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Untangling Ungulates (Volume 118, September 16, 2103 - January 6, 2014)

Updated: Apr 10, 2021

Thanksgiving Day, November 28, 2013

En route to Ellen and Jack’s house in Waunakee. Ellis is granting me 20 minutes of silence so I can write about the traumatic event that started our day yesterday.

I was making two pans of Company Casserole first thing after pet chores when Ellis observed that the sheep and goats were loose…AGAIN.

Ellis called Ben, who was in Black Earth.

About five minutes later, when most of the mixed herd had migrated to the other end of the hayfield, right behind my old studio, Ellis looked out the deck door and pointed out that two animals were still in the pen the others had escaped from.

At first he thought they were there by choice, but then it seemed they were in trouble.

“You’d better go out there, El.”

I was immersed in Uncle Ben’s Long Grain and Wild Rice Original Recipe (not literally, silly!) and my mind was on timing.

Ellis headed out. I looked out the door after him and was horrified to see not one, but two animals stuck in Ben’s portable electrified thin rope fencing. They were thrashing, even at a distance clearly caught by their heads and in major distress.

I turned off two pans of broccoli florets and stems and checked the timer for the two boxes of Uncle Ben’s rice. 14 minutes to go…turn it off or leave it on? I decided I could help Ellis help the critters and be back in 14. I didn’t bother to zip up my boots or my jacket - I just ran after Ellis. This was definitely a two-person job.

By the time I got to the pen, Ellis was already kneeling, working to free a stuck sheep.

My adrenaline surged when I saw that a goat had gotten its horns hopelessly tangled in fencing. He was lying on his back, head covered in loops of soft wired plastic, utterly trapped, motionless, defeated and still. It was possible he was dead.

Clearly it would be quicker to free the sheep and then concentrate on the goat and his giant horns.

The sheep had one leg stuck in the fence, tightly wound up next to her head. She had stuck her head through a square in the fence and then flipped and flopped and thrashed, catching her head in a tighter and tighter noose of strands of rope. She looked like she was being garroted.

Ellis held her from the far side of the messed up fence, keeping her from pushing forward. I got her leg free, then Ellis managed to loosen the coils around her neck.

This process might have taken three or four minutes. Finally we were able to push her head back through the fence and she was free. She ran off, behind us.

We quickly went over to the goat, who was still alive. What a mess. I was really afraid we were not going to be able to free him before it was too late. I was afraid one or both of us were going to get hurt. We had to try. We resumed our positions on opposite sides of the fence.

This poor goat had panicked to such a degree that he had a plastic fence rod wrapped up next to his head, as well as multiple loops and tangled balls of rope-wire. His left leg was also stuck up by his head, exactly like the sheep’s. They must have both had the same deep instinct to use a leg to try to keep the ropes from strangling them.

I was able to free the goat’s leg fairly quickly so he could stand up instead of being dragged. The next five or six minutes are a blur — while Ellis and I worked pretty well as a team, trying to remove tangled ropes and the post from the goat’s face and ears.

As we made progress, the goat started thrashing, tossing his head and trying to run forward through the fence. Ellis’ job at that point was to immobilize the goat so I could keep working on the rope segments still stuck around the base of the goat’s two horns. The problem was, the ropes only stretched so far, and the goat’s horns started off parallel but then diverged in opposite directions, so I could only slide them so far before I was stuck.

“We’re going to have to cut these,” I announced to Ellis. The goat was out of immediate danger; all the rope loops strangling him around his neck were gone, but he was still attached to the fence, and getting more panicky by the minute.

I asked Ellis to go get scissors while I held the goat. I had a firm grip on his horns.

Ellis headed back to the house.

“There are scissors in the poleshed,” I yelled after him.

Ellis couldn’t run, because he is old, had on slippery shoes and was already tired.

I tried to comfort the goat and I tried to be patient and strong. But Ellis disappeared into the pole shed and did not emerge, did not emerge, did NOT EMERGE, and I knew he couldn’t find the scissors and was too out of it to just fucking go in the house and find some damn scissors!

The goat went into full panic mode, ramming his head back into the damaged fence. I was having more and more trouble holding him, but I was NOT going to let him get re-tangled.

“ELLIS!” I screamed at the top of my lungs.



