WELLINGTON - New Zealand's most famous sheep, a merino named Shrek that became a celebrity when he was found in 2004 after six years on the loose, has died at a South Island farm, his owner said Tuesday.
Shrek went missing from his herd in 1998 and was assumed dead until he was found in a mountain cave six years later, sporting a massive fleece that made him appear three times his normal size.
The public in New Zealand, where sheep outnumber the 4.3 million human population almost 10 to 1, took the rambling ruminant to their hearts.
Television stations carried live broadcasts when a shearer clipped his oversize fleece, which weighed in at almost 60 pounds (27 kilograms), around six times the wool normally gathered from the average merino.
The sheep was flown to meet then prime minister Helen Clark at the national parliament in Wellington, became the subject of several children's books and made regular charity appearances.
But owner John Perriam said Shrek had to be put down over the weekend as, at 16 years old, his health was failing.
"He was just an ordinary sheep, went AWOL and hid, and when he was found he became the darling of the nation," Perriam told TVNZ.
"He had an unbelievable personality. He loved children and he was really good with the elderly in retirement homes."
Josie Spillane from the charity Cure Kids said it was impossible to estimate how much money the sheep had raised for worthy causes.
"At the end of the day, it is the death of an iconic Kiwi. He just happens to be a sheep," she told the Southland Times.
Reports said a memorial service would be held for Shrek this week at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Tekapo.
Image: Stephen Jaquiery / via Otago Daily Times