VEGA News Item

Animal Magic - 18/05/2009

What do the Other Animals know that we Don't?

1. Human perceptions and misunderstandings of animal behaviour surface in unusual places and contexts. We pick 2 recent stories from the Meat Trades Journal (MTJ). In Cow on the Run - Runaway Mother escapes the Abattoir to find her Baby the MTJ (17 April 2009) gives a nice example: "A cow has finally been caught after spending 9 months on the run after escaping from a farm where she would have been slaughtered." Floss the Cow escaped from a farm in Yorkshire and travelled 60 miles into nearby Lincolnshire in search of her calf, who was separated from her when she was taken to market. Floss was also known as the Beast of England, embarked on her quest, "reportedly bumping into the not-so-great and good of modern Britain, where she was chased by yobs on quad bikes, almost run down by joyriders, and poached by members of the public taking shots at her," states the MTJ.

2. Floss managed to feed herself by living off council tips and stealing hay when she could. "She is quite a cow, she remained free by finding some really good hidey-holes. She would hide in the bushes on a piece of land used for paint-balling and then would only come out at night to find food," a Lincolnshire resident told the Telegraph.

3. Floss will now have to live out her days in an animal sanctuary in Norfolk. Her search has been in vain: she and her calf will probably never be united and her pilgrimage will go unremarked by the human consumers who thoughtlessly ignore a grief that surely shames us humans for the callousness we can relentlessly exhibit towards "the lower animals."

4. The MTJ on 01 May 2009 described another story of a Caring Cow. "Little Ben, the lamb from Anglesey, has been saved from the abattoir floor after an unlikely source made him too loved to be eaten - a cow," the MTJ reports. "Twenty-year-old pet cow Tina noticed the lamb had been rejected by its mother and took Ben under her bovine wing," continues the report, with a nice mixture of metaphor (but perhaps anticipating wonders that could be achieved by GM).

5. Tina and Ben always snuggle up to each other at night and Tina regularly licks Ben to keep him clean. Keith Ridgway, with nearly 60 years of farming to his name, has "never seen anything like it." The cow really believes she is Ben's mother. Ben seems to be growing well and the grandchildren like him so much, he will never be served up for dinner. I think Tina and Ben will be friendly for the rest of their lives," Keith remarks.

6. Anecdotes abound on altruistic, sympathetic, and other helpful thinking and deeds between animals of like species and unlike or breeds, including interactions involving us humans. Some of these situations arise in regular and routine practices, such as forms of farming, but others demonstrate caring and perception among non-human species that exhibit acts of compassion, kindness, and reverence. In Times Weekend (02 May 2009) Simon Barnes, a writer on Wildlife, notes in particular the need for vigorous action, without which "it is heading towards the tipping point" beyond which "no recovery is possible." Simon Barnes warns that "this is true, in particular, for rhinoceros."

7. Barnes diverts into an anecdote from his experience: "For example, in the unsentimental routines of the bloodstock industry, it is an accepted fact that a mare whose foal dies or is born dead must be left with the little corpse. She needs to come to terms with the death: in short, she needs time to grieve. That is the only way to rehabilitate her: otherwise, she may not come into season for the next remunerative coupling." He writes: "Rhinos also understand death. In the Lowveldt a few weeks ago, a black rhino and her 16-month-old calf were ambushed by armed poachers. The calf was shot and killed, and its horn removed with an ax. The bereaved mother still returns to the carcase regularly. This has been noted by conservationists from the Lowveldt Rhino Trust; it has also been noted by poachers eager for more rhino horn." In hospitals the staff and clerics face the challenges in the varying parental attitudes when their baby is stillborn. The noble maternal instinct has to be acknowledged by humans of little faith, maybe, but with strong feelings of the wonder of life and, in grief, expressions of mercy. Psychology and psychiatry are new talents for vets to master, even if those schooled in Herriot-worship get little further than treating their patients as "stock" and "product". However, giving an animal a name and a face makes a big difference and dairy-farmers beleaguered as they are now, still hesitate to let their wives or children give names to calves or cows.

