One of the most common questions I am asked is what is the dumbest animal on the farm? This question induces some anxiety but my answer has become more refined over the years. Most people expect me to provide a breed and the majority expect me to say cattle, but in reality, the dumbest animal on the farm is me. Each species, wild or domesticated, possesses innate survival skills and behavioral repertoires that allow them to survive in a wide variety of conditions. The animals have the ability to forage all of their own food, to regulate their temperature, and to learn. When this question comes up I like to speak about each of the domestic animals and the wonderful things that they can do that we as humans have largely lost.
The cattle have a very robust memory and this can help or hurt you while working the animals. Traumatic experiences can imprint on the cattle and they will be wary about certain people or places on the farm. This is why it is imperative that you work your cattle in a calm and controlled manner. They are also creatures of habit and will walk the same paths and visit the same areas depending on their particular needs. If the cattle do get out of their daily paddock I can usually predict where they will be lounging by monitoring the weather and use this to formulate my plan to get them back where they are supposed to be that day. I have also seen what happens when the cattle encounter the remains of a former herd member. We have had few times where we have had to put animals down and in that case we bring the animal to a remote area of the farm to become soil. Eventually, the cattle will be back in that area and when they come upon the remains, which at this point are mostly leather and bones, they run and bellow to pay a kind of panicked tribute to their former herd mate. We would call it a funeral but I think the cattle see it as a tribute.
There are many misconceptions regarding pigs and their lack of hygiene but quite the opposite, pigs are the best home keepers on the farm. Given enough space they will designate a bathroom area and only go there. We have all heard that pigs wallow in manure but this is simply not true. With enough room and a source of water the pigs will wallow in mud and only wallow in filth as a last resort. This behavior serves a few purposes. The pigs evolved to have few sweat glands and the mud and water help to regulate their temperature. Also, much like humans, pigs are also prone to sunburn and the mud can help to keep their skin from being damaged by the sun. And like all stock animals, pigs can be bothered by biting insects and the mud provides a protective barrier.
Chickens do not deserve the bird brain reputation that they have been given. When chickens are free to roam as a flock they function as a cohesive unit. While the hens are foraging and monitoring the chicks, the roosters are keeping one eye on their nearest rival and the other on the sky. At the first sign of an aerial predator the rooster makes a specific vocalization that sends the rest of the flock ducking for cover. In fact, these animals have different vocalizations for each type of predator they encounter. Chickens, like the cattle, also have a great memory and this is why they are able to establish and maintain a pecking order. It may not seem fair, but it serves an evolutionary purpose, and if disrupted, the hierarchy will be quickly reordered and reconstituted.
I could go on to describe every other animal on the farm and even the wild animals that I interact and observe on a daily basis but I will leave that task up to you. I often find myself in awe of the skills and senses that the animals utilize to survive when I am working at the farm. We as humans, with our calorie hungry brains and poor ability to regulate temperature, are no match for our animal cousins. The only thing we can do is to observe the plants and animals around us and try to integrate their adaptations into our own behavior. I wouldn’t advocate head butting your neighbor on the bus to get a better seat but I would recommend trying new foods and working with those around you to strengthen our species. With times like these a little meditative observation could go a long way in improving us as individuals and as a species.