Okemos, MI. Baaaa. Baaaaaa. Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa. I knew from the last bleat, more frog than sheep-like, that Muffy was not taking the bottle. I walked from the kitchen down to the garage where my 14-year-old son Carl was attempting to feed our two newly acquired “bottle lambs.” At 7:00 a.m. on a freezing January morning, Carl was wrapped in a pastel pink, yellow, and blue flannel quilt made by his grandmother in Minnesota. A contractor’s heat-lamp, otherwise used for nighttime pond hockey, shone brightly on them both. Muffy struggled and squirmed on Carl’s lap as he patiently worked to insert the plastic yellow nipple into the side of her mouth. She refused, again and again, shaking her head vehemently, side-to-side, up-and-down-and-around. Reconstituted powdered sheep milk squirted all over Carl’s jacket, gloves, and face.
“Why won’t she take the bottle?” Carl asked on the verge of tears. “Do you think she is sick?”
“I don’t,” I replied somewhat flatly, having already grown tired of the early morning ritual after only a week. “I think she just doesn’t likes the bottle.”
A discouraged Carl sighed as he put Muffy back into her make-shift pen, an industrial-sized red, plastic laundry bin that we had found at the surplus store at the university where I teach. Now he lifted the other lamb, Fluffy, out of the box and put her next to his chair. She baaaaed loudly in protest but stood obediently next to Carl’s leg. Carl reached for the bottle and Fluffy latched on immediately, greedily gorging down the entire bottle in seconds. Pleased, Carl returned Fluffy to her box with Muffy, filled their bowl with water and feed, washed his hands in the utility sink, and went to school.
The lambs, mind you, were not my idea. Carl had put on the hard-core press for another pet besides our yellow lab, Hattie, for the past year. And not just any pet. An odd pet—at least for where we live. It started with a pet fox, which apparently is legal in the state of Michigan, as Carl learned through much research and numerous conversations with state DNR officials. Once he realized that that was not going to happen, he moved onto goats. But I had grown up with goats, Sugar and Spice, one of whom had broken off her own horn by ramming her head into the barn wall. I urged Carl toward chickens. Not cuddly enough. Hamsters. Too small. Another dog. Hattie might be sad.
Sheep, Carl was convinced, were the answer. Friendly, docile, and low-maintenance, they were herd animals that stuck together and close to home, he reasoned. We already had a relatively large fenced in yard with plenty of grass to graze. They were fine with dogs and dogs with them, which Carl had learned by watching and following innumerable sheep YouTube videos and blogs. Once grown, they just ate hay, which was plentiful in the farming areas surrounding our house.
“Can’t we at least go ask at the sheep barn?” Carl begged.
“Sure,” I repeated noncommittally for weeks.
The university barns are located just a couple of miles from our house, and we had been frequent visitors over the years, especially in the spring when the ewes had their lambs. Now it was winter, though, and when we pulled in through the open gate, the facility was empty, save the sheep. Carl went first to the ewes’ side and put his hand through the fence. They maneuvered around the hay feeder in the middle of the pen to smell his hand. He took turns petting the top of their heads. A long-haired, charcoal-grey, barn cat lurked around the edges to make sure all was well.
“Look,” Carl said excitedly. “They’re so friendly. “Aren’t they adorable?”
“Uh huh,” I lied, silently contemplating how huge and dirty they were.
“Let’s go see the other ones,” Carl urged.
We walked across the service road to the other building, where a dozen sheep bleated and meandered around the hay feeder. White with dark faces, the Suffolk flock were Michigan State University’s pride and joy. Since the late 1960s the University Sheep Teaching and Research Center had been raising a flock of purebred Suffolk, a breed originating in Britain in the early nineteenth century. The facility maintained 50 breeding females of this breed, one known for its quick maturation, stamina, and quality meat. Research included studies on genetic composition, resilience under stress, and physical development.
Carl reached into the pen and, again, several came up for a smell and a pet. The cat came back as an ATV pulled up from the lower field. A college student dressed in khaki Carhart pants, a red-checked flannel, and a hunter orange stocking cap asked if he could help us.
“We’re just visiting for a few minutes,” I said.
“Sounds good,” he replied nodding.
“Actually,” Carl said, “I had some questions about raising sheep. Can I ask you?”
“Sure,” he said, putting the ATV in park.
“How much space do they need?” Carl launched in.
“Not that much. I’d say a ten-by-ten pen for two animals would be fine.”
“Do they break through fences?” Carl asked.
“No, as long as the fence is about three to four feet high. They are not aggressive animals.”
“Do you have any idea where we could purchase one?”
“Actually,” said college boy, “I think there are some bottle lambs down at the main barn that they may be looking to sell. Walk through the ‘man door’ and ask for Lacey. She’s the barn manager.”
“Thanks,” said Carl, turning abruptly and practically sprinting toward the car.
