Timothy was the first lamb born on the sheep farm we started in 1980. He grew fast, handsome, strong and intrepid. His first weeks in the barn he thrived on his mom’s milk, then Spring came and the grass began to grow. He wasn’t keen on the fibrous timothy-grass hay his mom enjoyed, but he was ecstatic about fresh grass. That was what killed him.
Sheep produce carbon dioxide and methane as digestion by-products. Rapid intake of green food before their digestive system has adapted can cause a build-up of gas that’s known as pasture bloat. Bubbles form under a surface film on the liquid contents of their rumen. There’s a build-up of gas pressure, the pH of the rumen drops, gas production further increases, the expanding rumen partially collapses the lungs and blood forced out of the body cavity to the extremities causes acidosis. It’s a horrible way to die.
If you know, you can use a stomach tube to help release the gas, you can agitate the rumen contents, get the animal to take an anti-foaming agent or, in the last extremity, you can puncture the rumen from outside. That results in an explosion of gas and liquid and requires the sheep to be cleaned and sutured. I knew none of those things.
Something was terribly wrong when I took the sheep their hay and water that evening. Timothy could hardly move. All I could think of was bring him to the kitchen where it was less cold. We put him on a blanket in a cardboard box on the floor and I sat with him. Studying him was useless because in fact I knew nothing about sheep health. There was no vet to call because vets in that town treated only cats and dogs or horses. I just sat with him miserably feeling guilty. At last, I had to go to bed. In the morning he was dead.
Timothy did not think he was teaching me. If you sit peacefully with sheep for a while and try to understand their experience you realize it’s probably not so very different from ours. They’re easily panicked, as I was in I Met a Man Who Wasn’t There. They don’t verbalize but they do stand nose to nose panting, exchanging pheromones. The big difference is they do not have our gift for reflection. Of course, they also cannot make and use tools but here I’m considering only activities of mind.
That Timothy was not trying to teach me does not mean I could not learn from him. In fact, lessons from his life have continued to emerge even thirty years later.
The first thing I learned was, if you’re going to take responsibility for any other creatures, you should prepare so you can help them. I could have prevented Timothy from pasture bloat if I’d known about it. I could have saved him if I’d known how. I studied, observed more closely and lost no more animals to bloat. I eventually found a vet who only treated horses but who had grown up with sheep and was willing to teach me the basics. I laid in a supply of medicines and grew adept with a syringe.
The most recent lesson, which only came clear to me in the last year, is the most important. The compassion I felt for Timothy was good but it was mixed with suffering I was creating in myself. The misery and guilt was all about me, not empathy but self-indulgence. The compassion was what motivated me to recognize and work to overcome my ignorance.