Leg of Lamb – Health Lessons From the Farm

Sometimes, the way you treat a health problem can be worse than the problem itself. This fact was made clear to us personally in a recent episode from our farm here in Hawaii.Actually, we don’t really have a “farm”, in that it is not a commercial food producing operation. More accurately, we have an “interspecies community”. We live in harmony and peace with our chickens, ducks, geese, milk goats, short-haired sheep, horses, dogs, cats, and all the wild animals that share our nature preserve with us. All the animals are free. A few chickens come up into our open-air house to lay their eggs. The dogs watch dutifully over their animal community, making sure no predatory dogs or hunters threaten our little world. It is as close to living with nature as you can get.The other day, unknown to us, a sheep was having her lambs out in the field. We had let a horse into that field, unaware of the birthing under way, and the horse accidentally spooked the mother and made her flee from her lambs. Once we realized what had happened, we tried to get the mother back to her babies. She still had the afterbirth hanging out, and the lambs were still wet, just barely licked and cleaned up by their mother before the horse had frightened the sheep away from her maternal duties. Unfortunately, she had no interest in her babies anymore. She may have developed some negative associations with her babies as a result of the scare. (Of course, this must make you wonder what impact a negative birthing experience has on women and their relationship with their human babies.)It was clear that we were going to become the surrogate parents for these now orphaned lambs. Making matters a bit more complicated was the fact that there were four of them! Our sheep had a 1 in 5000 birthing event, delivering quadruplets. All looked healthy and eager to nurse. We brought them to a small yard next to our house, and put their mother in with them, too, hopeful that she would calm down and decide to nurse her babies. But she still felt alienated from them and refused to let them have milk. So we hand milked her to get some colostrum and decided to rely on our goat milk and a baby bottle to nourish our four new lambs.All went fine for several days. All the babies were healthy and happy. After a few days, we decided to let them out of their yard and take them for a walk among the other animals in the community. Of course, the other sheep were very curious and came up to the lambs to smell them. Their mother stayed away, as though she felt slightly guilty. Then the goats came over to see the new members of the community. That was when the trouble began.The head goat (goats have a pecking order like all social animals), whose name is Sweetie, decided that she did not want the lambs to think they were so special, since they were getting so much attention from us humans. So she did what goats do — she banged one of the lambs to the ground with her horns.The baby was stunned by this, and we needed to hold her for a while to help her get over the shock. There were no external injuries, but we feared for internal damage. However, when she eagerly drank her milk later on, we felt some relief and hope that there was no permanent problem. The next morning we gave everyone their bottle of milk, as usual. But then something happened. The lamb that had been hit was lying on her side, legs stiff, unable to get up! We lifted her up, but she soon fell down onto her side again. She was clearly in pain, and when we held her she showed no interest in drinking milk, which was a bad sign.Naturally, we feared that there was some internal injury from the prior day’s goat assault. We thought we should isolate her to keep her from further damage, but she refused to rest or lie down normally. She was shaking with pain. We thought about other possibilities. Since the lambs had very little colostrum, we worried that she might have come down with some disease. Maybe we should be careful not to spread anything to the other lambs.If this were a human baby, we would have taken blood tests, performed X-rays to assess any internal injuries, and put her in the hospital for observation. But this is not a human, but only a little lamb, one of four. We began to rationalize that not every baby can survive all the time. If we hadn’t taken charge over the quadruplets, then the weakest two would probably have died, since the mother only has two teats. As we watched the poor lamb suffering, we wondered when it would be time to put it out of its misery. Should we euthanize the lamb for its own good, and to save our other lambs from potential disease?As these dark thoughts descended on our minds, we decided to hold the lamb to comfort her. As I held her close to his body, I could feel her shaking with pain. To make the lamb more comfortable, I folded the lamb’s front legs so she could be cradled more naturally, since the lambs usually lie down with their legs underneath them.It was folding her legs that stopped the problem.As the legs were folded, there came a loud “pop” sound from the lamb’s front knee. It had been locked! We have steps in the back of the house where the lambs are living, and they have learned to climb the steps to greet us. This lamb, which was the runt of the four, must have gotten her knee out of joint on the steps. That’s why she was on her side, legs straight out. She could not bend her knee to lie down, and the pain was frightening and disabling.As soon as the knee joint popped, the pain left the lamb. She immediately stopped shaking. And she was suddenly eager to drink her milk! We have given her and her siblings knee pops since, as a precaution, and all seem to enjoy and benefit from the “leg adjustment”. None have had any problems since.As we smiled in relief we reflected on what could have happened to this little lamb had we not accidentally discovered the simple cause of her problem. Lambs, like people and all social animals, need love and support, especially when they are feeling pain and discomfort. Isolation would have killed her. Giving her a shot of antibiotics would have been unnecessary and could have disturbed her immune system and developing intestinal bacterial flora. And it would not have helped. Seeing the lamb suffering would have left us little choice but euthanasia. In short, any intervention, but the accidental one, would have been a disaster.When it comes to humans, the lesson is clear. It would be wise to first look for a simple cause and solution to a health problem.Our medical system is designed to test and treat problems with an increasingly complex array of high tech diagnostic and treatment methods. Some of these methods themselves pose a risk to health. And looking for a complicated answer often distracts from the real cause of the problem, which could be very simple.Then there is the question of when to give up hope. Of course, many times we give up because of our own ignorance about what to do, not necessarily because there is no solution. Especially noteworthy was the fact that it was not our medical knowledge that helped the lamb, but our compassion. It was not until we held the lamb and lovingly caressed its pained body that the solution made itself apparent. We were not the healers of this lamb, but the accidental agents that popped her knee and ended her problem. Perhaps there are higher forces at work that answer to the prayers of baby lambs.Our lambs are now jumping and celebrating being alive. We are now popping their knee joints daily, like sheep chiropractors. And we make sure the lambs stay away from Sweetie, whose name is being changed to Meanie.

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