Book Review: LETTERS TO MY SHEEP by Teya Brooks Pribac

In Letters To My Sheep, a lovely, thoughtful book comprising sixty-three short chapters, Teya Brooks Pribac, a scholar and multidisciplinary artist who lives in the Blue Mountains of Australia, shares musings, meditations, stories, and insights into the lives of her extraordinary companions.  

“You’ll know when you’ve reached happiness,” Brooks Pribac tells us, “because there will be no need to feel differently, no longing to change the state you’re in.” 

This is where Letters To My Sheep begins: “That’s where we are now—us and the sheep … I’m writing this book because I want people to know that they were here, that we were here, together, and that, at least for a while, it was perfect.”

Henry, Jonathan, Orpheus-Pumpkin, and Jason are among the luckiest sheep ever, living with Brooks Pribac and her partner, D., where they are safe, secure, at peace—and free to roam the premises (including, but not limited to, D.’s writing room and the kitchen). 

We learn about their lives before: Henry and Jonathan arrived first, having been rehomed; then Pumpkin, as a baby, rescued from a university farm after his mother died; and finally Jason, who’d been abandoned in a brickyard. 

Brooks Pribac has both lived with rescued animals and researched animal studies, and she concludes in no uncertain terms that “other animals are completely comparable to humans in everything that matters: they have the capacity to experience pain and joy, they love, they grieve, they play, they observe social norms, they help others, they cheat, they think, they believe, they evaluate things, they need the freedom to make decisions about their lives and those of their children, they solve problems, they create them, they can come up with ingenious solutions, they can also sink into despair.” 

The four sheep in this book are fully realized individuals, and in these pages readers can see the many ways in which they reveal their personalities. Brooks Pribac writes affectionately of their habits and rituals: “You always want your dinner and always want your breakfast, and it’s got to be of the right kind: grass pellets for breakfast and Lucerne hay for dinner.” She strives to provide the best possible home for them by trying to view the world through their eyes. Her compassion—is the music too loud? do they get enough enrichment? how do they feel about their companions?—will inspire readers to consider their own companion animals and how to give them the best possible life.

Readers will learn many fascinating things about sheep: They can see behind them without turning their heads; they can detect moods (and many other things) by smell; and they recognize other sheep as well as human faces. The tips of their wool are sensitive (“I can hover over your back with my hand and as soon as I touch the tips ever-so gently, you twitch.”), and they get high (“Bighorn sheep, for example, love to get stoned on lichen! They can get so addicted to it that they will break their teeth trying to scrape it off the rocks.”) Sheep also love opium poppies. 

There are sad things to learn too, like the fact that “ultra-fine wool” comes from sheep who have been starved in barren pens, much like confined veal calves or battery-caged hens. “Underfed sheep produce finer wool, and the finer the wool the more it is worth.”

Brooks Pribac is constantly thinking of the lives of those sheep (and other nonhumans) who aren’t as lucky as her rescues. “All their lives these sheep are deprived of things that you cherish most—abundance of food, being together, doing things together, going for walks, grazing, playing, basking in the sun, moon and starlight.”

But these lucky sheep live a life of such freedom that they are able to be completely themselves—and it’s delightful to see their personalities come through in these stories. Like all siblings, these four play and argue. They tell on one another (Jason was all too eager to report that it was Pumpkin, not him, who peed on the kitchen floor—and it was also cheeky Jason who broke into the feed room and then bleated that the others had done it). They hold grudges (“Henry is not speaking to me. It couldn’t be more obvious.”), especially after being shorn, perhaps not fully understanding the absolute necessity of it. And they are protective—when a small sheep showed up, Pumpkin protected her from Jason’s curiosity. They also knock on doors when they want something from the humans on the other side—and, in this home, their wishes are granted: “I wonder if you know how much our life actually revolves around you, and that you pretty much run this place.”

As many rescuers do, Brooks Pribac negotiates complex relationships with farmers and shearers, who are helpful in animal matters but who are nonetheless still breeding and killing. She also attempts to explain the human species to the sheep—pondering why we disappear from our real world into a virtual one, why we can’t seem to find happiness, and why we persist in using and abusing animals (including horrific farming practices that are still, appallingly, legal). 

Her stories about Henry, Jonathan, Pumpkin, and Jason reveal that sheep are as social, emotional, and intelligent as humans—in fact, she makes a good case for them being much more so, on all counts. She writes, “a pig is a dog is a sheep is a human in everything that matters for wellbeing and happiness”—and recalls her own journey to animal advocacy: “I turned vegan overnight when someone pointed out to me that I was personally responsible for the horror other animals endure. Through my food and other choices I was pouring money into an industry that tortures and kills sentient beings. The way out was easy, they said: stop buying those products. So I did, the easiest thing I’ve ever done, and I felt happy, light and free.”

Letters To My Sheep is illustrated with the author’s beautiful photos of all four sheep (and their beloved dog sibling Charlie), in portraits and landscapes that give us glimpses into their beauty as well as their personalities.

This slender, beautiful book reveals what happens when we treat nonhuman animals with the same consideration as we would other humans; it’s an elegant, compassionate story of a family. And all proceeds from Letters To My Sheep support animal causes.

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