Lee Pitts: Shear Agony
I’ve had some crappy jobs in my life. I’ve picked citrus with a bracero crew from Mexico and I’ve waded through pig poop for less than minimum wage but by far the worst job I’ve ever had was shearing sheep. I did it because I could shear on weekends and evenings when I wasn’t working in the oilfields. You could say, sheep helped pay for my sheepskin. (Are they even called that anymore? )
I always arrived on time and wired my motor to the cattle racks on my grandpa’s old Ford Econoline which embarrassed me to even be seen inside the cab which, by the way, I shared with the motor. I’m not exaggerating… THE MOTOR WAS INSIDE THE CAB! Don’t ask me why I would one day pay grandpa $600 for the only truck I’ve ever owned that wasn’t a GM product. But I gotta say, as long as you kept the windows open to avoid asphyxiation, old Herbie was the best pickup I’ve ever owned.
I still have nightmares about one shearing job which began innocently enough when a gentleman who ran the ‘zoo’ in the county park on the outskirts of town called and said he needed 10 ewes sheared. I told him that I charged $2.00 per head if the owner didn’t watch and $3.00 if the owner did observe. And I GOT TO KEEP THE WOOL. I was always emphatic on that stipulation.
Upon arrival at the park I was led to a motley group of livestock that the zookeeper insisted were sheep. Trust me, there are 914 breeds of sheep in the world and none of these were them! For one thing they were a chocolate color and the wool was in really large folds that would be a nightmare to shear. Their ugly faces were covered with wool too which was also a nightmare. The zookeeper said he’d like to watch but he could not help me catch the wild things because he had a bad back.
Of course he did!
Normally I prefer to shear the way the Aussies do with the sheep sitting on their butt between my legs but I realized right away that I’d have to rely on the Mexican style of tying them up. I also learned on the very first head why the sheep were chocolate flavored. It was because their coat of wool was packed with dirt from laying around the pen which was completely devoid of any type of vegetation. Normally I would stop to sharpen my expensive blades every sixth ewe but I couldn’t even get through with one animal before I had to stop to change blades. I found it was impossible to shear them without nicking them a few times and every time I did the zookeeper would wince and say, “Is that really necessary? Since you cut them so much,” he said, “I’ll expect no objection to my request that you also trim their feet?”
I’ll be the first to admit it looked more like I’d skinned the sheep, not sheared them. I used up a quart of KRS on the wounds and for the first and only time in my career I had a sheep die on me. She was a toothless old witch and any ovine coroner in the land would excuse me from fault but I thought the zookeeper was gonna have a coronary on me, which is how I’m sure the ewe died. The bad news was that the ewe waited to die until after I’d sheared her and I couldn’t possibly charge for shearing a dead sheep, now could I?
Then I got the BIG surprise of the day. Chained to a tree was a 300 pound monster of a ram that I was told was six years old and had NEVER been sheared! When I was done with him, long about sunset, we had a slight disagreement about who got the wool… I CERTAINLY DIDN’T WANT IT! Adding insult to injury, the zookeeper told me I’d have to invoice the county in order to get paid, which I did immediately. Three months later I got paid.
We in the cattle industry say, “There is nothing dumber than a sheep except the man who owns one.” After this experience I’d have to say, “There is nothing dumber than a sheep except the man who shears them.”