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American RBST Foundation Flock USA0001
British Registered Soay sheep

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The flock still in Canada, July 1998
photo by Kathie Miller

Trucker Bob:
The Story of How the British Soay Got to Oregon from Canada
This article first appeared in Animals Exotic and Small in 2001 and is reprinted here with permission

 Phoenix is selling the sheep” the e-mail read and Val and I were thrown into a panic. Buying a herd from another country seemed an overwhelming task, even for us, but we had to have it.   The sheep belonged to the only documented flock of Soay in North America, no the western hemisphere, they were in Quebec, Canada, (across an international boundary) and thirty-five hundred miles away from Oregon.  We had purchased five animals from this flock over the previous two years and so had some experience with importing, but transporting nineteen across the full width of the United States was going to be far more complex and far different from flying two at a time across the continent. Shipping nineteen made air cargo this time around out of the question.

        Val and I have been raising and researching Soay sheep for the past four years and knew what a treasure this flock was; that it would allow us to participate in an international effort to conserve one of the world’s most primitive breeds of domestic sheep.  We also knew that if we did not purchase it and keep it and its records in tact, its conservation potential would be lost forever.  What we didn’t know was how we would accomplish this bit of magic, but that had never stopped us before and so we were determined to try. 

        The first hurdle would be convincing the company that owned the animals to sell them to us and let us export them out of Canada. The second and more daunting task would be to find reliable, safe transportation. The Canadian farmer who had cared for the sheep the entire ten years they had been in North America had fallen in love with Val’s and my passion for the animals and hoped that we would be interested and able to purchase them. Unbeknownst to us in the beginning, a Canadian breeder was also interested in the flock and was going to provide us with some competition. The farmer, a very wise yoda-like character in a wheelchair with a long full beard, bushy head of gray hair and a heavy Hungarian accent began to plead our case to the company’s new management; people who had never seen the sheep and had no interest in them.   Negotiations began in earnest in April of 2000 and continued until the end of September. E-mails passed back and forth with constant reassurances from the farmer, “Katty, Katty, Katty, do not vorry, you vorry too much.” Months passed and we had no answer. Finally the end of September we learned that we had “won the contract” and could choose the sheep we wanted.  George, the farmer, had been convinced from the beginning, but we later learned the company had only been sold when they learned we were willing, much to the chagrin of our competitor, to out bid him by a factor of ten.    

             We didn’t know where to begin with arrangements for transportation and came up with some creative, albeit crazy ideas.  Buy a truck and trailer ourselves we thought,  that wouldn’t work, we barely had enough money to buy the sheep. Hire a friend with a horse trailer to drive from Oregon to Quebec and back in the four days that she could afford to be away; that wouldn’t work, it takes five days to go just one way. Find a circus train coming west. We knew we were getting desperate when that didn’t sound like an unrealistic approach.  We finally realized that others had to have encountered this problem and so started inquiring with sheep breeders we knew.  One contact led to another and finally we called an Icelandic breeder in Canada who said we needed to call “Trucker Bob”!

          Bob lived in New York due south of the sheep and three thousand miles closer to them than we did.  He did not normally come all the way out to the west coast and our stories about an old paraplegic Canadian farmer and two Oregon housewives who weren’t even sure they had bought the sheep or how many there were, when they could come or how much they cost was a bit skeptical when we approached him with our problem. We kept trying to assure him this was not as flaky a deal as it might sound, that it was simply unlike any animal venture that he had ever or ever would encounter again. “Are the sheep valuable?” he asked, “well no, not in the sense of an expensive horse or llama, but it was the only flock west of England and so it was a treasure”. Bob, as we learned later, has hauled every kind of livestock known to man from water buffalo to camels to yaks to ostriches and a few little “special treasured sheep” didn’t really impress him. “Well, you get a little more information and we will talk about it again” he said.

    Dealing with the farmer in Canada had always been an enlightening experience and one that has taught me patience.  “George”, I would plead, “do you think Phoenix will sell us the animals?” His reply, “enjoy the spring, let the grass grow and take care of your health - everything will be perfect.”  Somehow I believed that George was telling me the truth, but didn’t think that “Trucker Bob” would be so reassured. This man earned his living by carefully organizing his calendar between various animal hauls around the country and it was going to take a leap of faith to convince him to give up “some” two weeks of his calendar “ sometime” to travel the west coast when he had more work than he knew what to do with at home. 

            We stayed in touch with Bob throughout the summer, but without much more than “everything will be perfect” we didn’t have much to tell him, certainly not a concrete date or even how many animals we were talking about.  A date in July that would have been especially convenient for him came and went as did another in late August.  But Bob stuck with us, kept the door open and assured us we “could work out something.” I was becoming convinced that the two people who had told us, “With Bob taking care of your animals, you will have no worries” were correct and that we really did have a chance of pulling this off.

