Wednesday, November 12, 2008

I'm Gumby, Damnit!

As you know, I have sheep. Just a few, and recently acquired, but they aren't my first ones. When I was a kid (about 7 or 8 years old to begin with) we did 4-H. For reasons unbeknownst to me, I decided to rear orphan lambs as my 4-H project. I discovered two things from this experience: One, I hated keeping records about food intake, rate of growth, feeding times, etc. Two, I loved taking care of the lambs.

Fast forward to a few years ago, when I am living in Alaska and working as a small animal vet. My neighbor S, from Wildwood, calls me up.

"We have an orphan lamb that needs bottle rearing," she tells me.
"Oh, okay; what you want to do is [blah blah blah, me outlining my strategies for the successful rearing of bottle lambs]."

There is a pause. "Well, actually," S says, "I was hoping you'd just do it for me."
Another pause. Hmm. "Okay," I say, cheerfully. I love bottle lambs, and no one will be bugging me about meticulous record-keeping. This will be fun.

The first lamb I reared for them was called Pete (adapted from P.T., for Pepper's Toy, since Pepper's stockdog instincts kicked in immediately and she was riveted to Pete's every movement, seeming to believe I had gotten him solely for her slinking-and-watching pleasure. Pete, I will say, did not seem displeased by this arrangement, regarding Pepper as both buffer against the other dogs, and big-sister shadow.) Pete I placed with another sheep-rearing family in the area, on the understanding that they would not slaughter him. Though I can and do eat lamb - with great enjoyment, I might add - I think it's unfair to eat the bottle babies. They're a lot more like pets than livestock. (Unfortunately, that agreement was not kept, and the new owners did in fact slaughter and eat Pete about a year later, much to my anger and outrage.)

Gumby, on the other hand, got his name by a quirk of memory. I was sitting at work one day with him sprawled on my lap - his long, cunning legs dangling on either side, his woolly head resting soporifically on my arm - and the name "Gumby" popped into my head. It took me a minute, but I remembered that an old friend had been in the habit of referring to girls with long, sexy legs as having "Gumby legs" (don't ask me - it must be a guy thing.) Well, hardly anything is proportionally more leg than newborn lambs are, so Gumby it was.

Pete was a sturdy wee thing, and only needed a little help to get on the right track. He was a well, healthy lamb within a week or so, at which time I moved him from the bathroom nursery (a bathtub lined with a plastic shower curtain and filled with straw makes a dandy lamb incubator) to the back yard, where he lived in the dog run and slept (adorably) in one of the straw-filled dog houses. He went to work with me during the day, so I could keep him fed, and before long he was transitioning first to dandelion flowers, then to grass and hay.

Gumby, my second go-round for Wildwood, was another matter.

Gumby was much sicker than Pete had been, for starters. Small, weak, disinterested in nursing, I had real fears for his survival the first three weeks of his life. I had to put the nipple of his bottle between his lips and squeeze the sides of it to run some milk replacer into his mouth. He would swallow unenthusiastically for a few moments, and then, exhausted, quit. With patience and persistence, I might ultimately get a tablespoon or two into him at a feeding. I transitioned him to raw goat's milk (obtained from a local goat dairyman) in hopes that the trace minerals and proteins would perk him up a little. In desperation, I made a crib for him by lining a laundry basket first with a large plastic trash bag, then with a nest of towels and blankets. Into the crib went Gumby, and onto my bed went the crib. I discovered that I could quite easily keep a night's worth of milk warm in its bottle by tucking it under my arm while I slept, and that without prompting from the alarm clock I would roll over every two hours all night long, tilt the crib over, poke the nipple into Gumby's uninterested mouth, coax him to drink a little bit, and then go back to sleep. This was much easier than getting up and traipsing to the bathroom every two hours, because by the time you're done with that, you're all the way awake and you can't get back to sleep as fast. The tilt-the-crib thing allowed me to get sufficient sleep and give Gumby sufficient care that after a few weeks he was starting to struggle up from his spindly beginnings and show some inclination toward survival. (The drawback o this method is, of course, that you have a sheep sleeping in your bed, which is one of those things that you REALLY don't want people to know about you, most especially if you are a vet. Except that now everyone knows, because I wrote this. What was I thinking?)

Gumby was in diapers for a long time. He had black and green slimy diarrhea at first, which was only partly contained by diapering (as I discovered on more than one 2-a.m. occasion, groping with a sleepy hand into his little crib. Urk, what's that? Oh, eeeugh. ) Because he was far too frail to transition to the outdoors, he lived in the house, toted everywhere in his little diapers by me. Unfortunately, male lambs urinate sort of mid-belly, so the diapers did nothing to control his urination messes (and the several attempts I made to jury-rig an absorbent belly-band were only partially successful.) Fortunately, very young animals have very dilute watery urine, and I am in possession of a carpet steam-cleaner, so this was a manageable complaint.

