Editors' Note & Caveat: This week's very explicit sheep ranching incident may be more than some of our subscribers can stomach, so we have posted it on a separate page with a link.
Retch-ed (Be Warned)
When Domingo entered the lambing shed, he was wearing a wide grin that displayed a mouth full of good, strong teeth stained to a nice caramel color. He was dragging an exhausted looking ewe by the neck. "Mucho problem-o!" he said. He indicated I needed to assist the ewe. He tipped her over onto her side and offered to hold her for me while I worked. Something about his grin and generous offer to help smelled fishy.
Healthier ewes and lambs flowed through the shed almost unnoticed. As soon as they hit the ground they were swept up, by either the gut-wagon crew or the night crew, and deposited in a lambing jug. If they fared well, I moved them out within 24 hours.
The less fortunate required most of my attention.
If a birthing was going too slowly out in the field, the ewes were delivered to me for the ministration of my recently acquired midwifery skills -- or lack thereof.
James Herriot, country vet and author of All Things Bright and Beautiful, described watching the first teetering steps of a newborn lambs as "The wonder that was always fresh, the miracle you couldn't explain."
But, being overwhelmed with lambs that wouldn't thrive, and emaciated ewes that weren't up to mothering, wasn't wonderful. The dead pile grew daily -- and lacked freshness. Pouring milk through a catheter into a lamb's stomach -- was less than miraculous.
Nevertheless, there were some miracles. They were the lambs that survived despite all odds. Frequently, late lambs, or pulled lambs, lay on the floor motionless. Sometimes holding them upside down and shaking them lightly, or whirling them around my head like a lasso, would bring their first breath. Other times, sticking a straw up their noses would stimulate a sucking-air reflex, and breathing would commence with fits and starts.
This ewe, on the floor before me, smelled worse than fishy. With Domingo holding her down on her side, by the head, I donned an elbow length, disposable glove. I washed off the ewe with a bucket of soapy water and sprinkled J-lube powder on her and on my wet glove. Inserting first my fingers, and then my hand, I gently worked my way into the womb. I was able to decipher, from the tangle of limbs and tails, that she was carrying twins.
I positioned the head and front feet of the first lamb for delivery and tugged to bring the first leg into the birthing canal. The lamb's shoulder stuck at the incompletely dilated cervix. I tugged a little harder and the leg slid free. With a loud, sucking sound, my hand emerged from the ewe holding only a dismembered leg! The leg had sloughed off from the lamb's body and was now in my hand, dripping with a disgusting, pasty sauce. The smell of decaying flesh was overwhelming.
I started retching -- and Domingo started laughing. Fortunately, for me, I was running on empty. My retching was non-productive.
The twin lambs had died in utero. The ewe had been unable to expel them and they were very rotten. I fished them out in handfuls of sodden flesh and broken bone. My glove was soon tattered and my hand and forearm saturated with the incredible, stinking mess. Piece by piece, the pile and the stench grew.
It was Domingo's turn to retch -- my turn to grin.
With the womb (and Domingo's stomach) emptied, I inserted a large, pink anti-bacterial bolus and gave the ewe an injection of antibiotic. She got to her feet, thin and haggard, and walked away without looking back for her lambs.
In the days that followed, Domingo, and I got on well. Hard feelings over the dogs were soon forgotten. Our mutual retching over the spoiled lambs had loosened tensions. It was a turning point. Esteban came on board, too. Mutiny had been foiled; we were again mates on this stinking ship.