When an Australian hiker found Chris the sheep, they were horrified to see that he could barely stand. His wool had grown so out of hand, in fact, that it was weighing him down. And the outsized fleece was such a problem for the animal that even after he was rescued, a shelter begged experts for help.
In 2015 a hiker was out walking on Mulligans Flat, a protected nature reserve on the edge of Canberra in Australia. This area is known in particular for its vast array of wildflowers, with approximately 150 species to be found there. On this day, however, something much more disconcerting had caught the walker’s eye.
And the object of the hiker’s attention was unusual to look at. Nearly the size of a small car, it appeared to resemble a fallen cloud or a heap of cotton balls. However, as the individual investigated the mass, they realized that it was grazing on the grass.
It was then that the walker realized they were looking at a sheep – albeit not like they’d ever seen before. The animal had seemingly been so neglected that its fleece had grown to epic proportions – meaning the sheep could barely walk under the weight.
And, understandably, the hiker was worried about the sheep’s welfare. The animal, the passer-by thought, may not survive the Australian summer under all its wool. As a result, then, the individual decided to reach out to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Australia (RSPCA).
Fortunately, the animal welfare charity took the sheep – later named Chris – into its care. Meanwhile, it was speculated that Chris may have been roaming the bush alone for as long as six years. And without anyone to shear him, his wool had thus grown out of control.
The sheer size of Chris’ mane wasn’t the only concern, however. Vets were worried that the massive fleece could be hiding infections or parasites. Furthermore, if the sheep had fallen over in the wild, he would have had no way of getting back to his feet – and likely would have therefore died.
So, in order to check Chris’ overall health, the RSPCA appealed for a shearer online. In 2015 then RSPCA chief executive Tammy Ven Dange told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), “It’d be great to get someone here immediately so we can assess any serious medical conditions he might have as a result of this.”
Ven Dange added, “[Such a large fleece] can actually make it impossible for [Chris] to go to the bathroom. We don’t know how bad the damage could be, [however], because this has been building for a while. There are so many things that could go wrong with this, [but] we won’t know until we can properly shear him.”
Then, following the RSPCA appeal, Ian Elkins offered up his services. Elkins is a big deal in the Australian sheep-shearing world, having won the national championship for the practice on four separate occasions prior to encountering Chris. However, the sheep with the overabundance of wool may have posed his biggest challenge yet.
Taming Chris’ wool would certainly prove tricky, as the weight of the sheep’s epic fleece was dragging his skin down – making cuts a possibility when shearing. To make matters worse, all that time in the wilderness had made Chris extremely fearful of humans. Needless to say, then, Elkins had a major task on his hands.
Speaking at the time, Ven Dange explained to ABC, “[Chris] has obviously not been around people in a very long time. It’s probably going to take a couple of goes before we get it all off him.” To make the process a little bit easier, though, Chris would be sedated for his big haircut.
And, in the end, the sheep-shearing was completed without incident. The process did, however, break a number of world records – including the lengthiest professional sheep-shearing session ever, at 45 minutes. For context, an average sheep shearing should take around two minutes.
But it was Chris’ excess wool, in the end, that was the real star of the show. By the end of the process, the wool tipped the scales at 89 pounds – about eight times more than an average merino sheep would produce. As a consequence, Chris entered the record books for the largest amount of wool sheared from a single sheep.
The previous record-holder had been a sheep called Big Ben. Before that, Shrek the sheep had reigned supreme. Like Chris, Shrek had been found neglected, roaming the New Zealand countryside under an almost 60-pound fleece back in 2004.
Ultimately, then, Chris had beat Shrek’s record by almost 30 pounds. “It’s actually smashed the record,” Elkins proudly told The Guardian in 2015. “It’s very exciting to be part of it. And it’s quite pleasing that the welfare of this sheep was taken care of.”
Following the record-breaking shearing, Chris’ fleece was put permanently on display at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra. The exhibit is intended to represent the history of the wool industry in the country; it also shows the importance of animal welfare.
But although Chris’ wool had found a worthy home, Chris himself initially had an uncertain future. Then, after hundreds of adoption offers had come in from the general public, in September 2015 Chris was finally sent to live at the Little Oak Sanctuary in Braidwood, New South Wales.
However, while Chris ultimately got his happy ending, his story arguably reveals some problems with the ways in which humans treat their fellow animals. Historically, sheep would have shed their wool naturally; today, though, they have been bred by humans to retain their coats in order to make money from the fleeces.
Thankfully, in this case, Chris was able to thrive at Little Oak Sanctuary. “When we first took him to the farm he was really shy, but he’s become really cheeky,” Ven Dange told The Canberra Times in 2016. “He now eats out of a bucket. He is getting a lot more brave around people, and he is finally not struggling to sit down.”