Rocky the sheep taught himself to walk with only two functional legs, showing me the perseverance I needed to push through my pain.
In the winter of 2011, I relocated to the Texas Hill Country, another move across the globe to do manual labor for little to no pay–in other words, to follow my dreams. I would be interning at a wildlife conservation center in the middle of nowhere, the last town census documenting 75 inhabitants. I guess I made it 76.
My days and nights were spent pushing syringes full of gruel into the mouths of hungry baby birds, logging the poop schedule of orphaned skunks, raccoons, opossums and squirrels, bottle-feeding fawns, hacking up meat for big cats, brainstorming enrichment for monkeys, and carrying buckets of feed through a pasture of handicapped farm animals.
By spring of that year, my fingers burned when I tried to use a syringe. I became too weak to lift my arms above my head to fill out the feed board. Standing alone was taxing. My muscles would twitch and spasm without warning.
Something was wrong with my body but I didn’t know what. I switched to light duty, manning the animal emergency hotline shift, but my hands locked up trying to type or hold a pen.
A trip to the doctor landed me with a preliminary diagnosis of Lyme disease, likely from an infected deer tick picked up in the tall grasses down at the rescued fawn yard. But like many Lyme tests do, the results came back negative. I was referred to a rheumatologist, but I knew in my gut that wasn’t the sole cause for my weakening, painful joints and muscles.
I was determined to finish out my six-month internship in whatever way possible, but I was no longer capable to work in my favorite pasture. I called it the “Special Pasture” or “The Land of Misfits,” reminiscent of the Land of Misfit Toys in Rudolph. Among the emus, pigs, and sheep inside the fence lived a goat who walked on his knees, a skinny, geriatric Texas Longhorn, and a sheep named Rocky who taught himself to walk despite paralysis in his back legs.
(See Rocky walk at 1:33 in the video below!)
My dad says if I was put in a room with 100 animals and one of them was handicapped, I would gravitate toward that animal. He knows me pretty darn well.
Animals have a way of maintaining their zest for life no matter what hand they’re dealt. Three-legged dogs don’t seem to notice they’re one leg down, and Rocky didn’t seem to notice his back legs weren’t made for walking.
I made a habit out of visiting Rocky every day on the 250-acre property. Of the thousand animals in my care, Rocky stole my heart the minute I laid eyes on him. Actually, it might have been the second I heard a paraplegic sheep lived at the sanctuary. He became known around the complex as my boyfriend.
Rocky had been intercepted in transit to the slaughterhouse, given up on because of his birth defect. He taught himself to walk by balancing on his back legs, using them much like a pirate would a peg leg. He never accomplished anything quickly–including eating, considering his impressive yet adorable underbite. But he always accomplished whatever he set his mind to. Every morning and afternoon, that included walking over to the fence to see me.
Here was a creature struggling in daily life to do simple, everyday tasks. In many ways, my recent medical anomaly mirrored his lifelong journey. Surely, if a paraplegic sheep could follow his heart (and stomach), nothing could stop me from doing the same.
And so I fought through the fatigue, charley horses, and fiery joint pain to complete my commitment in the boonies of Texas. I then headed back home to Ohio for further diagnostics, where it was eventually confirmed I had Lyme disease.
While I had to ask for help for many things in the months following my diagnosis–from putting my hair in a ponytail to cutting up my food–I continued to live my life. My body screamed to just collapse into a bed and sleep for weeks, but I had dreams to nurture and a paraplegic sheep to honor.
Though I continued to struggle with complications from Lyme, I soon immersed myself in sea turtle conservation in Florida. Naturally, I gravitated to a non-releasable turtle named Montel, who had the most ailments of any of the turtles at the rescue center. Like Rocky, turtles taught me perseverance, leading to me accomplish a childhood dream of publishing my first book–on turtles.
Rocky passed away peacefully a couple years after I left, the news received in a text message from a co-worker who knew how much this sheep meant to me.
Some days I still find myself struggling to open jars, chronic arthritic joint pain still a daily hurdle. I have had to adapt my lifestyle in a hundred ways since being diagnosed with Lyme disease six years ago, but thanks to Rocky the sheep, it has never stopped me from following my dreams, which now includes one day running a handicapped animal sanctuary offering therapy for handicapped people.
Share this with someone you know who could use a little inspiration! We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!
All photos and videos via Stacey Venzel.
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