Goodbye, Sweet Mama. May the Angels Sing You Home
Animal Stories from All-Creatures.org

FROM

Kathy Stevens, Catskill Animal Sanctuary
June 2017

sheep Noelle

We got the call from Annemarie Lucas of Animal Precinct fame: she’d picked up a sheep being chased through the Bronx by dogs.

“Sure we’ll take her,” we said. It was Christmas Eve, 2004. I walked to the barn to welcome our new charge, and not surprisingly met a terrified animal. We placed her in a deeply bedded stall, promised her that she’d never again know fear, and turned out the light.

Noelle and Christopher lambs

Imagine our delight when, on Christmas Day, we walked in to discover a snow-white lamb curled up in the straw next to his exhausted, emaciated mama. We named our Christmas baby Christopher and assigned “Noelle” to mom. The pair did what moms and babies do: Noelle cared well for her child, and Christopher took his cues from the being who gave him life.

This is was what felt sad to us: of the thousands of animals Catskill Animal Sanctuary has accepted from horrifying circumstances, none have been more terrified than Noelle. As soon as she knew we were entering her pasture, she’d flee. Closing them in each night was an ordeal, and it took an entire team to catch her for health care.

Noelle and Christopher lambs

Over the years, we moved the pair all around our spacious grounds — sometimes trying to integrate them into existing flocks, sometimes resigning ourselves to the pair living alone — always, of course, looking for the space that would provide the greatest peace. We took our cues from them, and the message from Noelle was, “Stay away from us.” So that’s what we did, allowing them to live quietly, in safety and in peace.

But three decisions in the final years of Noelle’s life ensured that her life didn’t end the way the way it began: in fear of every being around her except for her devoted son.

The first involves a volunteer and bags of treats.

Two long-term volunteers with Catskill Animal Sanctuary, Dawn Freeman and Jill Meyer, began having their lunch in Christopher and Noelle’s pasture. That’s all. They simply ate and sat quietly, week after week, as Noelle and Christopher kept their distance and Noelle stamped her front foot in a “don’t you come any closer” gesture. But one day, Christopher began inching closer to Dawn’s outstretched hand, until weeks later, he worked up the courage to approach for his reward: an orange anise “Superstar” treat. He loved them. And while Mom hung back, curiosity eventually got the better of her, until she, too, came close enough to accept the treat. As more weeks passed, Noelle approached Dawn eagerly.

For the Catskill family, this was a breathtaking victory. If Noelle could overcome her history and her psyche to trust one human being, then perhaps she would trust more. Perhaps the terrified animal could have a fuller life. Our wheels began to spin.

We introduced the elderly mom and son to a flock of five: Atticus, Scout, Mica, Marla, and Zeke, who live in a hilly pasture near the main entrance. Atticus, the dominant male, was assertive, but not aggressive, and we were delighted at how well Christopher and Noelle integrated with this gentle bunch. Attempts with other flocks over the years had been less successful, with Noelle and Christopher always being ostracized. But not this time. Not with sweet Scout. Not with loving Zeke. Christopher and Noelle were embraced … and for the first time in their lives, experienced a kind of security and comfort they’d never known: that of being part of a family.

Noelle’s life had expanded … and it was to expand once more in a way that I never could have imagined possible a few short years ago.

If you’re new to Catskill, allow me to introduce “The Underfoot Family.” The Underfoots are an ever-changing cast of characters who roam freely during daylight hours, and whose members include a large number of goats and sheep, potbelly pigs, special needs ducks, chickens, and occasionally a gentle, aging horse, donkey, or cow. All day long, the Underfoots are free to do whatever their spirits are moved to do: graze, explore, make new friends, disrupt morning feeding, cool off in the shade of a willow tree, ride along in the truck on a feed route … you get the picture. “We may not be the most efficient sanctuary,” I wrote in my first book, Where the Blind Horse Sings, “but we just might be the happiest.” Or as Animal Care Director Kelly Mullins sometimes says, “Welcome to the mayhem.”

And so, with faith in Noelle and Christopher, their new flock of friends, and the best caregiving crew around, Kelly opened the pasture gate one morning … and Noelle was free. Tears clouded my vision each time I watched the old girl venture a little farther. Some days were a challenge — her respiratory system was compromised. She got tired. Her knees hurt. On those days, she’d just rest for a bit near the barn. But soon she was up again, determined to make the most of her newfound freedom.

sheep Noelle

For the last years of her life, Noelle’s small, fearful life grew large, even bold, thanks to lunch breaks, a flock of loving sheep, and the wide-open hearts of the Catskill crew, always asking the right question of each and every one who comes our way: what more can we do to enhance your happiness?

After suffering from severe respiratory distress one recent evening, Noelle passed away peacefully and gently, her head resting in Kelly’s hands and surrounded by those who loved her. Christopher was given the opportunity to understand that Noelle was gone: he approached and retreated, smelled her, walked away and came back again. Once he finally returned to the barn, our crew knew that he had said goodbye.

Today, Christopher is doing just fine. He lives with his loving flock, roams freely all day as an Underfoot, and on Thursdays, when volunteer Dawn is with us, searches for her, looking for treats and love …. not necessarily in that order.

Goodbye, Mama Noelle. Thanks for the opportunity. May the angels sing you home.


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