There wasn't anything strange about the sound of gunshots outside Beverly Pearsall's sheep farm in Thurmont; plenty of her neighbors shoot at targets, practicing for hunting season. Nor was it unusual to hear a vehicle driving too fast that afternoon along the two-lane road outside the property next to Owens Creek.
But there was nothing normal about the sight of the 3-year-old ewe lying motionless in the pasture, shot through the neck.
Pearsall's white-faced Texel sheep was dead. Minutes later, she would discover that another ewe had been badly wounded in the nose. Beyond hope, the ewe would later be destroyed on a veterinarian's advice.
As Frederick County animal control authorities search for suspects in the July 8 shootings, Pearsall mourned the loss to her 10-year-old flock at her farm yesterday. These are animals she watched being born, at early hours of the morning, she said; creatures she has brought up with her husband, protecting them from sickness.
The shootings mark the third such episode in Frederick County recently. Three Holstein cows were killed in two incidents last year, and in March someone kidnapped an alpaca in Middletown. Police in Montgomery County are also looking for suspects in the abduction and killing of a pet sheep in Brookeville.
Harold Domer, Frederick County's animal control director and a former police officer, said the shooting was being investigated "to the fullest." If the culprit is caught, he or she faces up to three years in prison under Maryland's animal cruelty laws.
"It's been verified that people that commit acts like this against an animal could commit them against humans," Domer said in a telephone interview. "Who could harm a defenseless, harmless animal?"
Pearsall, a native Oklahoman who moved to Frederick County in 1977, walked yesterday to the three-acre pasture where her flock of 32 ewes had been grazing when the shooting occurred. A metal pole capped with a red mesh wrap marks where one of the ewes, known as 14C, died. It is a puddle of mud and thick, dark sheep's blood, in which one can make out a pair of hoof prints. A smaller stick in the ground a few feet away, next to a thinner patch of blood, marks where a yearling, 67P4, stood in her last moments.
"I put a lot of hard work -- blood, sweat and tears -- into this," Pearsall said as she stood by the markers. "It makes you sad, but you have to go on because this is a business."
Not that her business is unscathed. Breeding animals cost thousands of dollars, and the price of the lost genetic stock -- the two ewes could have continued producing lambs for a combined 15 years -- cannot be calculated.
Since the shooting, Pearsall has moved her flock to a pasture farther from the road. As she opened the gate of the pen, the 30 remaining sheep charged out to their pasture. In her black jeans and a short-sleeved shirt, the 64-year-old Pearsall looked the part of a tough farmer. But she was stewing.
"If I think about it long enough, I can probably start crying," she said. "But it won't do you any good."
As she stood next to a wire fence, watching her sheep graze, she was silent for a moment. "The first night I did not sleep a wink, because when I closed my eyes I would see those ewes," she said. "I think about it all the time. It's on my mind. It'll take time to go away."
Staff writer David Snyder contributed to this report.