Monday, May 6, 2019

Say hay

It’s springtime, and that means hay-bailing time. Wait, what? Oh, right; I live on a farm with goats, and it’s a tossup what would have made half-my-current-age me more skeptical, the statement about the farm with goats or the one about how I’ve begun training for my third fifty-mile ultra. Quarter-century me had just moved to a studio apartment in New York, and the only exercise she got was when she tried to beat someone else to a cab during a downpour. I doubt she even knew what hay was, other than a word on signs in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods. Half-century me literally makes hay while the sun shines, which it did on Sunday. My arms are sore and my brain is fuzzy from antihistamines, but I wouldn’t trade that for a cab on a rainy day in midtown Manhattan, no way.

One thing I will tell you, though: goats are jerks. This is not for the reason everyone probably thinks. When we got our four little weed-eaters, just about everyone who’s ever seen a goat chuckled and warned us to say goodbye to our shoes, clothes, bicycles, picket and/or chain-linked fences, and just about everything else our cloven-hoofed gang came into contact with. That hasn’t happened, not even a little. So far as I’m aware, the goats haven’t eaten a single thing that isn’t food. Granted, the food they love most happens to be the chickens’, which contains grains that would not be good for goat tummies, but they haven’t chomped on the chicken coop, like a kid with a Tootsie Pop, to get to the tasty morsels they so crave.

No, goats are jerks because even though, chicken feed aside, they are given plenty of good stuff to eat, there is a strictly enforced size-based hierarchy. McNabb, the biggest, monopolizes the food, chasing and head-butting anyone who dares sneak in a bite before he’s done. Berryman, second, goes after the other two. Kettle, third down, often takes sideswipes at Chubb. And poor little Chubb, the smallest and youngest, gets bullied by everyone. He’ll occasionally make half-hearted attempts to chase away the chickens so that he at least gets to be tougher than someone, but most of the time he simply goes off on his own, far away from the big boys, waiting for them to finish before he dares venture near.

There is no need for this kind of behavior, and it enrages me. “There is no need for this!” I’ll yell at them. “There is plenty enough for everyone.”

“Mehhhhhhh,” says McNabb. He sounds insolent.

“You have got to learn to share. Cooperation and mutualism means everyone benefits.”

Berryman fires a barrage of poop-shot at my feet.

Life is not a zero-sum game!”

Four pairs of slit-pupiled eyes stare at me. Four jaws grind at cud. Four minds calculate how they can get me to give them the most hay. I sigh and walk away, and because I happen to be heading toward the chicken coop where the good stuff is, there’s a stampede. This time for sure, they snort excitedly.

I’m pretty sure quarter-century me would have been appalled to think that after another quarter century, she’d be trying to teach goats the advantages of rational self-interest. K has pointed out that theirs is, of course, not surprising behavior. The goats are doing what instinct tells them to do. They don’t know there’s enough for all. Who does, really, know for certain that their future is secure? On top of the world today, in the depths of despair tomorrow—we all know it can happen, because we’ve all experienced versions thereof. And if we know we have certain advantages—size for goats; money or power or looks that conform to whatever societal standards of beauty happen to be in effect for people—who among us will wave a hand or a cloven hoof and say “oh dear, no, it would be unfair to use that to my advantage”?

I am often uncomfortable with people who claim that animals are superior to humans. I feel that these people are not paying nearly the tribute to animals they think they are, and what’s more, they are missing something rather important that could make life better for all of us. First off, obviously, we are animals. Any behavior people are capable of can be seen elsewhere in the animal kingdom. There is murder, warfare, and cannibalism. There is also altruism and affection, regret and grief. Animals use tools, farm for food, create art, sing and dance, and show a preference for mates that is purely aesthetic. Not all animals do all these things, of course, but then not all people do either. We are capable of all of them, though, and here’s that something-rather-important I mentioned: perhaps unlike any other animal, we are capable of not just performing these behaviors but evaluating them. What I see the goats doing looks very much like bullying to me, and it disturbs me a great deal because I see the same behavior in people. And if I can see it—hey, I’m nothing special—other people ought to do so as well. And if we can all see this, and understand how brutal, wasteful, and unnecessary it is, we should be able to do something about it. We should be able to change.

I suppose I should be trying to make this change happen in the world beyond these four acres of ours. That’s a daunting prospect, though, one that seems even more futile than trying to get four goats to share a tub of hay. Then again, who knew I’d be trying to do that ever? Onward, to the next quarter century I go.

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