We keep sheep for their wool and for manure for our garden – and because we love animals. This week we had to say goodbye to our sheep Isadora (also known as Izzy or Mama Sheep), who was about 14 or 15, pretty old for a ewe.
As she grew elderly, I looked for resources that would tell me what to expect and I didn’t find much, so I thought I’d write about the experience my husband Chad and I had with her aging and dying process here.
Before you read on, I’d like to let you know there is a photo of Izzy in her grave after she passed away towards the end of this post. I don’t think it’s an upsetting photo, I think she looks very peaceful, but I wanted to give you a warning.
Signs of Aging
Before her death, there were signs of her aging. Goofy looking teeth is one sign you’ll read about everywhere, but there were a few other things I noticed:
A Change in Personality
About a year ago I noticed that Isadora, had become a little grumpier. If I stuck my hand into the sheep pen, she would butt it with her head. Not hard, but I got the message. Prior to this her normal manner would have been to walk away with disinterest and disdain. “Ick, humans.” she used to seem to say. All of our sheep have seemed to be more comfortable with the presence of our dogs, Leo and Charlie than with us.
With her grumpier change in personality her message became, “Out of here human!” I noticed this same change in her mate, Duncan, who died a few years ago, as he was aging too.
Another change I noticed, and that you’ll read about elsewhere, she started growing a thinner coat of wool. This was noticeable when we sheared Izzy last year, and again this year.
Only this year, her demeanor had started to change yet again.
Earlier this year she started to become pretty indifferent to my presence, as if her senses had started to dull. Except at feeding time of course, then she would come and take food from my hand – something her daughter, Buttercup, never does.
Signs of Dementia or Mental Decline
Also earlier this year, I noticed what I interpreted as signs of dementia. I would catch glimpses of her standing with food half chewed in her mouth, as if she had forgotten what she was doing mid chew.
Other times, I’d just notice her standing around looking a little lost, like she wasn’t sure what she was supposed to be doing.
With her wool coat on, she looked smaller than Buttercup, but after we sheared her this year, we finally saw just how thin she had become.
As we sheared her, I could feel her backbone didn’t have the meat on it it used to, and once the shearing was done, her backbone was clearly visible. Compared to Buttercup, she looked underfed and frail.
Izzy’s Last Days
As often happens with elderly humans, Izzy had an accident and never recovered. Thankfully her suffering was limited, this process was short, only lasting two days.
On Wednesday morning I went out to feed the sheep as I usually do and found not two sheep waiting for me, but just one.
I looked around and saw that Izzy was stuck. She had gotten herself wedged in to a sharp angle of her enclosure. She was lying down with her head stuck between two separate pieces of fencing.
I ran to get Chad to help me.
We returned to her and realized that not only was her head stuck, but a back leg was also stuck in some fencing.
It was probably a good thing her senses were a bit dulled. She didn’t fight Chad as he tried to free her like she would have when she was younger, and probably avoided injuring herself further.
Once freed, she at first had some trouble regaining her footing, but with some assistance from us, was able to get back up and walk around. She walked from one part of the enclosure to her food area, which seemed to be a good sign.
As for the narrow angle where she’d gotten stuck, Chad blocked it with a pallet and we left her standing by her food, chomping away.
However, I came back out a little later and found her in the same spot where she’d been standing eating, now lying in the full heat of the sun.
Chad and I lifted her up again, she walked a bit, then went back down.
That day she walked a little, but kept ending up back on the ground unable to stay upright. We kept trying to help her, but she seemed too weak to keep herself up.
So we positioned her in the shade, with food and water within reach. She happily gobbled up the weeds we brought her, which she preferred to her hay: ironweed, mallow, and her favorite, lambsquarters.
The next day, Thursday, we tried to help her get up yet again, but she was too weak, and now her front right leg didn’t seem to be working properly. Her front left one was holding her up sturdily, but the front right would buckle. We decided to let her rest for a while.
We gave it one more try later, but the results were the same. She just couldn’t hold herself up. We finally accepted that this was going to be it for her. We made sure she had water within reach, and brought her lots of weeds.
Throughout the evening I would come to bring her more chow and to check on her. I’d find her half asleep with her head over her stash of weeds. She’d wake up when I came near, and start munching again. Buttercup stood nearby and munched away on weeds as well.
Talking About Euthanasia
It’s a funny thing about euthanasia. It tends to be considered the wrong thing to do for humans (thus its illegality in most places) yet is considered the right thing to do when an animal is suffering.
I brought up the subject with Chad and we talked it over. While there was clearly no treatment that would help her improve, she also didn’t seem to be suffering greatly.
As long as her suffering was minimal, it seemed more kind to let her have a natural death with no strangers around.
She was at the end of her life, and we could accept that and try to make her as comfortable as possible until she departed.
The Unpleasant Details
During this period, of course she wasn’t able to get up, so she pooped where she lay, which is one of the reasons we moved her a couple of times. It was normal looking sheep poop, though, so nothing disturbing there. She did urinate one of the times we helped her get up, so it seemed that that was a help.
