Birth of conjoined twin lambs stuns Pasco farmer

PASCO -- Martin Cervantes, 47, has lived around farm animals most of his life.

But he wasn't prepared for what he saw when one of his family's ewes gave birth Monday afternoon at his Pasco home.

The ewe gave birth to conjoined twin lambs. Neither lamb survived long.

"He was surprised," said his daughter, Nayeli Cervantes, who translated for her father. "He's seen it on TV. He's never seen it in real life."

Nayeli and her sisters, Rocio and Yajaira, said their mother, Irma, went out around 4 p.m. to feed the sheep and cows the family raises at their Columbia River Road home.

Irma noticed a ewe lying down and starting to give birth and saw that it seemed to be having a difficult time.

When Martin, who also is a farm worker, came home, Irma asked him to help the ewe.

Martin said that he began helping the animal and saw two feet, and then another two feet.

He started searching for the head. Instead, he felt a tail and then a second tail.

"He pulled it a little more," Nayeli said. "He thought there were two (lambs), but he didn't think they were connected."

As the first lamb emerged, it was stillborn. Martin then pulled out the second one, and realized it was attached chest-to-chest to the first lamb.

"He cleaned that one, but it only lasted about a half hour," Nayeli said.

Martin called his veterinarian, who said it would be very expensive to separate the lambs. The vet also couldn't guarantee once separated, the one lamb would survive.

Although the birth was something new for Cervantes, Charlie Powell, spokesman for the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine in Pullman, said "it's not uncommon" for animals to bear conjoined twins.

He said the university has several mounted sets that veterinary and pathology students study so they can learn more about such occurrences.

"It's not really rare, like 1 in 10 million (chances of animals bearing conjoined twins)," he said.

But typically the twins do not survive as they have shared organs and other traits that hamper their survival.

Given that, Powell said he had few local statistics of how often such births happen.

According to information on the website of a Indiana-based veterinarian clinic, conjoined twins occur as often as once in every 40,000 births but only once in every 200,000 live births. Some sources have suggested sheep have the highest incidence of conjoined twins.

Conjoined twins come from a single egg that for an unknown reason failed to divide fully into identical twins.

Powell said that some birth defects can be caused by factors such as exposure to chemicals or radiation. But since little study has been done on conjoined twin animals, the exact cause is not known.

Martin Cervantes, however, has a theory on what happened to the lambs he helped deliver. He believes it's because the ewe was pregnant during an eclipse.

Growing up in Mexico, he saw animals without tails and without feet. He said people believed that was because the animals' mothers were pregnant during an eclipse.

As prevention against such birth defects, he said, it was a Mexican custom to tie a red ribbon around the tail of a cow whose pregnancy occurred during an eclipse.

Nayeli said her family didn't follow that custom here, though, "because they haven't had any problems during an eclipse."

She has her own opinion on the family's experience: "It's kind of cool, but it's really weird."

* Kathy Korengel: 509-582-1541; kkorengel@tricityherald.com