Zamora, Calif. — For four generations, the Slavens have heard the bleating of ewes giving birth and the cries of newborn lambs on their family ranch in October. This year, the only sounds are ofgrief.
Mike Slaven looks over the remains of his sheep ranch where 75 percent of his sheep where killed by a recent fire, in Zamora, Calif., Wednesday, Oct, 4, 2006. Only about a 100 of Slaven’s sheep escaped unharmed from the fire that swept through the area on Sept. 22, burning more than 11,000 acres. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
A wildfire that tore through the family’s rolling land last month decimated the Slavens’ herd. Seventy-five percent of their 1,200 sheep died.
For the past two weeks, the Slavens and veterinarians from the University of California, Davis, have endured a wrenching daily ritual.
They examine the surviving sheep and divide those that stand a chance of living from those too badly injured to survive. Most of the dead are being dumped into a burial pit in a remote corner of the ranch.
“I don’t know where it’s going to lead to,” said Mike Slaven, who co-owns the ranch with his parents, Bill and Joan. “Even with the sheep that are left, to me, it’s a total loss.”
About 100 sheep escaped the fire unscathed. The remaining 200 or so survivors may never fully recover, said Dr. John Madigan, head of the Veterinary Emergency Response Team from UC Davis, which has been tending to the sheep.
As many as 30 veterinarians and students examine the sheep daily and administer burn ointment and other medication. The animals’ injuries range from exposed nerves on their hooves to smoke-damaged lungs to blindness.
In many cases, the most humane thing the team can do is euthanize the animals, Madigan said.
The wildfire scorched more than 11,000 acres in Yolo County, with the Slaven family ranch enduring the worst damage.
Officials believe the fire might have started from a downed power line, but the investigation is ongoing. A nearby ranch lost about 275 sheep, almost its entire herd.
California is home to 2,500 sheep and lamb operations that include 650,000 animals, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s national statistics service. The state has the second highest number of sheep and lambs in the country, behind Texas.
The Slavens came to the United States from Ireland in the 1800s and ultimately settled in rural Zamora, about 30 miles northwest of Sacramento. They raised sheep and farmed wheat.
When the fire ravaged the ranch, most of the female sheep were pregnant, due to give birth in late October. The family usually sells more than 1,000 lambs every year to a livestock plant, receiving about $125 a head, Mike Slaven said.
The veterinarians don’t yet know how many – if any – of the remaining pregnant sheep will have successful births.
Wool from the older sheep normally brings in additional money, but much of the wool on the remaining animals is badly charred. Many sheep have patches of raw, exposed skin.
Some relief has come from local government. Yolo County’s Board of Supervisors declared a state of emergency on the ranch, and the county and the city of Woodland are paying a rendering plant to pick up some of the sheep carcasses.
Madigan and his colleagues also will host a benefit on the UC Davis campus Oct. 14 to raise money for the Slavens and the neighboring ranch.
The Slavens’ insurance does not cover fires, Bill Slaven said, and the family has received no compensation for the lost animals. Worse, it expects the death toll to rise.
“It never bothered me when we sent the old sheep away or I had to put one or two down,” Mike Slaven said quietly. “But when you see this, it’s different. I get attached to these old girls.”