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Changing Ewe and Me

August 12, 2019

By Karisa Lightfoot

DOC Communications

mom lamb with her two baby lamb

Ewe and her baby lambs. (Donna Hubbs, Washington State Penitentiary)

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As Gary Kemper starts his day, he’s greeted with the insistent cry of 18 two-month old lambs. As the furry four legged animals run towards him, eager for breakfast, he greets them, calling them by name and gently scratching their heads.

Kemper has been a part of the Bighorn sheep conservation program at the Washington State Penitentiary since the very beginning. “I didn’t want to be a part of the program at first, but a counselor convinced me and I thought I would give it a try. It’s been something therapeutic and educational and now I don’t have any desire to stop being a part of the program.”

The program was presented to Associate Superintendent Carla Schettler by the Department of Fish and Wildlife to try and diminish a bacteria called Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae, or M ovi. The bacteria, commonly carried by domestic sheep and goats, usually has mild impacts on domestic animals but can be lethal to wild bighorn sheep. Raising M. ovi-free domestic sheep and providing producers with a source of sheep can protect wild bighorn sheep from the devastating pathogen. Schettler was excited for the program to be at the facility stating, “It was an opportunity. I wanted the inmates to have an impact, to give back. If you can connect them with something it makes a difference.”

The incarcerated participants not only tend to the sheep, but are learning transferable skills for their release back to the community. Lieutenant Jarrod Sumerlin works closely with the program. “My goal was not just having them feed the animals, it was teaching them how to maintain a ranch. They do everything from building fences, maintaining the property, shearing, castration, and vaccination.”

The inmates have training seminars and are regularly visited by Walla Walla Community College educator Jerry Kjack, who teaches them how to care for their flock. With all of the help and a dash of trial and error, the program has been a success.

“We are where we wanted to be in the program right now. We didn’t get there in the way we wanted or how we expected, but we got there,” said Lieutenant Sumerlin.

Originally, the plan was to raise an M ovi. free flock, but within the first year of the program, a few sheep tested positive for the bacteria. It almost caused the program to be abandoned, but instead was turned into a research opportunity. The sheep that tested positive were quarantined away from the others and were vaccinated multiple times. They were successfully treated and reintroduced to the flock.

The second lambing season is now over and the flock continues to be M ovi. free. There has been many challenges along the way. One lamb in particular, Buttercup, almost didn’t survive. At birth she wasn’t breathing, but luckily an inmate who had previous experience on a farm was able to give her CPR. She was bottle-fed and consistently cared for helping her to gain strength and learn to walk. Buttercup is still the smallest of the lambs, but is growing strong!

“We’re putting forth an effort to make a difference. We want to show the public that we care,” incarcerated participant Kemper stated.

While that effort and care is sure to make a difference to the bighorn sheep over time, for Buttercup it’s made a significant difference already.