Raising a little lamb

They might not traditionally be considered pets, but there’s no doubt a lamb can make the hardest heart melt! Animaltalk chatted to Yvette Wilde, animal activist and lamb ‘mother’, about what it takes to keep one of these woolly animals.

Please tell us how Mowgli became a part of your life.

I got Mowgli when he was four hours old. His mom had sustained injuries during his birth due to the fact that he was a big lamb and it was her first birth. The vet advised that it would be better to slaughter her as she would not recover from her injuries. I arrived at the stables to take my dogs for a walk and when I returned my daughter came running up to me, and breathless with excitement she asked: “Do you want a lamb?” I distinctly remember receiving him all swaddled in a little baby blanket and driving him home with six excited, nosy dogs all trying to sniff the newcomer and welcome him to the fold. I took him and put him on the dogs’ beds in the bedroom when we arrived home, and since then he has been of the opinion that he is a dog. He stayed with me for seven months, sleeping on the bed, cuddling up to me with his head always resting on my feet. Even though he was raised in a household with dogs, living in town I always knew that I would not deprive him of living the life of a real sheep when he became less dependent on me.

In this time I rescued another lamb who had a broken back leg and had been given to workers who would not be able to afford to care for her. She was grossly underweight and basically at death’s door. I saw an opportunity to slowly introduce Mowgli to her and make him aware of the fact that he was actually a sheep. This was rather tricky as he had no tolerance for anything white and woolly, and she was so weak she couldn’t withstand any bumps or blows. I left her at the farm under the care of my groom and took Mowgli there every day for short intervals of supervised visits. These intervals grew longer and longer and finally we decided to let him have a sleepover. Slowly one stay-over became two and then it went to every second evening with the final result that he just stayed there permanently. I would still fetch him for visits and I still do, but he loves being on the farm where he can browse and eat to his heart’s content.

I take my dogs for a walk along the river every Sunday morning, and Mowgli and Mulan (the female sheep) join us. He knows the car’s engine and when he hears me arrive he kicks up such a fuss, running towards me with his tail doing windmill stunts in the air. My favourite is the straight-leg-hop that he adds, just to show how happy he is. The sheep follow the dogs on the trail and I am much slower in the rear. They buck and run towards the river where all the dogs jump in for a swim and the sheep watch from the riverbank. Sometimes I go for an outride with my horse and I have six dogs and two sheep leading or following. One happy family.

Do you consider lambs to be good pets and why?

I firmly believe that any farm animal can become a pet. I have seen many of my friends raise pigs, lambs, goats and even cattle, who ended up successfully ruling the household! If the level of commitment is there from a person interested in adopting and raising a lamb, he will flourish and reward you in so many ways. I wouldn’t recommend taking a lamb away from his natural mother, but sometimes nature can be very cruel and you find yourself in a position where you have to take control. If it means saving a little life and you are up for the position as surrogate mom, embrace the opportunity.

Lambs are very docile and they generally sleep most of the time in the beginning. Once their tummies have been filled they just want to curl up and go to sleep. They love their bottle and will quickly inform you of impending feeding time. They are so grateful for their food and the way their little tails wag and they suck up a storm is enough to melt any person’s heart. You know they love the bottle more than they love you, but you don’t care and feeding time is the highlight of your day!

What do you need to know before getting a lamb?

Before you embark on this journey, you have to know that for the first three months it is like having a baby. You have to have a backup plan if you are going to leave the house for everyday tasks like shopping, taking the kids to school and going to work. The first few weeks you cannot leave them alone. They bond very quickly with the person who feeds them, so I would suggest that you get your family to assist in this regard, as it would just make your life so much easier if they accept the bottle from everybody.

Lambs are very hard to potty-train, and you have to have a ‘plan B’ for all those unfortunate events! I went through Huggies disposable diapers at a rapid rate and I had them stationed everywhere in my house for quick access, already open to quickly slip under and catch the ‘waterworks’ or ‘popcorn’, as my husband so aptly described it.

My lamb slept on my bed at night and when he moved I would find myself grabbing a nappy half asleep to minimise any water damage to our bed! Most of the time my lamb was just shifting position and my sudden movements would wake him up and then we would have the waterworks AND a demand for food … A friend of mine kept her lamb in a crate at night from day one and now she tries to wiggle her big bum in there whenever she gets the chance. This made sleeping so much easier – for mom and lamb. I would strongly recommend this even though I couldn’t do it!

What feeding is recommended to keep them healthy?