We drove down the hill to the big barn, knowing neither what a “man door” nor “bottle lamb” was, but figuring that we would learn soon enough. A “man door,” it turns out, is just a regular human door in a facility where all other doors are meant for large animals or oversized farm machinery. We walked through it to the sound of hundreds of bleating sheep—and their smell. Another college student was busy filling water feeders with a green hose. Carl walked over.
“Is Lacey here?” he asked hurriedly.
“I think so,” she said as she placed the hose in the next water feeder. “She’s probably back in her office. I’ll show you where it is.”
She turned off the hose and climbed over the fence. We followed her around the corner to a small office. The door was open. A woman sat at a desk in front of a computer screen.
“Lacey,” said the college student, “there is someone here to see you.”
Lacey swiveled around in her chair and stood up with a broad smile. “How can I help you,” she asked.
“Hi,” I said, “I’m Gretel and this is my son, Carl. We were just up the hill at the other barns and the student working there said that you might have some lambs for sale.”
“I do,” she said. “They’re in the back if you want to see them.”
Carl looked at me pleadingly.
“Sure,” I said, “thank you.”
We followed Lacey to the other side of the barn through dozens of stalls of lambs and ewes. A couple of lambs had escaped and were racing at break-neck pace around the perimeter of the barn. We reached the corner stall that had been set aside for the “bottle lambs.” Bottle lambs, we learned from Lacey, are lambs that have been orphaned either because the mother had birthed too many babies to feed or had died while giving birth. The barn’s practice with these lambs was to give them their shots, feed them for a few weeks, and then sell them to commercial farms to raise for meat or fiber.
The lambs, admittedly, were beyond adorable. Eight of them nuzzled together, bleating, bouncing, and vying for the bottle stand. I could tell that Carl was ready to leap into the pen and lie down with them for the rest of his life.
“I am new to the university and have never sold any of the bottle lambs to a private individual,” Lacey told us. “But I don’t think it would be a problem. They are $30 each.”
“We were thinking of one,” I said, not believing the words that were coming out of my mouth. “A female.”
“Okay,” Lacey said, getting into the pen to look at the green tags on the lambs’ ears. “We have three females. This one here, and that one and that one,” she pointed to two lambs with their necks intertwined. “Sheep are herding animals,” Lacey explained. “They’re happiest when they are with other sheep. Two sheep will be easier than one.”
“What if Carl spends a lot of time with just the one?” I asked skeptically.
Lacey told us about her childhood experience raising bottle lambs on her family’s sheep farm in Iowa:
You can raise them in a box in the garage. They are fine outdoors, once they are about six weeks old and it is over 30 degrees. They are pretty easy. They take milk from a used 20-ounce water bottle and some feed in the morning and evening for a couple of months. Then they just need hay and water. They self-regulate so you can just leave it out. You only need to feed them every few days. They are good in extreme weather. They just need a wind block. Bottle lambs become so attached that they will follow the caregiver around for the rest of their life. When I go home, the bottle lambs I raised when I was growing up there still know me.
Carl swooned as we followed Lacey back to her office. We stood outside the door while Carl asked more questions: Where do you get the supplies? Where do they go to the bathroom? How often do you clean their box? How many hours a day do they sleep? Can you take them for a walk on a leash? Will they know their names? Lacey patiently answered, then said: “I will save you two females if you can come back and pick them up within the week.”
“I don’t have cash or a check with me,” I said. “Can we run it over later today?” As I spoke, I realized I hadn’t even asked Jeff, my husband. What had just happened here?
“Sure,” she said. “I’ll be here until five.”
Lacey was right. Sheep are herding animals, and Fluffy and Muffy stuck together more than any of us could have imagined. They slept and lounged curled up like pretzels, limbs and necks bent in impossible contortions. When Carl let them out of the box for some exercise in the garage, they still would not leave each other’s side, even for a second. Once the weather got a bit warmer, they began to explore the yard. Interested in everything, they found things we did not know existed. Shrubs, flower pots, stray hockey pucks, a fringed piece of rope hanging from the boat’s trailer hitch. Quiet when one of us arrived home in the evening, the minute we pulled into the driveway, they would begin to bleat. Sleeping soundly in the dark of early morning, they would pop up like jack-in-the-boxes as soon as the kitchen light turned on. Jeff began to refer to them as “the ladies.” “Hello, ladies,” he would greet them each morning and evening, walking over to the fence to pet them. He began to tell stories about them in his university classes. Photos of Fluffy and Muffy appeared in his PowerPoint slides. When his colleagues came over for a beginning of the school year potluck, all they wanted to do was watch and talk about the sheep. One professor who had started a nonprofit in India where school-aged children raised money by printing photos on coffee mugs, gave Jeff a mug for the holidays with Carl cuddled up in the yard with Fluffy and Muffy.
It wasn’t long before the lambs began to work their way into our family’s religious imagination as well. Lutheran by virtue of Jeff’s Norwegian heritage, Carl, and his two older sisters, Inga and Clara, have attended Sunday services just enough to learn the liturgical music by heart. The lamb, it turns out, figures strongly in Lutheran hymnology. Weekly during communion the congregation sings a song called “This is the Feast of Victory,” where Jesus, as the lamb figure, is believed to have taken the place of humanity’s sin:
This is the feast, the Victory of our God.
