The Secret Life of Lambs

Part of our daily routine at our host family in Wairarapa was feeding two baby lambs, Millie and Elvis, four times a day. Millie and Elvis both were abandoned by their mothers not long before we arrived, so Jon and Georgie took them home to be pets. Taking care of these lambs became a big part of our duties while living at Cavelands, and an endless source of entertainment.

Caitlin and I woke up at about 6:45 a.m. every morning in order to feed the lambs by 7 a.m. We mixed their milk powder with warm water and put the watery substance into old plastic water bottles with squishy tops.Then we stumbled into the early morning and walked over to the lambs’ night pen with a wooden shack. As Millie and Elvis heard our footsteps approaching their pen, their pathetic baaahs turned into frantic shouts. They pressed their little faces against the fence, bouncing with excitement. As we opened the door, two white balls of fluff flew out the wooden door, circling and bunting our legs. Tails wagging, they frantically searched for an available bottle. Elvis, for some reason, would drop to his knees, butt up in the air and long furry white tail whipping around with a passion. Millie, the smaller and younger of the two, routinely finished her bottle in half the time it took Elvis to daintily finish his. Over the course of the two weeks that we were there, Millie and Elvis almost doubled in size and became inseparable.

I became very attached to these energetic animals with their earnest eyes and fluffy little heads. They would shake their heads so that the ears would flap up and down like a pinwheel, and their eyes would stare at you without comprehension. I found myself playing with their ears and making the most ridiculous baby noises at them.

Elvis and Millie quickly turned into accomplished escape artists. On one occasion, we were eating dinner on the outdoor patio when we heard baaahs from inside the house. I heard Jon curse and I looked up to see two little lamb faces staring out at us through the glass doors in the kitchen. We all leapt up from our seats and tried to corral them first out of the house, and then back into the paddock. It took all six of us running around, trying to direct their path. Once they were out of the house, Caitlin and I still spent a long time encouraging them to go back through their gate, but Millie and Elvis were on to us and would always run the opposite direction. Eventually we each picked up a lamb and carried them back to the field, despite loud baaaahs in protest.

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My heart would stop on the nights when Georgie would announce that we are having lamb chops or lamb shanks for dinner. I’m not a huge meat eater, but I am well aware that lamb is a delicacy so I always tried to eat the whole meal, despite my hesitations. But then, without fail, the children would chose this exact moment to look up at Georgie with earnest eyes and ask questions about how, exactly, they kill the lambs, or how old they are when they are turned into food. The first time this happened, my fork froze in front of my eyes and I slowly closed my mouth, thinking, ‘Well there goes that meal.’ Suddenly I was picturing Millie’s little face looking up at me and the tiny bit of meat on my fork looked a lot more sinister. Georgie would try to redirect the conversation at first, but she seemed to think it was important for her kids to know where their food came from. When they persisted, Georgie gave thorough answers about what happens to the lambs between the pasture and our plate. In this instance, I would have preferred to remain ignorant of lambing practices, but I can add that to the long list of educational experiences while in New Zealand.

Luckily, Millie and Elvis are pets and therefore safe from this fate. And they aren’t alone. One of the best things we witnessed was the local school’s Pets Day. The school hosts the event every year so each child can bring in their pet to show off and compete against other animals. Jon took the day off of work and Georgie’s adorable mom, Binny, was also there for moral support. The stakes could not have been higher. We spent the week leading up to the event practicing leading the lambs with the kids, and it wasn’t looking great. Elvis didn’t like his leash and would just lie down when he got tired of it (which was almost immediately). Millie, on the other hand, was feistier and would drag her companion in zigzags across the yard. If they wanted that blue ribbon, they would need to do better than this.

On the day of the event, we parked in the field behind the school and released Millie and Elvis from their little pens. They had not enjoyed the one-mile trip in the back of the car and had peed everywhere out of fear or spite. The schoolyard resembled an actual zoo, overrun with animals and small children. There were chickens, horses, goats, dogs, lizards and endless proud family members. I could see Millie’s little black eyes sizing up the competition as we walked over to the lamb area.

The youngest age group went first, so children ages 2-4 filed into a small ring, dragging lambs behind them. After milling around for a bit, each child did a circle with their lamb. Then they went to the other side of the ring and called their lamb over to them. When it was Elvis’s turn, he decided he wasn’t remotely impressed by the competition and chewed some grass instead of running over to his owner.

Millie’s group was up next and I could tell she had been carefully planning her escape. When it was her turn to run over to her owner, she seized the moment to bolt out of the ring instead.  No other lamb had attempted such a feat, and Millie took the large group of bystanders completely by surprise. Children, teachers and parents all tried in vain to grab her or her lead rope until finally a young boy dove and caught her to cheers all around.

Needless to say, neither lamb won a blue ribbon that day, but there’s always next year.

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