When Hannah arrived at Catskill Animal Sanctuary fourteen years ago, she was terrified of humans. She’d been found in a Queens cemetery with what looked like stab wounds, and at Catskill Animal Sanctuary, desperate for escape, she climbed the walls when we entered her stall. Her healing process would be slow, aided not by humans, but by The Great Sheep Rambo.
If you’ve read my books or listened to All Beings Considered, my new podcast, you’ll know that Rambo was a game changer for us. For his 11 years with us—he died at 16—Rambo watched out for every being on Sanctuary grounds: a free-ranger, he made his rounds many times a day, and summoned me, day or night, when something was awry. He had an uncanny ability to communicate with humans, and he took dead-seriously his job as guardian of the flock—and we were all his flock—hens and humans, cows and pigs, goats and sheep. I’ve no doubt that he’d have given his life to protect a member of the Catskill family.
Rambo was more than a protector, however. He was a healer, teacher, friend. And he was also the love of Hannah’s life.
To say that Hannah was in love with Rambo was an understatement. She was obsessed with him, and no story illustrates that obsession better than the one I shared in Animal Camp, updated here to memorialize our girl, who passed away last week surrounded by the humans and sheep who loved her.
That Hannah the sheep was in love with Rambo was no secret. It was obvious to all as she bolted from her stall each morning in search of her Romeo. If she found him immediately, all was well. But if he was out of sight, Hannah was initially disturbed, then worried, and finally panic-stricken, uttering a baleful baa-aah as the time it took to find her soul mate increased. We called her ritual “The Rambo Dance.” Once she found him, she settled into her sheepness, content to roam the barnyard, grazing, stealing alfalfa from the hay room, and plotting kitchen break-ins…that is, as long as Rambo was no more than a foot or two from her. It was a relationship that she needed desperately, and one that Rambo sometimes appreciated, other times only tolerated.
Enter the other woman.
Barbie was a Cornish-cross hen found hiding under a blue Honda in Brooklyn. Like Hannah, Rambo, and many other animals, Barbie free-ranged during the day, exploring the barnyard and cozying up to whomever she chose.
Unfortunately for Hannah, Barbie chose Rambo.
Barbie loved nothing more than napping right next to Rambo in his generous straw bed, sometimes so close to him that surely even through his wool Rambo felt the heat emanating from her big bird body. Sometimes she climbed atop his back, the patient Rambo motionless, and fell fast asleep. Rambo took her overtures in good stride.
For a while, Hannah tolerated the friendship. After all, Barbie was merely a hen; Hannah could still rest side by side with her love or stalk him relentlessly as he traveled Sanctuary grounds ensuring all was in order. After a while, though, the deepening of the friendship between Hanna’s man and a hen was too much for Hannah, as I found out the first time I witnessed Barbie using Rambo as a sofa.
For weeks, I’d heard about, but not witnessed, this new development in the relationship between the great sheep and the presumptuous chicken. And then one crisp December morning, I exited the feed room, and there, in the middle of the aisle, were Rambo and Barbie. Barbie was one happy hen plopped dead center onto Rambo’s back; Rambo was completely unfazed. “Rambo, you are a prince,” I praised him. “What a kind man you are.” I sat down a couple of feet from them to snap a photo. And then I heard it: the rapid click-click-click of sheep hooves moving toward us. It was Hannah. SHE HAD SPOTTED THEM.
The ball of brown wool pushed past me as if I weren’t there, and strode within six inches of the offending pair, neither of whom budged. She glared at them; she looked at me. She looks back at them; she looked at me. Again. Again. There was no need for words, as “What the hell is this?!!! Are you going to help me here or what?!” were etched into every gesture. “I’m sorry, Hannah,” I whispered, approaching her with consoling words. But Hannah pooped and marched outside, wanting nothing more of Rambo, the interloper, or me.
Hannah lived for seven more years after her beloved Rambo passed away, latching on to two additional male sheep. When they passed on, she eventually became the matriarch of a flock of free-rangers affectionately known as The Underfoot Family. And while Catskill Animal Sanctuary has known dozens of sheep who’ve defied the “sheepish” stereotype—confident, soulful, breathtakingly affectionate, sometimes utterly goofy and hilarious—Hannah wasn’t one of them. With the exception of welcoming a good butt or head scratch every now and then, she remained reserved with humans throughout her many years with us, especially once she lost her vision a couple of years ago. Her enduring lesson came from the seven years she spent with Rambo as the classic “needy woman.” Jealous. Possessive. A stalker. Had they been humans, Rambo very likely would have taken out an order of protection.
At Catskill, we have the glorious gift of working at a place where a sheep and a hen once vied for a second sheep’s affection, where a dying cow licked my face over and over until he took his final breath, and where a former cockfighting rooster climbed onto my dog’s bed to share a nap. Hundreds of stories like this: these are the things that love allows. Humans and farmed animals are more alike than any of us would have imagined were it not for the lessons were offered every day, including those from a sheep who was jealous of a chicken.
A glorious animal heaven exists in my dreams. Hannah wakes there this morning, her sight restored, her legs limber and strong. She breathes in the clean air, feels her strong body, looks around, taking in all that had been lost to her: trees, grass, hills, a sparrow as it lights on the ground, pecking at seeds. After a moment she spots a figure off in the distance resting beside a pond, under a large oak tree. She’s not sure why, but she’s compelled to walk toward it. Step by step: could it be?!! Closer…and YES IT IS. Hannah breaks into the Rambo Dance from years ago. “BAAAHHHH!” she cries…and heaven rejoices.