It isn’t even a month into the Year of the Sheep, and we’ve already met three amazing reasons to celebrate. On Feb. 13, we helped baby Hazelton into the world. Less than two weeks later, two playmates arrived. Reubie and Summer were born on Feb. 23.
All three lambs were born to mothers whom we welcomed to our New York Shelter in January. Tracey and Louise were already far along in their pregnancies when we rescued them from a property where they had been neglected for years. The two had been slowly starving there, and without aid they never would have survived the birth of their babies. Even safe at our sanctuary, they still faced high-risk deliveries. As we worked carefully to help them gain weight and strength, we also monitored them 24/7, so we could by their sides as soon they went into labor.
Tracey, the older ewe, was the first to give birth. Though her labor was long and difficult, and though Hazelton struggled during his first days, both had recovered by the time Louise was ready for her own delivery.
Compared to Tracey, Louise had a relatively easy time delivering. She also had emotional support from the older ewe — though in separate stalls, the two could hear each other and communicated throughout Louise’s labor. The first lamb to emerge was Reubie. Strong and alert, he was immediately looking around and taking in his new world. Within the hour, he was suckling, and by the end of the day he was attempting his first frolic.
Louise started grooming Reubie even as she began to deliver his twin brother, Summer. Mother sheep wash their newborns immediately to clean and warm them. Louise, like all mother sheep, cleaned her babies’ faces first, since newborns’ noses and airways are often clogged with afterbirth. This is why, in some photos, Louise’s lambs have white faces while the rest of their wool is still bright yellow. In a few hours, after mom had a chance to clean them completely, their fleece was as white as our Watkins Glen snow.
Second-born Summer was smaller and weaker than his brother. Struggling to breathe for the first few minutes, he required extra help from caregivers to clear his airways. We could hear the little one breathing with a crackling sound characteristic of wet lungs for the rest of the day. Summer was also unable to latch onto his mom to nurse, so caregivers had to tube-feed him his first few meals. Tube-feeding is a delicate and nerve-wracking procedure, and we resort to it only when it is necessary to save the newborn’s life, as it was for Summer. The first 24 hours of feeding are critical for newborn lambs. This is the period when their mothers produce colostrum, which allows lambs to form the antibodies that will protect them from infection and disease.
Much to our relief, on day two Summer managed to nurse on his own. Still, we were concerned that he was not thriving like his brother. We soon found out why. An infection was building in the tiny coffin joint of Summer’s back left foot, and by the end of his third day, he was unable to put any weight on the leg at all. It’s likely that Louise, who produced far less milk than we would expect from a mother of twins, did not create enough colostrum for both babies.
Summer clearly needed veterinary intervention. We took the entire family, including Tracey and Hazelton, to Cornell Large Animal Hospital, so everyone could stay together while Summer was treated. At the hospital, vets identified the source of the infection, performed surgery to clean out the joint, and started Summer on IV antibiotics. A day later, Summer was putting weight on the foot, and within four days he was jumping around like his brother. Having his family around him surely helped this little fighter recover, and after a week, he was healthy and ready to come home to the shelter.
For sheep like Louise and Tracey, birth is typically just a prelude to loss. Enduring pregnancy after pregnancy, breeding ewes must watch helplessly as their lambs are taken away to be raised and slaughtered for meat. To recognize how bitter that feeling can be, one has only to observe the joy that Louise and Tracey take in their sons and the profound comfort that Reubie, Summer, and Hazelton find in their mothers. The bond between mother sheep and their lambs is deep and enduring. On the rare occasions when mothers and lambs are allowed to stay together for their whole lives — as they will be here – they form a lifelong bond. These two families, Louise’s and Tracey’s, have the added gift of each other. These sheep get to start their new lives surrounded not only by family but also by human and other animal friends.
Summer and Hazelton are alive today thanks to the individualized care that animals receive at Farm Sanctuary. We give our best to each animal, working to bolster the health and strength he needs in order to be his best for himself and his family. Thanks for helping us put compassion first.