When a 3.5kg 6 day old lamb named Ruby was delivered to my house I felt both humbled and ill-prepared for what was to come.
REFLECTIONS OF A FOSTER CARER – Tam with Harley and Ruby….
I knew nothing about the sheep species, having only ever seen them in fields, on trucks or in slaughterhouses. Also, it was very clear to me that I could never give to Ruby what her mother would have given her. All I could do was care for her as best I could and try to understand her needs as I learned.
Luckily I was working with one of my old professors when Ruby arrived. I was patiently told the nuts and bolts of lamb care. As I was trying to absorb all this new information in my head, my professor was very sensibly jotting down notes: feeding times, feeding amounts, things that can go wrong, what to do when things go wrong, which vet to call, which vet not to call, how much Ruby should weigh in a particular period of time, when to change nappies, what size nappies to use, where to get them and how to cut that tail hole in the back. I referred to those notes continuously for the first 48 hours. I didn’t know one baa or bleat from another and wasn’t sure I was giving her what she needed or wanted. All I could do was respect Ruby, be interested in her and make sure she was fed, clean and felt safe. Like I would for anyone.
My house, which usually smelled like incense, very quickly smelled like sheep milk, warm lamb and lamb pee. Which I really grew to love. It’s what lambs smell like when you cuddle them.
Fostering has been one of the great and humble pleasures of my life as an activist. Fostering is a privilege because it is a very important relationship of trust: between us and the ones we foster, and also within the activist community when those who rescue lambs ask us to take over their care.
Fostering is another link in the chain of respecting the lives of others, and rescuing and caring for others when they are sick, abandoned or threatened in some way.
After a week of being with Ruby, Harley arrived. This was perfect, as I was more confident and Ruby had really settled in. Harley was a bit anxious when he arrived. He didn’t hold the bottle teat very well, and would pace and baa very loudly. He also couldn’t go up and down the stairs at my place, although Ruby confidently could. Ruby loved going upstairs. There was lots for her to investigate and she loved playing up there (basically nibbling everything I own). But when Harley came it was difficult. He wanted to come with us but couldn’t. He would baa anxiously. So I would carry Harley upstairs. Then a day came when I watched Ruby encourage Harley: she would go up one step and baa. He put his hoofs one the lower step. Then she went up another and baa’d. But he just couldn’t do it. I watched as Harley tried to overcome his fear and – at that point – failed. So for a couple of weeks if Ruby and I went upstairs, Harley would baa, I would carry him up and also carry him down. If I was in the other room and Harley wanted to go down or up, Ruby and Harley would baa, and then Ruby would stand next to Harley until I picked him up, and we would all go up or down together. On the odd occasion Ruby and I would encourage Harley to come up the stairs, but he could never quite do it. It was obvious that he wanted to: I could see him want to, try, feel insecure, and then decide not to.
Two days ago I saw Ruby again encouraging Harley. She went up one step and baa’d. Harley put his hoofs on the first step. I stood next to Ruby and encouraged Harley “come on Harley, good lamb, you can do it”… that kind of thing. Harley stayed on that step. Then Ruby went up another step, baa’d and waited. Then Harley did the second step. Then the third step. And I watched as – unmistakably – Ruby encouraged Harley by going up one step at a time, and Harley following her, gradually overcame his fears. It was such a pleasure to see this clear demonstration of their complex and layered individual personalities. I was glad to witness and also participate in such an intimate moment of care and learning.
Fostering is work, and does take time management. But once you have their feeding times down and a routine established, then it’s straightforward. And they will often tell you what they like. In the morning and evening, after their first and last bottles, we would all get on the couch and have a 20 minute cuddle. So I factored that into my day. Ruby would lay between my legs and Harley liked to be held in my arms. Harley liked being held close and kissed on the face, and Ruby liked being scratched on the face and head. Like any two individuals, they had different wants and needs. Later in the morning I would take their nappies off and let them outside in the yard. My vegetable patch is a bit worse for wear (lambs nibble everything!) but it’s worth it.
One thing I did, which I’m glad I did, is I bought a playpen/ cot for them to sleep in. I thought that if they slept with me, they could get more attached which would make it difficult for them to move on to the next phase of their lives. The first night I hardly slept! I kept going down to check on Ruby to make sure she was breathing! She baa’d for a little while but eventually settled down. I would really recommend establishing their independent sleeping early on. Not just for them, but also for you. Letting them go really is not so easy. So the independent sleeping is for you as well as them. Anyway, every night I’d feed them, we’d cuddle on the couch while I read or listened to music. Then I’d change their nappies and put them into their cot. By then they were bigger so I’d cover their cot with the blanket so it made a little cubby, and go to bed. They slept through from 10pm until 6am. Hearing their first baa of the day is so cute. A bit croaky like when we speak our first words after waking up. Then I’d go down and the bottles and the nappies and the cuddling started all over again.
I highly recommend fostering. And – even if you know nothing (which was me) – with just a little bit of attention and care, you will very quickly learn what you need to learn. Fostering puts us in close and intimate contact with those we are advocating for. The importance of their lives, the complexities of their personalities, the respect they command, and their will to live keeps our fires burning to do what we do.