After he finally started to get well, Gumby turned out to have more personality than any other lamb I've ever reared. For one thing, he had a bit of an oral fixation. This ranged from being a potentially dangerous problem to a mere annoyance. Merely annoying was when I woke up after a pleasant afternoon nap to feel someone tugging gently on a hank of my hair - only to discover that it was Gumby, quietly gnawing a piece of it off. Potentially dangerous was when I got out of my morning shower to discover him standing blithely in the middle of my dining room table - where I did not imagine he would be able to go - happily chowing down on a length of green satin ribbon. I dropped my towel and grabbed the ribbon, reeling in approximately two and a half feet of its wet, slimy, tooth-punctured length from out of Gumby's gullet. Gumby looked both bemused by this (no doubt an odd sensation, me pulling that back out of his guts) and a bit annoyed (he didn't go to all the trouble of discovering a path to the Hidden Land of Tabletop, not to mention figuring out how to pluck the ribbon reel out of the mending basket AND finding the elusive ribbon end, just to have me steal back his prize.) However, he was a cheerful little creature, if a bit like living with a developmentally delayed raccoon, and he quickly forgot his disappointment.

This, however, was the first clue that things were changing in Gumbyland. Gumby - who heretofore had been too small to get up on the furniture, and who was by consequence limited in the amount of mayhem he could cause - had at last grown strong enough to make it up onto the couch. This trick he demonstrated memorably one cloudy afternoon when I was sitting on my couch, drinking a mug of tea and reading a book. So there I was, engrossed in my book and generally minding my own biz and enjoying a peaceful afternoon, when all of a sudden four sharp, pointy cloven hooves land forcefully on my thighs, as Gumby has just leaped off the floor and strait onto my lap. Tea goes flying one way and my book goes flying the other. All the dogs leap to their feet in alarm. Gumby looks mildly surprised at the commotion - although much more surprised to be evicted unceremoniously from my lap. Undaunted, he hops right back up on the couch, although this time (as he didn't leap onto my lap) I consented to allow him to snuggle down on the couch next to me and have a nap (after I retrieved my fallen tea mug and book.) It's a pleasant thing to have a dog or a cat curl up, napping, against your leg while you have a bit of a read. It's no less pleasant - though admittedly slightly surreal - to have a two month old lamb do so.

Still.... this was the first sign that Gumby was one day soon going to be too big - and too much a sheep - to live in the house. For the moment my diaper-rigging was working (and still necessary), but that wasn't going to last forever, and realistically: Gumby is a sheep. He needs to live outdoors. Right about then it became apparent that he was one day going to be strong enough to do so.

There are other Gumby stories aplenty, but those will wait for another day. But lest you be worried that Gumby met Pete's fate, he did not. He lived for a while on a rescue farm, and then became the pet of a woman who has one of the few remaining in-town acreages in Anchorage. He is their ambassador sheep, trotting out to greet visitors, following people around the farm as they do chores or tour the place, standing with his little cloven feet braced against the log sides of their cabin, poking his nose in the window on fine days to get a bit of toast and jam. They called me after they'd had him for a year to tell me how much they adore him - how much everyone adores him, come to that.

I'm telling you. All personality, all the time. He's Gumby, damnit!


MaskedMan said...

Shades of the Sheep Races, from Ft. Collins.

Oh, and congrats - you've rediscovered the secret of co-sleeping, which enables many thousands of new mothers to survive and retain their sanity.

goatgirl said...

I think it's call co-sheeping. And there is nothing sweeter than a bottle baby.

MaskedMan said...

Tell that to the HBIC at the Rescue where I volunteer - She was taken down by a bottle-fed ewe who led her flock right over the top of her. Busted leg, dislocated knee, busted arm and collar bone, and separated shoulder. All because her nice, docile ewe wasn't sufficiently worried about approaching a human. There are times when "sweet and gentle" become a problem...

Anonymous said...

I wish you had pictures of some of this stuff. I laughed out loud at work reading about your book and tea flying when she landed on you!

My husband gets annoyed with the cats and dogs crawling on him, now I wonder if I could find a bottle baby for an April Fools joke on him!

manymuddypaws said...

awwww, we want pictures of said Gumby the lamb

you are a great writer!

AKDD said...

GG and MM - bwahahaha! It sounds so much better when you call it co-sheeping. I mean co-sleeping. Rather than, say, "My vet has a sheep that sleeps in bed with her. She hasn't been arrested yet, I don't think."

Glad everyone enjoyed the story about little Gumby Man! He was the sweetest lamb ever. (Now a pretty sweet wether, from all accounts... quite polite, too, about not running people over or standing up and trying to climb on them with his hooves.)

I do have pics somewhere of little Gumby-goo.... not sure where, however, and I know they're not on disc. I have one shot of my Westie, Kenzie, sharing his or Pete's bottle, I don't remember which.... lambs, if you don't know, can be greedy little eaters, and it's not uncommmon for them to have quite a froth of milk-and-spit foam at their lips when drinking their bottles. Kenzie, no dummy, spotted this right away and would run in and lick this off his lips while he was drinking. It was very dear... little black lamb, little white dog, sharing a bottle...

Bill Fosher said...

I hate bottle lambs. Hate them hate them hate them. Hate. Them. Here is a selection of the names I have given them over the years:

Zero, Reject, Icky, Fiddlehead, Dog Food, and Sh!t Factory.

I managed to foist off two bottle lambs this spring to unwitting suckers -- or should I say helpful volunteers -- and everyone was happier, I'm sure.

AKDD said...

Hey, Bill!
Stick 'em in boxes and send 'em to me. I love bottle lambs.

Seriously, I can see how they'd be a real pain for someone who has a serious sheep operation. But for me, whose main income comes from something else entirely, they're a lot of fun.

Just one of my many flaws, no doubt. :)