Ranch life in the Big Sky state through the eyes of one who has lived through it...so far.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Will to Die

When I was six years old, we got a pair of lambs. We made them a special shelter. I petted them, bottle fed them, put on little collars and broke them to lead. I would have slept with them if I could have gotten them past my mother and into the bedroom.

And then they died.

 For years afterward I blamed myself. Too much dragging around on the leash. Not enough milk. Too much petting and hugging. It wasn't until I married a man who raised sheep that I realized their passing had nothing to do with me.

Sheep just live to die. Which is true of all living things, I guess. But most of us don't go around looking for ways to expedite the process. Or simply lie down one day and decide, "Oh, heck, why bother getting up? It's just eat and poop, eat and poop. Who needs the hassle?"

How they manage to go lights out at will is a mystery. Not all sheep possess the ability. Which is why they resort to suicide. A portion of our pasture had fences made of smooth wire woven into six inch squares. The sheep weren't allowed in that section, after the first two stuck their heads through the squares and hung themselves. We also had to keep a sharp eye out for any gate rope or piece of twine with a loop in it big enough to form a noose, lest we find a sheep dangling from it.

And then there were the water tanks. My husband set out a thousand gallon tank, ten feet in diameter and two feet deep. The next morning there were two floaters. He assumed that, tempted by the stretch of open water, they had climbed over the side and been unable to get out again. He could fix that. He dragged sheets of plywood out to the tank and built a cover, leaving only an eighteen inch hole where they could put their noses in to drink.

The next day, he found a dead sheep stuck head first in the hole. He pulled it out. There was another sheep underneath. He yanked that soggy mass of wool out of the hole, only to find a third at the bottom of the tank. He was fairly sure the last one in must have had to jump up and down on his buddies in order to create enough space to get his own head under water.

At some point, you become resigned to the fact that if a sheep isn't dead, it's only because he hasn't got around to it yet. And once they're down, they rarely get up. A friend's young son once came running into the house in a panic after seeing his ancient horse stretched out, soaking up the sun. "Mom! Arm is down!" (Yes, the horse's name was Arm. They can't all be Trigger and Midnight.) He didn't buy her explanation that the horse was sleeping. In his short experience as a sheep owner, 'down' was a fatal condition. Nothing would calm Rex short of dragging his mother out to the pasture, where she nudged Arm awake.

Arm was seriously annoyed at having his nap disturbed. And Rex was mightily relieved to learn that, unlike a sheep, a flat horse isn't necessarily a dead horse.

**ADDENDUM

Almost three years later this continues to be the most popular post I've even done. and by far the best part is the stories the readers added in the comments. And when you've read all the ones here, go here and read the stories from literary agent Janet Reid's crowd. My favorite is the one from Fawn, whose lamb had to 'go back to it's mother'.



37 comments:

Julie Weathers said...

This is so true. As they say, sheep are born looking for a place to die.

Susan at Stony River said...

That is SO funny. I live in sheep country, and we adopted a pony who needed a home last winter. The very first day we got him, I looked out our kitchen window to see him lying flat out, and (yes) ran screaming all the way out to field screaming as I went, thinking he was dead. Of course he jumped up and fled, more scared than I was, and we both had to go through that two more times before I realised he wasn't going to die on me, just by lying down to enjoy a nap.

Meanwhile, the dead sheep are everywhere around us....

Kari Lynn Dell said...

Susan,

A horse stretched flat out really isn't a pretty thing. Their bellies bulge up and their upper lip sags open and they LOOK dead. I've nudged one or two myself.

Merc said...

Wow... I have a whole new look on sheep now and it has just seriously twisted all my interpretations of biblical uses of lamps. :P

Great post!

~Merc

ARCyndi/Dr. Cynthia Morgan said...

Very funny!

We bought a parakeet for the boss to replace an old one that die. Before we could "present" it to boss, I found the bird lying on its back, legs in the air. I tried to convince everyone that it was just sleeping. I poked it. Nothing. Dead. Had to make an emergency run and get replacement ASAP!

Carol said...

Oh, my, you make me laugh! It is so true... the bum lambs we had went through the same process... I just loved spending so much money on milk replacer only to walk out and find them dead because the wind blew in from the west... or north... or south and east! I am long out of the bum lamb "business" (if it ever was one). Now we watch with trepidation as our good friend's sheep have been hit 3 times by wolves. The brutal and bloody attacks (52 dead) are just the beginning... how many will he lose to stress?? We move our cattle up next to him soon, let's hope beef isn't as appealing as mutton!

