What I Learned Today: Sheeps’ Natural Sedation at Death

I learned that sheep become completely complacent when they’re flipped over, which is what farmers do when they shear sheep.

I decided to look up videos of sheep being sheared after watching five minutes of “Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That.” The video featured the kids on a search to figure out where wool comes from. After discovering that it doesn’t grow on a plant and neither is it from the ground, they realize it was sheared from sheep. They talk to some sheep. The sheep are absolutely ecstatic about being sheared because it makes them feel lighter and cooler. So I wondered, is the process really as harmless as this cartoon portrayed?


And in the typical manner of so many of us when we’re on the Internet, I was distracted by the many sheep shearing videos, particularly this one:


The man isn’t the most coherent speaker, but you’ll see that he is an old hand at sheep shearing. He begins the demonstration by showing that the sheep becomes dazed once they’re flipped – or rather “tipped” – and balanced on their back. I’m amazed. This sheep, pregnant sheep I should add, is instantly placid with a flip. Why? Why would it do that? My first thought was that it must have something to do with being a prey and that’s how it reacts to predators. Playing dead, you could say. But then, honestly, who is placid in the absolute final throes of their life? No animals I’ve come across.


And it turns out that it is how they react in the face of being caught by a predator. The natural sedation is the natural defense mechanism that kicks in when they’re caught, according to a Tufts Now article. The article about locavores raising their own livestock mentions how the brain pumps the sheep full of endorphins so it can have a painless death. Nature is very kind to sheep, it seems, although I think “defense mechanism” is hardly an apt description.


Patrick McQuade masters the art of tipping sheep. Photo: Alonso Nichols Source: TuftsNow


It’s odd to me. It benefits the sheep only in that one moment. The article does describe a more useful defense mechanism though. Sheep are great at hiding their ailments and injuries in order to prevent themselves from being considered the weakest link by wolves. Sedation in the face of death – do other animals have mechanisms like this?


Oh, and sheep shearing seems painless, although they could be handled better.



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