Advertisements
Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘domestic animals’ Category

black angus

The snow swirls wildly.  Whiteout conditions then subsume the land. But just as soon as the snow squalls came, the sun blinks and out, and the snow clouds dissipate. The dusting left on the dormant grass melts away. It is the sallow grass of winter.

But soon it will be greening, for we have entered into that oddball month that runs from late March to late April, when the days switch from balmy sweetness of coming spring to the driving chills of winter. The two forces will war against each other over the next month.

Spoiler alert: the warm and balmy beats the dagger cold in the end.

This is the time of the great calving. Not of glaciers or of wild beasts but of the beef cattle that move their way through the green pastures, munching away at their forage, getting fat as they fart and belch and chew cud in the sunshine.

The agrarian life is in a moribund state here in North-Central West Virginia. The old ways of farmers turning out a few beef cows with calves and keeping a few head of sheep are slowly but surely in decline. Georgia and Tennessee are better lands for beef, and the price of wool is but a pittance.  Big agribusiness works the more fertile lands of the Midwest, Great Plains, and California, and the mixed operation little hill farmer of the Alleghenies is left way behind.

Only a few souls cling to the business of cattle. Virtually none do it full-time. My own grandfather on my mother’s side was one of these part-time cattlemen. He was a school bus-driver. He “drove bus” is the way his occupation was described.  But his heart was in raising beef cattle. He was not a man of great education, but he was every bit as into improving his strains as Robert Bakewell or Thomas Coke. He was always looking for a fine bull to put to his cows, and he never kept any scrub cattle.

But now the old farmers have gone. Their children have gone off to make their fortunes elsewhere, and by now, several generations have been removed from that lifestyle.  Children’s hands, which once milked dairy cattle, now caress smart phones and video game controls. To most of us, this world as a foreign as Outer Mongolia.

But I often drive this stretch of rural road, though, where the farmer still turn out their cattle into roadside pastures. And in between the March snow squalls, I slip along this road.

The cattlemen along this road keep only “black Angus” or the crossbred form known as a black baldy. These Scottish cattle grow thick coats during the winter chill, and although they are hornless, they sort of make me think of bison when I see them. Their shaggy hides just have that sort of primeval look to them.

And March is the time when the calves drop. They fall black and wet onto the yellow grass, and their mothers stand over them, licking them with the deep cleaning, stimulating strokes of their muscular tongues.

And then they rise from the grass and drink the colostrum, while the snow flies all around them.

The cattlemen breed the cows to give birth in March, so the calves can grow and mature on the green grass of spring. That way, they can get top dollar at the autumn livestock markets.

There is a toughness in these cattle, though they are so carefully bred for their fine marbled beef, that they drop their young into this time in which the winter chills square off against the coming spring warmth.

This scene feels ancient, but in long history of the Alleghenies, it is but a brief footnote. Mammoths and mastodons once dropped the calves here, as did the ancient North American bison.  And when the Europeans came, the forests were full of elk and modern-day bison, and they too had their young in the spring sunshine on these glady hills.

And 50 years ago, the Angus weren’t grazing the hillsides. The very stately English Herefords were the beef breed of choice, and a hundred years ago, the most farmers kept shorthorns, which are always called “Durhams” in West Virginia. Cross them with Jersey or Holstein, and you’ve got a nice little dairy cow.  The rest can be killed for beef or sold to market.

As I drive down the road, I come to pasture that is enclosed by an 8-foot fence of woven wire. When I first saw this fence, I thought it odd. Most cattlemen just put in four strands of barbed wire, and if that doesn’t hold the cows back, a solar paneled electric fence certainly will.

But here, the fence is so elaborate, and I never could figure out why it was so.

And then one day, I saw a them standing along the fence nearest the road. They were a herd of about a dozen bison.

They looked out of place behind the woven wire.  In my mind, a bison is a wild animal, one that our greed largely killed off in the past two hundred years.

