Friday, November 26, 2010

Cattle Language

I guess languages have always fascinated me. Working with cattle, and being a reasonably observant person, I noticed cattle communicating with each other. We want to think of them as stupid beasts. We eat them. We break up their families, keep them in feedlots knee deep in manure for months, and kill them in front of their friends. We want to think they don’t know what’s happening. Cattle have been domesticated for about 10,000 years. If we don’t understand them, it is because we don’t want to.

I knew cattle made noises and had body language. I learned to tell if they were happy, distressed, angry, and the other things that affected my working them. My epiphany came one day when we had driven a team of my oxen to a neighbor’s with a load of stone. As we were working, the oxen were grazing next to the pasture fence. The neighbor’s steers came up and greeted my oxen. They all arched their backs, raising their heads high as they greeted. My oxen were an easy six feet at the shoulder and weighed near 2,500 pounds each. These little steers weighed under a thousand each. I knew the basic greeting sniffs so this was something different. I also knew that my oxen would sometimes make similar gestures toward me. Watching the rest of the body language, I realized I was seeing a submission signal. This was the foot in the door.

In the years that followed, I stayed alert to examples of communication between the animals and on occasion with me. I noticed begging sounds. We figured out there were “words” reserved for good friends and others for strangers. We found them trying to tell us things. And, we learned to use their language.

Because they found we were paying attention, they have become more comfortable telling us what they want. This has been a big help in working them. Just to give one example, other teamsters are always surprised when we are working and I will stop the team, turn them loose to get a drink and when they are done, they will come right back to their places on the load. What happens is that George (usually) will give the begging moan (a low moo that I think could be translated as “please”) and suck in his third stomach. He is thirsty. I believe him. He is the spokesman. As soon as I can, I turn them loose for a drink. Because they know they will be listened to, they get their drink and come back.

What makes cattle hard to understand is that they use contractions extensively.  A full-blown submission signal is reserved for strangers. In the herd, among friends, a simple bob of the head suffices. When I realized this, a vast amount of communications that I had been missing was suddenly revealed. We now know thirty-two words and postures that we can identify and use. I am not sure how much of their language this is, I suspect we are nearing the end of the dictionary.

When you watch cattle, in life, or a video of some sort, you can see them trying to communicate, sometimes poignantly. I just saw a clip of a rodeo. Just before the turnout men tightened the flank strap, the bull begged them not to do it. He knew what was coming. He had been ridden before. That strap hurts and he didn’t want it. And he said so. Same film, different clip, a bull in a ring in Spain fell down as the picadors were teasing him. He lay there giving the submission signal repeatedly. When you know what they are, you can’t miss them.

In a future posting, I will list the “words” we have found. I would really like feedback.  I am not that sure that I have it all right. The only way we are going to get this straight and on paper is with help.

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