Another unpleasant detail is that flies were swarming around her eyes during these last 48 hours when she couldn’t function normally. I would try to shoo them away when I was with her, but of course they would just come right back. (Strangely, once she died, they pretty much disappeared).
She also vomited a couple of times during this whole process.
Signs of Oncoming Death
On Friday morning, before checking on her, I went out to gather some weeds to take to her.
But when I arrived with my haul, I found a sheep that was no longer interested in eating. Her whole body was twitching, going through some spasms. She didn’t look up at me or seem to be aware of my presence.
This was a very disturbing sight to see, and I questioned my thoughts about avoiding euthanasia. I didn’t want her to go through prolonged suffering.
I talked to Chad about my concerns. I then went to look and see if I could learn anything about the dying process in sheep – nope. So I read about the dying process in humans. Towards the end the body is sometimes taken over by twitching or trembling – odd movements. This quieted my concern, making me think this was probably just part of the death process.
By this time Chad had gone out to check on her, and at that point she was in a more peaceful looking state.
She probably would have been indifferent to our presence at that point, but one thing I didn’t want to do was crowd her in her final moments. She never craved human interaction, and I thought it made more sense to let her have her final moments without us around.
I peaked over at her while doing some other chores, and saw her lying on her side, breathing deeply, no longer twitching. She looked more peaceful.
So Chad and I had breakfast, took the dogs for a walk, and then went to check on her.
By that time she was gone. She was still lying on her side, now with her head thrown back, probably from the last efforts of dying. The light of life was out of her eyes. Her daughter, Buttercup, was several feet away from her, lying in the shade.
As we stood looking at Izzy’s vacant body, talking, Charlie walked by the sheep enclosure several times, whimpering, something we’ve never seen her do before in reaction to a dying or deceased animal.
Although Izzy wasn’t exactly a pet to us, we did mourn her and cry for her loss. And so it seems, did our dog Charlie.
Izzy was part of our lives for many years, and we empathized with her pain and suffering, and were glad for her sake that her suffering was short.
Thursday night she was happily enjoying some of her favorite weeds, Friday morning she was gone.
We found a nice spot to bury her, and Chad went about the hard work of digging a hole, just the right size to nestle her into the earth.
It was a good spot, and both of us thought that we wouldn’t mind being buried in such a spot either.
Chad did the next hard step of getting our deceased sheep over to her grave and arranging her nicely within. Before putting her in, we put in a shallow layer of hay. Then Chad arranged her body.
I collected a few of Izzy’s favorite weeds, and laid these along with a poppy flower with her as a symbolic love offering.
Then, taking turns, we spread another layer of hay over her. This really got me crying – this is the moment when you see the deceased for the last time.
After the layer of hay, Chad started shoveling the dirt back in over her, until there was just a mound of soil.
Then we went and collected some stones that were lying around the farm, and arranged them over her grave.
This is the fifth animal Chad and I have buried together and we have a burial process that we are used to, so we didn’t have to think too much about it – we knew all the steps.
Burying our beloved animal companions is an act of catharsis, it lets all the painful emotions out, and for me, is an important part of saying goodbye.
Life After Death
We cried over our ewe, Izzy, even though, to be honest, we probably liked her more than she liked us. Still, she was a living creature, and deserved our respect and empathy.
I hope that we helped her leave her earthly existence in a dignified and comfortable manner.
And for me, one death brings up feelings for me about the other deaths in my life – deaths I have experienced in the past, and those I will experience in the future, including my own.
The experience of saying goodbye is a reminder that time is short, life is fleeting, all things must pass.
For me, it’s also a reminder that even death, the scariest thing among all our experiences on this planet, can be dealt with. The dread of experiencing a death is bigger and worse than death itself.
I feel that what makes death so scary is our ignorance of death, our refusal to be familiar with what happens during the experience.
Beyond such existential thoughts, there are concrete ones to deal with.
Sheep don’t like to live alone, and now we have a lone ewe, Buttercup.
She behaved normally during the day Friday, but Friday night just as I got into bed, she started bleating over and over. So, I grabbed a lantern and went to check on her.
She was looking around in every direction, bleating out, over and over. To me it looked like she was looking for her mom. Heartbreaking.
So now we have to decide whether we need to find a companion for her, in order to keep her from being permanently stressed out. She’s only 5 and has a long life left.
Finally, I think of Izzy and wonder if I’ll see her again in some afterlife, somewhere where we might be able to communicate beyond the realm of words, and meet some kind of understanding between souls.
My feelings about the afterlife are mixed – I do think there is such a thing, but I’m also OK with it if the extent of my afterlife is my body breaking down and transforming into other things – soil, insects, plants.
Nonetheless, as I walked around gathering my symbolic offering of weeds to put in Izzy’s grave, I sensed her presence, as a younger, vital lamb, kicking around, dancing about with joy and freedom.
Goodbye Izzy, see you around some day?