But on this farm, they have returned, but their reintroduction is ersatz. Two hundred years ago, the bison roamed up from the Ohio River Valley during the early spring to eat the rich mountain grasses, and every winter, they would wander out of the snowfields of the higher mountain into the mild river bottoms.

These bison, though, are confined. Sooner or later, they would go to slaughter. Their wildness has been bottled up, but I can’t help but wonder if they would enjoy running loose as their wild ancestors once did.

I think of these bison and of these cattle, and I think about the question of permanence. In a thousand years, will this bison or the Angus still be grazing these pastures? Will the pastures even exist, or will the temperate forest absorb the grasslands as they have done with all the old hill farms that have been abandoned to nature? Will the snows of March still come flying in that great whirlwind battle between warmth and freezing chill? Or will the warming climate declare final victory over the March snow?

Permanence is illusory.  To adhere to that illusion is to become subject to a delusion.  Sooner or later, the fracking trucks will come, and if the groundwater gets ruined, these little farms will be gone.

Economics and ecology will simply clear it all off, just as these forest bison were cleared off nearly two hundred years ago.

So now behold this land of the black buffalo, but don’t blink.  It might not be around too much longer.

 

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

Source.

I came across this rather remarkable little documentary a few weeks ago. It features the work and ideas of John Skeaping, who made his name as a painter of horses.

It has wonderful footage of the bulls and horses of the Camargue in South of France, as well as the “cowboys” who tend them and how they rely upon the wisdom of the horses to manage the wild bulls safely and efficiently.

Skeaping was quite worried about the downgrading of animal art because artists couldn’t stop themselves from projecting their humanness onto them. He calls the “sentimentalizing,” but I would have called it something else. He talks about the domestic animals having a kind being “wild,” and if you think for just a few second, you can figure what he’s talking about.

Essentially, we’re debasing animals by turning them into humanized versions of the beast. This was the great sin of Timothy Treadwell, who sang songs and talked baby talk to Alaskan brown bears and then wound up partially consumed by one.  It’s the same sort of humanization that I see as the underpinnings of the irrational aspects of the animal rights movement.

It is wrong to say that animals are just mindless automatons with no feelings or no insight, but it is just as wrong to assume that those feelings and insights are the same sort that we have.

And although Skeaping’s main concerns were with art, these ideas can be extended into how we view animals in general. Much of what is totally wrong in the domestic dog is really removing them from their “wildness.” This is why I think my aesthetics are more strongly influence by dogs bred solely for their purpose than over dogs bred for show. A dog bred for show has been bred for appearance and movement, which may or may not have any kind of evaluation in the actual world.  It comes across as an overly sentimentalized portrait of a horse does. I see the “wilder” aspects of a dark-colored working golden retriever as infinitely more stunning that any dog winning at Westminster or Crufts. The former still largely exists within the milieu that created it. It might not be exactly like white horses of the Camargue, but it still approaches them more in their dignity than the dog bred solely for conformation.

He was able to point out, nearly 50 years ago, where the human and animal relationship would go awry. It’s as we’ve begun to alienate ourselves from the processes that produced those animals, we’ve allowed our human tendency to project cuteness and emotion to get the better of us. The working English cocker has more feral eyes than the round-eyed, shagged-up American cocker, and although one is certainly more useful than the other, the aesthetics of working dog are just so much more pleasant to my eye than the other.

There is a scene in the documentary where Skeaping allows his two very roughly cut standard poodles run loose in a bit of marshland, and they move with such grace and power. He gets some of the history of poodles and French herding breeds messed up in his commentary, but he very eloquently describes poodle as the raw water dog of yore.

This animal is outside our popular understanding of the poodle. We see it as the canine topiary, even though many of the standards retain this essence of their ancestors. It is hard to explain the uninitiated what a poodle and what it can be.

As I think what this means for the future of the human and animal bond, I shudder a bit. We don’t see the horse’s gait the way we once did.  It was once as important how the horse gaited as how smooth a family sedan rides. Now, it’s only as important as much as one gets pleasure from riding it. The conformation of dogs and horses were not esoteric theories that were debated by only those in the cliques and clubs. It was once essential knowledge.

