Blind sheep in Jefferson County inspires children's book
Fundraiser held to raise money for 500 braille books
IXONIA - Watching Peanut walk across the pasture, you notice little difference between her and the rest of the sheep — except she is coming up to the gate to check out the new visitor while the rest timidly stay back. Occasionally, her head tilts slightly side-to-side as she approaches.
With every click of the camera shutter, an ear twitches. When Jim Thompson talks to Peanut, she leans into him, but turns curiously to the new voice of the photographer saying hello.
Peanut is like any other sheep in the flocks at Blind Faith Farm, but as the namesake of the farm — since Jim and his wife, Laura, took a leap of faith when she was born blind seven years ago — Peanut has shown her indomitable spirit repeatedly.
Enough times that Jim started making notes on her tenacity and problem solving-skills, which turned into an article in Sheep magazine.
Following the recommendation of the magazine editor, Jim wrote a children’s picture book, which was selected by The Wisconsin Talking Book and Braille Library to be made into a braille book which will be produced by, Audio and Braille Literacy Enhancement (ABLE), both of Milwaukee.
ABLE is a non-profit organization that reformats traditional works into braille and audio books for visually impaired individuals or print disabled individuals.
“I was very humbled when the book was selected to be a braille book and that blind and visually impaired readers really loved the messages in her story," said Jim Thompson.
As the book "took off," Jim and Laura did some touring with Jim providing background and "Farmer Laura" reading the book. Jim researched, working with several Wisconsin organizations representing the blind and visually impaired to gain perspective.
While ABLE usually does smaller runs of books, Jim thought, "What if we tried to get a whole bunch of 'Peanut of Blind Faith Farm' in braille and offered it free of charge? What if we could produce 500 books and made them available to anyone who needs it?"
Thus started a fundraiser to raise $10,000 for the publication of the braille books.
"That will produce 500 braille books in combination with audio books," said Jim.
With the fundraiser deadline approaching on April 3, Jim said, "I think we're going to make it."
Sheep hobby farm
When Jim and Laura started expanding their flock of sheep at their hobby farm to help with maintaining grass on the farm, Jim decided he wanted a ram.
As Laura tells people at book readings, "He had to have a ram," and they acquired two rams.
Following the advice of local sheep farmers, Jim kept the rams separate from the ewes through the winter and let them co-mingle in April after the ewes would have been out of estrous.
When he noticed one of the rams "doing his thing" in the spring, Jim didn't think much of it because he had been told the ewes weren't in estrous at that time of year — until the sheep shearer commented on his late lambs.
"I think every ewe in here is pregnant," the shearer told Jim.
"A naive ewe, with a ram it's never seen before, triggers spontaneous estrous," Jim said.
A couple of ewes "were past their prime" and a few lambs didn't survive, but "when it's all said and done," Jim and Laura had 18 sheep— and none of the lambs would be leaving the farm since Laura had started naming them.
Soon after Peanut's birth, Jim noticed something different about her. While she was tiny as a twin (the other twin didn't make it), Jim noticed she wasn't as precocious as other newborn lambs that started running around within an hour of birth.
"She wanted to touch mom, to be in physical contact," Jim explained. "If the ewe took a step, the lamb took a step."
The biggest thing Jim noticed was the way Peanut moved her head methodically.
"Sheep as a rule are starers," Jim said. "I noticed this little lamb was twitching her ears, there was lots of ear movement."
If a car drove past, her ears would twitch, if another sheep walked past, she didn't notice unless it made a noise.
"It was clear, to me at least, that she was figuring out her world by hearing," said Jim.
Their veterinarian at the time couldn't tell them what to expect with a blind lamb. He anticipated it would be very stressful for the lamb, she might be anxious and would spend much of her time confined to a pen or come up lame often, twisting a hoof in a hole in the pasture, possibly breaking a leg.
Laura and Jim decided to wait and see what Peanut could do. They decided to provide a good environment and keep her safe.
At first it was hard to watch as she would run joyously across a pasture, only to slam headfirst into a tree.
However, Jim watched Peanut as she learned to navigate around her world. She would climb a pile of rocks and stick her nose in the air to smell what was around her. She figured out how to be downwind from the flock so she knew where they were.
She problem solved by what she could hear, smell and touch.
Peanut would walk completely around the pasture with one shoulder touching the fenceline to find a bucket of water. Jim decided he needed to get more buckets of water so she didn't have to walk all the way around the pasture.
There were problems when one sheep named Stella took a disliking to Peanut and repeatedly headbutted her to the ground. Jim and Laura separated the sheep into two flocks, putting Peanut with her mother, Sweetie Pie, and more tolerant sheep.
Even so, Peanut would often be pushed out at feeding time, but somehow knew when there was an opening at the bunk. She would run in and grab a mouthful of hay before getting pushed out again.
"Watching this animal navigate her world, you're hard pressed to sneak up on her," Jim said. "If they are bedded down, she is the first one on her feet, the first one aware there is new company. I think Peanut is the smartest one of the bunch."
Although Peanut can't see, she has more than compensated for her loss of vision with her other senses, especially hearing.
"A blind animal might struggle, but personally, after watching Peanut for seven years, she's doing just fine," Jim noted.
Since 2005, there have only been 13 children's books where the main character is an animal with a disability, according to Jim.
"That niche of animals with disabilities is a good introduction, for young people, to disabilities," Jim explained. "It's non-threatening. It's a happy story."
It took Jim five years to complete the book and get it ready for publishing.
The first copy of the braille book went to a 10-year-old boy named Bennett, who visited the farm and met Peanut.
"I thought she was a lot like me in the way I overcome my challenges the same way Peanut does," Bennett said in a CBS 58 interview. "In the book it says how Peanut can hear where her flock is, like I can tell people's voices and stuff."
Another girl who heard the story learned "being different is ok."
For more information on the fundraiser and the book, visit blindfaithfarm.com or ablenow.org/get-involved/peanut-blind-faith-farm-fundraiser/.