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By Kathy Stevens, Catskill Animal Sanctuary
Rambo the sheep arrived at Catskill Animal Sanctuary (CAS) in January of 2002, one of eighteen animals who'd been confined in a single filthy stall, thrown the occasional moldy bagel by his "owner." We'd won our first cruelty case against her, a notorious hoarder whom the entire region feared for her predilection for lawsuits. From the start, Rambo announced himself. While his cellmate friends--a 2,500 pound Holstein steer, an orphaned calf, a goat and fourteen sheep--initially cowered when we approached, Rambo lowered his head and came at us, driven by testosterone and rage.
Yes, Rambo was angry. Angry and unneutered. The day he was legally surrendered, we scheduled his neutering; unfortunately, his rage remained intact. Whenever we entered his stall, he charged . . . .The ewes were quickly adopted out, and cows Molly and Samson integrated themselves into our herd without incident. Rambo? We couldn't consider adopting him out. We gritted our teeth, protected our legs with plywood cutouts and learned never to turn our backs to him.
After a year without progress, we were deeply discouraged. Consulting sheep breeders exacerbated the situation . . . . One breeder was alarmed that we had Rambo and advised us to put him down for our own safety.
But at Catskill Animal Sanctuary, the mantra "in his own way, at his own pace" describes our healing process. And so we waited, speaking gently to the explosive boy and protecting ourselves from injury.
"What Love Can Do"
In his second year with us, the frequency and intensity of Rambo's outbursts decreased: his great eyes softened. Rambo slowly let go of the behaviors that had protected him and his flock . . .
He first showed his true colors on a cold November night. Before we built our turkey shelter, our two big birds--blind Cliff and his protector Chuck--were taken out each morning to a spacious enclosure shaded by willow trees.
There the two pals would enjoy much that turkeys in the wild enjoy: grass and trees, bugs and grubs, the chance to stretch their legs, to preen and relax. We'd bring them back to their stall in the barn at the end of each day.
One bitter wet evening, my dog Murphy and I rushed to the barn for night check. Rambo lay in the barn aisle just outside his pal Dino's stall (we had abandoned our effort to enclose him in his own space). On this night Rambo stood and looked me straight in the eye, wanting a treat. I obliged with a pear procured from the kitchen, then walked over to Chester to begin my rounds. "Hey, old man," I whispered to the ancient Appaloosa horse, his eyes heavy with sleep. "Hi, goats!" I called softly to Noodles, VanGoat and the rest, who rushed toward me, jumped up, resting their hooves on the sill and reaching out for what awaited them: a carrot, a pear, an apple. Farther down the aisle, Policeman, a thousand-pound pig whose name and size belied his gentle nature, was covered by mounds of soft hay. Only his snout was visible as the mound moved up and down with each breath. And so it went. All was well at CAS. Or so I thought.
As I did each evening, I turned around at the end of the long aisle to call goodnight to my friends. But before the first name left my lips, Rambo charged up to me, stopped dead, looked up with is great yellow eyes and bleated. "Something's wrong," he said. No matter that what he in fact said was "Baaa-hh" . . . his communication was perfectly and instantly clear. It was the first time I'd heard his voice.
"What?" I asked him. "Show me what's wrong."
The proud beast marched half-way down the aisle and made a 90-degree turn into the empty turkey stall.
The turkeys!! In the frenzy of a hectic day, we'd forgotten to bring them in.
Stunned by what I'd witnessed, but concerned about the birds, I thanked our guard sheep and ran out to the turkey yard, accompanied by Rambo and Murphy, Chuck was cowering at one end of their enclosure, his head tucked in a futile effort to stay warm. Cliff was outside their pen, motionless in a shallow puddle.
"Oh, my boy, I am so sorry," I whispered as I approached Cliff. Scooping the animal into my arms, I carried him into his dry, safe space, Rambo at my side the entire time. We repeated the process with Chuck. I toweled off the birds, kissed them on their rubbery heads, checked food and water and closed the door behind me.
It was time to thank Rambo. In the darkened, hushed barn aisle, I sat on my knees and looked deeply into his eyes. "Thank you, Rambo. Thank you for telling me about the turkeys. What a good job you did. . . what a good, good job." I took his face in my hands as tears rolled down my cheeks.
What had just happened? That a sheep was aware that the turkeys were outside was impressive enough. That he figured out how to tell a human blew me away. But most astoundingly, Rambo had just shown concern for two animals of a different species, and had known that I would help them. Rambo, the sheep full of rage, seemed to know the compassionate purpose of Catskill Animal Sanctuary. Rambo had empathy. My head was spinning. Was this possible? I took his face in my hands. "Okay, boy," I whispered, looking into his eyes. "If this is who you are, you've got a big job ahead of you."
In the three years of my graduate school program, I read perhaps a hundred books by noted experts . . . . But somehow, unbelievably, the lesson I'd just received from a sheep surpassed anything I'd read . . . . As brilliant and instructive as their insights were, nothing these thinkers wrote suggested that my core beliefs were based on a false set of assumptions, on naiveté or ignorance. But in a darkened barn on a bitter early winter night, a sheep who finally believed he belonged with us did exactly that.
It's been more than four years since that defining incident . . . . There've been scores more moments. Rambo greets new animals, comforts sick ones . . . . Rambo has herded escaped llamas back to the barn during an early-morning escape, charged around the farm during a violent thunderstorm to check on the animals who live outside, and convinced a profoundly depressed pig to leave his stall and discover the world outside. Yes, this ambassador for a species generally considered only for its meat and wool has, indeed, been my greatest teacher.
"I am so much more than you know," Rambo's actions tell us.
"We all are."
Reprinted from VegetarianFriends.net where it was reprinted with permission from Vegetarian Voice, magazine of the North American Vegetarian Society. Kathy Stevens is founder and director of Catskill Animal Sanctuary in Saugerties, NY and author of Where the Blind Horse Sings: Love and Healing at an Animal Sanctuary (dedicated to Rambo). The lead picture above is of Rambo. The birds are Chuck (r) and friend Thomasina.
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