We have the luxury now to have this knowledge drawn out in the abstraction. Horses are still largely owned by only people who use them, but dogs can go any direction our flights of fancy demand.

Each breed moves on deeper into the realm of caricature of its ancestors. Some, like the bulldog and the pug, may be removed from all hope of ever having even a glimmer that former animalistic glory. They have become the living caricatures of what once was and never shall be.

And the same can be seen in the wedge-head Siamese and the brachycephalic exotic short-hair. It was the same with chickens and pigeons and Rouen ducks with keels that drag the ground. We’re now seeing it with rats and mice, and any other small fluffy things that we’ve managed to domesticate.

We are the sculptors of animal flesh and bone now. We were once limited by the climate and the simple utility of the animal. But as we come to rely less and less upon the work of some many domestic species, they become subject to our whimsy.

And this whimsy moves us further along into the abstract. What we’re leaving behind is the domestic animal as an art-form.

They will exist, but they will be so modified that they will cease to be.

Read Full Post »

Simmental cattle deal with a predator!

Source.

Read Full Post »

Feral donkeys on Bonaire.

Feral donkeys on Bonaire. 

The Nubian wild ass hasn’t been seen in the wild since the 1950s. The subspecies has been presumed to be extinct. It lived in the Red Sea Hills and the Atbara region of Sudan.

Based upon ancient mitochondrial DNA analysis, it was revealed that there were at least two wild populations that are the source for domestic donkeys. The Nubian wild ass was the source one of the clades of donkeys, and the other came froma mystery population. Somali wild asses, the other extant subspecies of African wild ass that actally still can be found in the wild, is not a source for mitochondrial DNA diversity in domestic donkey.

I say all of this right up front, because what I am about to discuss are the limits of using mtDNA analysis to determine the relationship between populations, especially when one is trying to figure out whether feral population has some taxonomic distinctness.

The Dutch Empire still holds steadfastly to some islands in Caribbean. Among these is Bonaire, which is located just north of Venezuela. On that island is a population of feral donkeys, and the current excitement is the possibility that these animals might be pure Nubian wild asses.

If they are, they could be the very last of their subspecies, which is pretty amazing.  Keep in mind that there is no real historical context I can think of that connects an island off the coast of Venezuela with Sudan. Now, it’s certainly true that the Dutch colonists were connected to an empire that was all over the Indian Ocean, and the same can be said about the British and Spanish, who also occupied the island at various points in its history.

But even if they were connected across these maritime empires, why would anyone bring wild donkeys to an island and turn them loose?

And that brings us to the evidence for the Bonaire donkeys being Nubian wild asses. This is where mtDNA alone analysis can cause problems.

Researchers at Texas A & M performed an mtDNA analysis with samples from some Bonaire donkeys, samples from Nubian wild asses that were part of museum collections, sequences from four Somali wild asses, and one sequence from a domestic donkey that was available from the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

The results showed that the Bonaire donkeys were very close to historical Nubian wild asses and very different from the Somali wild asses and the domestic one.

I looked at the cladogram set up from the mtDNA analysis, and my curiosity was piqued. The domestic donkey’s mtDNA didn’t fit with the Nubians, but we do know that a lot of domestic donkeys actually do descend from Nubian wild asses. Nubian wild asses are a source for their mtDNA diversity, as I mentioned earlier.

But this NCBI sample wasn’t from the Nubian population.  Remember that the study I linked to earlier showed that some domestic donkey mtDNA sequences came from an undocumented population that was neither Somali nor Nubian. This particular sample could have come from that mtDNA lineage in domestic donkeys, but if they had included those that had Nubian ancestry, my guess is things would get complicated fairly quickly. The domestic donkey was used as a control, when in reality the best research method would have been to include a lot of samples from domestic donkeys in the study.

For some reason, this just wasn’t done.

