Friday, April 21, 2006

Stockman, Sheep, and Sheepdogs

I often reflect on life and death, because being engaged in livestock farming makes it impossible not to reflect on such subjects. Half formed notions of a post have been floating around in my mind for quite some time. A fragment I came across on a blog I read caused these thoughts to start to gel.

When I hear discussions about this sort of thing they are often predicated on unspoken assumptions that I don’t accept and don’t think the speakers are even aware of. The assumption is that life; any life must be preserved at all cost.

I must admit that this sometimes annoys me and I usually dismiss it as the blabbering of city kids. Out here in the sticks we have our fair share of fools, but I can’t imagine anyone who lives close to the land suffering from this sort of nonsense.

Here is the quote that got me going on this subject.

From American Citizen Soldier:

Consider the following from On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace by retired Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman:

If you have no capacity for violence then you are a healthy productive citizen: a sheep. If you have a capacity for violence and no empathy for your fellow citizens, then you have defined an aggressive sociopath -- a wolf. But what if you have a capacity for violence, and a deep love for your fellow citizens? Then you are a sheepdog, a warrior, someone who is walking the hero's path. Someone who can walk into the heart of darkness, into the universal human phobia, and walk out unscathed.

The sheep generally do not like the sheepdog. He looks a lot like the wolf. He has fangs and the capacity for violence. The difference, though, is that the sheepdog must not, cannot, and will not ever harm the sheep. Any sheepdog that intentionally harms the lowliest little lamb will be punished and removed. The world cannot work any other way, at least not in a representative democracy or a republic such as ours.

Still, the sheepdog disturbs the sheep. He is a constant reminder that there are wolves in the land. They would prefer that he didn't tell them where to go, or give them traffic tickets, or stand at the ready in our airports in camouflage fatigues holding an M-16. The sheep would much rather have the sheepdog cash in his fangs, spray paint himself white, and go, "Baa." Until the wolf shows up. Then the entire flock tries desperately to hide behind one lonely sheepdog.

Understand that there is nothing morally superior about being a sheepdog; it is just what you choose to be. Also understand that a sheepdog is a funny critter: He is always sniffing around out on the perimeter, checking the breeze, barking at things that go bump in the night, and yearning for a righteous battle.

Well any analogy will break down if you squeeze it hard enough, but I think this is a good one as far as such things go. The blog I got the quote from is written by a soldier and of course the quote is presented in a military context, but I intend to stretch it a little more just to see if it can illuminate anything in the realm of animal husbandry.

I own a number of sheep, and I have some sheepdogs in my employ, real ones, the four-legged type.

I suspect Col Grossman (the author of the quote above) got a good part of this knowledge of sheep and wolves from Aesop’s fables, but he is making a point about humans, so it makes no difference to his goal if his facts about sheep are a bit sketchy.

The sort of sheep the quote refers to (the two legged type) are no doubt aware at some level of their own mortality, at least enough to keep them full of fear much of the time. Real sheep (the four legged type) are probably not aware of their own mortality, but they are instinctively afraid of pretty much anything out of the ordinary.

Soldiers are all too aware of their mortality. Sheep dogs probably are not, but they are certainly very brave. My dogs show no tendency toward self-destructive behavior otherwise, but anything that wants to get in with the livestock will have to deal with them, even if the dogs have no chance. They have no back up in them at all. Great Pyrenees (the breed of dogs I have) are known for taking on wolves, bears, and anything else they need to in the course of their duties.

In this analogy of sheep and sheep dogs, I see a third character that I’d like to discuss, and that is the stockman. That, ladies and gentleman, boys and girls, would be me.

The stockman is ultimately responsible for the care of the stock. That is the reason the sheep dog is present, and the stockman is also responsible for the care of the sheep dog. If the situation would present itself, and on this farm it’s a bit hard to imagine, I could and would serve as backup to the dogs to protect the place from predators.

The dogs do make the sheep uncomfortable. So does the stockman, but this is only true when we are doing something out of the routine. When I go out to feed on the usual schedule the dogs often come with me. The sheep are fine with this.

Neither the sheep nor the dogs understand what is happening when I need to doctor them. When I hoof trim, worm, vaccinate, sheer, etc, the sheep, the biggest problem is to keep them from hurting themselves. It is necessary to physically restrain them to avoid injury to both the sheep and to me. They will do anything they can to avoid getting poked and prodded. They seem certain I’m about to eat them then and there without salt or condiments of any sort. Then thirty seconds after I’m done they’ll come around to check and see if I have any corn.

The dogs don’t like it any more than the sheep do, but I tell them to sit still and they tolerate it. They trust me and of course they are a lot smarter than sheep.

The care and comfort of the sheep is my responsibility, and I take it very seriously. This does not mean I attempt to keep them alive at all costs. Sheep (mostly lambs) are a crop we produce. They are food. I do not, usually, kill and butcher the lambs myself, but I am responsible for it. If it is done badly it is my fault. I owe them a clean death, and see to it that that is what they get.

I have at times killed sheep and similar animals. I don’t particularly enjoy it but it is a job that needs to be done and I do it. I also raise poultry and butcher as a matter of routine.

This sort of work is a bit gross, but no more so than assisting in the birth of a lamb that is a little too big for it’s mama. I did this just the other day, and it was a mess, but a genuine part of farm life. I very much enjoy farm life.

Sheep dogs of course are not food, but if one was to become so badly disabled that their quality of life was worse than I could tolerate, I would put the dog down. This is not fun but I have done it and may have to do it again. The worst part is making that judgment, also the job of the stockman.

It has never been my lot to kill another human. I hope it never is. I also hope that if it should be necessary in defense of self and/or others that I would be able to. I think I could, but I guess you never really know unless it happens. Plenty if insightful commentary is out there from folks who have been there and done that, this does not include me.

I have been present when people where dying. People I loved have died. Someday it will happen to me, to all of us. I think we need to provide comfort where we can, but most of all we need to live while we are alive. When my time comes, the first thing I hope I notice is change.

So I think life and death are all part of the same thing. There cannot be one without the other. When I here people mattering on like they do, as if life was some silly bambi cartoon, it makes me a bit sad.

Some folks will defend this foolishness with great energy. We have had visitors to the farm who have just about soiled themselves when a farm tour included a discussion of what the dressed weight of some animal might be. They are usually happy to take a place at the table however.

I think it is a true blessing to be able to live surrounded by so much life, and by death as well.

No comments: