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The Hidden Lives of Sheep

Sheep are gentle, sensitive animals who are emotionally complex and highly intelligent. The following recent studies have found that sheep and humans have many things in common.

Keith Kendrick, a professor of medicine at Gresham College in London, found that sheep can distinguish between different expressions in humans and can detect changes in the faces of anxious sheep. He also discovered that sheep recognize the faces of at least 50 other sheep and can remember 50 different images for up to two years.

Professor John Webster of the University of Bristol found that, like humans, sheep visibly express emotions. When they experience stress or isolation, they show signs of depression similar to those that humans show by hanging their heads and avoiding positive actions.

Like us, sheep experience fear when they’re separated from their social groups or approached by strangers. Sheep’s heart rates have been found to increase by 20 beats per minute when they’re unable to see any members of their flock and by 84 beats per minute when approached by a man and a dog.

When PETA staff members Carrie and Jackie visited the Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary in Maryland, they found out just how captivating sheep and lambs can be. Playful and puppy-like, the sheep wagged their tails when they were stroked. They affectionately nuzzled and head-butted the women in order to get their attention.

One sheep, named Adam, who loved to cuddle and have his face stroked, made a big impression on the two staff members. “Adam was set to be a religious sacrifice before being rescued in the Washington, D.C., area. I couldn’t even begin to fathom such a hideous fate for the sheep who was softly stroking my neck with his warm, fuzzy face,” recalls Jackie.

Carrie also found that spending time with sheep was an eye-opening experience: “I had always seen sheep depicted as herd animals who didn’t have individual personalities. While I knew that this wasn’t true, my experience with such affectionate and personable sheep truly made me understand what unique animals they are and how horribly cruel it is that they suffer so greatly in wool production and live export.”

Although sheep are intelligent, social, emotional beings—just as humans are—the wool industry continues to abuse them in ways that could warrant cruelty-to-animals charges if dogs or cats were the victims. When they’re still lambs, sheep in Australia—the world’s leading exporter of merino wool—are subjected to mulesing, a cruel mutilation in which farmers carve skin and flesh from the animals’ backsides, often without giving them any painkillers. Every year, millions of unwanted Australian sheep are loaded onto extremely crowded multitiered cargo ships and sent on terrifying journeys to the Middle East or North Africa, where their throats are cut—often while they’re still conscious.

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