It’s been an eventful time around here with three weekends in a row of crises, both human and animal. The crisis du jour this week was sheep acidosis or grain poisoning of both of our Leicester Longwool sheep on Friday night. Sheep can not eat anything that contains copper (a common element in many grains and mineral licks), nor can they eat too much non-copper grain, as it can shutdown their digestion as a ruminant. Both conditions are life threatening and can escalate quickly to sudden death.
In scuba, the most likely cause of a dangerous situation is a cascade of failures–your weight belt pops off at the same time your dive light stops working and your buddy abandons you on a night dive. (Yes, that actually happened to me once. I’m still not sure how I managed to catch my weight belt in the dark, though I’ll never forget being upside down like a buoy attached to my belt as if it were a mooring.)
The crisis this weekend at the farm was the perfect storm of the converging failure of two separate and unrelated systems that were put in place to keep our sheep from eating non-sheep grain and free-choicing grain at all. I was horrified to enter the barn at 9:30 pm to assist our new lamb in nursing to find all four sheep (lambs included) in the normally latched grain stall with the door to their pens and to the stall both wide open. I don’t know how many hours they were in there, but the sheep grain bin was knocked over and the llama bag scattered on the ground.
The first mistake I made was to text our vet without having adequately surveyed the scene. She answered to just “watch them–both behavior and scat.” But once I got a better look at them, it was clear that Juliette, at least, had already progressed to a problem. Both of her sides were distended as if she had swallowed two large beach balls. She moved like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade float, awkwardly and slowly. I was afraid she might pop when I touched her sides. Juniper looked normal, but hung her head down closer to the ground, like a dog you’ve just found that had knocked over the Christmas tree. I called the vet back to describe Juliette’s concerning looking bloat, but she had already apparently gone to bed. I got her voicemail.
I then called Tufts Veterinary ambulatory service, the vet we use for our larger animals, which set off about an hour of calling vets across the Commonwealth, who either couldn’t come out because of the time or distance. It was 11 pm when I reached a vet who was covering for another vet in Bolton (about an hour away). I couldn’t believe it when she said she could come and lived in a town only 20 minutes away. What luck, I thought and said a little prayer of thanks.
When the vet showed up at midnight, her first words to me were, “I’ll be frank. These situations do not usually have a good outcome.” I braced for what I’d tell the children in the morning.
She explained that a hospital setting was the best option for treatment, but because of the time of night on a weekend, we were best doing triage and arranging for transport of both sheep to Tufts in the morning. I had already spoken to Tufts, who had prepared me that the hospital care for each sheep would start at $1,500. I swallowed and decided we’d cross that bridge when we came to it. For now, I was willing to commit to this vet’s fees at a fraction of the cost and to a sleepless night to see what morning would bring. Sometimes resorting to Scarlett O’Hara’s, “I can’t think about that now” line is the best defense.
In my worry, I had forgotten to catch the vet’s name.
“Katrina,” she said when I asked. “Like the storm.”
“I have a friend named Katrina,” I offered, trying in a thinly-veiled way to distance us from a bad outcome.
For nearly four hours until Katrina left at 3:45 am, I harnessed and held sheep in headlocks with my knees while she administered a heady number of IV drugs and subcutaneous fluids and I took notes on a scrap piece of paper. I felt like I imagine Julianna Margulies must have felt during her stint on ER, when she learned her lines, memorizing names of drugs and code words. Occasionally familiar words like penicillin would stick out in a string of otherwise unrecognizable drugs, that I’d slowly sound out trying to spell in my sleep-deprived head as she gave me “the bullet” for the hospital vet in the morning.
It was only when Katrina handed me a bag of syringes with carefully measured out doses that I realized that I was the one who would need to administer them. “I don’t know how to give shots,” I admitted. My father always did his own vet services for our upwards to a hundred head herd. Somehow in all the years of my animal care-taking, I had never learned.
