How we spent our quarantine: Teaching a lamb how to walk again

Lots of people have probably taken on projects or learned new things while quarantined with COVID0-19 — how to play the piano, how to paint, finished a novel, etc. But we had a pretty special experience, and it was special in part because we didn’t plan it at all, it just happened. It started in mid-March, when my wife Becky and I headed to the Farm (where we live now, near Buckhorn, about two hours north of Toronto) after coming back from vacation in Florida. Along with our youngest daughter Zoe, who joined us there during quarantine, we helped raise a little lamb who lost the ability to walk for some reason. Over the next couple of months, we helped teach him how to use his legs again and he wound up returning to his flock and becoming just a regular sheep. It was a lot of work at times, but it was definitely worth it. It was like living one of those Netflix specials or a Hallmark movie of the week!

Primo has a nap in Zoe’s arms

It all started because a neighbour who lives across the road near Buckhorn asked if he could use one of the fields at the Farm to raise some sheep. So he put up a little pen and put some sheep in there, and then — as they do — the ewes had lambs (this tends to happen when you put a ram in with the ewes). First it was the twins we called Pebbles and Bam Bam, whose mother we naturally named Wilma. And then one morning when we went up to the pen, there was a little voice bleating: a new little lamb, wandering around the pen looking for his mom. But his mom — Bella — was still in labour with what would eventually be two other lambs, and so she didn’t have time to pay attention to the one we called Primo. So the poor little guy wandered around trying to nurse off just about everything, including the ram — who didn’t like that much, and head-butted poor Primo a bunch of times. And then finally, Bella gave birth to Big Red, and the one we called Dopey.

This is Primo when he was about an hour old

Big Red seemed to be dead at first, and so our neighbour Adam threw him over the fence in a bunch of straw to try and hide the fact that he was dead so we wouldn’t be horrified — but when Red hit the ground, it seemed to sort of shock him to life. He got his name because he had reddish coloured wool (probably blood), but also because he was at least 50 percent larger than his brothers, which is probably why it took so long for him to come out. Over time, it became obvious that Primo wasn’t getting much milk from his mom, since she was busy with Big Red and Dopey. So Becky and Zoe started coming up and bottle-feeding Primo — and sometimes Dopey as well. It was pretty darn cute: after awhile, Primo would hear us coming and start bleating and running for the gate to see the ladies with the milk. And after Zoe or Becky gave him a bottle, he would curl up in their arms and fall asleep, which was pretty amazing. I even got to hold him once or twice, and it was a magical thing. And we had a number of friends come out to the Farm for the express purpose of holding Primo, who seemed to have captured the attention of our entire friend group — and even strangers — thanks to Instagram and Facebook posts. I even had to give regular updates on his progress during my daily Zoom calls for work! I think his was a heart-warming story that people (including us) clung to during the uncertainty of COVID.

As we were visiting and feeding him, we noticed that Bella the dog really wanted to get into the pen very badly, and we assumed that it was because she saw the lambs as food, or that she wanted to attack them. But when Adam said he wanted to let her in to see them, and put her on a big rope leash that he held tight, we found out it was exactly the opposite — at least as far as Primo was concerned. She sniffed around the adult sheep (and got head butted by the other Bella, who she stayed away from ever after) but all she really wanted to do was to lick Primo, in a very maternal way, as though she knew that he needed help. She lay down beside him as close as possible in a very protective way, and continued to do so when we brought him down to the house. They were like buddies in a Disney movie 🙂 It was extremely cute! Even later, when Primo got bigger and stronger, the two of them would play-fight, with Primo head-butting Bella, and Bella nipping and pawing — both of their tails wagging.

Since Primo was sort of getting beaten up by his flock — including his mom, who seemed to be testing him to see if he was strong enough — we took him down to the Farm house, where Adam built a little pen that we could keep him in. Then because it was pretty cold at night, he also built a little pen inside a small garage that is just used for storage. And then just after Mother’s Day, for some reason we still don’t really understand, he lost the ability to walk. He had never been a great physical specimen, possibly because of the hour or two he spent without mother’s milk when he was first born, or maybe because of a vitamin deficiency. In any case, he was sort of hunch-backed and his front legs didn’t seem to work very well — he kept falling face first into the ground when he was walking. So we Googled his symptoms and it sounded like he might have a selenium and/or vitamin E deficiency (something farmers call “the staggers”). So we gave him a shot of both, and he seemed stronger at first, but then he stopped walking altogether. Not only that, but he couldn’t even sit up by himself — his legs were Jell-O, and we had to prop him up with pool noodles.

It looked pretty bad. At one point we brought him into the mud room in the house and kept him in a dog crate because it was so cold at night and he couldn’t move. But he was eating well and seemed alert. So then Becky was looking around online and found an animal rescue place in New Zealand that had gotten a lamb in similar shape, and they had cut holes in a shopping bag and used it as a sling to carry her around (Sodapop was her name) and gradually over time he got the use of his legs back. So we got bags and cut holes in them and started doing the same — but he didn’t even try to use his legs, they just dangled loosely like noodles. As we were doing that, and giving him vitamin E in his milk, another friend suggested hydro-therapy — so Becky and Kris and Zoe put him in the little pond by the Farm house and let him push himself around a bit (which he hated). After that, he started lifting himself up a bit, but he still couldn’t really walk at all.

After he outgrew the bag, Becky and Kris and Marc put a kid’s life-jacket on him like a diaper, with a handle so that they could support him while he tried to get his legs working. And every day he seemed to get stronger and stronger — first he was pushing himself up, and then he started getting up by himself, and then he took a few tentative steps, and then a few more, and pretty soon he was falling down a lot less, and eventually he was sort of running. He was still a little weak, but he was light-years ahead of where he was. And so we started taking him on walks up to the pen to see his family — who mostly paid no attention to him at all. His mother would head-butt him to see if he was stronger, and then walk away. As he got stronger, we took him on walks through the woods with us, just like a dog, and as his legs worked better and better, we started to think about reintroducing him to his flock. So we let him hang out with his flock during the day, and then one night we let him stay over, and then after that he stayed for a few days. And now he is back to being a real sheep.

As far as we can tell, he has more or less reintegrated to the flock. Kris said he recognized her voice when she went up, and came over to get some scritches on his head, which he loves. It’s really the best possible outcome — I honestly didn’t think he would ever walk again, let alone get back into the flock. It is a little bittersweet, because he was so cute, and was such a big part of our lives, even if it was only for a few months. But it is great to know that we helped save his life, because he would almost certainly have died if we hadn’t taken him in. I’m sure Zoe misses her wee man — she probably feels much the same as we did when we sent her or her sisters off to day-care or university: sad to see him go, but glad that he is strong and independent and can get on with his life!

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About mathewi

I'm the chief digital writer at the Columbia Journalism Review in New York, and a former writer for Fortune magazine and the Globe and Mail newspaper.

3 thoughts on “How we spent our quarantine: Teaching a lamb how to walk again

  1. It’s a lovely story. I’m sure you’ll keep in touch with Primo and keep us updated. Animals have been such a big part of this pandemic seclusion. I’ve seen so many beautiful puppies, but only one lamb, Primo. thanks Mathew!

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