Oregon writer, Rain Trueax, and Oregon painter, Diane Widler Wenzel co-author Rainy Day Thought. Diane generally posts on Wednesdays and Rain on Saturdays. There may be extra days or changes as situations warrant. Comments are always welcome and appreciated as it turns an article into a discussion.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

The nature of a herd Part II

When Robin Andrea, from Dharma Bums, commented on my blog about what we might learn from the herd, I spent some time thinking on it. There are lessons. Some of them are related to how far we are from survival mode. When a group of humans have to primarily concern themselves with gathering food, their rules for existence change through necessity. Tribes are likely more like herds than more 'advanced' cultures which are generally farther from worrying about enough to eat.

Animals can use some reasoning but instinct is much of what helps them survive. In the herd, they are taught through example and strong discipline. When a calf is small, it is protected by the others. As it grows, it must learn to behave or else. The gentle guiding gives way to harsh training. The herd teaches behavior by butting and dominating. And it won't be just the parents but any larger animal that does the disciplining.

The issue of immigration for humans is a factor also for a herd. The main object of the herd is to protect its existence. You bring a strange cow into their midst and instantly they push it back out. Acceptance generally does happen but over a span of time, and the new animal earning its way through proper behavior-- and for awhile accepting some bullying. This question of slow acceptance happens also when a newborn from a different herd has been grafted onto a mother who lost hers in birthing.

For those who do not know how grafting works, when a mother has lost a newborn, she complains loudly. My husband brings her and the dead calf to the barns. That cow expects him to resurrect it as he is their benefactor, the one they trust for food and care-- to a certain level anyway. He moves the dead one as though it was alive and takes it from the grieving mother's view; then drives off to a dairy to see what they have in newborns and brings back a newborn dairy animal. He skins the dead calf away from the mother and ties the hide to the newborn. It does not take a lot to do the trick with a mother who wants a baby. He then brings back the resurrected baby and the mother is almost instantly accepting. Even though the dairy animal is larger, she is proud she has a baby and off they go in a day or two to the herd where the newborn is inspected by every other animal to be sure it's really one of theirs.

Whenever you compare animals to humans in terms of what lessons we might learn from them, it should be with care. We are animals to a certain level but can fool ourselves and identify too much with them as though Bambi was how it is. It is not. Basically animals cannot project into the future. No cow knows that if it breeds, a calf will follow. They can't think if I eat half of this today, tomorrow half will be left. They do know where food was last found, when it should be there again, and where a weak fence is.

The movie, Ice Age (one of our favorite movies whenever we are stressing), centered around a few animals who banded together and called themselves a herd. They spoke about the loyalty of the herd to each other, one sacrificing for another; and I have seen that with the sheep in particular where the ewe will stay and try to protect her lamb from coyote attack and be killed herself. Is that thinking or instinct? Mostly with sheep, it is run with no hope to protect their young or the old. With a herd, when there is limited feed, the weak are out of luck.

Our cattle graze across their pasture as a group. They have their own cliques within the herd, but together as a band they sleep and eat; and at night, the youngest are in the middle, with the bigger, stronger animals around the edges. Often you will see one older cow with three or four calves around her-- the babysitter. This staying close represents one of the important lessons from the herd especially for small children. My daughter tells her little ones regularly-- stay with the herd. It is when the baby gets to the fringe that it can be lost or picked off more easily by a predator-- human or animal. Predators will always try to cut the vulnerable from the herd and it's the herd's responsibility to prevent that and out maneuver. (In this picture, the cows have seen a deer browsing along the road who eventually bounded into the forest.)

For awhile, this week we more or less gave up on our young mother for raising her calf and located someone who agreed to buy it for his grandchild to raise; however, we kept the two penned together, bottle feeding the little one to supplement. (She will also suck my jeans with her strong survival instinct.) Then Saturday morning when my husband went out to check on them, the mother and her baby were lying together which is the most encouraging sign yet.

An experienced rancher friend of mine suggested making loud noises to the mother whenever the calf is trying to suck, which puts her attention on you as a threat and uses her instincts to protect; and when my husband posed as a threat, she let it nurse without being roped first.

We are crossing our fingers that this baby will, in a week or so, be part of our herd. It's still not a given how it'll work out. I don't name many of our cows; but for obvious reasons, this one is called Star.


Parapluie said...

Absolutely fascinating! It is interesting that the herd does not immediately accept strange cows into their herd.
I think the lesson to man is to know that our mistrust of strangers and foreigners comes from a tribal instict coming from an animal heard instinct. It is difficult to admit we are animals. It is difficult to think they have the most highly regarded human values. Can we say they have valuses? I think not. Well their instincts are parallel to our highest values.

chumly said...

You should publish a book! I will email my daughter and tell her about this post, I have 3 grandchildren and would love them to read this.

Winston said...

Interesting! The grafting process leaves me with a couple of thoughts and questions.
1. The grafter (your husband) becomes "God" since he performs the miracle of resurrecting the dead. Hmmmm....
2. What happens if you don't do the grafting?
Does the mother just quickly get over her grieving process and go on, or is there some other ongoing problem? I guess what I'm asking is - that's a lot of expense and trouble to go through, so why bother?
3. How much of the dead calf's hide is needed to fool the mother and the rest of the herd? How long is it left in place? Is the smell that does the tricking?
4. A calf sucking your jeans? Literally? Or is that just an expression?

Parapluie said...

I agree with chumly, you should publish a book as well as enter your photographs into the Oregon State University's Art about Agriculture traveling exhibition and permanent art collection. Their goal is the make a bridge of understanding between rual farmers and city dwelling folks.

Rain said...

Winston, I thought of saying god but since he doesn't produce the original calf, I decided benefactor is better but he does have godlike powers of life and death out there sometimes.

the cow would get over grieving in a few days but her udder would be at risk of mastitis and also it would mean her production for that year would be finished. Buying a newborn dairy animal allows her to have a baby to raise which makes her happy and also gives us a profit-- kind of.

It only takes a small piece of skin on the rear. When we first did it,we thought it took more but it's just enough to give it her calf's smell.

And that calf will suck anything. It is young and trying to learn where good things come from. Normally it'd be butting at its mother but she did totally reject it which means it's got to get all attention from us for now. We are undecided on whether to bottle feed it ourselves and then introduce it to the herd when its old enough or sell it. We just don't want it going somewhere that it won't be treated right.:(

Rain said...

chumly and parapluie, thanks for your encouragement

Rain said...

oh and on how long it stays in place. It just falls off naturally. Some mothers want to be mothers so badly that they would accept it with some milk on it. With sheep, they often put vicks vapor rub or some such onto their noses and the lamb and that blocks the smell for awhile until the lamb is like theirs.

robin andrea said...

Such an interesting read, rain. When I think of what animals have to teach us, I often think of it like a mobius strip. What we see when we watch them is their behavior, but how we see it, how closely we notice and observe is what we learn about ourselves. How much free attention we have is about us.

I love what you observe in their behaviors. As an artist you already look very closely at life, and your perceptions are sharp and lovely.