It started off as a routine Saturday. At the full-glass storm door looking onto the front lawn, our three dogs began raising a unified ruckus, their usual behavior. If one of them detects a suspicious sound or sight out there, in the vast view of green and blue, and starts barking, the other two join in with no clear idea of what they’re barking about. They love looking out that door.
Although we always step up to glance out, just in case, we usually dismiss their yelps of alarm as nothing and turn away. “Quiet,” we tell them. It’s a word they understand.
Yet on this recent Saturday, we did not turn away nor tell them to hush. Instead my husband put on his glasses and stepped outside. “What is that?” I heard him mutter.
The plot of land on which we reside in our mountaintop cottage is not large, certainly not by comparison with the farms all around us. The road in front of our dwelling connects a secondary highway miles away on one end to a road by the lake on the way to Scottsboro at the other. On both ends our road—dotted with farms, ponds, canyon vistas and livestock—snakes back down the mountain. Cars move along it too fast.
My husband adjusted his glasses as he peered at the property just across the road. That elevated acreage sits higher than the road that passes just in front. On the ledge of that yard overlooking the thoroughfare stood an animal with curling horns, large oval eyes and a massive and grotesquely shaped coat of wool.
“There’s a ram in the yard across the road,” he exclaimed hurriedly as he dashed inside for the camera, then rushed back outside and began clicking away. I stepped out to observe the goings on. The animal made longing and direct eye contact but looked frightened and lost and uncertain, all of which he was.
Concerned that it would attempt to cross the dangerous road, my husband walked over to the ram. The hot, matted helmet of wool, which encompassed this neglected animal, was shocking to observe up close. It puffed out from his frame like layer upon layer of shoulder pads (body pads) and was brown and putrid and weighted the full length of the creature’s underbelly.
Looking at one another across the road as we communicated on our cell phones about the status of the sheep and the situation that had suddenly jolted our Saturday morning into a unknown direction, my husband and I strategized a plan of action: I would go inside and search online for any resources or rescues that might help out this clearly distressed sheep, and he would stay with the ram to keep it safe and would call a farmer who lived nearby in an effort to find some answers.
It took a while for him to reach the farmer, but when he did the man agreed to make a few calls—see if anyone he knew was missing a ram. His nephew who lived down the road had sheep; he’d also call him.
At first the ram was frightened, hesitant, guarded about this human lingering about, but he didn’t flee—he needed help. My husband sat down on the ground near him and began talking to him. That seemed to work with this oddly soulful creature. The ram walked over and allowed his muzzle to be stroked before moving to the base of a nearby tree and lying down.
My husband joined him, sitting back against the trunk of the same tree. I called him on the cell with an update: I’d left messages with three rescues and had called the local vet, I told him. No luck yet.
He waited for nearly an hour for the farmer to show up with his nephew, sitting side by side with the odiferous ram. Finally the farmer and his nephew appeared. I walked over to join them. No one knew to whom the ram might belong.
After some minutes of interaction, it became clear that the farmer and his nephew viewed the unfolding situation a little differently than my husband and I did. We saw a lost, suffering animal. They saw a piece of livestock, a commodity. They readily acknowledged the serious neglect involved. It was unfortunate, they admitted, but they really didn’t want to get involved.
There was no official rescue locally to come to the aid of such an animal. We could call the local sheriff’s office, the farmer advised. “’Course they’d probably just shoot the ram,” he later conceded.
Between the farmer and his son down the road, they owned at least a hundred acres with multiple ponds and fenced-in pastures occupied by a dozen goats and a donkey. Still, they said, they didn’t room for this guy. Sheep and goats don’t get along, the farmer advised.
The nephew had a busy-looking little farm down the road with a variety of livestock closely sharing his fields. He commented on the extreme condition of the sheep’s wool; in fact, he’d never seen anything like it. The nephew shook his head at the dire state of this animal. Yet he couldn’t help out the sheep either; he expressed concern that this ram might get into a fight with his.
