Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.
Saturday, December 10, 2016

Suzanne delivered her first calf in a sleet storm, with 40 mph winds. Fearful that the baby wouldn’t survive overnight, I took a big risk, lifting the heifer into my arms, backing out a gate, and kicking it shut.  

Many cows would have run me down. But I trusted Suzanne’s sweet, obliging personality, and she trusted me. As if she’d read my mind, she ran around the barn and was waiting in a dry stall when I arrived with the calf we named Violet.

Although calves are as playful as puppies, it’s a rare cow that has a sense of humor. Suzanne, however, would approach and lower her head for petting. Then she’d toss her head, fling your hand up, and shuffle her feet in a little happy dance. The winter she kept Bernie the bull company in their private two-acre pasture, she imitated his habit of eating apple slices out of our hands.

By the time Violet was 16 months old, you had to look twice to tell them apart. I never wanted to sell her, but somebody had to go — Violet or her 2,300-pound, charismatic father. The fellow who bought Violet also wanted Suzanne’s 8-month-old bull calf. They left on the same trailer. If I were entirely sentimental about my animals, I wouldn’t have done that, because it left Suzanne alone in the herd.

She soon became pregnant. By then, Bernie’s passion for tearing up fences, shoving the neighbor’s bull around, and breeding his cows became intolerable. He also had three more daughters coming of age. The fellow who’d bought Violet couldn’t afford Bernie, but offered to return her as part of the deal. Sold. If you’d witnessed the mother-daughter reunion—they recognized each other at 100 yards and galloped joyously to be together — you might think about giving up beef.

They have strong emotions, cattle. And while they’re less interested in humans, hence less demonstrative toward us than dogs or even horses, their bonds are powerful. Anybody who doubts this should read Carl Safina’s extraordinary new book Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel.

A marine ecologist, Safina has written an impassioned and deeply reported meditation on Darwin’s observation that “Animals, whom we have made our slaves, we do not like to consider our equal.”

It is to me also deeply political: a plea for humans to acknowledge the shared inheritance informing all complex animals from hummingbirds to tortoises, and to relent in our collective desecration of the natural world.

Anthropomorphic? You bet. Safina argues persuasively that behaviorists who use the word as an insult have trained themselves to ignore the most obvious evidence in the world.

“So do other animals have human emotions?” he writes. “Yes, they do. Do humans have animal emotions?” he writes. “Yes, they’re largely the same. Fear, aggression, well-being, anxiety, and pleasure are the emotions of shared brain structures and shared chemistries, originated in shared ancestry.”

Safina points out that the exact areas of the brain that produce rage in humans also do so in cats. How blind do you have to make yourself not to recognize primal emotions in fellow mammals? Centering his reporting on large social animals — elephants, wolves, orcas, and dolphins — he visits specialists who’ve learned volumes about their complex and mysterious behaviors.

How do elephants and orcas communicate at vast distances? Why do killer whales, nature’s most fearsome predator, observe a worldwide truce with human beings? Never mind why dolphins will break off feeding to rescue a drowning human miles out to sea. How do they agree?

Safina’s impassioned conclusion is that we’re all together on this Earth, the only one we’ve got.

Suzanne’s next calf killed her, and liked to break my heart, as people in Arkansas say. The baby presented upside down and backwards on a 99-degree day. By the time I got veterinary help, the calf had died and Suzanne was too weak to survive a C-section.

I talked about getting out of the cow business altogether.

Two weeks later, Ruby, a peevish, suspicious animal on her good days, delivered a heifer calf all alone. I hadn’t been certain she was pregnant. Yet there it was, tottering behind her.

Next morning, Ruby was in a pine thicket alone, bawling. Two coyotes lurked nearby. Had they killed her calf in the night? I searched in vain, shadowed by Ruby — highly agitated and threatening. I couldn’t risk getting closer than 25 yards without being trampled.

Ruby stayed in the woods all day. That afternoon, she visited the herd briefly. I figured that was that. Accursed coyotes. And then just before sunset, mother and lovely, sparkling daughter emerged from the woods together. Oh, happy day! We’re calling her “Star.”

Her mother’s testy disposition had saved her life.

Bereft of her own mother, Violet has made Star her special friend. They’re together constantly.  

I believe I know exactly how she feels.

Photo courtesy of the author. Ruby in the foreground, Star peering from behind her, Violet lying down on the right.

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