Worthy is Christ, the lamb who was slain,
whose blood set us free to be people of God.
This is the feast the Victory of our God.
For the lamb who was slain has begun his reign.
Shortly after Fluffy and Muffy arrived, Carl concluded definitively that he did not care much for this interpretation. Of the lamb, that is. So, one Sunday, he decided to change the words:
This is the feast, the Victory of our God.
Worthy is Christ, the lamb who will never be slain,
whose love set us free to be people of God.
This is the feast the Victory of our God.
For the lamb who will never be slain has begun his reign.
The congregational confession, Lamb of God, sounded better, Carl thought:
Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world; have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world; have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world; grant us peace, grant us peace.
And then there were the lambs in the medieval and neo-gothic churches that Carl and I visited in central Europe that winter. There was a lamb bowing its head, etched in the stained glass above the enormous baptismal font in Matthias Church in Budapest. Another rendering, standing tall with outstretched neck, was carved out of marble above the pulpit. In St. Martin’s Cathedral in Bratislava, the lambs were right up with the angels. St. Stephens in Vienna had them nestled in the massive golden arches. Lambs, lambs everywhere! Carl couldn’t get enough.
At some point, Carl even began to take on the lamb’s persona, as in the Council of All Beings ritual created by philosophers Joanna Macy and John Seed in the 1980s. Carl would imagine how a lamb would feel and behave in this or that circumstance and then pretend that he, or others, were that lamb. “If only he had the ‘heart of a lamb,’” Carl mused one day after school, referring to an especially mean boy in one of his classes. “I’m happy as a lamb,” he stated one night while eating a bowl of Death by Chocolate ice cream. After an especially frustrating penalty call at one of his sister’s hockey games, he said: “The lambs could referee better than that.”
And so it was for nine blissful months. Until a neighbor called the township to complain. It was late summer and the “ladies” had discovered that there was green grass to be had beyond our yard’s fenced in area. Plus, there were kids that came out to play. This intrigued those herding animals. And so they bleated. And bleated. And bleated. One morning, a letter from the zoning department appeared in our mailbox. It read:
Dear Property Owner:
A violation of section 86 of the Township Zoning Ordinance has been found at the property located at the above address.
The violation to the zoning code is as follows:
Section ZONING VIOLATION (OWNER HAS NON PERMITTED SHEEP ON PROPERTY ZONED RA. ANIMALS MUST BE REMOVED.)
Said violation must be corrected within ten (10) days of the date of this notice.
The Township may also issue to the person(s) responsible for the violation a municipal civil infraction violation notice, subject to a payment of a civil fine of $75.00.
Carl was devastated. And even though $75 did not sound like a lot of money, and the zoning ordinances did not technically mention sheep, we all nevertheless came to agree that Fluffy and Muffy would be happier on a farm with more space. I promised Carl that we would find them a good home. We took photos of Carl hugging Fluffy and Muffy, and I put up an ad on Craigslist. To my surprise, I received three calls within an hour from local hobby sheep farms, all who had also gotten their start by raising bottle lambs from the university barns.
The first woman I talked with had a twelve-year-old daughter who especially loved sheep. They lived on fifty acres twenty miles southwest of us and had six sheep, two rescue horses, three cows, a dog, four cats, and a dozen silky chickens. They loved animals, she said. Eventually they hoped to begin spinning yarn from the sheep’s wool. They could come pick up Fluffy and Muffy any day that week, if we’d like. They did not live far. Carl could come visit them any time.
A year later we went to visit Fluffy and Muffy, who were, by this time, gigantic. The biggest of the pack. They were well-adjusted and happy, said the “lamby lady,” as Carl named her in his phone contacts. “They stick together like sisters, she said. “And we can tell their bleats from a mile away,” Carl laughed. He didn’t want to leave.
When we returned home from the visit, Jeff suggested that we get another pair of bottle lambs to raise until they were ready to move on. Carl said no. Fluffy and Muffy were enough. And mostly, he said, he did not want to get up at dawn to feed them. I told him that even I would help this time if he wanted more, so quickly had those little lambs worked their ways into our hearts.
I have thought often of the lambs in these strange times, if only because I have been spending an inordinate amount of time in my back yard where their covered hay box still sits. But it is also their way of being that has been on my mind. Their utter dependence on each other. Their need, emotionally and physically, for one another’s company. I admire it, really, wish I could be more like it. Still, for an introvert steeped in Western individualism, it makes me feel, well, uncomfortable. The thought of such reliance, such connection. Perhaps it is the fear that it would come at a loss to my personal autonomy, the capacity to do what I want, when I want. Or perhaps it is more basic—a fear of rejection in the face of belonging. Whatever it is, I do know that it felt good—even right—to learn, in a new way, how to connect with others. So today I make a COVID resolution: I will learn to be more lamby-like, as Carl would say–to think like a lamb.