Wednesday, October 29, 2008


"The animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.

They are not brethren; they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth."
- by Henry Beston, The Outermost House, 1928

If anything sums up my feelings about animals, both wild and domestic, it is Henry Beston's eloquent thoughts.

My maternal grandparents were self-sufficient farmers. They raised sheep, pigs, cows, chickens and all the crops needed to feed their livestock. They also tended a large, productive garden and preserved as much produce as possible. Grandma put up wild fruit too - elderberry jelly, for instance. They sold the excess milk from their two cows and sold eggs from all of Grandma's chickens to help bring in a bit of extra cash. They themselves drank the milk, ate the chickens and the eggs. They butchered a calf from one of the milk cows every year. The beef and poultry were kept frozen, wrapped in white butcher paper, stored in the "locker" in town. (Before the days of home freezers, each little town and burg had a meat locker where people could rent space to store their own frozen meat.) Whenever my grandparents went to town, they would stop by the locker for several frozen packages of meat to restock their refrigerator at home.

Their livelihood was dependent upon their animals, and their lives were dependent upon their animals. None of the animals were kept as pets but my Grandfather never abused any of them in his care. He got up before dawn every day of his farming life and tended to all the animals before he himself ate breakfast. He was a gentle old man with the milk cows, patiently waiting for them to find their stall and situate themselves before he started milking. Of course, he was an old man by the time I knew him, but I can not imagine that he was ever anything but kind to his livestock. He had respect for them and some measure of affection for them as well.

My paternal grandfather raised Hereford cattle. He knew all of his cattle by sight, amazingly enough. Beef cattle are roped, de-horned, branded, castrated, herded up and hauled off to market. I was never around the messiest activities, but I am certain all activities were expertly handled with the least amount of pain and distress to my Grandfather's animals as possible. Beef cattle are not coddled by anyone but some ranchers treat them better then others.

My paternal grandfather was also a genuine cowboy, an old bronc rider. I have photos of him as a young man riding saddle broncs at Kingman, Kansas. He knew all about horses. The old ways of "cowboying" were extreme compared to some of the more enlightened methods of today. I am certain my grandfather was as kind to his horses as anyone knew to be in those days. He cared for his livestock and held affection for them as well.

It was my mother who taught my brothers and me how to respect and care for animals. She loved all animals and held a gentleness and an empathy toward them. If a dog growled over its food bowl, we were taught to leave that dog alone while he was eating. I see on television that it is common practice to have those types of "food aggressive" dogs destroyed in shelters. If children have not been taught to respect a dog's space, then perhaps it is better for all involved to put those dogs down. Personally, I feel it is a grave injustice to some of the dogs.

Our mother taught us to be kind to animals. No one was allowed to pull on our pets, or squish them, or treat them roughly, not even young children. We were taught to treat animals gently and with respect. We knew to be careful of strange dogs. We knew to be very watchful around all the livestock, especially animals with babies.

The Native American respect for animals as fellow beings on this planet, as brothers whose sacrifice fed and clothed The People has always resonated with me. How simple it is to acknowledge the sacrifice of any animal that gives its life so we may live. Our current American society holds little respect for the animals slaughtered in the millions so we may eat, or earn a living. It is an illness in our culture to consider cows and chickens as stupid beasts. Comedians make fun of them. Animals are simply commodities, not living beings. It seems that a majority of "city folk" think intelligence has been domesticated out of cattle and pigs and chickens and other food animals. That is a mistake.

Earlier this summer I parked my truck along the county road to sit quietly sketching the scenery. When I first arrived, a herd of perhaps thirty-five cows were watching me intently, most of them along the fence. In a short while one of the cows began to moo, but I did not pay much attention. When I happened to look up, all the cattle had moved out of sight just over a rise, except one. She was standing alone, carefully watching me and my truck. I realized she was the one who had warned her charges to safety, out of sight of the human in the truck. She was bravely standing between her herd and me. If cattle were allowed freedom, if all the millions of miles of barbed wire vanished and the cattle could roam, they would survive.

Cattle have a herd society when they are allowed to live as naturally as possible. Sometimes the calves are watched over by one or two babysitters, while the mothers get a break away from them. When the bulls are allowed to live among the cows and calves, even the bulls have been known to babysit.

I admire people who can be vegetarians, but that diet is not for me. I can not seem to survive without meat. I send up silent acknowledgment for the give-away of the animal when I eat. I have performed simple ceremonies on behalf of the animals that have given away so that I may live.

I understand the extreme militant faction of groups like PETA, but I do not agree with their tactics. I do think we could make some fundamental and relatively inexpensive changes in the way animals are raised and slaughtered. I believe intensive corporate farming is inhumane. Once the world has been depleted of cheap fossil fuels, then we all will have to move to a local economy out of necessity. Once again people who lived like my grandparents will be needed, farmers and ranchers who supplied their own food with surplus for sale to their neighbors. It will go better for ourselves and the animals.

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