Saturday, August 6, 2011

She's Gone Country

I'm not sure if it is unique to my family or if many others suffer the same condition, but the event of the summer is the county fair. Even before my sister and I got our first pet rabbits, we entered art, crafts, and other projects into the open class at our county fair.

In case you aren't a fervent fair follower, each ribbon has a dollar amount on its little shiny white, red, or blue head: worth $1, $2, or $3 respectively. If you are determined enough, you can make bank by freely entering projects and collecting this "premium" money. This is how I used to make all my spending money throughout my childhood, and one year I made over $200 this way.

However, after we got our rabbits, everything changed. With these furry critters, came a major life change for us: 4-H. We joined this organization knowing absolutely nothing about rabbits or how to show them. That year at fair I worked hard enough to get reserve grand champion rabbit showman. Over the next three years I took more animals, leading up to geese, ducks, a market lamb, market rabbit, production doe, and yearling Shetland ewe, gaining more knowledge and confidence showing my animals every year.

I joined 4-H relatively late in life, I was already in 8th grade for my first year in my club. Adding to this, I made the decision to graduate early from high school, thereby cutting my 4-H career down to just four years. I ended up winning grand champion small animal showman and grand champion sheep showman, as well as scholarships, so I was quite happy with my short, but sweet 4-H career.

My sister however is still just getting started in this wonderful program, so this summer's eventing was all hers. She took two chickens, a market lamb, market goat, and Shetland ewe lamb (with castrated male companion) to fair this year.

Generally every year there has to be some sort of drama, either within our club, or externally. Usually these events can be looked back on with some humor, but during the week spent at fair, they stress people out immensely.

One year a steer bucked loose of his handler during a bath, pried up a livestock gate, and rampaged through the fair midway before being captured. One year the rabbit judge decided anyone who didn't have paperwork for their market animal automatically got a red. One year some idiotic fair-goers tried feeding gum to a litter of baby rabbits. One year a woman brought her dog into the livestock barn causing tremendous upheaval. One year a fair-goer tried to kiss someone else's horse and got bitten on the face. And this is just the external drama...

I am an odd age between the current batch of members in my old 4-H club and their parents, spending about an equal time with both groups. Most of the youth are determined to have fun, yet still serious about keeping their animals clean and showing to the best of their abilities. The parents are extremely helpful, borderline overbearing (or "pageant moms" as the 4-Her's like to call them), reminding their children, and sometimes others', what they should be doing or where they should be.

Fair organization is often a mess as far as show times go. There are two types of shows, conformation and showmanship. In conformation, the judge evaluates the animal, its structure, and how well it embodies its ultimate purpose (dairy, meat, wool, etc.). In showmanship, the judge evaluates the person showing the animal. The animal should be well groomed, well fed, and well handled. This is the big shebang- the epitome of a summer livestock competition. For every animal you take you must do showmanship, but don't necessarily have to do conformation.

It's easy when children only have one species to show. But for those like my overachieving sister having four species with two shows each, things can get a little hairy.

This year's fair started up without a hitch, my sister winning reserve champion rabbit showman for her age group. But then her two rabbits both received reds, conformationally, for being "too rough". Carrying one rabbit proudly up to the judge, she retorted, "well he should be rough, he's ten years old." The judge laughed and wholeheartedly agreed, as the average lifespan for a rabbit is only about seven or eight years, especially if kept outdoors like hers had been.

Tricky thing about showing animals is keeping them in tip-top condition for their shows. All animals, except rabbits, require baths to be clean. With the chickens washed a few days in advance, all my sister had to focus on was her goat and market lamb. As my sister worked hard with her goat, trimming his hooves and clipping stray hair from his coat, I walked into the large animal barn and found a small crowd gathered in front of her market lamb's pen.

The lamb was laying down in the corner. His shortly shorn white wool had a handful of red marks on his shoulder. Following the curve of his neck up to his head, I saw the cause. The lamb's ear was shucked like an ear of corn, the felt-like black skin of the ear torn away revealing the bloody mess of capillaries underneath.

