Nov 29, 2022 I Paul Seaburn

The Mysterious Circling Sheep and Other Strange Circling Animals and People

“Sheeple” is a popular derogatory term on the Internet for a group of people following a leader or an ideology without knowing anything about them or why they are following them. While it seems to be a new term, “sheeple” actually dates back to 1945 when the Merriam-Webster dictionary first described them as “people who are docile, compliant, or easily influenced.” In a similar way, a video of a group of actual sheep walking continuously in a circle for no apparent reason seemed to have the Internet baffled recently … even though sheep and other animals have been acting like sheeple for millennia. However, that incident was unusual because the sheep had reportedly been walking in a circle nonstop for 12 days. Let’s take a look at what may have possessed those sheep, other instances of animals walking in circles and some of people going in circles as well.

You need more than one to be sheeple.

“The great sheep mystery! Hundreds of sheep walk in a circle for over 10 days in N China's Inner Mongolia. The sheep are healthy and the reason for the weird behavior is still a mystery.” (tweet by People’s Daily of China @PDChina)

The great sheep circle mystery was first reported in a tweet by the People’s Daily of China, (watch a non-Twitter video here) and the sight was both mesmerizing and horrific when one realizes the animals had been circling for over ten days without stopping to eat, sleep or do anything else but follow a woolly behind. As the story began circulating on the Internet, more information emerged: the sheep were in China, they were owned by a Mrs. Miao, her farm had 34 pens but only the sheep in this one were circling for days, and – here’s the unlucky  shocker – the number of the pen was ‘13’.

All my life's a circle;

But I can't tell you why;

Season's spinning round again;

The years keep rollin' by.

("Circle" by Harry Chapin)

These sheep – estimated to be over 100 in nu,ber – were not watching years roll by but even circling for more than a few hours is unusual for animals. While generally thought of to be a defensive maneuver flocks of animals use to protect as many as they can from predators, these sheep were in a pen and on a farm – not exactly a dangerous place. Some who saw the video suspected a danger of a different kind – an affliction known as Listeriosis  or the “circling disease” caused by the Listeria monocytogenes  bacteria. The bacteria lives in spoiled food and can make animals so disoriented that they may run into corners, lean against stationary objects, or circle toward the side of their brain swollen by the disease. However, the sheep in the video seem to be moving well and the disease generally kills the infected animal in 24 to 48 hours, while these sheep were allegedly still going after 12 days.  

And the seasons they go round and round

And the painted ponies go up and down

We're captive on the carousel of time

We can't return we can only look

Behind from where we came

And go round and round and round

In the circle game

("The Circle Game" by Joni Mitchell)

While this wasn’t a game, Matt Bell, a professor and director at the Department of Agriculture at Hartpury University in England, told Newsweek that he speculated the sheep were penned for long periods and got frustrated so some began circling, which lead to stereotypic behavior and the other sheep joined in – a classic sheeple circle. Except … that kind of behavior also ends after hours and doesn’t drag on for weeks. At this point, the explanations take a turn for the odd – there were suggestions these were zombie sheep or a sign of the apocalypse. The other suggestion is that this video and report is a hoax. As of this writing, no concrete solution has been made public.

Will it go 'round in circles?

Will it fly high like a bird up in the sky?

("Will It Go Round in Circles" by Billy Preston)

While the some parts of the media were trying to solve the mysterious circling sheep story, others were pointing out that this circling behavior is seen in other animals. Birds are seen flying in circles in order to take advantage of circular thermals or columns of warm air – the birds stay in the circular thermal and it reduces the amount of energy needed to go higher.

Over and over

The pheromones, the overwhelming harmony

Consuming the colony

The Circle rules your life

("Spiral of Ants" by Lemon Demon)

Now, here is a phenomena (and a song) that seems closer to what those sheep were going through. The “ant mill” occurs when a group of army ants get separated from their main foraging party, lose the pheromone track and begin to follow one another, forming a continuously rotating circle, commonly known as a "death spiral" because the ants can eventually die of exhaustion. It has been reproduced in laboratories and in ant colony simulations. This behavior has also been seen in processionary caterpillars and some fish.

Funny how the circle turns around

You think you're lost and then you're found again

And though you always look for what you know

Each time around there's something new again

("Full Circle Song" by Gene Clark)

The song is nice, but it's a deadly dance.

Now we come to the species that talks constantly about going around in circles … humans. It seems that very few humans are gifted with internal compasses or GPS systems like many animals. While some think it is a natural for people lost in the woods to favor a dominant leg and walk in circles, that doesn’t explain why so many people drive in circles. On the mental side, humans tend to go towards the familiar or the easy solution to a problem or challenge, which – when tried multiple times without success – takes one back to the same problem. Psychologists recommend asking for help – a second set of eyes or another brain can often find a different path and end the circling. And yes, humans probably learned from animals the benefit to ‘circling the wagons’ back in the 1800s when crossing the prairie, and carried the expression to present times to describe many defensive maneuvers. Finally, some people go in circles for hours just for fun – a man in China holds the Guinness World Record for spinning in a circle … 14 hours without getting dizzy. (Watch him here but be forewarned – YOU may get dizzy.)

Speaking of China, this brings us back to the sheep who reportedly walked in circles for 12 days. Were they having fun? Probably not. Sick? Probably. Did they really walk for 14 days nonstop? We have no proof. Was it a hoax? The probability is good. Will the story make a good song? Not likely … singing about watching sheep will most certainly put people to sleep.

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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