To most of us, sheep are beasts who may supply our new wool suit, or who might appear as the main course at dinner. They don't figure heavily into daily conversation. And black sheep have had their share of bad press in times past; perhaps the kindest thing that's been said of a black sheep is that he or she is a disgrace to his family.
But breeder Diane Pitzler, who lives in Chino, prefers the black sheep's soft fleece, which she uses in her weaving. Most commercial breeders, she admits, don't want the darker sheep, which range in color from gray to black, and even red and brown, because their wool doesn't take dye well. But Pitzler thinks the natural colors are beautiful.
One day, Pitzler came home and discovered that one of the several black sheep in her small flock, a year-old crossbred wether (a neutered male) without a name, was upside down in the feed tub, three legs out and one caught inside. "He was just as tight as a cork in a bottle," she says. "It must have happened only moments before, because sheeps' lungs are very sensitive to being out of normal position, even for a short time, and it usually causes rapid death." She quickly tipped him out of the tub--and found that the trapped right front leg and shoulder were broken. The bones couldn't be set.
Usually there's only one choice at such a time. "But his eyes were so clear and alert," Pitzler says, "I decided to try and save him." She'd had successful experiences with other animal amputees, and, besides, there was his marvelous fleece. The leg was amputated, and Tricycle got his name.
Tricycle's recovery was slow. Confined to a private pen in the garage--to keep his wound clean and his activity limited--he missed his fellows. Sheep like to flock together. Aristotle, describes sheep as perhaps the silliest and most foolish of animals because of this penchant to hang out, no matter what; the Talmud confirms this in as few words as possible: "Sheep follow sheep." Without anyone to follow, Tricycle seemed sad.
But he did recover, and perhaps he became a better sheep for it. Certainly he demonstrated some smarts, which is not a trait sheep are noted for. Pitzler describes Tricycle's progress from four- to three-legged mobility with respect. The hardest part for him, she explains, was learning to stand. Usually, a sheep rises from the ground in three steps: It brings its hind end up first, then one front leg, then the other. Tricycle learned to give a little hop after raising his rear, in order to stand on the remaining foreleg. "This showed a lot of brains for a sheep," says Pitzler. "I think he's happy now."
Tricycle has reason to be in good spirits, because black sheep are coming into vogue due to a growing cottage industry that prefers natural colored wool for weaving. Black sheep are even commanding their own classes at livestock shows. The Natural Colored Wool Growers Assn. has politely suggested that black sheep be called "natural colored," in order to improve their image.
It used to be that a black sheep was used as a "marker" in a flock of, say, 100 white sheep, but times change. Maybe someday we'll see a white sheep as a marker in a flock of dark sheep.