Friday, July 17, 2009

Sue Weaver: Meet Mopple

I had planned to continue my two-part blog about military animal mascots this week, but I’m holding that for next time. Something fun and exciting happened this week that I want to share with you — I have a brand-new lamb!

Five-day-old Mopple enjoys his first excursion outdoors.

Meet Mopple, a three-quarters Dorper, one-quarter Katahdin charmer who’s come to live with us and help fulfill a dream I’ve had for several years: to clicker-train a sheep for agility, to do tricks, and, eventually, to pull a cart.

When I acquired my first sheep 6 years ago, I bought into the myth that sheep are rather dense, but nothing could be further from the truth. While they have a deserved reputation for fleeing in the face of danger — a very wise move for a small, tasty species with no means of self-defense — on an everyday basis sheep are as smart as (or smarter than) any other barnyard species, including horses and goats.

Consider the stalwart sheep of Marsden on the Yorkshire moors, who taught themselves to roll commando style over cattle grids that were barring them from entrance to the village.

Or the sheep used by Dr. Keith Kendrick, a neuroscientist at Babraham Institute in Cambridge, England, in studies relating to memory and stress. In the memory study Dr. Kendrick and his colleagues discovered that sheep recognize the faces of up to 50 other sheep and as many as 10 humans for at least 2 years. In the stress study researchers found that gazing at photos of peaceful sheep destressed their woolly subjects, while looking at strange goats’ faces caused cortisol and adrenaline levels to skyrocket and their hearts to race. According to Dr. Kendrick, sheep have “very sophisticated memory systems,” much like our own.

Researchers with Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation are working to breed smarter sheep as part of their mission to improve animal welfare and production. A team at F. D. McMaster Laboratory near Armidale in New South Wales identifies especially bright sheep by running them through a maze. After a few tries most sheep make a beeline through the complex maze without a single hitch (the record so far is 12 seconds in and out), and they remember the course for at least 1 full year.

Then there is Norman. Norman, an Australian Merino wether (a castrated male sheep) lives with Jane Sergeant, a member of my YahooGroups e-mail list, HFSheep . Found abandoned along the roadway as a newborn, Norman was raised by the Sergeants (who had no prior knowledge of sheep) as a house pet. He is fully house-trained, rides in the family car, snoozes behind the couch, and has a crush on the family’s vacuum cleaner. He is clearly a very bright boy.

“Nothing beats a trip through the drive-through at
my favorite fast-food joint,” thinks Norman, the Australian house sheep.

And other sheep owners are already doing some of the things I have in mind; you need only visit YouTube to see them. Consider Clarinha, a charming lamb clicker-trained by Portuguese dog-agility trainer Fernando Silva. Or Squishy, a ten-day-old Border Leicester lamb who works for a chug of milk! Or even “The Smartest Sheep in Granger County,” who is obviously a very good girl.

Last spring, thinking I would finally act on my trained-sheep dream, I contacted Vanessa Murray of Abby’s Acres in Ellington, Missouri, about buying a newborn Dorper bottle lamb (though I breed smart, sweet Classic Cheviots, I need a larger, stronger, nonwoolly breed to pull a cart). However, since the Murrays’ 2009 lambs were already partially grown, we agreed I’d get my lamb early next year.

Maxx and Hope. Though certifiably adorable, Sue’s wee
Classic Cheviot lambs are too small — and too woolly — to become cart sheep.

So imagine my delight and surprise when Vanessa touched base with me on July 8, announcing an unexpected birth of triplets from the Murrays’ Dorper-Katadhin ewe, Delilah: two ewe lambs and . . . Mopple. Now adorable, black-and-white-spotted baby Mopple, named for the ever-hungry “memory sheep,” Mopple the Whale, in Leonie Swann’s best-selling mystery, Three Bags Full, resides in the bottle-baby abode (a large, top-opening wire dog crate bedded with secondhand receiving blankets and towels) in our living room. He’s learned to nurse from a bottle and, diapered, happily spronks, Pepe Le Pew–style, through the house. He’s a charmer. And smart! I can hardly wait for his training to begin.

In other times and other places, sheep were frequently used to pull carts.
This vintage image, circa 1910, was captured on St. Michael’s in the Azores.
Nowadays, however, we outfit cart sheep with harness instead of a yoke.

So that folks can follow Mopple’s progress as he matures from winsome lamb to full-fledged working wether, I’ve started my very first blog, The Mopple Chronicles. Check it out!

Sue Weaver sold her first freelance article in 1969. Since then she’s marketed material to major horse periodicals, including The Western Horseman, Horse Illustrated, Chronicle of the Horse, Flying Changes, Horseman’s Market, Arabian Horse Times, The Appaloosa News, The Quarter Horse Journal, Horse’N Around, and The Brayer. Sue is based in the southern Ozark Mountains in Arkansas.

No comments: