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  • Writer's pictureCrone


Once I wrote a poem about a cow pursuing the trailer that was taking her calf to market. I knew, from bucket-feeding calves and watching them grow, from visiting them in the fields and feeling the rough rasp of their sandpaper-tongues, the warm greasiness of their coats and the moist huffing of their breath, that cows manifest a strange mixture of curiosity, courage and fear. They walk to you, then leap back, eyes wide and breath exhaled in a burst, front legs splayed. They turn their heads and eye you, step forward slowly, their wet noses cleared of mucus by those scratching, snaking tongues. They sniff, the eyes white circled and of a mill-pond dark depth. I read once, I think, that due to the configuration of their lenses, things close to them are magnified. I don't know if this is true. I suppose it would help them choose fodder from poisonous plants, which they tear at with their prehensile tongues. So I, to them, would be a small stick thing, until a certain proximity when my vastness would fill the field of vision. And then I move! What shock! What terror!

These cows, in the picture, a herd of young heifers. You can see the youth in their faces, in the shape of their bodies, as yet undistended by previous calving, in their small udders still unsucked. They came forward, curious, gently jostling, among them the equally juvenile bull, mature enough to have his crest and musculature, but retaining an innocence of expression, an innocence of the harms humanity does to his brethren. He lowed in subdued excitement, moved, it seemed, by the pressure of bodies, and tried to interest his herd in pleasures of a carnal kind. But they were fascinated by me, the stick thing that changed size on the other side of the fence, the strange-smelling creature with a four-legged friend, cow-coloured but not cow-scented.

There is fascination in inspecting some being across the species barrier. What manner of beast is this? Does it live? Does it threaten? I know why I am intrigued - by their otherness, their uncanny look of conscious wondering. And I wonder, what is it that they are experiencing? Beside bellies full of grass and the warmth of the sun? Beside the reassuring presence of their herd-mates and their bull? What leads them to want to look?

We think of them as stupid, cattle. We take their calves and their lives; their milk and their meat; their hides and their hooves. But maybe these things mean something to them. Have a value beyond our limited human reckoning.

They have different personalities. Every farmer knows that. The bolshy ones and the friendly ones, the nervous ones and the peaceful ones. They eye you - with those eyes behind which is what? - with each their own separate presence. I say separate, yet cows too can act as a herd, when afraid, when roused to action. I have been chased by a herd of youngsters. I know the threatening thud of a hundred, two hundred cloven hooves. They behave as a unit - curious or collectively furious? I don't know.

Of course, a herd of thirty or forty bullocks is not a natural thing. Their bovine natures maladjusted by the way we farm them together. There's research on the impact human intervention has had on the elephants in the savanna - orphans and survivors without matriarchs to guide them become violent, psychopathic, unnaturally dangerous. Cows, the domesticated ones, who've had over generations of selective breeding, their native intelligence diluted and down-sized by domestication, aren't as smart as wild elephants. but who's to say they're not as emotionally impacted by family breakdown and human violence?

Domesticated animals are intellectually inferior to their wild ancestors and those we keep as pets are kept in their juvenile state, emotionally, for the entirety of their lives. Wolves don't play with sticks and balls as adults - but nor is it easy for a wolf to learn that a human can be persuaded to open a door for her. Maybe our pets aren't so very dumb after all.

My animals, it seems, regard me as a faulty extension of their will - like the dodgy remote control that cannot be guaranteed to change the channel, change the volume. But they persist - feed me, stroke me, throw my toy, open the door. One cat shut in a cupboard - the other runs to me, runs to the cupboard door, looks back at me, mews, claws at the door. Could he be any clearer? The older cat likes to lie at night on my arm, my hand, which I stretch out onto the pillow where he sleeps. He holds my arm between his paws and looks into my eyes. 'You're mine.' The younger cat wants to fetch his toy, a ball made of shoe-strings. He explores the kitchen, mews and pats at his mouse and his fish, mews, looks up, gets no response. And so, as though in a burst of inspiration, he runs up the stairs and collects his string-ball from the bedroom and places it at my feet before staring into my eyes and screaming the request. 'This one. Play with this one.'

They assert control where they can and, like us, accept with varying degrees of grace the limits of their freedom, their free will. We, like they, are more constrained than we like to think by our past and our personality, our environment and our experience.

Our assumption, which is for our benefit and in our interests, that other animals do not feel let alone think like us is no, so far as I can see, self-evident. Language, abstract thought - are they differences of kind or simply the extreme of a spectrum?

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