Occam’s razor suggests to me that these donkeys aren’t Nubian wild asses after all. If more samples of domestic donkey are included in the analysis, I bet there will be several of them that come up very close to Nubian.

This is why we have to be careful of mtDNA-only studies, and the researchers at Texas A&M may not be aware for the new data on donkey domestication. Some donkeys have Nubian wild ass mtDNA, and others have mtDNA from a mystery wild ass population, which is not of the Somali subspecies.

We need more evidence to see if what the Bonaire donkeys are, but I think it is a very giant leap to call them the last Nubian wild asses.

Of course, what prompted this study is that late last year, the government of Bonaire was going to institute a donkey cull, which, of course, upset animal rights groups. With this analysis by Texas A&M in hand, the government was forced to halt the donkey cull.

However, the evidence that these donkeys are “pure Nubian wild asses” is nowhere near as convincing as it sounds.

I would like them to be. Don’t get me wrong.

But I’m not betting on it.

 

Read Full Post »

The wild type

When I was eleven years old, I went hamster crazy.

At that age, I was a connoisseur of books on pets and wildlife, and I owned countless Barron’s books on pets. I had ones on all the common breeds of dog, including one on golden retrievers.  I discovered that the dog book were all written by Americans or by people living in America or writing for an American audience, and often, the books would just have enough filler about that particular breed, which would be followed by chapters that were essentially the same in every single book. Breed did not matter.

However, there were a few exceptions to this rule. Some books were really detailed and had fascinating narratives about the dogs they kept.  They were really good. The book on dachshunds by Leni Fiedelmeier was unbelievably good. The author actually told stories about her dogs as a way illustrating the best way to care for them.

I noticed very quickly that the book was a translation from German. The dogs all had German names, and most of the dachshunds in the photographs in the book were wire-haired, which is the least common variety in North America.

So it was a good book.

I noticed that the only books from that series that were any good were those that were originally written in German. German-speaking pet owners were much more willing to get personal in their books. They were much more willing to help you understand the animal and appreciate it for what it was.

And that’s what brought me to hamsters.

The book on hamsters was by Otto von Frisch. I had no idea who that was, but years later, I learned that Otto was the son of the famous ethologist Karl von Frisch. He was a respected director at the Brunswick Natural History Museum, but he was a master naturalist. His descriptions of hamster behavior and natural history captured my imagination as nothing had before.

I knew that I had to have a golden hamster.

And not just any golden hamster.

Throughout the translation, every time the author mentioned the hamsters that possessed the original coat coloration, they were always referred to as “the wild type.”

That term captured my imagination, and I knew that I wanted to have a male golden hamster of the wild type.

When I went to the pet store to buy my first hamster, all that was available was a female black-eyed cream. She was  a nasty biter, and though I gave her the name of Linda, we always called her the Black-eyed Bitch.

I was given an ancient Teddy bear hamster soon after I got my first one, and then I bought a cinnamon and banded one. The banded one was wild-type, but only on her front and back.

It turned out that the cinnamon hamster was pregnant, and she gave birth a litter of ten. Nine of the babies were banded wild-types, which told me that the wild type was dominant, as were the bands. But one of the little ones was a true wild type without any banding at all.

I kept him, and he was my first male hamster. I came to prefer the males to the females. The males, although smaller, were pluckier and more confident. They matured more muscled up and svelte. I came to notice their scent glands on their hips, which they would rake along the sides of their enclosures. On a wild type male, these glands would stain their fur a bright yellow, almost like epaulets on their tawny sable forms.

They were tame in that they tolerated my presence and handling. As solitary animals, I doubt they ever gave me a passing glance. They were other beings, prisoners in our civilization that somehow adapted to our plastic “labyrinth” enclosures, water bottles, and exercise wheels.

My eleven-year-old mind could not comprehend that these animals were derived from a single litter captured in Syria in 1930.  I could not grasp the concept of how inbred these animals were. They were all derived from single litter– indeed a single male and single female from that litter– and that they had somehow survived that bottleneck and were available at virtually every pet shop for $5.00.

