Spending another spring raising bottle lamb babies

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lamb in pasture

Early last week my husband got a text message. It read: “Does your wife want some bum lambs?” A fellow shepherd and rancher in the midst of lambing was being overrun by triplets and needed to find them homes. My husband read the text aloud to me with raised eyebrows. I paused to consider what that would mean…

It’s been exactly 13 years since I brought home Pearl and Theo, my first bottle babies. I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I loaded them into a cardboard box in the back of my Subaru station wagon.

It was early in my tenure here in South Dakota, back when I still thought living rurally was a temporary adventure. But I’d gone to visit a friend’s lambing barn and with one step inside I felt a subtle shift in my known universe. Something about the bright, fresh smell of straw, the gentle sounds of the ewes talking to their lambs, the warmth of the dusty air felt like home. I didn’t want to leave.

“If you ever need anyone to take care of a few lambs, I’d love to help,” I told my friend shyly after we passed the pen of orphans.

“Ok,” she said, probably not realizing that I was serious.

I kept reminding her of my promise, and a few weeks later I went to pick up two babies, not because she needed my help, but because she must have sensed my longing. Once I fed Pearl and Theo their first bottles and watched them snuggle up in the straw, I felt that first subtle shift settle into a seismic one.

I’ve had bottle lambs every April since. Sometimes from my own flock, sometimes from one neighbor or another’s flock. The smell of milk replacer and dirty bottles in the sink is as sure a sign of spring as any other I know.

Until last year that is. During April of last year, I was dragging myself through every day, trying to pretend my mysterious array of symptoms were improving, but the truth was, I was getting worse. I couldn’t imagine taking in lambs when I could barely take care of my human children and I definitely wasn’t able to take care of myself.

Things got better and then they got worse again. The year turned over and I still couldn’t imagine purposefully chasing after more responsibilities; I was in no way ready to return to “regular life.” But over the last few months I’ve been getting stronger. I started looking forward to spring and all the spring chores. Still, did I want to add more to what is already a very full plate this time of year?

I was thinking about all this as my husband stood waiting to hear my reply.

For over a decade, my reply would have been a laughing, “Of course!” But I am not the same person now that I was before I got sick.

Having bottle lambs means getting up early and going to bed late. It means mixing and washing bottles throughout the day. It means saying little prayers and scouring the internet for clues about how to help when one of them struggles or gets ill because they had a rough start. And at the end of all the work, the best you can hope for is that they happily join the flock and leave you behind.

This morning I woke just after dawn. There was a soft snow falling. The fat-bellied robins were out, chirping to one another and sipping from the small pools of already melting snow. I pulled on my boots and stepped outside.

The dogs ran and barked beside me as I traced last night’s prints through the snow-covered mud. In the barn, three fleecy babies were waiting, snuggled together in their bed of straw. They rose as soon as they saw me shouting, “MA! MA! MA!”

I’m not exactly the same person I was before I got sick, but, apparently, the most important things have stayed exactly the same.

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