Are We Brave Enough to Love?

| 10/19/2009 4:56:57 PM

Tags: farming,

Baby donkeyI came home one day to find five sheep dead, piled in a corner of their shed. It took me a couple of hours to dig a hole big enough to hold the carcasses. Two days later I found six more in the same spot. Five were dead, one moved when I touched her. I pulled her out of the pile and she staggered away to recover.

This was my worst moment in farming.

I stayed home for a day to watch for the cause of the carnage. I was pretty sure I knew the culprits. Sure enough, mid-morning, about an hour after I would normally have left for work, our three border collies crawled under a fence, rounded up the sheep and brought them into the pen, crowding them into a corner of the shed. We discourage the dogs from working sheep by themselves, but a certain amount of self-study is good for a sheepdog. They teach themselves by practicing. In moderation, it is a productive exercise.

If a border collie is not fascinated by livestock, they don’t make good stock dogs. They learn to move the herds and flocks because they love to move them.

The two older dogs mostly stayed back, moving this way and that to watch the way the clump of sheep moved in response to them. The youngest dog, Chico, was a pup, about five months old, and he was much more aggressive than his parents. He darted into the flock and nipped the sheep. He barked and ran at them. I went out and called the dogs off. Then I brought Chico inside and started looking for someone who wanted a free border collie.

Sheep dread physical contact with a predator. To the sheep, almost nothing is more upsetting. As Chico goaded and harassed the ewes, they would have packed themselves more and more tightly into the corner of the shed until they knocked each other down and climbed over the fallen. Eventually those on the bottom died of suffocation or panic.

sara mason
12/31/2009 10:34:20 AM

That is so nicely written. I know my personality would never be compatible with farming. I'd become too attached to the animals. I'd be sad if they died for any reason and I know I would not be able to process them for food.

geoff taylor
11/11/2009 1:13:54 AM

This essay is going to give me hours of unbroken thought. Thank you for writing it. It touches on the numinous in the Beauty Way.

elizabeth stevens_1
11/2/2009 3:06:14 PM

Bryan, Thanks for being brave enough to love, and to share your experiences, successes and failures, and emotions. Now THAT'S bravery! A scene in the film "Cold Mountain" epitomizes the simultaneous pain and joy of raising livestock with one's eyes wide open. A character -- a mountain woman who is visited by a starving passerby -- surveys her herd of goats; a herd that she loves and knows by name. She singles one out, draws it close, praises it as a good goat -- and slits its throat. Many viewers found this scene traumatizing; I found it to be very hard to watch but ultimately more profound and memorable than anything else in the film. This woman, who raised goats for milk, sacrificed one so that she could give its protein to a hungry human. It wasn't an easy thing for her, but neither was it unthinkable. It was done with exquisite mindfulness, which I believe is what your blog is all about. If we cannot regard livestock as animals worthy of love, names and a decent life, we should perhaps take a closer look at ourselves. If we must distance ourselves from our own actions -- avoid/deny/rationalize/disguise/farm-out the treatment that we subject livestock to -- I suspect that we must either give up our carnivorous practices entirely or change them to practices that we can "own" with good conscience. I hope this blog will appear in the print magazine, and that you'll start a discussion about "unsentimental love" which, I believe, is something called "respect.

10/28/2009 12:49:27 PM

First of all, I would like to thank you for addressing this difficult topic and doing so in a positive way that does not cheapen or demean people’s emotions toward their livestock. I used to be teased horrendously growing up because I would cry whenever I had to butcher an animal or send it off to the butcher to be butchered (which is what I do now that I am an adult and can afford to). I was, and still am, given the advice that if I want to raise and breed livestock then I need to toughen up or get out of the lifestyle. I find those two options unacceptable. I am thrilled to finally read an article that addresses the third option. It is nice to learn that there are other farmers out there who feel the same responsibility and companionship with their livestock and are willing to be open about it.

10/27/2009 4:37:53 PM

Thanks for the kind words and the thoughtful input. Portia: The first level of training for your dog is pretty simple. Take the dog and the chickens into an enclosed space. If you need a leash to control the dog, put her on the leash. Every time the dog LOOKS at a chicken, correct her. The goal should be to train a dog that ignores chickens, completely. Repeat this several days in a row until she doesn't look at the chickens. Then do the same without the leash, if necessary. If this doesn't work and an unfortunate incident occurs, introduce the dog to the carcass and correct her aggressively. She should become a dog who wouldn't think of looking at a chicken, much less putting her mouth on one. So far, all our dogs have become chicken-friendly. Most of them are fine after Lesson One, but a few require Lesson Two. Hope it goes well!

anton nel
10/27/2009 12:28:10 AM

Thank you for this insightful and honest article! Being a vegetarian, I will be devastated by the loss of farm animals as you have described and to be honest, I admit to being too "soft" to keep such animals. Living in a city it is not an option in any case, but I know myself! But is uplifting to read about people like you who care so much for the animals and accept the responsibility for them. Regarding Portia's question: We kept silkie chickens in the garden to help to control snails and simply because they are so cute! But we had two Rottweilers as well... We kept the chickens in a wired-off area in the garden for a month or so and as regularly as possible, let them out when we could keep an eye on them and the dogs. At first the dogs were of course curious and sniffed around the little camp and bumped the chickens with there noses when they were outside - we let them, but talked to them and coached them in a calm manner when it looked as if they want to become a bit too excited. After a month we could let the chickens out and they lived happily together for the next 8 years! Of course, I have to mention that the Rottweilers were house pets and not used as working dogs, probably making it a bit easier to control their natural instinct.

portia mccracken
10/26/2009 12:38:00 PM

I really appreciate your magazine and your columns, especially this one. We are so easily seduced by the ease of shopping that it's hard to remember, without making an effort, that nearly everything we consume comes at the expense of something else. I'm very curious about how you trained your dogs (and your cats) not to kill the poultry? I would love to have a few chickens but I have a dog, so I'm afraid they wouldn't be safe. Molly is mostly a sweetheart, but she does love to chase little critters so I'm pretty sure she would do the same with chickens. Once she caught them, I don't know if she would be content to retrieve them (she's a Lab-mix) or worse. Please tell us how you trained them. Thanks!

bill griffin
10/25/2009 7:59:37 PM

Just remember to honor the animals spirits as you consume them, and do not let any part of them go to waste. They were placed on this earth to further the creator's purpose for the rest of the planet. This is the way taught by the Native Americans fore centuries.

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