University's Sheep Center allows people to see intricacies of sheep reproduction
By CASEY PARKS
CORVALLIS, Ore. -- A crowd of about 100 waited, cameras poised, around the pen at Oregon State University's Sheep Center. But nothing was happening yet.
Ewe 187 had stage fright.
She wasn't the only one. Earlier, another ewe felt so nervous her contractions stopped, a lambing helper said. She walked away to find some peace.
Now, the crowd watched as Ewe 187 paced in circles. She wriggled her neck and made a few pained "baas."
These days, a thousand or so people come to the Sheep Center every week to watch ewes give birth. This year, the 35 ewes will be lambing through March 3. The university offers free, self-guided tours daily.
The barn has plenty of recently born lambs bobbing around. But Saturday, the crowd's preference was clear: They wanted to see a birth. For about 20 minutes, visitors stood still, waiting for Ewe 187 to deliver.
Finally, a hoof appeared. Then another. Children squealed. Adults cheered the ewe on.
"Come on, mom. You can do it. Get that lamb out," one woman urged.
Unlike humans, lambs usually emerge feet first, Lucy Underwood, a student volunteer, told the watching children. Underwood is a junior at OSU, majoring in animal science and planning to become a veterinarian. The Sheep Center offers hands-on access that other schools don't provide, she said.
In fact, a family of farmers said, the center offers access that sometimes even the real world can't give. Because sheep are so private, they often give birth in the middle of the night, while no one is watching, said Theresa Young, whose family owns 19 acres along the Siletz River near Newport.
Young brought along her daughter, Kyra, a senior at Newport High School and a nearly lifelong 4-H member. Kyra wants to be a vet, too. Since she was 6, the year her family began raising sheep, she has wanted to attend OSU. Next year, she'll finally make her dream come true.
Saturday, she was thinking about her own future at the Sheep Center. She wore three layers of OSU shirts, along with OSU earrings and a pair of well-worn tennis shoes.
Even though Kyra Young has seen the birthing process dozens of times, from the messy delivery to the adorable arrival, she focused on the ewe, whispering encouragement.
"We're all rooting for the ewe to get this baby out," Theresa Young said.
The ewe paced a little more, then lay down in the alfalfa hay. She rested for only a moment before standing up to deliver.
"She did it!" Kyra Young said. Around her, dozens of cameras flashed. The crowd applauded, then let out a collective "aww" as the lamb tried to walk.
As the ewe cleaned up her newborn, the excitement waned. But Kyra Young noticed something.
"She's not finished," she said. "She's going to have another one."
Sure enough, she was right. But this time, the ewe didn't have stage fright. She quickly delivered the second lamb -- equally small, wobbly and cute.
The children watching clapped and squealed extra loud for the surprise addition. The adults positioned their cameras again -- snap, snap -- then walked out of the barn into sunshine, smiling.