Cat Urbigkit: Risks & Rewards of Storytelling

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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

Ranchers sometimes complain that their views aren’t reflected in mainstream reporting, but when invited to do interviews, we often decline. We let our designated industry spokespeople do the talking, and while that may work, it also results in reporting that remains distanced and insulated from what is happening on the ground and reporters are kept away from witnessing a rancher’s connection with animals and lands.

I’m one of the ranchers who often declines interviews, but I try to weigh the merits of the requests rather than automatically saying no. Because I’ve written extensively about conflicts with wolves, we get frequent requests from film companies wanting to visit, but most of these requests are declined, for a variety of reasons. When it’s obvious that we’re just a stop on the way to film wolves in Yellowstone, there is little incentive for our involvement.

This year, we were contacted by a production company working on a science-based series focused on the intersection of people and predators. I liked what seemed to be their honest curiosity about the issue and its complexities, and we agreed to host the film crew. Their visit coincided with our lambing season, and my family scrambled to have all the ranch work covered while my time would be spent with the visitors.

I met with the first two crew members to explain what to expect. As they drove into the lambing grounds, if a lamb suddenly jumped up and ran toward their vehicle, please stop, shut off the vehicle and wait for a ewe to retrieve the lamb.

That happened numerous times, as newborn lambs, startled by the sudden stimuli, raced toward the moving object. While the crew stopped and waited, ewes approached to claim their babies, giving an opportunity for filming the close bond and communication between lambs and their mothers.

I also explained that the sudden presence of a group of people approaching the lambing flock would not been seen by the livestock guardian dogs as a welcome presence, but as a threat or intrusion in the otherwise tranquil landscape.

The last time a film crew came to the ranch, a videographer tried to follow behind a guardian dog while holding a large piece of recording equipment low to the ground, getting a dog-level view. The dog, Panda, had barked and warned the guy to back off, but when he persisted, I had to quickly step in as the enraged dog wheeled around to take out the equipment.

I shared that story with the new film crew, so they were careful enough with Panda, but when one filmmaker tried a similar maneuver with guardian dog Harriet, I once again had to jump in front of the filming to intercept Harriet as she lunged to take down the equipment stalking her. {For the record, Harriet’s full name is Harriet the Horrible, and she suffers no fools among her flock with its newborn lambs.}

It quickly became apparent that Panda still held a grudge against film crews, so I ended up driving him to our camp where he was tethered away from the visitors. Harriet generally sulked amid her sheep, tolerating the crew since I was present. The other dogs either watched from scattered locations in the brush with their sheep, or left to chase coyotes.

It was a two-person crew for the first two days, but on the third day, three more people arrived. The show’s host and I had a good conversation sitting on the ground as we bottle fed orphan lambs I had transported to the location specifically for that purpose.

I wanted the crew to get to know some sheep up close, to share some of what we ranchers see, feel, and experience. That proved key to the success of the entire adventure as each crew member made a connection with our animals. Lambs followed us around as we walked, and they chewed on cables and tried to stick their noses in lenses as they busily tasted everything in the world around them.

The visit mostly went off without a hitch, but there were a few bumps. We had agreed to allow some drone filming, so long as the device was kept high enough not to disturb the sheep.

The drone operator got a little too enthusiastic and came in too low, so when I saw a ewe move away from her twin lambs, I yelled from a neighboring hilltop to get the drone up higher. By the time I had walked back to the crew vehicle, they jokingly expressed relief that I had left my Henry rifle down at the road and didn’t have it with me when the drone moved too low.

In the three days the crew were here, they were able to witness our young herding dog Fly as she moved a yearling steer away from a ewe in labor, without disturbing the ewe. They filmed Harriet’s tenderness as she tried to nap while being pestered by a lamb.

They watched me feeding salty crackers to an adult ewe who was penned at camp as she recovered from a difficult birth. They watched Awbi, a large guardian dog, gently roughhousing with small herding dog Fly, and were able to see how each type of dog does its very different job in the presence of the other.

When we hiked to the top of a hill where Harriet was perched early one morning, we found Harriet was keeping watch atop a coyote den. They learned why guardian dogs are so valued and treasured by those share their lives with these magnificent beasts. They witnessed these canine cousins of the wolf that spend their entire lives in service to another species – a species considered prey by their wild relatives.

When the professional filming was concluded, each of the five crew members took turns holding lambs and taking selfies on their phones. They were tickled to learn that lambs like to cuddle and fall asleep with friends.

Our last task was to film me reading aloud from one of the books I’ve written for children. The crew wanted to do this in my house, but I suggested since the book was about sheep and their guardian dogs, perhaps it would be more compelling if there were lambs present during the reading.

While waiting for equipment and lighting to be retrieved, I sat down with the book in an outdoor chair and set a sleepy lamb across my lap. That’s when the crew understood that this read-aloud had some real potential.

They moved my chair into the middle of a small pen with a half-dozen young lambs, and I proceeded to read the book to the attentive lambs as they chewed on the edges of the pages, and my fingers, with one lamb sleeping in my lap the whole time.

In the end, three days of filming a segment about our experiences with wolves resulted in many hours of footage of beautiful sheep and their guardians thriving in wild landscape, and each crew member had been personally charmed by those sweet lambs.

Two young filmmakers were able to witness a ewe giving birth. They were initially taken aback while watching the ewe’s labor, but soon marveled at the beauty of new life as the lamb and its mother vocalized to each other and the lamb began to try stand on its legs for the first time.

I pointed out the lamb as we passed a few hours later, so they could see the bright white lamb already walking alongside its mother. I learned that neither filmmaker had ever seen a birth of any kind, and I’m confident this was an experience they will never forget.

The show is expected to air next year, so we’ll have to wait to see what makes the final cut. But as a shepherdess, I’m content that what began as a discussion about wolves became an intimate view of sheep ranching in Wyoming.

Reporters and filmmakers can only get these views if we allow these glimpses into our lives and provide opportunities for personal experiences. There is risk involved, but the rewards may be significant.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.

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