Half Shorn Sheep

It seemed easy enough. To show how much wool a sheep grows in a season just shear off half the wool and have the sheep stand sideways.

Knowing nothing about sheep I figured I'd have this picture done in an afternoon. Here's the plan: find a sheep that is wearing one season's wool. Hire a good shearer. Give the sheep half a haircut.

The shearing season had started early in New Zealand. But I was determined to find a few sheep that hadn't been fleeced. We drove and drove. It seemed we had landed on an island populated by nearly naked sheep. Then...

"There...on the right...in that yard." I was jubilant. Robin Kidd, the "gun" (New Zealand parlance for "the best") shearer, who had already determined that I was an obsessed lunatic, groaned at the sight of 5 very over-weight sheep that looked like they had been sleeping in ill-fitting pajamas for a year.

I banged on the front door of the little farmhouse and explained my mission to the woman who owned the sheep. To my amazement, she believed me.

Having no dog, four of us chased the fat, bobbing sheep around the yard finally bringing them down with flying tackles. It took all four of us to lift each sheep onto the back of a pickup.

The shed was quiet. The five sheep huddled in the corner of the shearing pen looking like they would very much like to leave. Robin pulled one of them upright so that it was sitting on its rump. The sheep slumped into a catatonic state. Robin grasped the shears then hesitated. He had removed so many sheep jackets as whole fleeces he couldn't figure out the moves he needed to do just half. He pecked away with the shears. Dirty wool fell all around. Done. He released the sheep. It bounded to its feet, swayed a bit, then toppled toward the still woolly side. The now unbalanced sheep lay helpless on its side, feet bicycling in the air.

The next try was better planned. A grazier (Australian for sheep farmer) near Melbourne agreed to hold, unshorn, 100 "hogs" until I arrived. (A one year old sheep is called a hog...Go figure!) We converted the sheep shed to a studio. I had painted a huge canvas with waterproof paint (easier to clean up) to use as a seamless background. 99 young Merinos tried to hide behind the one in front as I went about the task of choosing which would become famous that day. I invited the cutest, cleanest hog to visit the well-lit studio to be half undressed for all the world to see.

Shearing sheds are hot, dusty and, if the truth be known, a bit bloody. Electric shears are similar to those that barbers use but a lot courser. Under all that wool Marino sheep have loose, wrinkled, ever so soft, and sensitive skin. When shearing a mob of several thousand sheep, shearers don't waste much time avoiding wrinkles. Otherwise clean, white, nearly naked sheep are spotted with little red shaving nicks. I couldn't very well put a half shorn sheep with bloody shaving nicks in font of 40 million National Geographic readers.

As a result the first sheep never achieved stardom. Nor did the second, the 19th or the 27th. We tried shearing them front to back as well as side-to-side. The well planned, half day photo shoot was trying the patience of not only the generous grazier but of the 12 motorcycle shepherds who locked arms to create a human fence around each sheep while I attempted to make a picture.

In the end it was sheep number 30 that became a star. Remembering how my dad temporarily patched his shaving nicks with a bit of tissue (I now use an electric shaver) I took a wad of wool, patched the nick on number 30's neck and got set up to make a picture. The motorcycle shepherds locked arms. The camera shutter clattered and 72,000 watt-seconds of flash bathed number 30 in light with a happy popping sound. The picture ran as the lead shot in my National Geographic article about wool. Number 30 went on to hire an agent and is looking for new bookings.   —Cary Wolinsky