I did not anthropomorphize them. No, I did worse than that.  The animals I knew all around me were dogs, and I began to project upon them the essence of canines. I even tried to train them a few tricks, which they never learned.

If I owned a hamster now, I think I would have greater appreciation for them as hamsters. I would think of them hanging out in some of the most ancient fields of wheat, occasionally stealing a bit of the grain store for themselves or perhaps falling prey to those first domestic cats.

When I reread Frisch’s book on hamsters, I am able to appreciate this creature. It lived unknown to science until 1839, when a British zoologist first described a specimen of mid-sized hamster from what is now Syria. But they are creatures of the cultivated field, and they knew about our kind for thousands of years before we came to know them.

And yet they remain so distant.

As prisoners in a foreign land should be.

 

Read Full Post »

This fell-looking beast is a Romanian hamster (Mesocricetus newtoni).  It’s a close relative of the golden hamster (Mesocricetus auratus) that we know so well from the pet trade. They are in the same genus, and they have been hybridized in captivity.

This species is found in southern Romania and Bulgaria and is found in uncultivated grassland. The golden or Syrian hamster is found almost exclusively in wheatfields in northern Syria and southern Turkey. It has even been suggested that the golden hamster has evolved to live in cultivated fields in much the same way domestic animals have evolved to live with us.

Of course, we really don’t know.  Golden hamsters are quite uncommon in the wild, and they were when they were first described to science in the 1930’s.

It may be that there is something with modern agricultural practices that makes these hamsters incompatible with agriculture.

So here we have two species evolving to live very different lives. One is a creature of the cultivated field, while the other is that of the wild grassland.

Strangely, we know next to nothing about the golden hamster in the wild, and it happens to be located in area that I would not recommend anyone visiting right now– for any reason. You might get carried away and lose your head!

But the Romanian species can be studied now. There were attempts to make it a model laboratory animal like its Syrian cousin, but it proved harder to breed. We might be able to get some insights about wild hamster behavior from this species, even though it’s not at all the same animal as the familiar pet.

The golden hamster, by contrast, was very easy to breed in captivity, even though it’s an unusually inbred population. With the exception of some strains that were founded by wild-caught individuals in the 1990’s, all of the golden hamsters available at pet shops are derived from three survivors of a litter captured at Aleppo in 1930.

These animals appear to be super-domesticated, but as someone who used to breed hamsters, I can tell you they aren’t that far removed from wild animals. They readily escape their enclosures, and I never had one that didn’t bite me at least once.

Because of the geopolitical issues in the golden hamster’s range, it is very unlikely that we’re going to get new hamster blood or garner more knowledge about their behavior in the wild– at least in the near future.

There are so many questions, but maybe through the study of the European cousin, we might get some answers.

And some more questions to ask.

 

 

Read Full Post »

I spent a few weekends last month traveling remote country roads. These are potholed ribbons of blacktop that meander along densely forested ridges and through little pastures that look as though they had just been hewn out of the forest primeval. The truth is the forest is the newcomer. Fifty years before, the land was virtually nothing but a vast expanse of rocky pastureland.

The depopulation of West Virginia is a story that is little known, but as the agrarian economy fell apart in the early decades of the twentieth century,  the children of the mountains ran off to find industry in places like Cleveland and Detroit. Later generations would race off to life in the Carolina and Georgia Sunbelts.

But few stayed to farm.

For those of you a bit confused by the term, no one in West Virginia “ranches.”  A person who raises cattle is a farmer. The word “ranch” connotes the vast openness of the West, whereas the land here is snug and tight and more than a bit obscured.

I came across several of these little beef operations. Beef prices are high now, so the farmers are taking what advantage of the market they can.

Most beef producers in West Virginia keep “black Angus,” the vaunted black cow from Scotland with its very well marketed marbled beef. In most of the rest of the world, the breed is called an Aberdeen-Angus, and it includes both a black and a liver-colored variety. The liver-colored ones are called “red Angus” and are marketed as something other than true “black Angus.”

