Thursday, December 15, 2011

cow thinking

If you’ve ever owned or worked around cattle, you’ve probably had occasion to wonder what they’re thinking.

What is this heifer thinking as I capture her image?
For instance, we’re backgrounding two pens of calves on the ranch this year. Each morning – and most evenings – when I feed them their grain ration, there are three calves outside the west pen. It’s always the same three calves.

Is this calf thinking of escape? Wondering if feed is going to appear like it did yesterday morning? There’s plenty of room for her to squeeze out of the pen, but is escaping even a consideration for her?
“Hey, look! The corn’s back!” Human thinking. Not bovine thinking. Loose cables on the feed rack, too.
I know how they get out. There are a couple of loose cables along the feed rack, and they simply inch their way through the loose spots as they try to find one more morsel of corn or bite of hay. Little by little they push their way through. First the head, then a foreleg, then another foreleg, and hey-presto, they’re through the feed rack, on the outside looking in. So to speak.

They’re not trying to escape. They never stray from their pen-mates, nor from the feed rack, where they continue to placidly feed, nose to nose with their fellows. They’re comfortable in the feeding pen. They’re with their peers in a mini-herd, there’s plenty of food and fresh water close at hand, they have shelter from the cold December wind and plenty of warming sunshine, and there are no predators to be found.

Returning the three amigos (amigos y amiga, two steers and a heifer) to the pen is a breeze. I simply open the gate and get out of the way and they file back in, usually kicking up their heels and seemingly pleased to be back where they belong.

I can’t help but wonder why, if they want to return to the pen and their pen-mates, they don’t crawl back in the way they crawled out.

Calves tucking into their morning ration.
But that’s human thinking, and when I apply it to the three amigos, I’m anthropomorphizing their behavior, thinking of them as creatures who possess the same thinking and reasoning set that I have. I’m humanizing them, to use a less scientific word.

It’s something we all do, to a greater or lesser extent. For an over-the-top example of anthropomorphizing non-human creatures, check out the web-sites of PETA or the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) and see what they have to say about farm animals. Ingrid Newkirk, the founder of PETA, famously said “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.”

In the sense that rats, pigs, dogs and boys are living organisms, she’s right. And I agree completely with both PETA and HSUS that animals should always be treated humanely. Of course, plants are living organisms, as are bacteria, biting flies, disease-laden mosquitoes, rattlesnakes, dust mites, cold and flu viruses, city pigeons, zebra mussels, flying carp, cane toads, etc. By Newkirk’s reasoning, surely these organisms deserve human rights as well. The phrase “hoist on her own petard” comes to mind.

We differ completely, however, on the definition of humanely.

By humanely, PETA means human; that all animals are endowed with the same fundamental rights as people. HSUS is no different, though they come across as less radical. Both PETA and HSUS profess to believe that humane treatment means giving all animals basic human rights and allowing them to live completely wild, natural lives. But why not plants, pathogens, and bugs? Why not dangerous or “icky” animals? One can argue that rather than providing for animal rights, PETA and HSUS are far more interested in exercising control over people.

Agricultural producers, and most reasonable people in general, do not believe that animals are human and are somehow deserving of basic human rights. They do believe that livestock and wildlife should be husbanded, though. That is, mankind should respect animals and ensure that they are cared for or managed in the ways that suit their different natures.

When it comes to food animals, this means seeing to the health needs of livestock through preventative health programs and veterinarymedical intervention when animals become ill. It also means keeping livestock well fed and watered, sheltered as necessary, and humanely slaughtered when the time comes.

When it comes to wildlife, this means population control through hunting, to stave off overpopulation and starvation, as well as habitat management.

The difference in the two approaches lies in the basic assumptions we make about the nature of animals. PETA and HSUS, as well as millions of non-activist people, anthropomorphize animals. A few do this in the extreme, but most humanize animals to a lesser extent.

Pet owners are a good example. Most think of their pets as members of the family, and most tend to treat their pets as nearly human – talking to them, ensuring that they have adequate (sometimes elaborate) nutrition and shelter, and seeing to their health needs. Some pet owners spend thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars on very high level veterinary care such as advanced diagnostic tests and surgeries. But nearly all pet owners, even though they genuinely love their animals and tend to think of them in human terms, understand that they are animals and not people. They feel a big responsibility to care for their pets, and struggle mightily with emotion-laden end of life issues. But when their pets are suffering, be it from the infirmities of age or from disease or accident, and recovery is unlikely, most choose to have their pets put down. It’s the humane thing to do.

They, like you and I, would never have Granny euthanized because of old age, nor a sick or injured family member, no matter how dire the circumstance or how poor the prognosis.

We recognize the fundamental difference between humans and animals.

But many others struggle when it comes to understanding the basic differences between people and pets – and by extension – other animals. As the world-famous “Dog Whisperer” Cesar Millan famously said, “The most common mistake in America is that we humanize dogs. There's nothing wrong with loving a dog like a human, but it's important for them to become dogs first and become fulfilled as a dog. I rehabilitate dogs, and I train people. That's what I do.”

Here is where a problem lies for livestock producers. Because there are so few of us, we find it difficult to get our animal husbandry message out to the population at large. We are at most two percent of more than 300 million people. The animal rights activists are organized and well funded, and they flood the media and airwaves with anti-livestock production propaganda. The 98 percent of Americans who’ve rarely, if ever, set foot on a farm or ranch feel a tug on their heartstrings in response.

But most, as I’ve noted, understand the fundamental difference between animals and humans. Most understand the utility of food production, which they depend upon for survival, and most enjoy and embrace the availability of safe, abundant, and nutritious meat.

What they don’t understand is the level of  respect shown to livestock by producers, feeders, and processors. For the producer, this respect is quite similar to the feelings pet owners have for their dogs, cats, and other pets. The vast majority of producers care deeply about the well being of their livestock and take seriously their responsibility to husband their herds. Though there are still some in the food animal industry who do not care about or who mistreat livestock, and a few examples get wide play in the media, these people are a tiny minority and do not represent the industry as a whole. Just as the murders and child molesters covered extensively by the media do not represent humanity as a whole.

The livestock industry is slowly getting better at getting their positive message out, but it will be an ongoing struggle. We are so few, and the people we feed – who are mostly two or more generations removed from the farm and ranch – are so many.

Producers should try to keep this in mind as they interact with their non-ag friends, neighbors, and visitors. And they should consider showing off their operation when the opportunity presents itself. As is often said, seeing is believing, and visitors will go away with a new appreciation for the livestock producer and the way he cares for his animals.

And yes, I’ll be tightening the cables at the feed rack. Probably tomorrow.

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