8. Barnes returns to the commercial aspects: "In a country horribly battered and twisted by politics, it's quite easy to kill a rhino. It's also easier than ever before to see the horn. Rhino horn has always been in demand for traditional Chinese medicine. Once, getting the horn from the poacher to the medicine shop required a long and complex chain of middlemen. No longer. A substantial Chinese presence in Zimbabwe, road-building and mining, means that it is now easy to sell rhino horn locally, and for decent money. Thus the rhinos are suddenly caught in a pincer movement. There were 40 killed in the Lowveld last year, we're already up to 18 this year. It's hard to catch poachers, and even when they are caught it is hard to enforce the law. Incompetence, corruption, and local difficulties are always getting in the way. There have been instances when poachers have been released because the police didn't have the petrol to drive them to court."

9. Animal "lovers" and all animal welfarists (which probably includes most of the tourists and conservationists being driven round Africa's nature reserves) carry special responsibilities that go well beyond questionable Send-a-Cow schemes (which may not prove of any benefit to humans in areas where lactose intolerance is common). These visitors are demonstrating all the signs and greed of too frequent familiarity of eating out and takeaways and of halts to stop at the petrol pump. Zimbabwe has 10% of the world's population of black rhinos: it adds up to 460 individuals. They deserve every respect from us humans, just as much as millions of the cows and sheep we shoehorn into the dwindling lebensraum we leave them to make room for the depredations perpetrated by us profligate, greedy, and self-centred humans. Among other matters we have perverted to our own ends are the innate prejudices among the animal species driven by the demands of production, reproduction, and prevention. We have bred dogs for the gun or the hunt and exaggerated the intimidating powers of dogs on sheep in a partnership that animal welfarists are condemning as another of the blemishes in applications of the country life to production of "our" food and dominion of "our" territory.

10. We prize intelligence so highly but the feelings of pain, stress, distress, inanition, and despair may be as keenly felt by -or more so - by the "silly" sheep, whose very innocence makes them top candidates for sacrificial exploitation. Is the rabbit "programmed" for a state of insentient inertia when it is transfixed by a predatory stoat? Stories of inter-species demonstrations of acts of charity must be accompanied by innate exhibitions of animosity. Cattle and horses will avoid trampling the smallest bird almost under their feet, but are agitated when the ramblers' playful dogs worry the grazing animals; and it's usually the cow with her calf, not the bull (or bullock), who demonstrates the force of her guardianship and assertion of territory when uncaring humans invade her space. Even without the GM we humans have meddled in the species game so much that male "entire" examples of the farm animals are rendered down to semen in "straws" and the animals of male origin that now range our pastures - even organic and environmental - are abject travesties, objects of designed evolution. So in the common language of American English the word "cow" used generically for cattle can accommodate populations of bulls, bullocks, stirks, and steers as well as the mother of them all. Similar distinctions are being lost in the contexts of sheep, pigs, and poultry, some of which are now designed so artfully that they can only reproduce by artificial insemination and electrostimulation and other means of promoting ejaculation.

11. Most welfarists ask themselves and their colleagues on their earliest experiences and sensations. Comparisons are useful too in the history of the gestation, circumstances of birth, bonding, and awareness and memory. It's a fascinating subject of enquiry and debate over evolution, and certainly one for inclusion in courses preparing adolescents for independent and stimulating thought. Do we remember the events in the womb, at our birth, and early development of our bodies, brains, vascular and immune systems. Our mothers can recall vividly events at our birth and in our early years, but we can't. Blessed are the innocent, for perhaps they are less likely to perceive and register the events of birthing or of the hurts that heal without scarring. In this context is too much knowledge, foreboding, fear, pain and anxiety a poor compensation for the ignorance of the innocent "silly" livestock of human babies and of the lower species? How do we compare the overt reactions and experience of all these animals to the onset of Acts of God or to interventions of evolutionary significance in which we humans have a lot to answer for and deal with?


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