In The Hunger Games, a tribute’s demise is announced to viewers (and other participants) by the firing of a cannon shot. I like to think of it as a final salute to the participant, for all of his or her efforts. Today, with a heavy heart and mixed emotions, we “readied the cannon” for our oldest sheep, Pachelbelle. It was one of the more difficult decisions I’ve had to make regarding our livestock.
Pachelbelle had the distinction of being our last surviving animal to have made the move from Illinois to Michigan in the “Noah’s Ark on Wheels” at the end of 2007. She was just a lamb at the time, having been in March of that year — to a dam that’d been one of the original four sheep in our flock. She had a beautiful gray fleece, a gentle temperament, and delivered many nice lambs for us over the years.
However, in the last year or so, she began clearly showing her age. Climbing to her feet was taking obvious effort, and she was consistently the last of the flock to go out or come back in. As the months went by, her movements slowed and became more labored. At shearing time last October, she spent the entire day laying down and simply observing as the rest of flock had their fleeces removed one by one. As nice as Pachelbelle’s fleece was, I asked our shearer to leave that one in place. I hadn’t entirely made up my mind yet about butchering Pachelbelle, but regardless … I didn’t want her to spend any extra energy trying to stay warm.
By the time I called to arrange butchering for our lambs, the shop was booked until January 14th. I told them to pencil in one really old sheep, in addition to the lambs. I didn’t say it, but I wasn’t certain Pachelbelle would make it that long. I also wasn’t sure I would have the heart to actually take her in.
What made the decision harder is that, even today, she was managing to get around. Yes, slowly. But still getting around. Shouldn’t I let her continue?
Here’s the thing that I kept going back to: we have had really, really bad luck with sheep in their thirteenth year of life. Several have made it to their twelfth birthday, in a similar condition to Pachelbelle’s, and it never ended well after that. Assuming they survived the spring lambing, they would go downhill fast in the heat of summer. Eventually, they would stop eating. Then they would stop getting to their feet. And then, in the heat of summer, we would need to dispose of a large carcass. It really wasn’t fair to the ewe. The last time we experienced this, I resolved to impose a “mandatory retirement age” of eleven years.
So, as much as I wanted to let Pachelbelle keep going for as long as she could go … I couldn’t make her go through the prolonged agony that was inevitably coming this summer. Furthermore, by bringing her life to a close now, I could let her provide our family with many pounds of ground mutton.
When I fed the animals last night, I pulled Pachelbelle aside and sat with her for a few minutes. I told her what a wonderful sheep she’d been, how much we’d enjoyed having her on our farm, and that I hoped we’d provided her with a great life. Then I hugged her neck, and let her hobble over to enjoy some hay with the rest of the flock.
As heavy as my heart was this morning, and much as it pained me to load her in the van, I know this was the right thing to do. I’d give her a twenty-one gun salute if I could.