Glancing sidelong at the nervous crowd I saw that no one was reacting. The lamb and bystanders were all in shock. A member of our club was in the pen already, obviously he was the one who had found the lamb this way, so I asked him what had happened. He said that the lamb had gotten its ear tag caught on the fence somewhere and had ripped it loose. Looking about the pen I quickly saw the dismembered ear flap wrapped around a part of the corner fence.

My sister still didn't know about this tragedy. I had to be the one to tell her. As soon as she heard the news she burst into tears, convinced the incident was her fault. I ran back the barn to try to treat the wound.

Unfortunately some adults think they know better than anyone else, and when I came back to the pen, one of the superintendents was scrubbing at the bloody ear with a wash cloth. Obviously this is one of the absolute worst things to do in this situation. The rag was nowhere near sterile and the rough surface was making the ear raw and bleed profusely again. I quickly relieved her of her self-appointed duties. As she left the pen, she committed the number one sin of any livestock owner, leaving the gate open. The wounded lamb was out like a flash, sprinting down the barn's rows.

Any child raised in 4-H is taught to apprehend any loose animal that comes near him or her. One of my sister's best friends caught up with the lamb, and although confused by my unintelligible shouts, caught the escapee. It was only after the grab that she found out that I was trying to protect her clean white show shirt from the remarkable staining powers of blood.

The lamb was returned to his pen and after a few mists with an antibiotic spray and the red stains washed out of his coat, I figured the lamb would do best if just left for observation. He was given clean water and I watched the bleeding stop as the blood coagulated.

Outside the pen, our leader posted a perfect little handwritten sign stating, "Yes, we know the lamb is injured. It has been treated and the veterinarian has been notified. Lesson learned: being a farmer is hard work!"

After I made sure that my sister wouldn't be docked points in conformation or showmanship for this horrendous accident, I handed the superintendent the severed ear, still complete with identification tag, (just in case she still needed the number), and went to console my sister.

Mind you, this was still early in the day. My sister still had to show her little ewe and this mutilated lamb for conformation, as well as her goat showmanship. I watched her as she spaced out at nothing in particular. Knowing her since the hour she was born has more than taught me when something is wrong with my little sister, so I took her aside and asked her what was wrong. She started sobbing and related between breaths how her lamb's injury was her fault and if she was there she could've prevented it and, and...

Quickly I shut her down, telling her that nothing she could've done would've made this situation any better. He's a market animal, going to be butchered in less than a week, and his ear is already healing. She finally calmed down and I mentioned to be thankful that it wasn't her prized pet ewe or wether. I reminded her that I had something much worse happen to my beloved sheep last year, involving a log truck and the hard unforgiving asphalt.

She pulled herself together and showed that lamb with only one minor upset with a red ribbon for his conformation. Then, after lunch and another heart-to-heart, came goat showmanship. She lead that goat out into the ring, and looked like a new girl. As the show wore on, it became clear that she was doing well. Her golden hair, confidence, and beautiful smile made her pop in the show-ring. She won reserve champion goat showman, her first year taking a goat to fair.

Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, my sister continued on her winning streak with a plethora of blue-colored placings, three champion ribbons for her static exhibits (a felted purse, punch-rug pillow, and embroidered hand towel), as well as two trophies: "Grand Champion Wearable Art Fashion Revue" and "Outstanding Intermediate/Senior Livestock Showman". The latter is a singularly unique award in the fact that the recipient has to be nominated, then the nominees are voted on by the 4-H club leaders. No doubt due to her handling of the lamb-ear tragedy, this award is a great honor.

Despite all the pandemonium this fair produced, my sister is an amazing trooper. She plowed through it all and came out on top. We all learned a great deal this summer and can look back on the experience now with a chuckle of amazement at how messy and chaotic things got.

One thing I know for certain is that I couldn't be more proud of my baby sister.

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