Kari Lynn Dell said...

Carol,
Welcome to another resident of the American outback! Once at the Cody Night Rodeo we got to talking about living out in the boonies. My sister and I are used to trumping everyone in that conversation. But on this particular day, we were outdone twice: one of the bronc riders lived in the mountains outside of Ten Sleep. The other lived almost an hour out of Pavilion. Now THAT's the sticks.

Kari Lynn

Carol said...

Was the bronc rider GMcD? He's the only one I know of to have great success from around here! Though that's been a while back! Everyone thinks I live in the boonies, but I don't... hey, we're still off the paved road... and I have many friends who live beyond the gravel!

Kari Lynn Dell said...

Carol,
that would be the one. My brother-in-law was also a bronc rider and traveled with GMcD and a couple of other guys from down in south central Montana. He and my sister worked two full summers at Cody.

Kari

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

"you need a really good goat."-- William E. Goat, III esq. [You can call me Bill.]

Goats are:
1. Devious, but smart.
2. Have really nice personalities.
3. Like to climb things.
4. Are faithful.
5. Like a cute wagging tail.
6. Have eyes that make you wonder.
7. Have eyes that make you wonder.
8. Have trouble focusing on life's essentials aside from sex, food, and sex and food, but we're faithful.
9. Are smart enough not to drown ourselves. [We avoid baths].

Email me if you get a couple of really cute French Alpines. I'm open to a vacation in Montana, assuming I can get away from the Pixie.

Anonymous said...

If I was that horse, I'd be seriously ticked that someone disturbed my sunbathing!
I had horses, and they like the spring sun on a hill the best.
Do Not Disturb!
Margaret

Wendy said...

LOL, I've spent a huge portion of my life around sheep so I totally relate.

I remember at eight years old holding my dying sheep Sally in my arms, while I tried to beg her to fight to live. Mainly I think she was annoyed with me for slowing things down.

By nine years old, I could deliver a sheep eulogy worthy of a Bishop, I'd had so much practice. By ten years old, I gave up and when I'd see a dead sheep in the paddock I'd just yell "Dad! Another one for the offal pit." Acceptance comes to us all.

A. Grey said...

So that was some serious laugh juice right there! I'm not so much a sheep girl, I tend to eat things that slow-minded. But my sister has wanted some for years. I'll have to let her in on sheep reality. Of course, we've grown up nursing all manner of wild animals through injuries, and nothing drops dead without warning like a wild thing. Still, sheep sound like they ought to sleep standing on dinner plates or in cooking crocks.
As far as sleeping horses go, they're a whole different ball of wax! The woman who taught me to ride can get a horse to live almost forever, I'm talking forties and even fifties for the little ponies (scoff if you want, I've seen the vet records) and some of the oldest guys spend quite a bit of time down, and a few sleep with their eyes wide open!

Kari Lynn Dell said...

Sha'el,
Don't worry, we've had goats. Bill the Goat considered himself the man of my husband's small cow herd when we were first married. And we had a pair around my parents' ranch for quite a few years, a remnant of my abbreviated career as a goat tier.

Anders said...

The next time I see Silence Of the Lambs, I don't think Clarice's childhood horrors will touch me quite the same way ...

Anonymous said...

Very funny. Even for those of us who have never farmed or sheeped....

Lily Cate said...

Love this.
Sheep are the ranching equivalent of goldfish.

sue, england said...

This is so true, we used to have 42 sheep here in the UK and they just have a death wish. Favourite trick is rolling over in the night with their legs in the air then they can't get up and think "Oh well I might as well just die!"

Anonymous said...

Do you maybe they're unhappy? Being held in captivity and all of that...?

Anonymous said...

think... do you think is what I ment to say. :)

Anonymous said...

and meant. me ol' prat

Kari Lynn Dell said...

If you really want to kill off a bunch of sheep, turn them loose and untended in a few hundred acres. Sheep were one of the first animals to be domesticated, and the whole survival of the fittest thing seems to have disappeared from their genetic memory. I don't believe I've ever seen mention of a herd of domestic sheep gone wild. Horses, yes. Cattle, definitely--especially Longhorns down in the Southwest. And escaped pigs are attempting to take over portions of Great Britain. But sheep? Apparently, turned loose, they either keel over from excitement or become fluffy snack food for coyotes and wolves.

