For those of you who don't speak British Commonwealth idiomatic English, a crocodile can also mean a line of school children. The relevance of this term to the real topic of this Yarn will become clear later. (If you are one of those who read the last chapter first, skip to the video at the very end of the Yarn.) The real topic of this yarn is "Do sheep work?" More specifically, do my sheep consciously choose to cooperate in the work of the farm? If so, does that mean they are willing participants in the work of their world? What, in fact, do we mean by work and how does that differ from what sheep do all day?
In her wonderful book “What would animals say if we asked the right questions?” French philosopher and ethologist Vinciane Despret examines the way we think about animal behaviours, in a series of insightful, thought-provoking and often hilarious essays. For instance, there’s the anecdote about wild macaques in Indonesia stealing a professional photographer’s camera, then returning it to him several weeks later, complete with hundreds of pictures they had taken of each other. Oh, and the zoo monkey who feigned a debilitating illness over several days in order to fool and ultimately catch (and then pluck and release!) a crow that persisted in stealing the monkey’s food.
Here are a few of Vinciane’s ideas about livestock at work from the chapter entitled “W for Work”:
- It is hard to see the evidence for cooperative work when things are going well—it just looks easy. It’s the contrast, when animals choose to disobey or refuse to cooperate, that illuminates the deep and pervasive engagement in their work. It is precisely the willingness of the animals to cooperate that makes farming possible, and their work invisible.
- But is cooperation work? Do animals really choose to work, or are they simply reacting? This is a harder proposition to explore, because of the subtlety of eliciting motivation. Vinciane argues that collaborative work is an expression of “recognition”, in the sense of recognising the usefulness and integrity, or beauty, of the work, but also recognising the bond between those working. To the extent that a bond is formed between animal and human partners in work, Vinciane argues animals are choosing to work.
- Asking the question “Do animals work?” requires us to to examine our own human definition of work, which may not be a particularly good match for what animals do that could be called work. In one of her Billabong books, Australian author Mary Grant Bruce gives these lines to her main character Norah: "Work here [on the station] isn't just giving people jobs. It's life. It's sharing our life--doing all the things we do. Our work is full of odd jobs, and we all help each other and make a joke out of most of them." I'd like to think that's an apt description for my animals.
These ideas resonate with me, not least because they give me a framework to think about the many moments of interaction—“recognition” in Vinciane’s meaning—between me and individual animals, and with the flock as a whole. The bond of working together to a common goal—their health and well-being that turns into fibre for me to sell—is an ongoing amazement and source of joy. And the ideas also resonate because I've come to learn the truth of Norah's words--work is just life, lived with enjoyment, and sharing the fun with all who are involved in the work, animals included!
Because I spend hours at a time with the flock, I see many examples of the two faces of recognition: cooperation and resistance. A recent, particularly acute example of resistance took place when the sheep had to go back into the shed in preparation for shearing, just a day after they’d been there for crutching. Two days earlier, my special sheep willingly followed me right into the shed in preparation for crutching, eventually bringing the rest of the flock with them without undue pressure from the dogs or from me.
After the mildly traumatic experience of crutching (overnight in the holding shed, strange men manhandling them) even my pets steadfastly refused to follow me past the last gate into the holding area for the shed. Getting them all through that last gate was like the “bad old days” before I started shepherding. Their resistance was a totally justifiable response to my breaking our social contract: At crutching, I had led them into the “jaws of death”, or at least into an unhappy, uncomfortable time, rather than into a new, fresh, more diverse paddock where they would be more or less free to do as they wished.
In an example of cooperative work, I’ve been experimenting with how the social contract changes when I take the working dogs out of the picture. The short answer is: the social contract between me and the flock in the absence of the dogs exists, but is tenuous and fluid, and completely relies on the flock wanting to go in more or less the direction I'm trying to take them.
I assume that any emerging flock leader (ovine or human) would have a similar experience: the sheep will follow me when enough of them feel that my judgment is good. Otherwise, they simply ignore my overtures. Thus, if I am leading them into the wind when they are truly ready to move (rather than when half are still resting), toward a paddock with known good feed, and if I'm patient and quiet about it, I can get them to come with me for many hundreds of meters without the dogs. However, if I'm trying to go downwind, or into any area with a memory of danger or fear, it's a snowball's chance in Hades that they will come with me.
Though this can be exceedingly frustrating in the moment, in the larger sense of leadership, it's a wonderful model. Imagine it at work in a modern democracy: active civil disobedience from the entire populace in the face of idiotic leadership. It would make for a much safer, happier, and saner world.
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