Painting by Carissa Rivara Sorensen

“Would you come down a notch?” I asked our veterinarian as I gently touched his arm. He was talking to us about the likely outcome for our sick ewe, and talking fast as if hurrying would soothe our worried inquiring minds. What needed soothing was all of our nervous systems. Facing a decision to prolong a life with aggressive treatments despite poor prognosis or to medically end a life is an uncomfortable place to be. 

And that’s exactly where we were. 

Dr. E didn’t know us well or maybe he wouldn’t need that request from me. Who knows what surprises and challenging human dynamics he’s encountered when called out on a Sunday morning to assess an ill farm animal. An emergency call. 

Terry and I had talked already about heroic measures for Ginger, our oldest Jacob ewe. A few days ago she’d started showing some bizarre behaviors and we were concerned. We researched the symptoms and discussed what we found and were monitoring her for changes, ever hopeful she’d look normal each time we checked on her. And sometimes she did look normal, walking and grazing with the rest of our small flock. 

But sometimes our hopes were dashed by what we saw. And feelings of worry and helplessness edged in on the territory of hope. 

I’d left a message at Dr. E’s clinic. We wanted to verify our gut feeling that Ginger might not recover. We wanted to know if whatever was causing her troubles was contagious. We wanted to protect the other sheep. We wanted to know if her condition was treatable. We wanted her to be well. We wanted to know if she was sick because we had failed as keepers of sheep. We wanted relief from guilt and self condemnation. 

So here we were in the barn reviewing our options. Terry, me, Dr. E, and Ginger. 

Dr. E confirmed Ginger’s behaviors were neurological as we suspected, and reassured us it wasn’t our fault. Her condition wasn’t due to worm load or eating something toxic in the field. It was probably a brain tumor that left her unable to see which meant that she wasn’t getting to food and water, and sometimes she walked into a fence or wall and just stayed there until we intervened. We didn’t know if it was a fear response or seizure activity when at times she shook uncontrollably and at times stood in a stupor. There was no way we could return her to life in the flock. 

We decided for medically assisted death, euthanasia. Approaching this decision I tearfully processed an intense series of emotional memories from other deaths and decisions about death.

Terry and I had gently acknowledged our different preferences about how to proceed, and our different comfort levels with the possibility of Ginger’s suffering if we let nature takes its course. 

I have experienced being present with the dying process, with humans and with pets. It’s been deeply disturbing and rewarding at the same time. Terry’s preference was to take no risk in preventing possible suffering during Ginger’s dying process. We were both ready to go along with the other’s preference if there were strong feelings. Neither of us claimed strong enough feelings to override the other, and I chose Terry’s preference, partly because I don’t know for sure how much protection comes with the biochemicals that naturally occur during the approach to death. And both of us wanted to limit Ginger’s distress.

I guided Dr. E to start the injections based on our readiness to end Ginger’s life, and my best interpretation of Ginger’s readiness. We were focused on calming ourselves while allowing ourselves to feel the impact of this loss. Hoping also to help Ginger be as calm as possible, we quietly expressed our gratitude and sorrow and appreciation to her. Dr. E was gracious about honoring our preparation time. 

Ginger, with her quiet certainty and elder sheep wisdom, held a special place in our flock and in our hearts. The other ewes are still figuring out flock life without her.