This is the story of Wilbur. Whom, you may notice, has a name and no ear tags. I never put them in, I suppose both because there was no confusion about his identity, and because I sensed he’d never need them. I waited to write about him until some conclusion could be reached about his destiny. And here it is.
His birth looked normal- born backwards, but so quick as to be of no concern. His experienced mother did everything properly. But he did not get up to nurse. Instead, he chilled on the wet grass, in the cool spring air, and began to shiver. Breathing fine and alert, but no attempt to rise. No get up and go, they say.
I trundled him into a sling and attempted to lure his dam along up to the barn. She wasn’t buying it- without the proper order of bonding and nursing in the scent cone of placental fluids, she was going nowhere. She kept trying to insist he come back to the place. He was fading, so I hustled him into the barn in a bundle of towels and heating pad, and went back down to retrieve the stubborn ewe. I haltered her and drug her step by step, with her putting on the brakes the whole time, up the hill and into the barn. We were both exhausted and crabby by the time I got her in a jug. I wrestled her down onto her side so he could nurse, and she lay there, mama pig style, and let him.
He perked up and became an eager nurser. That could not stand. His legs were like noodles. Oh great. Had he been born in the cold night, he would have lived and died in short order, and I never would have been the wiser. But I just performed heroics to save a crippled lamb. Now there seemed to be some obligation to keep helping him, and really no time to do anything else.
His will to live was strong, he was bright and eager, and cute. I tended to him just like a bottle lamb, only just helping him nurse on his own dam instead of preparing milk replacer. At the same time, I milked her (she had plenty), and made fine-tasting, high butterfat White Russians. Within a day or so, his front legs could bear weight, then his hind legs. Then he could stand on his own and balance.
He grew, and could sit like a pig and nurse, and he could flop around like a fish and chase after his dam. She waited up for him. He was not frustrated by being abnormal. I turned them loose in the big area in the barn, and they did fine. I worked with him a few minutes each day, helping him learn to walk, first looping a lead around his waist, and then finally just one hind thigh. He complied eagerly with the practice sessions, hackneying along with a stiff gait, but showing slow progress. He was intelligent and aware, talking to me whenever I entered the barn.
I don’t know what was wrong with him- conclusions like spider lamb, white muscle disease, and leptospirosis didn’t seem to quite fit. I treated him for everything, just in case. Maybe it was just a birth defect. Some mis-wiring, where his brain just couldn’t talk to his hind end. The “scissors” gait he was developing reminded me exactly of the human incidence of cerebral palsy. I know someone who taught a non-ambulatory goat kid to walk, so I didn’t rule out the possibility. He could be a pet with a good story. It seemed as long as he wasn’t suffering, and was showing incremental progress, there was no harm in giving him more time.
But he took a turn for the worse as his dam started to nudge him towards weaning. He had trouble learning to access a water bucket, and was vulnerable to dehydration. His skin broke out, maybe due to poor kidney function. I taught him to eat grain from a creep feeding bucket with a hole cut in the side, in preparation for him to wean. But he just over-ate, and his tendency to lie on his side did not help his rumen handle feed. He skated on the edge of bloat, and that discomfort discouraged his will to work on walking.
By last Saturday morning, he was using a complaining voice, I could tell his gut was bothering him. By the afternoon, the voice changed to weak pleading. I touched him and knew- cold and clammy, with skin that doesn’t spring back. He cried in discomfort and his head flopped in resignation. He was crashing. With a normal lamb, I might go into crisis mode, pump it full of antibiotics and fluids, warm it up, bring it back. But not this time.
Further consideration wasn’t really needed, because I knew all along about plan B. I grabbed a rifle, brought him out onto the grass, propped his head up with a piece of firewood, and shot him between the eyes. I say it bluntly, but there it is, the ingloriousness of it. Such a cute little guy, but no hope for a reasonable life- not even one six months long, ‘til butcher time. As his unruly legs paddled with the last energy of life, a nest of too-big, nearly weaned starlings screamed overhead from the widow’s peak; swallows careened around in every direction catching bugs, his mama bellowed from the barn, and the sun beamed. And my heart broke a little, which it doesn’t always.