Beastly Commitments

Sunday, November 21st, 2010

I was once a “one dog woman”.  That relationship with my dog Sage was powerful, sweet, and deeply committed. We went through thick and thin together for 14 years.  Many single dog owners swill relate to the intensity of feeling and profound sense of belonging that this human-canine bond evokes.  Oops, I already hear the protests out there and I’ll admit that maybe some married people have these strong dog feelings too, but I still maintain that when one is alone, the connection is just that much more potent.  Now, I probably anthropomorphized Sage, and certainly she regarded me as the one other member of her small dog pack.  I’d wager that most people have these kinds of funny animal-to-human interactions where the human thinks “wow, my dog is such a great person” and the dog (or cat) says “wow, my person is such a great beast.”   But the beautiful thing is this: seeing the reality through different eyes doesn’t make the love any less strong.

At the moment I’m still trying to figure out my place in my current, somewhat manic four-dog-household; I have the distinct impression that as the pack has grown, I have lost not some small bit of status and definitely most of my voting rights, not to mention a great deal of room in my bed. But at least it’s warm.

I do know many people who have multi-cat or multi-dog households and certainly these folks have an inkling about the political maneuverings that take place when many creatures learn to co-exist.  It can really take up a lot of time, figuring all this out.  But — and not to discount the complexity of these households — when there are more than half a dozen species living together in a hodge-podge, animal melting pot, this process takes on mammoth proportions.  We’re not talking about a lot of time; we’re talking about all the damn time.  A lifetime.  A way of life.  A lifepath of walking amongst intelligent and sensitive and most definitely egocentric beasts with completely different physiological and psychological makeups, demands, and appetites. It’s worlds away from the one-on-one companionship with a dog.  One becomes anthropologist, veterinarian, animal psychologist, shepherd, and victim all in one fell swoop.

With all there is to cope with here, I love watching the animal friendships blossom.  Of course there are expected and natural allies:  Dee Dee Donkey follows Bello the horse everywhere (Mutt and Jeff: she’s so short she can walk right under his belly), and Finneus the rooster has his favorite 3 hens who crowd around him on the perch; Old Blind Joe the duck sleeps every night chest-to-chest, beaks crossed, with his Pekin mate Elizabeth, and Parsnip and Miss Bea the sheep are inseparable, relying on each other for all important life cues.

But I also routinely witness cross-species friendships that plainly defy explanation. Most evidently joined at the hip here are Jean Claude the llama and Louie the Morgan horse.  “The odd couple.”  They are rarely no more than 10 feet away from each other at any given time, and when I take Louie out for an occasional trail ride, poor young Jean Claude almost has a nervous breakdown, running at top speed from one end of the farm to the other.  It would be funny if it weren’t so heartbreaking, and as his feelings of panic and abandonment push adrenaline through his system, he lopes and hums with his camelid fear and sadness, only quieted when Louie returns to his side.  Jean Claude was evidently taken away from his mother too early, and so in his first months here attempted repeatedly to nurse off of Louie.  As he’s grown into maturity, Jean Claude has decided that it might be more appropriate to try to mount Louie.  This does not impress the elderly equine, so there are occasional wild llama-horse chases down the gravel driveway. Normally, however, they simply walk, eat, sleep, and even poop right next to each other.  Completely at peace.

A less obvious but just as powerfully committed odd couple are Mr. Newman Goat and Tetsuro the pig.  Casual observers will tell you that Newman is a bully, who nightly works on busting down the barn door separating him from the peaceable pig simply trying to enjoy a quiet dinner.  Alas, sometimes he succeeds, and neighbors can see Tetsuro jogging cross-pasture, belly jiggling, squealing and grunting, carrying his large dinner bowl in his jaws with Newman in hot pursuit.  It’s just not fair. Every winter as it gets cold, Tetsuro builds his large nest of hay and straw, and bits of cloth he finds around the farm.  He has a spot set right under the heat lamp.  Inevitably, Newman evicts him.  Now, we could learn a lot from pigs, folks.  Because Tetsuro does not go off and sulk, lay on the cold ground in a depressed state, or turn around and try, vainly, to fight this arrogant horned beast who has taken away his bed.  No, Tetsuro sets himself to creating a new nest.  Thus every winter, there are two identical pig nests, in one of which Mr. Newman Goat takes up residence, Tetsuro comfortably resting in the other.  On the really cold nights Newman joins Tetsuro in his nest and I have on more than one occasion found the two cuddled up close.

The chickens and the sheep have some sort of arrangement, as well.  Nearly every day I see all the beautiful, multi-colored hens and roosters pecking at the ground around the reclining bodies of the sheep under their run-in shed, and occasionally a rooster will perch right on top of a sheep for an hour or more.  A few months back, when the mother of some newly hatched chicks disappeared suddenly (presumably due to a fox), the three remaining babies found safe haven under the belly of Madison the sheep.  Madison guarded these babies, standing stock still, and occasionally putting his enormous wooly face down to them to sniff and check that they were still there. Sometimes, really, just being there is enough.

While Mother Nature can be brutal (and I’ve seen it in action and I’m not sure I recommend it for audiences under 13), I really think we humans have an awful lot to learn from our animal friends.  Within the enclave of this farm, both predators and prey live side by side in harmony.  Even the three black vultures who come to roost in the old dead Locust tree every morning, catching the sun and spreading their wings in its warmth, seem to smile. And as I listen to friends’ tales of woe and watch the news, I wonder: how can animals so expertly bridge gaps of language, understanding, and compassion that humans cannot?

“Any emotion, if it is sincere, is involuntary.” — Mark Twain

Till next time,

Farmer Anne
Star Gazing Farm 501(c)3
A haven for retired farm animals and wayward goats
http://www.stargazingfarm.org
tel: (301) 349-0802

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