I’ve always thought these black cattle were rather homely. They are lardy little brutes, but when the mud and feces cling to their shedding winter coats, they don’t really have that much appeal.

But within the past few years, there has been a bit of renaissance among the Hereford cattle. These are the stately English beef cattle that once made up the backbone of the American beef industry. They are named for the English of Hereford, which is pronounced “Hair-a-ferd,” but in America, for some unknown reason, we call them “Hurfurds.”   (I think the British pronunciation sounds more fitting for one of these animals.)

They always look very English to me. They remind me very much of bovine equivalent of an eighteenth century English gentleman, decked out in a red coat and wearing a powdered wig.

In May, the West Virginia’s little hill pastures take on a semblance of a George Stubbs painting:  well-bred livestock and horses standing out in the greenest pastures.

And Hereford cattle certainly add to the delusion.

When I was a child, I learned the big herds of bison that the first European settlers encountered when they crossed into the Trans-Allegheny West. They were but a foretaste of the great throng of bison that they would encounter as they crossed in the Midwest and deep into the Great Plains.

The bison tore up fences, and their hides were valuable. So they fell to the gun.

They were replaced by rougher bred British cattle, the kind bred for milk and beef and oxen for the yoke.

The first “improved” breeds to come to this part of West Virginia were “Durhams,” more normally called “shorthorns.”  These animals came late in the nineteenth century. They, too, were bred to be generalist cattle, but later on, it became customary for people to keep Jerseys and Jersey crosses for milk, then Holsteins. And when the beef market began to take off, Hereford cattle became common, too.

My grandfather often told the story of “whitewashing” his neighbor’s black Jersey cross dairy cow. He took white paint, and just painted her all over.  People started talking about the new white cow that the neighbor had in his pasture.

“I don’t have a white one; she’s black!”

Boy, was he in for a shocker when he got home!

We used to live very intimately with cattle and horses.  Cattle produced milk and meat, and horses were as essential as motor vehicles are now.

We’ve lost that knowledge.  Too few Americans have even touched a cow or horse. They are remote creatures. They might as well be mythical or exotic.

But in every Hamburger or steak we eat,  we consume the flesh of the bovine.

What we don’t often think about is that we’re actually eating the flesh of an animal that is now extinct in the wild.

Just as the Eastern bison are now gone from West Virginia’s hills, the wild ancestor of domestic cattle is now lost to the ages.

It was called the aurochs, and the last of these giant wild cattle was killed in Poland in the seventeenth century. The genes of the great wild cow now exist solely the 1.3 billion domestic cattle that are spread across the continent. There were two domestications:  one in the  Middle East that produced things like the Hereford and the Holstein and another in the Indus Valley, which produced the zebu or “Indicus” cattle, which are famous for their sacred status in Hinduism and for their dewlaps and shoulder humps. The Indian aurochs went extinct shortly after the domestication.

The species now exists solely in a domestic form.

If the whole world were to go vegan and then demanded that no draft animals be used,  it really would be the end for the aurochs.

The children of the aurochs have become the most successful large ungulate species on the planet. They graze through the Americas and deep in Siberia. Their hoof-beats can be heard on “stations” in the Australian Outback, and the Maasai people still kill lions that menace their herds in Kenya and Tanzania.

The gentle Herefords grazing along these country lanes are not the aurochs of old.  Just as the eighteenth century English gentleman was nothing like the wild Anglo-Saxons or Anglo-Normans or Brythonic Celts in his pedigree, the Hereford is utterly domesticated. Almost all Herefords in West Virginia are polled– born without horns– and when cows calve in remote pastures, they often have a hard time defending their young against the depredations of coyotes and dogs.

But though thoroughly domesticated, they still exist remotely. There will never be huge demand for pet cattle.

They will still be aurochsen, though modified and refined for our pleasure.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: