Navajo Nation Zoo welcomes tsétah dibé

By Glenda Rae Davis
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, April 12, 2012

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(Times photo - Paul Natonabah)

TOP: One of the two new big horn sheep prances around in his new enclosure at the Navajo Nation Zoo.

BOTTOM: March 31 was Bighorn Sheep Day at the Navajo Nation Zoo, when organizers celebrated the zoo's newest tenants.

A group of Fort Wingate Elementary kindergarteners gathered March 31 in front of the new Desert Bighorn Sheep enclosure at the Navajo Nation Zoo, looking to see the guests of honor at Bighorn Sheep Day.

Known in Navajo as tsétah dibé, the native sheep were in the spotlight for more than one reason.

Unlike the zoo's other inhabitants, they are here upon request, rather than because they were rescued, said staff zoologist David Mikesic.

"Most of the animals have come to us as injured animals or orphaned animals," said Mikesic.

While desert bighorns are on the endangered list elsewhere in the region, they are thriving to the point of overpopulation in the canyons and mesas of southeastern Utah.

The Navajo Nation is home to three herds of bighorn sheep totaling to 300 head, spread along the San Juan River, said Gloria Tom, director of the tribe's Fish and Wildlife Department.

"You can see them from Bluff to Mexican Hat and also in Lake Powell," Tom said. "We began with less than 30 in the 1970s. The bighorn sheep population today is one of the biggest success stories for the Navajo Nation."

The agency monitors the native sheep population and determined that it had become too large for the area, Mikesic explained.

"We decided to give some to the state's population and also were able to bring two down to the zoo," he said.

The two yearling ewes have been at the zoo since December and needed a month or so to acclimate before taking up residence in their enclosure in February.

"It's really nice to see them relaxed," Tom said as she watched the animals mosey around their domain. "They were pretty freaked out when they got here."

The enclosure offers the rocky hillside terrain tsétah dibé prefer, and is studded with native trees where they can take shade in hot weather.

It's a carefully constructed habitat, however, and was a collaborative effort between the agency, Murphy Builders and Merrill Fence Co. of Gallup.

In recognition of this contribution, the zoo presented certificates of appreciation to each company and honorary-adoption plaques that will be displayed in front of the enclosure.

The three-hour event started with an hour-long blessing ceremony held in the female hogan at the zoo, followed by refreshments, entertainment from Native flutist Vince Redhouse, and speakers.

Guest speaker Jimmy Tom, a former chief ranger for the Navajo Nation, performed the blessing and later explained the significance of the sheep in Navajo tradition.

Tsétah dibé are sacred to the Diné because their horns are used in two Blessing Way ceremonies, he said, and for the legendary sense of balance and awareness that enables them to survive in a dangerous environment.

"The horns of the sheep are used in traditional smoking tobacco to bless patients with keen senses and to restore balance in their lives," Tom said.

At this point, there are no plans to bring in more sheep or to find a husband for these two, zoo officials said.

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