       By the beginning of September, spring had come and gone, the grass had gown and withered, my health was fine-- but we still only had “do not vorry, it will be perfect.” Then on the thirtieth of September the e-mail we had been waiting for arrived! The nineteen sheep that Val and I wanted could be ours and they could leave Canada by the end of October.   I immediately called Bob and gave him the news.  Since our last communication he had made a commitment to transport a 450 animal petting zoo (including llamas, ponies, pigs, cows, geese, guinea pigs and chickens to name but a few) from New York City to its home base in the northern part of the state and  he had to be back home by the twenty-ninth of the October. This meant that he must head west by no later than the seventeenth.  The race was on!  USDA import permits could take as many as fourteen working days to obtain, they had to be in Canada with the sheep when they left and this was Sunday!  Because the permit is only good for two weeks and export health certificates for nine days, applications could not be made until an actual export date had been determined and this would be cutting it very close.

    As the summer had progressed Val had sold some more of the sheep we had here and we realized that we could use “Trucker Bob” to take our animals back to the east coast on his return.  Since the price of the transportation was a set figure any additional passengers would ultimately reduce our own cost.  Val put out the word to other breeders that a truck would be going east at the end of October and this would be a rare opportunity to ship sheep at a reasonable expense. In the meantime, Bob also looked for passengers that would make the trip more economical for all of us.  By the time moving day arrived, two young Hereford bulls going to Montana had been added to the manifest as well as two Jacob rams coming back to New Jersey. 

     I faxed our import request to the USDA with instructions to please rush and send the paperwork to Canada and wrote to George, “don’t forget about the time limit on the health certificate and remember to call the Agriculture Department in Oregon.” On Monday I contacted the customs office at the crossing in Champlain New York and was advised we would need to get a broker. “Where do we get a broker?” I said, “Well I can read you a list” the gentleman replied. “Can you give me a hint?”   I asked, “well mam, I am not able to do that but....”  With a little coercion my next call was to a broker who advised me what paperwork we would need to get the animals across the border.  While it would be a little more involved than importing two at a time, I was assured that as long as we had our paper work in order there should be no problem.

       Bob steam cleaned his trailer and headed to Canada and on the morning of October seventeenth George called me to say the sheep had just left the farm. An hour later I received a call from the broker that the sheep were at the border and one critical piece of paper was missing!  My heart stopped, but she assured me if I would e-mail her the information immediately all would be taken care of. I followed her instructions and asked that she e-mail when they had cleared and were on their way.  An hour passed, a second and finally a third. I sat by the phone afraid I would miss my call and when I could stand it no longer I dialed their number.  “Oh yes”, the young lady said, “they cleared some time ago and Kristi is away from her desk, she must have forgotten to call you.”   They were over the border and heading west. “They are in the States, they are in the States” I yelled at Val on the phone, my eyes transfixed to the ceiling, as I realized we were about to accomplish the impossible.       

      That evening Bob called from Syracuse in an awful rainstorm, they had picked up the bulls and were headed to Billings Montana and he would call me when they got closer.  By now Val had also added a stop in Michigan and Kentucky and a contact to South Carolina to his return and I could see this whole venture was beginning to get very complicated; we had in fact created that circus train we had only imagined.   By the time Bob arrived with the Soay at my farm in Oregon, two goats, a pony, a camel, two Jacob rams, a Yak and a Reindeer had been added to the list as well more as stops in Oregon, Washington and a trip back to Billings.  In all of this commotion Bob, we learned, had lost a temporary filling somewhere about Idaho and was in need of a dentist.  I told him no problem, get to Merlin and we could fix it. I had an old dental chair in my office and my husband was dentist.

     Early the following Sunday morning Bob called to say he was within 30 miles of my farm and would be there in an hour, not seven as we had expected. I called Val fifty miles away and told her she needed to get here as soon as she could. Frantically she and her husband loaded their east bound sheep and raced north to my house.

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                                With the sheep unloaded Bob gets his crown recemented

     Between unloading the Canadians and reloading the Oregon sheep we brushed off the straw on Bob’s shirt, took off his hat and recemented his crown.   With a cotton roll tightly clenched in his teeth he made phone calls and arrangements for a 10:00 p.m. Sunday night brand inspection for the pony at his next stop, then got directions for loading two goats at a rest stop along freeway just south of Portland. The circuitous route and riders were still being planned as the trip was evolving and we realized that we were but one stop for Bob’s traveling vivarium. Finally at 6:00 p.m. he pulled out and began his trip home, first north to Washington then east on to Billings before heading south to Kentucky and straight on till morning. Somewhere along the route between dropping off our sheep at various stops, he picked up a camel and somewhere a yak, there was rumor of a reindeer as well. When we last heard from him he was on to New Jersey and it was then that we recognized the project that had consumed our lives for the past six months had just been mundane and everyday to Bob.  Val and I had realized our dream of rescuing an endangered closed flock and we had Bob, a patient and professional man, just doing his job, to thank for it. With “Trucker Bob” at the helm the ark with its entire menagerie had been comfortable and safe, an impossible task made simple by a man who had cared.    
                                                                                                   Kathie Miller, March 2001

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                                      Then end of the road,  Merlin, Oregon  October 2000                                                                                                             


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