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Thinking About Alice

Fifteen years ago, this past March, Ty and I were having our first experience bringing a litter of baby sheep into the world. Things hit a snag when the mother to be ,needed help with the baby’s presentation. It was somewhat turned around inside and therefore one of us (not me) had to reach way into the birth canal and spin things around. In the background for all this was a visit from our grandson Skye (aged 4, at the time) along with his parents. Somewhere amongst all the confusion of being birthing helpers and knowing very little about the right thing to do to help the birthing process along, Skye made a pronouncement. In retrospect, he had been coached by his parents to say what he had to say. “I’m going to be a big brother soon”. We were slow on the uptick. “What, honey, what did you say”. He replied without missing a beat, “I’m going to be a big brother soon.” We got it. Absorb that along with the anxiety of helping the mother sheep (Luna, by name) safely deliver her baby. Yeah, we can do that. Another grandkid. Holy smokes. What else does this day have to offer?

Happy to say, Luna delivered a few hours later. Two ewes. Alice and Angelina. Not sure where the name Alice came from, but Angelina was directly from Angelina Jolie. The two of them were beyond cute in every way, spending years chewing grass, figuring out how to jump the electric fence and who would get the most grain when it was offered.

Why Sheep, you might ask. I certainly did. Sheep ended up on the farm for one very simple reason. Ty wanted them as subjects so she could draw them. She had this utter involvement with how they looked and how they were able to transform grass into a beautiful fleece. But really, to carry it further, the fascination for her was how sunlight turned sheep into factories for making wool. After all, you need sunlight to make the grass grow that the sheep eat to make their coats grow. You get the idea.

Over the next 6 or 7 years, there were more sheep births. All of them found new homes, but somehow Alice and Angelina managed to stay here. After a while, we had to get rid of the ram. He was way too much work and not much fun , as he’d rather butt people rather than get petted.

But for that matter, neither Alice and Angelina enjoyed being petted either. They are Jacobs sheep. An heirloom variety that is close to wild. They grow spectacular horns and have amazing wool. Most goats and sheep will come closer when humans approach. Not these guys. They’d sooner take a ride in a pick up truck than becomes friends with people. I always said that they were a bit autistic, but of course I didn’t know anything that I was talking about.

And so life progressed around the farm. The flock got smaller. The two mothers got given away. And Ty kept drawing, using Alice and Angelina as her models. Ty made two books that used the sheep as her subjects. The detail and care of the work can be seen if you stop by the shed sometime and look at her sheep drawings hanging on the wall. They are beautiful, indeed.

There came a moment (maybe 8 years ago) when Ty decided that she was moving on from sheep as models and was going to put her artistic interest elsewhere . The sheep could be sold, she declared. Initially, I felt a moment of relief. That was because moving them, feeding them, chasing them down the road when they escaped-all this was my responsibility. Running the farm was more than enough, I felt. And yet, once she’d declared that they could go, I surprised myself by realizing that I wasn’t ready for them to go. So they stayed. There was something special in having to feed them twice a day, get enough hay in storage to make it thru the winter and watch them grow (older) that I decided that we’re going to keep them. I built them a new shed. Made a sturdy fence that they couldn’t penetrate easily. Alice, Angelina and I embarked on stage two of their history at Star Light- my pets in residence.

Sheep talk to you. They talk to each other and they certainly talk to the fresh grass that they ingest. What’s difficult is to pick up the ways that they talk to you. Although there certainly is an element of self-centeredness about them, sheep will try to tell you what they’re thinking. Its usually not particularly deep by our standards, but still , they are thinking. How much food am I going to get? Will the pesky dog stop barking? When is my next meal? When will they move this electric fence to a better spot? Can I jump over the fence and go eat exactly what I want? See what I mean? Not deep, but certainly important thoughts.

I forget exactly when this happened, maybe 5 years ago- Alice would allow people to scratch her between the horns. She seemed to really enjoy the sensation and seek me out to get some more. I probably thought, (incorrectly) that my care had won over her and her autistic ways. The truth is that I have no idea. She just started enjoying the scratch. I should also mention that the two of them, single handedly kept the back of the house mowed without any lawn mower help.

Alice was the bully of the two. She’d often butt Angelina in order to get more than her share of grain. Grain, in sheep language is like drugs. They can’t seem to ever get enough. Maybe that’s why Alice always seemed healthier and more spry compared to Angelina. I’d try all kinds of ways to get them fed equally, but Angelina always ended up on the short side of things. Alice was tubby. Angelina was underweight. So it didn’t come as a surprise that within the past year, Angelina ended up with a joint situation that made walking and getting up pretty difficult. I imagined how Alice was going to feel, once she was the last sheep. We had contemplated putting her down, but ruled against it, as she still seemed to have some good life quality in her. And so she has remained. Weak on her feet, but still able to stand up at times to the more aggressive Alice.

Almost at the same time, Alice started being a butting sheep. It would happen with no provocation. Certainly made for nervous encounters with her. It might have had something to do with protecting Angelina. Or it might have had something to do with just wanting more and more grain. I certainly don’t know. I was still able to scratch her, but kept my wits about me.

A few weeks ago, suddenly Alice stopped walking,drinking water , eating grass or grain. This was a surprise to all of us. We had expected that Angelina would be the first to go. She was not able to stand up. Alice crawled into the woodshed and wouldn’t move. On Day 2 of this behavior, I knew that her time had come-there was no positive life quality left for her at that point. This decision was not easy. Its hard to realize that humans hold the power over animals and their very existence. And yet, this clearly was the most humane thing to do. Clearly.

When the vet finally came, I was dreading the call announcing her arrival. Walking up to the house, there was this strong realization that we were heading down a path of no return for Alice. The vet was in complete agreement with my decision. This didn’t make things any easier. But then again, this wasn’t about making things easy.

After the procedure was complete, Alice eventually embraced the inevitable and slipped peacefully away. It was the end of our fifteen plus year experience together. I learned so much from watching them live. Often, it was just watching them chew cud or keep their eye on me as I walked by, hoping for some extra grain. I wouldn’t exactly say that Alice was my friend, but she helped me be a better friend to myself. Hard to explain that exactly, but her life put me more in touch with my own life. And I’d guess that there isn’t many other things that would do that.

Rest easy, Alice. You deserve it.

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