As a teenager, I worked on a dairy farm in Morrill, Maine, and later as a hired hand on a sheep ranch in Bluebell, Utah. Often growing up, my family had chickens, ducks, geese, goats, pigs, cats, and dogs. There are several lessons I feel we could learn from the animals. In discussing the animals, you are left to choose whether the lesson applies to you or not. I am not here to convince anyone, I merely relate what I have observed and the lessons I learned. If you can use the lesson to improve your life, I have achieved my goal. If you choose not to like the lesson for any reason, happily know you are not the audience intended, and move on smartly.
Let me be perfectly clear, gender is an eternal construct, is established in the first building blocks of a body, and cannot be changed. Consider for a moment with me the steps in the gestation process of any animal. The egg is fertilized, and the fertilization process is self-explanatory, needing no additional discussion from me. After the egg is fertilized by sperm from a male, the egg from the female becomes a zygote. This clump of cells shortly gender is known, and the biological differences between a male and a female begin.
Males develop larger lungs, denser bones, and other chemical and biological differences. Females develop smaller lung capacity, less dense bones, and other chemical and biological differences. We had a female goat who liked to mount other female goats. While this was highly uncomfortable for the mounted female goat and generally produced fights between the females, we never worried about the goats becoming pregnant. Interestingly, after this female goat had been impregnated, this female stopped mounting other female goats and was a great mother of kids. Not speaking goat, I never understood why she mounted other females in what could have been considered her teenage years; one thing was sure, gender did not change because the goat was confused.
It never ceased to amaze me that one could reliably tell the males from the females almost immediately from birth. Due to their birth size, their growth, and their respective attitudes. In observing a group of kittens, the males would dominate the females for momma’s attention, the best places to nurse, and innately knew they were male. The females were smaller, leaner, and sometimes just as feisty and stubborn as the males; they knew they were different from the males.
Later while tending sheep, another interesting lesson was learned regarding gender. Ewes, female sheep, who had lost their lambs, knew somehow if a misgendered animal was placed before them and drove that animal away. That ewe knew she had birthed a male or female lamb, and any orphan trying to feed would not do; only orphans of the same gender, wearing the skins of their original lamb, were allowed to become a stepchild and be accepted if the ewe permitted them.
Another lesson learned watching a shepherd was the decisions of the ewes. I saw ewes stand next to a stillborn lamb until the shepherd collected that lamb for disposal. Crying, mourning, and sometimes choosing to end their life by not eating instead of adopting a motherless lamb. I am not anthropomorphizing an animal here, that mother losing her lamb cried, mourned, and entered a depression where the ewe chose to join her lamb in death, and regrettably it did not happen only once or twice. I do not know if the same happens for goats, cows, or other animals. I know it happens for mother cats and sheep as I have observed these animals and witnessed this event for myself.
On the topic of orphaned lambs, I noticed something important, lambs with mothers, even adopted mothers, were less daring, got into less hazardous situations, and generally were calmer socially. Orphan lambs were wild, got into trouble, did not come to eat without insistence, and several times did not learn from past mistakes, injured, and sometimes died. I do not know why orphaned lambs acted this way, and without anthropomorphizing, an animal cannot dictate well what I sense is the answer. I know for certain that ewes impart information to lambs, which is an essential aspect of the health and safety of the herd.
A mother goat, sheep, horse, cat, etc., knows their children, numbers their children, and looks after them. I witnessed a mother goat kicking the head of a kid who belonged to another goat but who was hungry and wanted food. Driving that kid off to find their mother relentlessly, and learned something of note. At first, I thought this was just an ornery goat thing, but then I saw a horse, a mother pig, a mother cat, and other animal mothers repeat the lesson learned about mothers knowing and numbering their children. A rare mother indeed will accept an animal orphan, and there is order in the animal kingdom!
Order in the Animal Kingdom
Consider with me a process all herd managers perform, the castration process. A bull castrated does not grow the female reproductive organs and becomes a cow. A castrated lamb does not change gender after castration; even if that lamb is provided hormones from female animals, that lamb is male. A neutered cat does not regrow new reproductive organs or change genders; from birth to death, the gender of that animal is cast, they do not change, and their instincts remain embedded in that animal.
Order is created and not disordered merely due to the loss of a few reproductive organs. Mothers choose to allow orphans to replace their children or become their children. Some animal fathers are part of their children’s lives; others grow merely with the input of their mothers. Regardless, great order is found and maintained in the animal kingdom over roles assigned by gender at birth.
Allow me to elaborate with some observations. A ewe whom the shepherd relied upon to adopt lambs refused to adopt a lamb. The shepherd tried everything, including rubbing the lamb in the still wet lamb’s skin, skinning the dead lamb and securing the dead lamb’s skin on the orphaned lamb, and even placing the mother into a pen with her head secured to give the lamb a chance to suckle. Nothing worked, and all of the methods had worked previously. Several days later, the ewe died unexpectedly, and the veterinarian determined that the mother ewe had had a disease and probably sensed this when refusing that orphan to suckle. Order is maintained in the herd, and the condition this ewe had contracted was not passed along to a new lamb.
