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Thursday, October 27, 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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  • CrankyToo

    Mr. Lyons, this sounds like a great story. I wish you’d told it in such a way that a dumb ole country boy like me could understand it. I couldn’t tell from time to time whether you were talking about Violet, Suzanne or Bernie. Try reading it through the eyes of a stranger and you may see what I mean.

  • Paragryne

    Animals are people too. They are non-human persons. Just ask my cat.

  • ralphkr

    Thank you, Mr. Lyons, you have reminded me of my dads beautiful team of black horses (white stars and stockings). Dad had acquired them as colts and broke them to harness (something he did a lot in his spare time as a young man) but sold them after about 20 years when we moved into town. About ten years later a farmer called and asked my dad to stop by to discuss business matters. On the way to the farm dad saw the farmer spreading manure with a team of blacks so dad stopped on the road but the farmer called to him that he would come to the road (couldn’t have dad walking through the manure in city shoes). As they talked the horses kept whickering and calling from a quarter mile away until my dad finally asked the farmer where he had bought the team. Sure enough, they were dad’s old team and they were all over dad when they all got to the barn. That farmer was just like my dad. He had no need for horses but could not bear to not have any. I can’t say that we ever had any pet cows or calves but that might have been because we would have up to 250 head of Herefords every spring after calving.

    • Gene Lyons

      Yes, horses get as attached to their people as dogs sometimes. Cows, not so much. They get attached to each other. However, if I suspect that dairy cows kept in ones and twos on small farms also get really fond of the people who care for them. Milking can be a fairly intimate activity.