Chris the Sheep
"The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way that its animals are treated." ~ Mahatma Ghandi
Birthdate: July 2009 | Arrival date: 24th September 2015 | Date of Passing: 22nd October 2019
Chris is a Merino sheep who is the unfortunate Guinness Book of Records World Record holder for heaviest fleece shorn from a sheep. This is no title to covet, as it amounts to being the most neglected sheep in the world.
Chris shot to fame with news of his story travelling the globe when he was found wandering in bushland in Canberra in 2015. He had been living a sad life of isolation with only mobs of kangaroos as his company for an amazing period of five years. Spotted by bushwalkers, his rescue was organised.
He was other-worldly, almost unrecognisable as a sheep. Carrying an astounding 40.45 kilograms of wool, double his body weight at the time, it is indeed astounding that he survived. Carrying this amount of wool is a significant welfare issue, even one year of fleece growth can be perilous to sheep in scorching weather, sometimes leading to heat stress and flystrike. Chris was carrying around 5 years worth of wool, meaning that not only would he have suffered incredibly in Australia's hot summers, but his mobility was significantly impaired, and his legs and feet were carrying a huge load.
There are so many ways this excess growth of wool could have lead to Chris’ downfall - if a sheep with long wool lies down on a heavy incline, it can be impossible for them to roll off of their backs. In extreme cases, they can die, and in addition, Chris was what is known as “wool-blind,” when the wool actually impairs the sheep’s vision growth.
Before this champion survivor had miraculously endured the elements for so long, it took several attempts before this champion survivor was successfully rescued. A shearer was sought, and the slow, stressful process of giving Chris his first haircut in 5 years began.
Amazingly, Chris was not suffering from flystrike, and although he suffered a few cuts during the process of shearing (which was very difficult due to the weight of his wool) he emerged in surprisingly great condition - a little thin, hooves a little longer than they should have been, but considering what he looked like when he arrived, all involved were amazed and surprised at how healthy Chris was.
Chris spent the first few weeks of his new life at Little Oak Sanctuary in our stables with an adjoining yard, where we could monitor him closely and start to build a relationship of trust with this boy who had had next to no human contact until a few weeks prior.
Once Chris had gone through the required quarantine process; he was introduced to the Little Oak flock. This was a seamless process, as if they had all known each other their whole lives. Typically when a new sheep or lamb is introduced to the flock, there is a lot of sniffing, stamping at unfamiliar faces, and it takes a little while before the new member is completely accepted. When Chris joined the flock, heads turned, but then everyone went straight back to grazing. Chris also took to the flock as if rejoining long lost friends. We weren't sure how he would react, having not lived with other sheep for so long, but these people spoke his language; the connection was instantaneous. Chris hasn't looked back.
So how is it that sheep became so reliant on humans for their survival? How is it that an animal has reached a point where they face almost certain death if left to his own devices?
Sheep, before being manipulated by humankind, originally shed most of their wool every year. Even today, most breeds that are raised for their flesh will shed their wool. For those raised for their wool, however, they have been bred by humans so that they do not shed. Instead, there is continual, year-round wool growth that requires shearing to prevent the welfare issues mentioned previously.
Furthermore, humans have bred sheep to require shearing, but in the case of Merino sheep, we have selectively bred sheep that have more wrinkles in their skin, as this increases the surface area of wool grown in a better yield for humans. It is worth noting that sheep are only bred and endure this to supply the demand for their wool. The cost to the animals is high. Wrinkly skin for a sheep is not a desirable trait. These wrinkles provide areas susceptible to flystrike, where flies will lay their eggs in the moist folds. These eggs hatch into maggots that set about eating through the sheep's skin, causing significant injury and in some cases, death.
Chris miraculously escaped this fate, and over the months following his rescue, he has had regular health checks, worming and hoof maintenance. Without his massive fleece weighing him down and with the comfort and security of his own flock, Chris regained a healthy body weight and was the picture of health.
Chris was a gentle, character-filled chap. His bleat was loud and deep and instantly recognisable. The first few months of his time at Little Oak, we watched him intensely observe his flock buddies' behaviour. At first, he couldn’t understand why they would run towards the humans when his instincts were to run away from them. He would stay at the back, watching cautiously, all interactions being taken in and processed.
Over time he realised that people were actually ok and he is now amongst the first to run over for food and the occasional scratch. He has learnt that eating straight from the treat bucket offers a higher return on his efforts than bustling amongst the other sheep for individual pellets from the ground. As a result, he flat out refuses to eat treats from the ground any longer, insisting that treats be dispersed as he likes them, straight from the bucket.
One year on from his rescue, Chris was once again shorn. This time was quite different to the last. Taking just under 6 minutes and removing just over 6 kilograms of wool, Chris's 2016 shearing was in stark contrast to the year prior, an ordeal that took over 40 minutes and removed over 40 kilograms of wool.
Chris sadly passed away at almost 10 years of age. He will live on in our memories, but his presence will be missed by both his sheep and human friends who loved him. Chris teaches us that we are all more than what happens to us. He was someone, not something.