Do birds fly just for the fun of flying? I’ve thought about that for most of my life. I don’t mean it has possessed me to the exclusion of all the rest of the things a person needs to think about. It is obvious they fly to get from one place to another, or to catch food. But do they leap off the TV antenna next door and just go ‘yippee’, do a couple of circuits and come back. “Lovely loop there, Joyce. That was a ten if ever I’ve seen one.” “Well thanks Miriam. Kind of you to say so.”
I know some animals do. You only have to look at a paddock full of baby lambs or baby goats playing chasey or climbing on the roof of the shelter. And calves. They play.
Actually that’s what I wanted to tell you about.
Years ago – maybe twenty five – my father bought six Hereford cows that were in calf to a top line bull. If you don’t know what that means then just have a think about it.
The six cows were all in paddock down by the creek and Dad asked me to drive out and see how they were going. Five of them had calves and he wanted to know how the sixth one was. “Take my binoculars and sit under a tree at the top of the rise. I don’t want you to stir ’em up.”
So I sat and looked. Here beginneth the first lesson.
The five calves were romping around making fun of the world and the five mother cows were gently grazing. The sixth cow was lying down near the creek and she looked, to me, to be very close to time. Then she bellowed loudly. The others looked up and then went on grazing. She bellowed again and this time it sounded a bit more like she was in pain.
One of the cows went over and looked at her. She bellowed again, but quieter, and I thought she was going to have trouble. I didn’t want to call out a vet. But then I saw something that has stayed with me all these years.
The cow who had come to look, I’ll call her Bethany, went back to the other four who were grazing and said something. That phrase – ‘said something’ – is the thing that I don’t understand because immediately two of the cows went back the one in trouble. I’ll call her Hannah from now on so I don’t keep on say she or her.
Three cows were left and they rounded up the five calves that were playing around and took them quite a lot farther away across the paddock. The other two cows started massaging Hannah’s belly with their huge bovine tongues. One of them moved around to Hannah’s back and tried to roll her over by pushing with her head. Then they kept on stroking with their tongues.
After what seemed like ten minutes, Hannah gave one almighty bellow and, with help from the cow at her back who started pushing harder, she got to her feet. As soon as she had done that her two nursing friend left her and walked away for a short distance. Hannah gave a final push and the calf came out.
Now the two cows left and went back to the other three and the calves and rounded them up and they all went off over the rise and out of sight and left Hannah alone to look after her calf. I imagined Bethany saying to the five rowdy calves, “Come on you fellows, let’s all go away for a while and give Aunty Hannah a bit of privacy.”
I know that last bit is all my imagination, but everything that came before was real.
So the question is this; “Do animals think? Do they have emotions? Can they reason? Or is it all just programmed instinct?”
I know animals play. Baby goats are proof of that. But for the rest of it? Well I’m pretty sure that Hannah would have been very happy that her friends were there to help when she needed help.