Please note that this piece contains some sensitive images that might be upsetting for some viewers.

In mid-March, we were alerted to a horrific cruelty case on a sheep dairy farm in Kings County, California. Fifty members of the dairy’s flock had just starved to death, and the group of twenty that we would be taking in were the sickest of the 200 that remained. With help from our rescue partners at Kings County Animal Services—who had helped us with previous rescues including Grace goat and Leo calf —we secured legal custody of this group and set out to help as many of the others as we could.

Emaciated sheep at the dairy awaiting rescue

Sadly, the dairy owner had overlooked even his flock’s most basic needs in order to conserve profits—a growing trend among small farmers looking to stay afloat, especially in a niche market like sheep dairy. By the time we could bring our new friends home, four had either died or required humane euthanasia. One of the ewes gave birth to triplets. In total, we welcomed 19 sheep from Animal Control to our Southern California Shelter—temporarily increasing our flocks by more than 70 percent.

Rescued sheep receive a nourishing meal while in King's County Animal Services' care

This large rescue, and the animals’ extensive aftercare, required all hands on deck. After clearing space at our Southern California Shelter and securing permanent, loving homes through our Farm Animal Adoption Network (FAAN) , we ran routine blood work, gathered fecal samples, and took photographs of each individual to best assess their incoming conditions and establish specialized care plans.

The group was very sick when they arrived; all had body condition scores of 1 to 1.5 out of 5, which signals emaciation. They also had wool slip due to malnutrition—a skin condition that causes their wool to fall out. To top it all off, they were terrified. Many had lost their lambs to slaughter; other lambs were stillborn or died shortly after birth because their mothers were so malnourished.

Sheep with severe case of wool slip gets examined at Farm Sanctuary

As with cows in the dairy industry, sheep dairy farmers separate lambs from their mothers in order to sell their milk for profit. They send most males, who can’t make milk, to slaughter; female lambs may see the same, or become breeding ewes just like their moms. Life and death is sadly just business as usual.

At Farm Sanctuary, we believe each sheep is someone, not something. We wish all farm animals could be viewed this way—but unfortunately, for the rest of the farmer’s original flock, it wasn’t so simple. County rules allow up to two weeks for people to file for repossession of seized animals; since the farmer didn’t reclaim the first 19 sheep, Animal Control retained custody and released them to us. Angered by this loss, he decided to fight for a second group of six that had been removed from the property afterwards.

Safe at our Southern California Shelter, the rescued sheep begin to put on some much-needed weight

Shockingly, the farmer had a case. Despite fifty sheep having died from his neglect, and the severe malnutrition of the already-rescued survivors, we entered into a weeks-long custody battle to secure this group of six. Luckily, we won—but unfortunately, the farmer can still keep the rest of his flock, since their treatment aligns with industry standards (few laws exist to protect livestock like sheep, and the abuse they sustained was considered normal). While we wish we could save them all, we are thankful that 25 sheep have new lives ahead of them.

All incoming animals go through a mandatory quarantine to assess their health status, and to ensure that any diseases they have don’t spread around our established residents. Standard protocols for sheep include scans for Ovine Progressive Pneumonia (OPP), which can cause degenerative lung and joint issues, and Caseous Lymphadenitis (CL), which causes abscess formation throughout the body. While these diseases are chronic (and often devastating) conditions, sheep that have them can still live long and relatively healthy lives. This can make placement difficult, though, because not all homes are equipped or comfortable caring for animals with special healthcare needs.

Tests indicated that about half of the sheep had these diseases, and half did not. Most are healthy enough for placement; the rest—Abby, Ada, Anne, Antonia, Aretha, Katherine, Malala, and Shirley—were to remain at Farm Sanctuary to receive specialized care. When placing animals, we are very careful about keeping bonded groups together. It worked out that there is little crossover between OPP and CL positive and negative animals, so we easily placed bonded groups based on their forever families’ needs and preferences. It is just as important for our FAAN families to feel comfortable and happy, and we love watching their new lives together unfold!

The sheep are doing great in their new homes—and those who stayed with us are thriving in their flocks made up of old friends and new. “They are all so bonded that they still sleep in the same stalls at night, giving comfort to one another,” says West Coast Shelter Manager Jessica Due. “Katherine is coming up more and more, and Antonia—though still shy—is very sweet and more comfortable around her flock.”

Sadly, some still bear the scars of their former life: it took months for Abby and Shirley to recover from mastitis, and Anne has (terminal) squamous cell carcinoma—an unfortunate consequence of a tail docking that left her body defenseless against the hot California sun. No matter how long these individuals are with us, they will get the care that they deserve, and live out the rest of their lives viewed as someone, not something.

Dairy—whether from sheep, goats, cows, or other animals—is not a harmless industry. You can help keep farm animal families together by choosing plant-based alternatives instead! Visit www.farmsanctuary.org for more information on making the switch, to report any incidents of cruelty against farm animals, to donate in support of our rescue and care endeavors, or to join our Farm Animal Adoption Network in order to help us place more farm animals in need.