What about the man just down the road with a pond so large it might qualify as a lake and fenced-in fields holding cattle and llamas? No, said the farmer, that neighbor wouldn’t be able to do it either because he rents his fields out to others. In fact, that man had seen the ram a day or so earlier himself but was not inclined to intervene.
And so the dialogue went until the three men roped the horns of the subdued ram and led him across the road and into our yard. The ram little gave resistance to the rope, although guiding him across the road seemed frightening. Once in the yard, my husband tethered him to a maple tree out front as the farmer and his nephew prepared to depart.
“Good luck,” they said.
“I’m going to try cutting off some of this wool,” my husband declared to me as he slid a bench over from the side yard and took off in search of cutting implements. “Stay here with him until I get back.”
The ram was gently pulling and tugging against the rope and periodically getting his legs entangled, but he was attentive and responsive to human voice and human touch. With those slanted yellow-brown eyes that encompassed hues of green, this seemingly intelligent and intuitive creature made eye-to-eye and heart-to-heart contact with both of us. We were unexpectedly moved.
My husband returned with his tools—a pair of heavy-duty scissors and three serrated knives—and got to work. With gloves on his hands, he literally began sawing away at the masses of fecal-infested wool that hung from below the beast and the rock-like wool masses on the sides of his torso.
With few breaks, he kept at it for four hours. Sticks, thorns and debris were deeply embedded in the sheep’s matted wool, and poked into his skin as my husband’s knife pulled at the tangled fleece. After filling a twenty-gallon bag with the hardened, rotting wool, my husband determined he could go no further.
“That’s all I can do,” he declared, finally. It was now approaching evening. We’d heard nothing back from our efforts to reach out to rescue groups. “It’s the weekend,” noted my husband, and we began to plan for accommodating the sheep overnight.
We have a fenced-in back yard for our three dogs and open yards on the sides and front. Our dogs behave when we’re out front with them, so we put the ram in the fenced-in yard. The dogs were inside the house.
But when we took them out to the side yard and our rescue Chow saw the ram, he charged toward the chain-link gate and burst through. The ram began a fervent gallop as the Chow chased after him. “Oh no,” we uttered as we attempted to protect the ram.
Yet in matter of seconds that need was eliminated as the ram stopped abruptly, arched his torso around and head-butted the charging Chow. Equally stunned were my husband, my self and our dog. “Game changed,” we snickered to ourselves.
That evening my husband announced that he was going to put in a call to Jamie Glasgow, a local vet tech who sometimes pet-sat our menagerie. Jamie was at a celebration party for her friend, April Russ, who had just become an American citizen from her native country of Ireland. My husband described the ram’s and our dilemma and asked Jamie whether she knew of any resources we might turn to for assistance.
Jamie informed him that ironically her friend April operated an animal sanctuary—Shamballa Wildlife Rescue—with her husband, John. They didn’t take in farm animals, but maybe they knew someone who did. She’d ask and pass on our contact info to her friend.
It was at this point in the saga that the dots began to connect serendipitously. I’d looked up any animal referral and/or rescue groups, or sheep shearers, I could find in the area. I’d left private messages on their Facebook pages, sent emails to their contacts and left voice messages if there was a number. One of those messages had been to Shamballa, explaining the plight of the lost sheep and our lack of acreage to care for it. Now, at the party, Jamie had also told them about the rescued ram.
His first night sleeping in the back yard with access to a garage had gone well, with the exception that when our dogs came into his view in the side yard, he rammed our chain-link fence so hard that we feared for its stability. Note to self: don’t take dogs over there.
Toward us the ram remained responsive, affectionate even. And although much more wool needed to be removed, the ram had to already feel freer and lighter and relieved. He nuzzled close to us, looked into our eyes and seemed to listen intently when we murmured to him that he was going to be okay and told him how beautiful he was. He followed us around the yard.
