We put our sheep, Ma, down this morning. I asked Jon if he would shoot her, we both agreed that it didn’t feel right to call the vet. We weren’t looking to prolong Ma’s life at this point. So much of our decision to put Ma down was based on feeling, although there was a practical side to it too.
For some time Ma’s been declining. And I’m a bit surprised that I even know what a sheep looks like when something isn’t right. Mostly it comes down to unusual behavior. Which also makes me realize how well I know my sheep, just by observing them everyday. So when we first put hay out last month and Ma, instead of running to it an gobbling it up, like the rest of the sheep, would go off on her own to graze, I knew something was wrong. At first, Deb, her lamb would follow Ma into the pasture. But lately, Deb has been running to the feeder with the rest of the sheep and Ma sometimes wouldn’t even graze, but just stand inside the pole barn. Eventually she would eat some hay.
Then, yesterday morning I saw she had green mucus oozing from her nose. By the afternoon it was gone but this morning it was back. She stood in the pole barn apart from the flock, her neck hanging low from her shoulders and her legs pulled in towards each other. I wasn’t sure what the unusual posture meant, just that it wasn’t normal. She seemed disoriented and uncomfortable.
It was like when our white hen wandered away from the other hens, and mostly sat around all day, we know it was just a matter of time before she would die. Ma is old and almost died this summer giving birth to Jake and Deb. Since then I had the feeling she didn’t have much time left.
So, this morning, I squatted in front of Ma and tried to empty my mind. I was expecting some words like “I’m done” or “not yet” or something like that, then realized I had expectations and truly emptied my mind. I was looking at the front of her face and my eyes blurred, my vision filled with the black of her wool. And I got the feeling of wisdom emanating from that space in the center of her forehead. As if Ma was really very wise. Then I heard the words, It doesn’t matter anymore. It’s all one. And I knew the words were referring to the transition from life to death. And transition is really the wrong word because the words meant there is no transition. That for Ma, right then life and death were the same, one continuous forever.
I had no doubt it was time for us to put Ma down. We decided to do it after breakfast, but when we went back outside, Ma was grazing with the other sheep. Suddenly I wasn’t so sure. Just an hour ago she looked like she could die at any moment, now she was acting like she was fine.
And this is where the practical part came in. We knew that Ma was dying. And we knew we would eventually be euthanizing her, unless she died naturally first. So it was now a decision of when to do it. She seemed fine at the moment, but the rest of her life would be a series of ups and downs, and with the winter here, it would be even more difficult for her. We could wait a few days and see how she was doing, but we’re going to be away from home tomorrow and three days next week for Thanksgiving so the responsibility for Ma would fall on our farm sitter Deb. This was not something either Jon or I were comfortable with. And the other, very practical issue that comes when euthanizing any large animal is what to do with the body. Our friend Jack was available to help us this morning. He could bring her to the woods in his truck.
We could do it now, or we could put it off. I thought of the words I heard coming from Ma and Jon and I agreed it made no sense to put it off.
I was glad we didn’t call a vet to put Ma down. It wasn’t about the money, although that’s always a consideration. Jon shooting her was much quicker and less traumatic for Ma. We didn’t have to catch her and hold her down while the vet shaved her and found a vein. She fell down with Jon’s first shot to the back of her head. Continuing on, from life to death as if they were the same.
I’ll miss Ma’s lumbering presence in the pasture, her hay covered face and her distinctive baa which always sounded like a burp. And I’m sad to lose her, but grateful to have been able to be there for her and do the best I could for her.