“Well, you’re going to learn right now,” she said, explaining the times each shot would need to be given depending on when we left for the hospital in the morning. She leaned over the animal, grabbed my hand and showed me how to measure from her hip bone to the right area for an IM (inter-muscular) shot. “If you get it wrong, they’ll be blood in the needle when you retract it. So don’t give the shot if that happens. It means you’ve hit a vein. If this shot goes into her veins, she can go into cardiac arrest.”
I was so sleep-deprived, I felt that strange sensation when it feels like you’re witnessing a situation you’re actually a participant in. I had to rephrase her instructions, since I thought she couldn’t actually mean what I thought I heard her say. Or did she?
“Retract the plunger?” I asked.
“Yes, pull out the plunger first,” she went on to explain. “That creates negative pressure for when you push the meds in.”
“Got it,” I said and reiterated. “And if no blood enters the needle when I do that, then I know I can give the shot safely.”
And so ended my lesson, as there were no drugs needed for me to give it a try.
Katrina also left me a bag of subcutaneous fluids, which I smiled in relief at. We had given our cat fluids the same way for 4 years. I had that one covered, I said.
As she prepared to leave, I asked if there was a situation where the sheep would not have to go to Tufts in the morning. I’m ever the optimist, I thought, as I asked the question.
“Well, I suppose if you come to the barn in the morning and they are both brightly moving and eating, then yes, you would not have to bring them.” But the look on her face was not encouraging.
I stored the meds and went to bed. It was 5 a.m. the last time I anxiously checked my phone. When my alarm went off at 7:00 am, I awoke with a great feeling of urgency. I wanted to get to the barn before any of the kids awoke, just in case there was bad news. I quickly put on the same dirty clothes from the night before and headed to the barn, preparing myself on the way for just about anything I might find.
I opened the door to the sheep barn slowly and walked in, saying my customary, “Good morning.” Juliette looked up at me and said, “Baaaa.” The bloat had gone down, and she looked nearly normal. I gave her a handful of hay in her bin and she energetically walked to it and ate it, as if nothing at all had happened. Juniper now also walked to her bin, looking at me expectantly. I handed her a small amount of hay, and she quickly ate it. I felt like crying in relief.
But there were shots to give. So I went back to the farmhouse to get Ben, who I knew would be awake by now. While he slept, it had seemed like a lifetime had passed. He had no idea any of the drama he had missed, but he was game to help me by holding the sheep while I gave them their shots. I would start with Juliette, who was sickest, I reasoned.
I found the spot measuring with my hand as I had been taught. Juliette pulled away as the shot entered. Seeing no blood, I quickly plunged the shot in. When I retracted the needle, it was bent at a 30 degree angle. “Well, at least I didn’t kill her,” I said to Ben, who laughed.
Emboldened I pulled out the next shot, took off the cap and went to Juniper. Juniper and I have had a lot of long talks in the past couple of weeks about her lamb, so I leaned over and explained what I was about to do. When I pulled the plunger back, I saw no blood, so I confidently pushed it in. Juniper immediately hit the ground, all four of her legs seemingly folding like a chair. I felt like joining her. But we took her harness off and stepped back.
“Maybe she’s a fainter like some people are when they get shots,” I said to Ben, trying to break the tension. We watched as she laid there, slightly swaying back and forth with each breath.
She got up and walked away.
I’ve since given about 15 shots and taught my oldest to do it too. I may have lost some sleep, but thankfully we didn’t lose the sheep. The past couple weeks have engaged all three of our boys deeply in sheep care: assisting Juniper in nursing, harnessing the animals, holding them, and giving meds. I’ve noticed they are each more gentle with the animals than I am, preferring to cajole them into doing things rather than my brute manhandling. They are naturals at sheep whispering. It’s meant late nights in the barn sitting quietly in the hay, with only one single light on, while we chat and attend to the animal’s needs. We’ve on occasion noticed the moon or the sound of a dove on our short walks back to the farmhouse.
“I really like it,” my 15-year old confessed to me last night. I smiled.
Me, too, buddy. Me, too.
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