The next morning, Sunday, April Russ of Shamballa Wildlife Rescue gave us a call. Even though their non-profit is “…dedicated to the rescue, rehab and release of Alabama wildlife,” they were compassionately coming through for the sheep. She needed to make a few more calls; she thought she had a home for him. Could we keep him one more night? Absolutely, we said.
In the meantime, my husband had already shared the experience of encountering and caring for the ram on his Facebook feed and generated much interest from like-minded souls moved by the ram’s plight and progress. People were following the outcome.
Online, folks began weighing in with thoughts and opinions about the lost ram and his state. Judging from the growth of his horns, some said, he was around a year to a year-and-a-half old. Regarding his breed, Shetland was the answer identified by the Facebook followers.
After spending the morning caring for their pets and wildlife, the Russes from Shamballa called for directions and began the thirteen-mile journey through the beautiful countryside in the direction of our property. With the ram roped around his horns once again, he and my husband stood waiting.
What an interesting couple the Russes were. John was friendly and focused, keeping our chatty selves on task. Semper Fi stickers dotted the bumper of his truck. His gregarious wife donned a western hat and spoke perfect English with a charming foreign accent.
They’d arrived with a snug carrier and we were able to coax and guide the frightened yet somehow trusting ram inside and lift the crate into the bed of their small truck in order to continue his journey into the next phase of his life.
Wherever and whatever his life of neglect had been, he’d broken free and mysteriously made his way to us. And now to Shamballa, where they, too, posted about his arrival at their sanctuary and spent another six hours shearing the rest of his fecal-infested fleece away: “A bit unusual for us to take in a farm type animal but this little guy came in wandering in a yard near Grant a couple of days ago and he was so sweet and so friendly. …It killed us to think that this animal was covered with layers and layers of rotting wool during the Alabama summer! For the first time in probably a couple of years, he is finally able to wiggle his tail and his poop finally falls to ground!”
They sent us pictures and we posted the updates. The online followers posted messages of cheer and support as pictures of a cleanly shorn “Stewy”, as he was now named, appeared. One could only imagine the freedom he felt minus the tens of pounds of wool.
The Russes sent an update along with pictures of the completely shorn ram. More cheers went up from the online crowd, many based in Tuscaloosa where we had lived until two years before.
“This story brought tears to my eyes. I am so happy for this sweet animal. Just imagine how much better he feels!!” wrote Sandra Wolfe, Executive Director of the Tuscaloosa Arts Council.
One week after the ram’s adoption by the Russes at Shamballa, we went to visit. While we were being given a tour of their operation, Stewy bleated to us from the pasture. We joined him. As I squatted down he nuzzled my hand and leaned his head in close; I stroked the humped bridge of his nose. When my petting motions slowed, he bent his head further and lightly butted my hand. “Don’t stop,” he was communicating.
Once they’d gotten the ram back to Shamballa, the day they picked him up, his legs had to be tied in order to access the knotted wool against his raw and irritated skin. It had taken them an additional six hours to finally finish that job, the Russes said. His ribs poked too prominently through his skin once the fleece was trimmed away, and his belly was swollen with worms—more evidence of the neglect he’d endured.
It was clear that he’d never been shorn. Some speculated that he been roaming wild for a while. But the wet brown wool on his legs and belly seemed to indicate he’d been penned in some unhealthy barnyard-like setting, standing leg-deep in his waste, and perhaps that of others. John Russ examined his hooves and noted the lack of nicks and cracks, supporting the penned-in-barnyard theory.
“Maybe he was a 4-H project gone bad,” speculated Mr. Russ. The sheep had clearly bonded with humans, but his care had been full of life-threatening neglect—a cute, lovable lamb that had grown into an overlooked ram. The Russes were reversing those conditions, deworming him and feeding his ever-hungry appetite.
As April scratched Stewy’s back, his now freed and visible tail wagged wildly in celebration. We would never know the place from which Stewy had come, but we know where he is now. And that is good; very, very good.

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