THE OFFICIAL BLOG
I have always been fascinated by the study of animal behavior. As a matter of fact, behavioral science was my minor in college for a time. (Until I could not manage to pass organic chemistry. Three times. Consider that a closed door.) When I spend my days (and sometimes nights) here surrounded by and observing animals of all kinds - I am in my happy place.
I love animals. I am an animal lover. However, I have noticed that I am not an animal lover in quite the same was as a lot of my animal-loving peers. You see, I love animals best when they are being animals.
I am not, in fact, a robot. I do enjoy cuddly moments of human interaction with creatures. It's just that I especially love to be near animals when they are doing what is most natural for them. That may sound sort of crunchy and far-out groovy, but really it is practical. Animals behave better when they are behaving naturally. The clincher is figuring out what is natural for them -- and what is not.
We often choose what is not good for us.
Put down that Little Debbie snack cake and read that again: We often choose what is not good for us. You could blame it entirely on free will - a rather important thing that other animals lack as they depend on instinct alone. But you would be missing a key to the puzzle. In addition to free will, we humans also have instincts. Reaching for that Twinkie may be more instinctual than you think.
But wait! Twinkies are not natural! How could I have an instinctual drive to eat Twinkies? Why do chickens eat styrofoam when there is a bowl of fresh, organic, non-GMO chicken feed right there? Why does your goat stand out in the cold rain next to his shelter all day?
There is a long and complicated answer to this question that is far too meaty for a mere blog post. However, it essentially comes down to one thing: Stress.
Everyone who just read that word nodded their head in recognition. We all know everything there is to know about stress, don't we? But I think maybe we don't. I think it is safe to assume that we all understand the effects of stress just fine. We know what we mean when we say we are stressed out. However, knowing what stress actually is may be helpful.
In the animal world (which you and I are part of), stress is induced when a circumstance is introduced where the instinctual response of the animal is rendered ineffective or detrimental.
Here is an example: Place a mouse in a cage without access to food. The instinctual drive for food is stifled. The mouse is not just hungry. The mouse is stressed. Even if, in theory, the nutritional needs of the mouse could be met by some way other than the mouse actually finding food and eating it - the health of the mouse would steadily decline. More importantly for the point I am making here, however, the mouse would begin to exhibit behavior that is not particularly mouse-like -- not natural behavior.
For centuries, we have actually depended on this stress response in the taming of wild animals. In modern times, it sells Snickers bars and energy drinks.
Food is only an obvious example. Changes in environment, changes in social structure, isolation, restriction of movement, and many other factors will induce stress. And sometimes those factors are not particularly obvious to us.
Great! Free all the animals!
Okay, wait. That's not what I am saying here. Most of the animals we keep are domesticated. Over centuries and, for some, millennia, these creatures have lived and interacted with humans to varying degrees. Their instinctual drives now involve some level of human interaction. Domesticated dogs, for instance, will actually look to the nearest human for guidance when faced with a food puzzle. Domesticated adult cats have developed a special meow that is reserved for communicating their needs... er... demands to humans, and only humans.
Simply releasing our animals into the wild with a pat on the back and a wink would induce more stress - not less. Also, they would probably get themselves eaten by those non-domesticated creatures out there. Nature is brutal.
Freedom to choose what is good.
Instead, we try to reduce stress for our animals as much as possible by providing them with the opportunity to act on their instincts while controlling for their safety.
For instance, we free-range our chicken flock on our seventeen acres. They are not in 'chicken tractors' or other movable pens. (I argue that such things are a nice idea, but are not, in fact, free-ranging.) They are free to choose what is actually best for them based on their instinctual drive. However, we do provide a large chicken house with an automatic door for protection at night. The (smart) chickens choose to roost there when the sun goes down. We provide fresh water and food at various stations as well, but they are free to choose rain water and a mouthful of grubs instead. And they very often do.
The internet forums are rife with questions and concerns from people dealing with problems integrating different animals on their farm or homestead. The solutions offered usually involve more fencing - and isolation. Though I am certainly not opposed to using fencing and isolation temporarily for the immediate safety of the animals, I believe that it does not solve the underlying problem and in fact, can make things worse. Animals behaving poorly are stressed animals. Isolation, as I mentioned above, is one of the factors that induces stress.
