AgriCulture: The Human Animal

As I listened to Weekend Edition this Saturday, there seemed nothing on offer but bad, sad news. Most of it was fully anticipated: the war in Ukraine, the latest COVID surge, and the sorry state of American politics. But even the news of agriculture, which is the source of our sustenance and should be uplifting, was a downer: reports of an avian flu affecting domestic poultry, and an interview with Andrea Arnold, the director of a recently released documentary, Cow. The film, which chronicles the life of a cow in a commercial dairy farm over a four year period, has been described, in the New York Times review, as a “feel bad movie.”

The focus of the interview about Cow, however, was less on the dismal circumstances of the dairy cow’s life, and more about our reaction to it.  Are we over-anthropomorphizing animals, the interviewer asked, when we assume their emotions are similar to our own? Exhibit A in this discussion was the moment when a calf is removed from its mother, in order to transition the cow to her role as provider of milk for human consumption. The anguished bellows of the cow when she cannot find her calf sound to us like grief and mourning. What Scott Simon wanted to know is: is that really what it is?

They are as human as you treat them. Photo by Mark Scherzer

The question of anthropomorphizing is, of course, a theme I have returned to repeatedly over my years on the farm. It was not until I started to live with the animals that I recognized just how human animals are and how animal humans are. I’ve come to some definitive conclusions on this topic. Based on what happens when ewes lose lambs and cry for days searching for them, I’m absolutely convinced that their anguished cries are expressing an emotion quite analogous to human grief. And while their thoughts may stay in their minds for shorter periods than ours, the animals have longer memories than one might think. My chickens were recently traumatized by the attacks of a large hawk or eagle in the chicken yard, which killed four of them in the space of three days. To my surprise, they refused to come out of the chicken coop for days, spending all day hiding under the table. It was not as if the memory of the awful events faded after just an hour, or even a couple of days.

But while I’m sure that there are deep mother child bonds among the mammals, that they grieve loss of one another, and that all these animals can have lasting effects from trauma, I’m still uncertain about a lot of other nuances of their thoughts. The extent of my uncertainty has been reflected recently in dialogue with the friends who surround me.

When my urbanite friend and frequent farm sitter, Steve, was doing chores with me a few weeks ago, he pointed out a difference in our respective sheep feeding routines. I lock the sheep out of the main section of the barn to distribute their treat in bowls. Then I open the east door of the barn, letting in the small group that tend to congregate there, before I open the gate from the south vestibule into the dining area for the majority of the herd to charge through. Steve told me likes to mix it up, by opening the vestibule door first every other time. His reasoning? “I don’t want the crowd in the vestibule feeling resentment at 45 and the others who are getting first crack at the grain by congregating outside the east door. ” I scoffed: “Sheep don’t feel resentment toward, or envy of, other sheep,” I said with great assurance. But, as I think about it, how do I know that sheep don’t share in those very human sentiments?

In contrast, when I recently visited my friend Tom for a night in the Berkshires, I told him I’d better get on the road home very early in the morning as I didn’t want the animals angry at me for being late to morning chores. It was his turn to scoff: “Animals do not get angry, do they?” he said. Based on his experience with his cats, he said, he couldn’t imagine that the critters here felt one moment of anger, or that they were aware of me violating a particular schedule. Sure, if they did not have adequate food to tide them over they might realize they were hungry, Tom said, but whether they would fault me for that or even recognize an association between my abandonment and their hunger seemed to him highly unlikely.

I’m not so sure what the truth is here. I know the sheep associate me with food, such that if they are out grazing in the pasture and see me approaching the barn they are there in a flash, baa-ing for their treat. But are they standing out there before my arrival, stamping their feet impatiently and thinking “where the hell is Mark?”

I suspect that Eric, with his romantic French world view, would answer that question yes. Yesterday I texted him a picture of sheep waiting outside the barn for their treat, explaining that I was at chores and that they were of course impatient. He responded: “Tell the girls I miss them,” assuming that, as I have no doubt, they would be missing him too.

The whole conundrum of how human we view the animals to be is perhaps impossible ever to untangle from how we view our own nature as humans and our relationship to them. The extent to which I impute human nature to my critters may have everything to do with how connected I feel to them, and only tangentially to some “objective” understanding of what constitutes their character.

WHAT’S AVAILABLE THIS WEEK:

EGGS: $5/doz Plentiful, spring light has arrived, if not spring.

LAMB COMING: Lamb should be back from the slaughterhouse in a week or two. Stay tuned.

FARM PICKUPS:

Email us your order at farm@turkanafarms.com, and let us know when you’d like to pick up your order. It will be put out for you on the side screened porch of the farmhouse (110 Lasher Ave., Germantown) in a bag. You can leave cash or a check in the now famous pineapple on the porch table. Because I’m now here full time, we’re abandoning regular pick-up times. Let us know when you want your order any day between 10 and 5, and unless there are unusual circumstances we’ll be able to ready it to your convenience. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to call or text at 917-544-6464 or email.



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