There used to be a law in Ohio that defined who was responsible for hitting a cow on the highway. I don’t know if the law still exists, but back when I lived there the law stated that the driver was automatically responsible and not the cow’s owner. The reasoning, as it was explained to me all that time ago, was that cattle are dumb animals and don’t know any better than to stay off the road.
My reasoning tells me that if a cattle owner doesn’t properly maintain the fences to keep them enclosed so they can’t go wandering off into a highway, then it’s the owner’s responsibility for any damage that they may incur. That’s just my reasoning.
I’m writing this to take exception not to the law as it may or may not be stated in Ohio, but rather to counter the claim that cattle are ‘dumb animals’. Having lived on a cattle farm, and having worked up close and personal with several members of the herd, I’ve experienced real personality from these creatures. And I can tell you that they are not dumb by any stretch of the imagination.
They can be crazy, protective, spoiled, cautious, and loving, just like any pet. Knowing this about them doesn’t keep me from eating beef, by no means. Nor do I proclaim anything to deter anyone else from eating beef. I have no feelings one way or the other over whether or not anyone reading this should or should not eat beef. I state it purely as a fact that I know firsthand, and I would like to give some examples to back up my opinion on the matter.
It’s been almost thirty years since I lived on that cattle farm in Ohio, but I remember clearly Crazy Red. Her name depicts both her attitude and her color. When in the pasture, we had to watch out for her. She didn’t want any human walking on her grass, and she would snort like a bull and run at us to chase us off. If we drove in with the pickup truck full of silage she was okay. But if we stepped out of the truck she’d go crazy. More than once I’ve had to outrun this crazy red cow who was mad at me for being on her grass, feeling the full effects of fear-fueled adrenaline pumping through my body. Crazy Red didn’t mind sharing her grass with other members of the herd; it was just the two-legged outsiders to whom she took grave exception.
Since no one was ever caught by Crazy Red, we really never knew the consequences. All we knew for certain was that we didn’t want to find out.
We also had Elizabeth, who was more of a pet than a commodity. Elizabeth would never be sent off to slaughter. This decision was for the sake of the child who’d helped heal her when she was born prematurely. Elizabeth’s mom had died during the calf’s delivery and Elizabeth had almost died, too. The family took Elizabeth down into their cellar, away from the herd, and nursed her back to health. When she grew to the point where she could feed from a trough, they took her back outside. But it was too late. She’d become spoiled. And the child of the household had already named her. Elizabeth never had to live among the rest of the herd; she was housed in the barn with her own personal fenced in part of a yard, and she was visited regularly by members of the human family, who would always greet her with affection.
All these years later, I still marvel at one miraculous event I am thankful I was present to witness. It was simultaneously tortuous and divine. It was the adoption of a calf that’d lost its mother to a cow that’d lost her calf.
I watched the cow mourn for her loss. We think of it as an emotion shared only by humans, but this cow mourned. I saw it. And I grieved with her. When the other cow died during delivery, and it was suggested that the survivors be paired for fostering, I was anxious to see if it would work.
They both delivered on the same day, and both were having difficulty. It was an ‘all hands on deck’ day, and we were separated by acres of pasture and crops. I was in the group that resulted in the surviving calf. The delivery was horrid, and one that I’ll never forget regardless of how long I live or how many of life’s curve balls find their way to my door. To describe what happened during this particular delivery is just too vivid a picture to paint, and there are no broad strokes I can apply.
After it was over, standing just outside the barn, tired from the exertion of willing everything to be okay when physical assistance was finally over, I watched the nameless cow lift her head off the ground and search for her baby. I saw the peace steal over her when she had affirmed that her calf had made it. And then she quietly passed away. I watched the team of humans cleaning the calf, a job the mother was no longer able to do. And in all the flurry of activity surrounding the new calf, I was mourning for a cow.
It was then that we’d received word of the still birth some distance away. The cow was brought to the barn and locked in with the new calf in the hopes of adoption. I watched every day as the mother went through all the emotions. At first there was mourning, sadness and rejection. She knew this wasn’t her baby and she resented its presence. And then there was caring and compassion. She cared for the new baby and attempted to feed it from her own milk sack. And then finally I witnessed acceptance and protection.
It was only then that they were let out among the populace.
For whatever reason, she was unable to nurse her adopted calf and so we bottle-fed it. Calves are strong creatures, and as big as I am, I was unable to do it without first bracing myself. I would sit on top of the wooden rail fence and lock my ankles around one of the rails beneath me. The calf would tug and suck on that calf bottle, at times almost pulling me off the fence. The adopted mom would stand guard, ensuring that none of the yearlings interfered. She walked in a semi circle behind her new calf keeping the older calves at bay. Just in case she broke her resolve, the older calves all stood on the perimeter of the semi-circle she’d drawn, just waiting, and hoping, for an opportunity.
The adoption was successful. Her resolve in the protection and guardianship of that calf never wavered, even though her eyes always seemed haunted to me. That neither was given a name to signify their rescue and familial place always saddened me a little.
Bovines do have personality, and I am convinced that ‘dumb animal’ is an incorrect description – regardless of what may or may not be a law in Ohio.
I know better. I was there.