FINALLY he came into view and started slowly making his way back to the far corner of the hayfield where I stood, alternately saying quietly and supportively, “Goat, you are fine! Do not worry, just hang on, you’ll be with your buddies in a jiffy,” and screaming WILDLY,


God. I had no idea Ellis was in such terrible shape. Clearly he should have held the goat while I ran for scissors. Of course, Ellis could not find the scissors in the pole shed, even though they have been tied to the same post with baling twine for at least FIVE YEARS. They are the scissors I use to cut the twine off hay bales every day all winter long, year after year. After YEAR.

Nor did Ellis go in the house to get a pair of scissors. Instead he came back with a gigantic, rusted pair of wire cutters that are almost impossible to pull open, the handles are so rusty, and whose blades are duller than…Ellis’ brain before his morning coffee.

Somehow we managed to cut through three loops of rope binding one horn. I was then able to slide the rest of the mess off the goat’s other horn. Free at last! Free at last! Thank Goat almighty, free at last!

Did I mention that, during this whole ordeal, the electrified rope was still shocking us and the sheep and goat? Egad — those poor critters.

The sheep and goat were running around inside the far end of the pen. They were still totally riled up because their herd had disappeared from view and they could not figure out how to get out of the pen and join them.

So we spent the next five minutes with Ellis holding up one corner of the fence while I tried to herd the sheep and goat toward that corner. They were having none of that.

I tried to pull a fence post out of the ground so I could let them out on the corner they preferred. I couldn’t do it.

We were cold, by the way. It was a very cold morning.

We decided to try to lay the fence flat and see if the sheep and goat could run over the flattened fence without getting trapped. Ellis held the fence down as well as he could and the goat managed to get across. He ran off toward the grazing herd.

The sheep, unbelievably, got her head caught AGAIN. She would not run over the fence, she insisted on trying to go through it.

Once again Ellis and I managed to push her head back through the fence before she could flip over and tighten the noose.

FINALLY she followed the goat across the hayfield toward the safety of the group.

I watched them both carefully. I had been forced to wrench the goat’s head and neck repeatedly when I was removing coils. That poor guy must have had a really sore neck. Neither animal had any trouble running, so we avoided broken legs. They seemed just fine.

Ellis and I were exhausted. Once he had handed me the rusty wirecutters, he had collapsed on the ground, gasping and panting in such an extreme way that I asked him repeatedly, “Are you having a heart attack? Are you okay?”

We trudged back to the house, as I was remembering the rice cooking on the stove. Could I avert another crisis?

The timer had gone off sometime during our escapade. I was so lucky. The rice was just starting to overcook. I lost only a thin layer stuck to the bottom of the pan.

I wrote down the sheep's and goat's tag numbers as soon as I got back in the house.

The sheep, X12, and the goat, C400, seemed fine, but I wanted Ben to keep an eye on them.

I called him and asked him to stop at the house when he returned from Black Earth.

He showed up maybe an hour later. I was still kind of freaked out about the whole thing. What if Ellis hadn’t noticed them? What if a sheep and a goat strangled to death and died while I merrily cooked in the kitchen?

This should not be our problem. (Not my circus, not my monkeys.)

I’ve since told this story to Jeanne and Marilyn. Both asked how much a goat weighs. Jeanne said she’d be terrified and wouldn’t help them — but I don’t think that’s true. Once the adrenaline kicks in, you have no choice but to try to help, to attempt to rescue.

I guessed that the goat I was helping weighed 150 pounds. The sheep might have been 80 or 90 pounds? I’ll have to do some research.

I would be mad if I got my eye poked out by a goat horn.

Other than that, I can’t see how a domestic sheep or goat could cause a serious injury — though I will say, there is no animal more dangerous than a panicked prey animal. Yikes, was that sheep nutty.

Anyway, Ben was appreciative and agreed, it’s better to replace a fence than a sheep or goat so he wasn’t upset that I cut his fence. He said he’s had to cut fence before.

Also, he remarked that he thinks it’s cruel to de-horn goats but with them, the risk is that, even if they are grazing six or eight inches from the fence, they can catch a tip of a horn on the fence, panic and get tangled. The fencing is problematic but there aren’t a whole lot of better options.

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