There are a variety of supplementary lamb milk products available; I can advise just sticking to cow’s milk. I started off with 50mℓ at about 6am in the morning, and in the first bottle I used to put half a teaspoon of Protexin Soluble (obtainable from any vet), which boosts the immune system, protects against illness and helps recovery if they get diarrhoea. I stuck to strict feeding times every four hours and would give him a little bit of water in a bottle if he was thirsty in-between feeds. A lot of people said that their lambs were not interested in water, but I introduced it quite early and he would give it the same loving, suckling attention he would a full bottle of milk.

Other health issues that came up when I was raising Mowgli was that I was put under a lot of pressure to remove his tail, as people were telling me flies would be attracted to his bottom if he got diarrhoea, with severe health consequences. However, Mowgli never got sick and I kept his bottom immaculately clean like any good mother should, so that was a definite no. He was dewormed as soon as he turned eight weeks old as he was part of a huge family of dogs and they were all dewormed at that time. I believe that if the ewes have been dewormed before they give birth, you only need to deworm after eight weeks, and alternatively you would have to deworm as early as four weeks after birth if you don’t have the history of the mom.

 Do lambs get along with other pets?

Once a lamb has been introduced to a household he quickly settles down with the other animals. You have to be vigilant in the beginning as the dogs might think it is a new plush toy! I have three Boerboels, a Greyhound and two small dogs and not one of them even batted an eyelid when I brought Mowgli home. I took him through to the bedroom and put him on one of the dog beds, allowing everybody to meet and greet under my watchful eye. They quickly lost interest and since then there have been no issues.

Do they need any grooming?

If your lamb lives indoors with you he will have a sparkly clean jacket all the time. Once they start becoming a bit older and you leave them outdoors during the day, they will need to be groomed. It is best to wait for the beginning of summer (not spring) and then have their coats sheared. If you are going to bath your lamb, please remember that waiting for him to mature and then introducing him to bath time is a bit unfair and can put a lot of stress on him.

Make a point of introducing him to a grooming brush from early on, making it a pleasurable experience which will benefit you in the long run. I took my lamb to my grooming parlour when all my dogs went, and because they were okay with the experience he also enjoyed it. Once the lamb has become accustomed to moving with a pack (it doesn’t matter what the pack consists of), he finds comfort in being with them and this is really a win-win situation as you can take the lamb anywhere you take the pack.

What happens when they grow up and become big?

When they grow up and become big you are faced with a choice. You can make arrangements to keep the lamb with you, but I honestly feel it is sad to deprive him of the right to be with others of his kind and to be what he was intended to be. From my own experience, I live in town and the novelty of having a lamb in your garden can quickly wear off with the neighbours.

Farm animals are not allowed in a residential area and it would have been my undoing if he had been confiscated due to this. The farm that I got him from is situated about 3km from my house and I started to take him to the farm for an hour or two every day. In the beginning I stayed with him and slowly but surely I would distance myself from him. Then I started taking him for a few hours every day, telling him he was going to crèche – and in the beginning I cried all the way there! He called for me the first few times when I left, but there was so much to see and do (sheep have short attention spans!) However, he knew my car’s engine and would be waiting for me at the gate at the allotted time to collect him. The reunion was always loud and happy with him running around the car, tail straight up in the air like a little fountain, looking for an open door to jump in.

His visits to the farm grew longer and longer, and when he was seven months old he slept over for the first time. It nearly killed me! We went from one night a week to two, to three and then he got a friend there in the form of Mulan, and now he stays there all the time. I stable my horses at the farm, and nearly a year later he still knows the car’s engine and comes galloping through the fields to greet me! I take him home for visits where he still believes he can cuddle up to me on my bed. Once he arrives home, he races the dogs to the biscuit tin and stands on his back legs waiting for his biscuit.

Lately Mowgli decides for himself if he wants to visit home or not. I leave the back of my car open and if he jumps in with the dogs, I take him and Mulan home. Mulan has never warmed to me or any person. She has memories of being treated badly by humans and therefore she only has eyes for Mowgli. I respect that and I do not kiss and cuddle her like I do Mowgli, but it doesn’t mean she is not loved.

Mowgli loves a car ride and stands looking out of the window like he knows exactly where we are going. He also knows a few words, like ‘lie down’, where is the ‘teetee’, ‘biscuit’ and ‘out’. Never ever let anybody tell you they are dumb! Mulan and Mowgli are pets. I never asked for them to cross my path, but now that they have they will stay pets until they cross the Rainbow Bridge one day.