When we introduce new animals to our place, we are careful to remember that both the new animal and every single one of our current animals will be stressed. There will be a lot of unnatural behavior for a time and it would be a terrible idea to just throw the new guy into the mix. Since new animals are quarantined for the purpose of limiting the introduction of some new pathogen to our animals anyway, introductions are delayed -- but you can bet that everyone knows someone new is on the block. After the quarantine period is over, the single most important thing we do is... nothing. It is very important during this phase to maintain routine. If something unforeseen happens -- say a tornado or volcanic eruption -- then introductions are delayed until the daily routine is resumed. That is step one: Make only one change at a time -- and understand the new animal IS that change.
Step two is the scariest step: Let the animals work it out among themselves. There may be jostling, chasing, baring of teeth, scary posturing, and maybe even a scuffle or two -- but do not interfere. As long as each animal is able to act instinctually, it should work out beautifully. No stress. No corrections. No isolation. No forced introductions. Basically, make sure it is nothing like junior high school was for you.
Sometimes it happens that two animals simply do not like one another. In such a case, we try to make sure they have enough room to avoid one another entirely. But if that is not possible, then one of them has to find a new home for the benefit of all.
I started this post with a picture of our house-cat, Lucy, and some of our one week old goslings. If only I had a nickle for every time someone has told me they cannot free-range their chickens (or geese) because they have a cat. Or because their neighbors have a cat. Or because cats exist. We have ten cats roaming about our place and they have no interest in chasing any of our birds. They are not special cats, really. But they were each free to learn, on their own time, that getting pecked by a broody hen or chased down by a gander is no fun and the always-offered bowl of cat food is an easier meal.
Likewise, we put our chicks and goslings out on grass for the first time within the first two weeks of hatching and before the instinct to run away has really taken hold. Cats and dogs instinctually chase. And it's pretty hard to chase something that is moving toward you.
It is never all perfect. It either goes really well or it goes terribly and there is not much in between. There are wild animals out there who need to eat and they do not care one jot about what direction their food is moving in before it is eaten. We do our best to find the balance between reducing stress and reducing risk here. And not just for the animals we care for.
What this taught me about me.
All of this brings me back to that Little Debbie snack cake and the gift of free will. You have eaten it by now, no doubt. But why? I am sure you believe that you made a conscious, free, and willful decision. However, have you considered how much stress is a factor in that decision? Maybe you aren't sleeping well, you worked all day, you have not had time to go to the grocery store, you came home to a messy house, your teenagers are arguing over the TV remote, you haven't eaten a square meal in a month, and Little Debbie was right there smiling out at you from next to an old can of baked beans. You made an instinctual choice for your survival. (Yes, I am saying that sometimes grabbing a snack cake is a matter of survival.) Because at that moment when everything else is muddled - you are not using your reason, you are operating on instinct.
The same stress affects our human relationships in a profound way. Reduced to instinct by our overwhelming drive to survive, we compete for resources (and fight over parking spaces or call the police when Taco Bell is out of taco shells), we ignore those in need, we withdraw for fear of our neighbors, we kill our own young. We behave badly.. strangely... in unnatural ways because we are increasingly living in an artificial world. It does not matter how carefully crafted your habitat is - it is not the real thing.
Each of us could make the necessary changes and reduce the unbearable burden of stress in our modern world. Some of the changes could be small. Not everybody has to sell everything and move into the countryside, after all. But perhaps we could make it possible to make better choices. Choose to sleep when it is time to sleep and work when it is time to work -- nothing more and nothing less. Eliminate what is not necessary. Surround yourself with beauty. Stay hydrated. Talk to other people. Make taking a walk in nature a priority. Breathe clean air every day. Eat good food regularly. Say your prayers. Maintain a routine. See to it that your basic needs are being met before leaving anything to reliance on free will.
This is important: Understand that every other human is struggling with the same thing.
What I have learned after all of this observation and these daily adjustments on behalf of the non-human creatures on our farm, is that when not under stress and given a free choice - they can and do choose what is best for them by instinct. It follows, then, that we are even more capable of making good choices and acting upon them as we are not limited to instinct alone. Further, we also can and should choose to not only do what we need to survive - but to live rightly and help others do the same.
Every day I apply this philosophy to my life. I consciously live a life of choices and strive to recognize and ultimately choose the good. Whether it is the food I put into my mouth, the books I read, the company I keep, what time I get out of bed in the morning, or how I answer the children when they interrupt whatever I'm doing with a question - I am always, every moment, making a choice. When those moments come (and they always do) when I feel as if I do not have a choice, I take a step back and consider the sources of stress in my life.
I may not be able to eliminate them all - such is life - but, unlike a chicken... I can identify them for what they are and reason my way through and around how they affect me. Then I am free, once again, to choose the good.
Posted by Anita
Organic chemistry flunkie. Lover of animals. Old-school naturalist.