Our gander had taken a spouse, and when the goose died sitting on a nest, the gander was exceedingly heartbroken—calling day and night for his spouse, all to no avail. After a time, the gander took to liking the ducks whose drake had flown the coop unexpectedly. Seeing as there was no drake and no female goose, the gander took to mourning his spouse but sleeping with the female ducks. But, the gander was violently opposed to any duck sitting on a nest, and my parents could not understand why. My parents captured some eggs that had not been smashed to pieces and tried to incubate the eggs. The animals born were not ducks or geese, and none survived long. There is order maintained in the animal kingdom, and the animals themselves know how to keep that order.
It never ceases to amaze me the order and respect animals have for order in the animal kingdom. In raising goats and cows, the information gained through smell was always interesting to me that allowed animals to act how and why they did. I could not smell the difference between herds, but the animals knew, and when herds of the same animals mingled, the order was still maintained, and herd integrity was sustained.
A goat and sheep hered we knew raised the sheep and the goats together; even though both species ate the grass differently and had to be moved more often, raising them together helped protect the herd. One day another herd was being driven through the area, and a couple of animals got into the pens. But, the goats and sheep raised together knew the outsider was not orderly and helped keep those animals away from their young and isolated from the whole herd. The smell is the only answer I have as the foreign herd was smelled by our herd and shunned. Even when new animals were introduced for the herd to grow, it took several days and several smelling sessions before those new animals were trusted by the rest of the herd.
In one Herculean effort, I heard a goat herder who tried to introduce a foreign billy into the goatherd due to the death of the former billy. The nanny goats would have nothing to do with the new billy, even when draped in the skin of the old billy goat. The goat herder tried everything, but until that billy had spent sufficient time with the nannies and smelled correctly, the billy was powerless to lead the herd and perform the duties he had been purchased to complete. Interestingly, a similar problem occurred for a cattle farmer when introducing a foreign bull. The cows refused his bull-like advances until the bull had spent time with the herd. While I do not know if these are isolated incidents, I merely know that order is essential in the animal kingdom.
Lessons for Humans to Consider:
- Gender does not change merely because a person wants it. The disorder caused by trying to be a different gender has repercussions and consequences beyond that individual’s choice.
- Humans and animals have will and agency, but order remains an essential characteristic of the world. I have heard that scientists have found great order when the observed chaos is understood. Through magnification, scientists have moved closer to how things move, and I find it incredible the order found that once was described as chaos.
- Parents have a duty and role to play. However, their children also play a role, and the order found in families is a prerequisite to good societies. An animal analogy, the herd of sheep I moved and cared for as a hired hand was a collective society. They had rules, expectations, and those not choosing to follow the herd society regularly found themselves in danger when the weather changed, when a threat was near, and generally were the ones you could count on to be injured or die unexpectedly.
- Diary cows, after milking, will run to the farthest fence in a field; if they find the fence strong, the whole herd will congregate, graze, and chew their cud knowing strong fences protect them. In a storm, trusting the fences, the dairy cows will huddle together and move as a unit to protect younger cows and warm each other. Dairy cows are not terribly different from humans, we push at barriers (laws), and if we find them sufficiently strong, we band together for protection into social circles and groups. Failure of laws finds society broken and easily conquered by external and internal threats.
- Order in human societies remains an essential element in protecting, promoting, and providing social growth and development. Herds of animals, gaggles of geese, flocks of ducks, murder of ravens, etc., all depend upon the order in their society, or that society falls apart and, like iron filings to a magnet, has to reform into new organizations.
Are humans really so different from animals? Are human societies much different from the societies of animals? I ponder these questions regularly and am not surprised when social problems in humans are resolved by watching animal herds. Covering a bull in the skin of a horse does not make a bull into a horse. Castrating a bull does not morph the bull into a cow. We must understand better the order, the laws, and the social requirements for society. Animals and humans choose which society (country, town, city, etc.) they prefer. If they choose to belong to that society, they must obey or onboard that society’s rules and social expectations.
Rarely does the 80% of the herd get into trouble, but the 20% of the herd does not sway or influence into danger the other 80%. Right now, in human societies, there is a vocal 20% who insist that their reality must become the reality of the entire community. Do we sacrifice the safety and security of the 80% for the choices and lifestyles of the 20%? This is the question before us, and animal societies have provided the answer if we are willing to act accordingly.
© Copyright 2022 – M. Dave Salisbury
The author holds no claims for the art used herein, the pictures were obtained in the public domain, and the intellectual property belongs to those who created the images. Quoted materials remain the property of the original author.