“Sheep are very silent, meek, aloof, and distant,” says Enriquito ‘Itong’ Vinas. Itong is an Animal Keeper III who has been working at the Manila Zoo since 1996. He hails from San Miguel, Bulacan. The cheerful 38year-old zookeeper now lives at San Andres Bukid with his wife and a 9-year-old daughter. “Actually, Vic Conejos is in charge of the big cage housing the sheep, ostrich, and crossbred zebronkeys, the offspring of a zebra and a donkey. It’s his day off today,” he explains.

There is peaceful coexistence in the spacious 500-square meter cage among the three kinds of animals. “They don’t fight. No untoward incidents,” Itong says.

The three Shetland sheep nervously roam around flocking together. The Shetland is the smallest of the British breeds found mostly on the Shetland Islands. It is believed to be of Scandinavian origin. The Shetland’s wool is fine, soft, and silky to the touch with bulky down characteristics. The fleece is mottled, patchy in appearance with the dark patches becoming lighter as the sheep matures.

“We shear and trim their thick coats from time to time,” says Itong. The elusive and shifty sheep silently move away as we approach them to have a closer look.

It is said that sheep have a field of vision of around 300 degrees, allowing them to see behind themselves without having to turn their heads. Ironically, sheep have excellent hearing but poor vision.

Sheep are herbivores that eat vegetation such as grain. “We feed the sheep twice a day, at 9:30 in the morning and 3 in the afternoon. We give them mostly linen grass, found in the swampy areas of Laguna and Bulacan. Also chopped camote, pechay, and bananas cut into three slices for easy chewing,” Itong says.

An interesting fear sheep have is of water; they are hydrophobic. “I have never seen them wade into the knee-deep pool located in the center of the cage, even if the weather is too hot,” Itong laughs.

“They are so silent. I have never heard them bleat. Their silence is deafening, when they walk, and eat,” he adds. Interestingly, because of a split in its upper lip, a sheep is able to pick the preferred leaves off a plant.

Contrary to popular misconception, sheep are extremely intelligent animals capable of problem solving. They are considered to have IQ levels similar to those of cattle and are nearly as clever as pigs. They also display and recognize emotion by facial expressions, some of which can be observed in the position of their ears.

It is a fact that when a sheep is on its back, it needs help to get back on its feet, because it cannot get up from that position. “One time, we tried to check the sheep for a skin ailment, and we had to put them on their backs. They could not stand up on their own. We had to help them to get on their feet,” Itong relates.

He adds that the sheep get a monthly checkup in which their stools are examined. However, sheep are known to self-medicate whenever possible. When they have illnesses, they will eat specific plants that can cure them.

The sheep is one of the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac. They are seen to represent gentleness, sincerity, compassion and righteousness. 2015 is their year, but the three sheep of Manila Zoo remain elusive, distant, and detached. Nonetheless, they give zoo visitors, especially the kids, a visual delight. Sheep ahoy!

This story appeared in Animal Scene January 2015 issue.