). A wool "lamb jacket" cut from an old wool sweater kept him warm while he finished drying.

At each feeding, I hold him up to try to practice standing, hoping this will strengthen his legs. As a shepherd, not only do I end up being my own vet a lot of the time, I'm now an ovine physical therapist! He is noticeably stronger each feeding, but has a long ways to go.

Tonight I rigged up a sling in a plastic milk crate so that he can practice standing without my holding him the whole time. He seems to stand much better in the crate than on the uneven hay of the shed, so maybe moving him and his family to a different area with a hard surface would help.

I'm keeping him with his mom and sister in hopes that if he does become mobile, he can be part of his sheep family rather than being a "bum". At this point it's doubtful that the ewe will let him nurse when he can stand, but perhaps she will at least tolerate his company. I try hard not to raise lambs that bond to humans and think they are pets. Sheep that act like dogs are very confusing to the Border Collies!

The looming cloud is that he is certainly not breeding stock, and doesn't promise to have a very interesting fleece. So the time, inconvenience, etc., of providing such intensive care is all with the knowledge that in the end his purpose in life is lamb chops. There's a certain irony in keeping an animal alive at such great effort, only to eat it later.

But then, how many painstaking loaves of Christmas bread have I lovingly baked for friends, only for it to be gobbled up, even if it did come out a little flat on one side? For now, he is a gift, a responsibility, a challenge. And I'm glad to see him improving with each feeding.

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