Jane Smith said...

Sheep. The bane of my life. We live on the moors in the UK's Peak Park and are surrounded by the things and they find all sorts of ways to die. Either they drown in the ponds or they get stuck in the fences or they trap themselves in the cattle grids or they get infested by flies, for god's sake, or they dart out in front of the oil delivery trucks, or they just lie down and wait until the winter has finished (in August). They're stubborn, smelly, foolish things and I'm glad I don't own any, and can always phone the shepherd to come and take them away when (as they often do) they manage to die in my courtyard.

So there.

Kari Lynn Dell said...

Jane,

Wow. I bet you don't even wear wool socks, do you? ;>

Elizabeth Bradley said...

So, now I know. Sheep are suicidal. Amazing.

Pam said...

They are so stupid. thankfully. It makes it easier to eat them! I was a city girl living on a rural property when I first went out to the country teaching.In the middle of our Australian drought, they were all around the old farmhouse I was renting,near trees, panting and near expiring with the incredible heat. At any sign of splashing water which I provided, they would run in the opposite direction back out into the blinding heat and off into the distance.Not much brain poor things.

SundaySoup said...

When I lived in the Lake District in England, we had some serious rains in the fall and Lake Ullswater overran its banks and there were dead sheep everywhere. I couldn't believe it, but everyone from there was all, "Yeah...the water comes up and they're too stupid to move so they drown." Wow!

When I lived in TN, I once overheard an old codger in the general store say, "They lived so far out in the sticks they had ta turn towards town ta go huntin'."

Anonymous said...

just caught upon your blog! this is so funny and so true, thats why i prefer cattle - sheep Do have a death wish -one day bright perky and full of jump - next DEAD.... very annoying...
sadie

Kari Lynn Dell said...

I am loving these comments! Who knew that so many people have had dead sheep experiences.

hangedman said...

Very funny - and also sad. For another very funny depiction of what it's like to raise sheep (and a review of the many ways in which a sheep may die) check out Dave Sim's "Cerebus," issues 266 and 277, or the beginning of the collected "Latter Days" volume. That's that I was reminded of while reading this post.

Wendy said...

Hilarious! I had no idea sheep died so easy. I live in the country but nobody around here has sheep (maybe they know what they're in for). I have always thought they were totally adorable and would have loved one as a pet. Guess I'll cross that one off the list!

Crystal Posey said...

"Yes, the horse's name was Arm. They can't all be Trigger and Midnight."


LOL!

Anonymous said...

Okay from the Christian prospective (of which I am one) I counted 23 places in a concordance where the Bible refers to Gods people as sheep. Boy, trying to put that into perspective as the way Man is viewed by God as referenced in the Bible. It's pretty harsh after reading how stupid sheep are.

M. Dunham said...

I don't know which is better - the original story, or the fact that so many people have a dead sheep story of their own. I've been cracking up for the past 5 minutes. XD

I almost feel like a letdown for not having a sheep story, but a horse story, well...

One time I went down to my uncle's barn to check out the horses after he'd left for the day (I used to help him with them). I found his favorite mare on her side, and I freaked out because she wasn't moving.

Just when I turned to run back to my aunt, the mare let out a huge fart. -.- Yeah.

At least she was ok! :)

Kari Lynn Dell said...

M. - Hah. Yeah, I've nudged plenty of sleeping horses in my time. But the fart, that's special

Darlene Underdahl said...

I’ve probably arrived too late: darn.

This was a very enjoyable post and I loved the comments. Growing up in ranch/farming country is fun, but also heart wrenching. I discovered that when I came around the corner of the barn just in time to see my father and his friend slaughter my pet calf. I’d wondered why Dad castrated him, that just seemed cruel, but I had no *idea* he was intended for meat!

(Threadbare via www.VermillionRoadPress.com)

I will certainly bookmark this.

Kari Lynn Dell said...

Hey Darlene! Never too late to join in the fun thanks to the miracle of email forwarding that plops all comments neatly in my inbox. And yes, that moment of disillusionment arrives in every farm kid's life. In my case it was a Longhorn steer we called Chicken Coop because he kept breaking in there to steal the feed.