Sunday, September 28, 2003

Mondo Cane

Sheep Story No. 1

In 1982, I went to France on business for six months. I was working in Paris during the week but I had a Eurail pass and went away every weekend, to get air and exercise, to get away from my cheating boyfriend, and to take photographs.

One day that I hadn't planned my trip properly, I found myself walking along an endless busy main road for hours. Boring, boring, boring. I took the first turn-off: I had no map, no idea where it might lead. The small road meandered in all directions, getting smaller all the time until it dwindled into a dirt path which finally spilled out into an empty grazing field. I hate going back on my steps, even though I know the scenery will always look different, so I continued across the field. I went through the gate at the other end into another absolutely huge field. It was fallow, with some sort of mixed green and grass ground cover, so I walked across it without compunction. I could see a small lamb standing in the middle all by himself. I walked towards him and he stood motionless and silent, waiting for me. When I got within a few feet and what I thought was polite speaking distance, I leant down towards him and said gently:

"Hello... Where is your mother?"
"Baah, baah, baah, baah, baah, baah!"

The little lamb had been waiting to tell someone all about it. I burst out laughing.


He was absolutely frantic. "It's not at all funny," he wanted me to know, "It's ABSOLUMENT TRAGIQUE and I'm here all alone."

I could see the truth of what he was telling me. Looking around, there were no sheep all the way to the horizon, there was nothing for miles around except for empty, pale green, fallow fields. I have no idea how that little lamb had got there, unless he was dropped from the sky.

"I'm so sorry." I knelt beside him, put my arms around him, and hugged and petted him. He quieted down and little bleaty baahs eventually died away to quiet breathing until he was just looking into my eyes with some kind of yearning. I stayed with him for a while, talking to him, babying him. Eventually, even I realized I had to move on, the moment had passed. It was hard to leave him to his loneliness and despair, and as I drew away and looked back from time to time, he was still standing there, looking after me until I disappeared.

Sheep Story No. 2

Some other year, I was in Iceland in the month of May and was staying on a farm in Borgesfjordur, north of Reykjavik. Iceland is still very cold in May--the really woolly Icelandic sheep insist on going indoors about 5 p.m. everyday: you could set your watch by them. The cows are not let out into the fields until June, when they all make fools of themselves, jumping for joy. Only the fluffy Icelandic poneys can stand the bitter cold. Anyway, dinner on the farm is early--maybe six o'clock or so. And afterwards, there is a long evening without television.

Inge, the farmer's wife, had two teenage daughters and a two-year old, and she was also raising an orphan boy about 11 years old. They came to me like an official delegation after dinner one evening, and in a well-timed, well-rehearsed chorus, said in English: "Can we go into the barn to pet the sheep?"

"Well, I don't know. I will have to ask your mother, it's up to her."

Inge's face absolutely lit up: "Oh, would you really do that?" was all she said.

So we put our coats on and traipsed across a muddy field to the sheep's pen. When we walked in and filed up onto a narrow platform at one end of the barn, which stood raised a little above the ground, there was a soft rustling shuffle as all the sheep turned around to face us and took one step forward in our direction. As our eyes adjusted to the soft half-light, the sheep closest to the platform pressed forward and one by one were petted by each one of us in turn. Nobody orchestrated it but eventually each of the 300 or so sheep came to the front to be caressed. It was all very orderly and very quiet, an occasional low bleat, soft breathing, shuffling of hooves in the straw on the floor and silky pelts rubbing against each other. It could have gone on all night if the light had not failed.

Well, after quoting myself on sheep, I have to admit I am not a vegetarian. I am a Buddhist, I recognize every food I eat is some form of life, which feeds my life, and so I bless my food in gratitude for supporting my life with the sacrifice of its own life. When I was a child, I could hear the potatoes cry, when I peeled them, but that's another story, perhaps for another day.

Sheep Story No. 3

The great ongoing story on sheep these days is the story of the Australian "Ship of Death", as it has been dubbed by the Australian media.

Australia exports some 6 million sheep a year to the Middle East for food. They are shipped live, to be slaughtered ritually at their destination, which makes them halal, fit for consumption.

A recent report stated that some 14,000 sheep died during the month of July of this year while being shipped to Saudi Arabia.

I suppose the sheep shipping industry must have come under closer scrutiny because of this. It is possibly what accounts for the fact that we now, in the month of September, are being told the story of one single shipment of some 50,000 sheep which ran into trouble because the Saudis refused delivery, saying 6% were suffering from scabby mouth disease, which is 1% more than their health regulations allow. The Australian shippers were indignant, the sheep were fine, they said, they were in great shape, they were getting well fed, well watered, vets were on board the ship, the sheep were putting on weight, they couldn't see what all the fuss was about.

The Australians have been casting around, offering the sheep to whoever wants them, for free by now. Reportedly, some 3-4,000 of them have died on board, whether from general conditions or because of the scabby mouth disease is not made clear. It would be really embarrassing to have to slaughter so many sheep at sea, which is what might have to happen if no one takes them.

Pakistan thought it over, they wanted to consult with the Saudis who had actually seen the sheep before making their decision. Eventually, they came back and said thanks for the offer, but no thanks.

The United Arab Emirates followed suit.

For a while, it was suggested the Iraqi Council had agreed to take them. They would be slaughtered for the feastings of Ramadan, which starts some time in October. The Australians have denied this rumor, however, it is not clear whether the sheep were even offered to Iraq at all.

At present, the ship is somewhere off the United Arab Emirates--some people say they know exactly where, no one is telling. Animal rights activists are hot on the trail of this story "in the interests of the animals' welfare."

Meanwhile, those poor sheep have been at sea for almost eight weeks by now, in temperatures of 45-50 degrees Centigrade (113-122 degrees Fahrenheit). Sounds like a slow bake to me.
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