At the edge of the Navajo Indian Reservation in the four corners area of Utah is the little town of Blanding. My family moved here for a short period of time when I was young. My dad flew a small airplane for the hospitals to fly people in and out of the hospital for their appointments. Because the land was mostly farm land and wide open spaces, there were not true landing strips and runways, but rather long plateaus that were used for landings and take offs. These vast open spaces were also used for sheep.
Navajo sheep are a lot different than the sheep you imagine in your mind when hearing the word ‘sheep’. These sheep are not fluffy white cuddles of joy that Mary had. These sheep are tough scraggly creatures with a mean attitude and stringy coats. These little buggers feed on the sparse green shrubs that grow in the south-western area of Utah. Navajo sheep herds even come with sheepdogs. Navajo sheepdogs are also unlike the usual sheepdog. Like the image of fluffy sheep that you think of, these dogs are not cuddly black and white border collies, but mean mutts.
Navajo sheepdogs are raised differently than the normal sheepdog. As a puppy, they are taken from their mothers and raised with the sheep. The dog grows up thinking it is a sheep and the sheep raise it thinking it is a sheep. This ‘sheep’ is not just an average sheep; it is the smartest meanest sheep in the herd. The shepherds open the gate in the morning and let the sheep out. They follow the dog up the plateau to graze. The dog keeps the sheep safe by fighting off predators then brings the sheep back at the end of the day and the shepherds close the gate.
My dad one day had flown into this little side village or encampment to drop off patients for dialysis. He landed on the long stretch of plateau and taxied to the area, dropping off the patients. He turned back around and prepared to takeoff. He started rolling down the land, picking up speed more and more as he went, preparing for takeoff. As he rolled down the ‘strip’ he saw a herd of sheep off to the side. One sheep darted from the herd and charged the plane. It was the dog. The dog barked and growled, defending his herd. My dad continued to roll, but soon saw that he was about to hit the dog.
The problem with hitting the dog was, he would crash and destroy the landing gear. My dad tried to take off early, he bounded upwards in using the physics of flying that I don’t remember the term for it, but essentially with a little hop, he could take off earlier that safe. As he bounced, he started to lift. Hope was there, when suddenly, the right side landing gear shuddered from impact of the dog hitting the wheels.
At this point my dad realized he had two options, he could crash then and there and see if the dog was okay and risk injury to himself, or he could fly back to the hospital and crash there where he could receive medical attention. My dad chose the latter. He flew back to the hospital. He miraculously executed a stellar landing on only the left landing gear. He taxied in on that left side and took it right to the mechanic’s hanger. He explained to the mechanics what had happened and looked at the matted fur and blood coating the right damaged landing gear.
It wasn’t long before everyone in the small town of Blanding heard the story of my dad’s collision and began calling him “Dog Killer”. He did not let the name get him down and continued his routine flights. Months past, and everything was typical, except every time he flew in the area of the crime scene, he could not help but look for the dog. He knew it was unlikely, after all, the dog probably stew at this point. Then one day, as my dad was taking off for the hospital in that area, he saw a heard of sheep grazing by the ‘strip’. In the middle of the sheep came a mangled and injured dog barking at the plane, but careful to not get too close.
I want to share another bit about sheep before we get to the point.
It’s still about sheep. Sheep have long been said to be stupid. Sheep are smart, but they don’t make independent choices. They follow each other, blindly. Sheep are ruminants. They only have teeth on the bottom of their mouth. If they bite you, it will hurt, but not as much as say, a dog, a cat, a horse, or any animal with top and bottom teeth. Sheep can also kick (like a cow or a horse) or they can butt (like a goat) but when a sheep encounters danger, the sheep’s natural response is flight. They run. They don’t stand and fight. They may freeze or flee. Sheep are easy, tasty pickings for many predators.
Many sheep herders resolve this by utilizing a dog. Many dogs are bred to lead and guide sheep, but here’s the secret: dogs are related to coyotes and wolves. Guess what coyotes and wolves eat? Sheep! I know, you’d never believe that good old Fido would ever attack and abuse Fluffy, but Fido is a dog and a dog loves meat. Now I know we can easily say #notalldogs but just stick with me. Many sheep herders have found a different solution.
Have you ever met a llama? Llamas are like the giraffes of sheep (just kidding, they’re related to camels). Llamas eat the same food as sheep, they produce wool like sheep, but they have a bonus feature. Llamas are mean. Have you ever heard of a coyote or a wolf running off with a llama? Maybe you have, but it rarely happens… Why? Because Llamas are the meanest of the mean! I would hate to meet a llama in a dark alley. Sheep herders put llamas (not flock animals by the way) in with the sheep. When predators come to feast on the fatlings of the field, the llama kicks some canine butt! Wolfy runs off with his tail tucked between his legs and the sheep keep being…sheep.
Why am I talking about sheep dogs and Llamas? Well in these stories, would you rather be the sheep, the dog, or the llama? The fact is there are those who strive endlessly to keep us safe, but it would be much easier on the llama and the dog if the sheep fought with them.
My point is we are responsible for our own personal safety. We must be llamas. We must be strong and fight the real source of danger, not the teeth, but the beast itself.
You all can be sheep, but me, I’m a llama.
What do you want to be?