Farm & Feral Fauna

William Ramp Banner

“I called, ‘Perky! Perky, come here!’ There was instant silence, and then, a second later, the dogs broke and scattered as if driven by some devil wind. All except one, who came trotting over to me, ears down, tail wagging. Perky. She and I walked back out of the darkened field; I held her by the collar at the highway till I saw it was clear, and when we got home, I put her in the basement to sleep. That’s the end of the story, except for one thing. Every time I remember it, I feel a chill. What if, when I called my dog’s name, the others had not broken and fled, but had come after me? My voice had thrown a switch in their brains, recalling them from pack to possession; from spark to subordination. What if I’d thrown another switch that set them upon me? What made the difference?”—William Ramp

Small Things Recollected

By Dr. William Ramp

Clydesdale horses, charcoal on whitewash, m.20C, Inverharroch (©The Cabrach Trust, by permission)
Clydesdale horses, charcoal on whitewash, m.20C, Inverharroch. ©The Cabrach Trust, Image Used by Permission.

William Ramp

LETHBRIDGE, ALBERTA Canada—(Weekly Hubris)—February 2020—I suspect most of us, when we think of “fauna,” tend to imagine wildlife. That begs a question: can domesticated animals develop a social ecology of their own; one that escapes the dictation of their human masters and owners? What might that look like? This month, I’ve gathered together some anecdotal accounts of the ways in which domestic fauna have flowed within and between the spaces that humans divide and call property, negotiating and subverting the worlds of their containment, inserting themselves in our lives at their behest as well as ours. Even as we use them ever more intensively, and fit them to our worlds, our modes of production and consumption, our priorities and needs, our emotions and identifications, they can wander out of focus in ways to which we should attend.

These stories rely mainly on personal memories of a childhood on a small Southern Ontario farm. That puts it in a suspect genre: a hazy sea of reminiscence about adored animals and sunlit days, often ending with a closing sigh about how fast-paced and impersonal life among the young has become—but such is the cost of progress which has brought us better health, more leisure, and other good things, hasn’t it?

Beware. I will aim a few daggers at both nostalgia and progress. My anecdotes start off rosy, but they are ordered and told with purpose. There will be a first course of things with undertones to ruminate over; then a sharp astringent.

Animals of Use

In February 1916, my great-grandfather breathed his last. His son returned home from a budding career in electrical engineering to take over the paternal farm, relegating his professional knowledge to wiring a crystal radio to the springs of his firstborn’s crib and claiming with some pride the first electrically-lighted henhouse in the county. The father had been a horse and cattle man, dragged by an ambitious brother into a sideline growing apples for export. His son took to the orchard and sidelined the rest, expanding its product range to include peaches, pears, plums, sweet and sour cherries, walnuts, raspberries, strawberries, asparagus, honey, and (abortively) peanuts.

As I recall his personality, this swerve makes perfect sense. He was not a man to bind himself to the ruminant routine of cattle. But my mother suggested another motivation. He was, she said, sensitive to the deaths of animals; he would have had trouble slaughtering pigs, culling a herd of cattle, or sending a horse to the knackers. That’s an interesting claim given that he owned and employed several horses over 40 years. The landmark barn he erected in 1917 included a purpose-built packing floor and space for ladders, baskets and boxes, but also a mow and a chute (from which we children were repeatedly warned away) that dropped hay four stories to cow stables and box stalls on the bottom floor. Their occupants produced the family’s meat and milk.

The landmark barn he erected in 1917.
The landmark barn he erected in 1917. 

Still, I suspect Mom was right. Her father accepted a necessary responsibility for the lives and deaths of animals but minimized his exposure to it. His sensitivity wasn’t unusual. A common saying among farmers of that generation was that one should never look a pig in the eyes over the trough, and the reason is clear. Unlike cattle and horses, pigs were exclusively raised to die. But their pale blue eyes bespeak formidable intelligence, and their sparse hair and pink skin can appear uncomfortably human-like.

I remember only one pig being individualized in a family anecdote, a sow who gave up litter after litter to the butcher, but was herself spared for maternality. Once, she forced her way through a fence and into a panicked neighbor’s garden, relishing everything carefully planted there, and she absolutely refused orders to return home until lured back by some delicacy.

Like pigs, cows are animals of economic or subsistence usage, and cut few individual figures in my mother’s tales of her childhood. They were more memorable collectively as an environment of sound and smell, especially potent on dark, subzero evenings when the nails in the stable walls grew heads of frosty hair and the windows laced over with fantastic fernery. Inside, the cattle produced a warm fug accompanied by slow, rhythmic chewing, snuffling, and an occasional gurgling belch or cough. Above this sonic bed was a medley of milk hitting the sides of a metal pail, a mewling of barn cats, bawling of calves, and the clank of stanchions and chains.

While my background is near-solid with farmers, I have only one cousin still active in the calling. Another, with her spouse, followed a typical retirement path from dairying; first replacing their purebred Holsteins with beef cattle; then, after a decade or so, selling the beef herd and renting out the land. They are pragmatic people. But both were deeply affected by their first night without cattle in the fields; only a silent void that opened to the night sky.

Along with cattle, my parents and grandparents kept a few pigs; for a while, my father raised them under some sort of profit-share arrangement with an outfit called Spruceleigh Farms. We didn’t keep sheep or goats. Sheep were common on 19th-century mixed farms as a source of both meat and wool for home consumption. In the 20th century, a small but persistent wool-growing industry developed and still today, the odd farm field features a flock of sheep. An urban-consumer taste for goat’s milk, plus an immigrant consumer market for goat meat has led to an expansion of their population. More recently, these animals have been joined by camelids: llamas and alpacas.

Of the smaller animals, rabbits, familiar to my father as a meat animal in Europe, did not catch on in Ontario, but a limited fur-farming industry (mink and fox) did take root.

Domesticated birds were kept on most Ontario farms and often still are. Chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese were raised for egg production (I have a turkey-egg cup and a recipe for treating a disease of turkeys called blackheads, thanks to my great grandmother). They were also, of course, for eating, along with guinea fowl. The latter, along with peafowl, were also kept by some farmers as watch animals, deterrents to thieves, or for sheer show, as were various exotic breeds of chickens, full-size or bantam, and ducks. Often, show breeds were competitive status vehicles for farmers with the leisure to attend to them.

Chickens were the most common domestic birds, and provided enough eggs for home consumption in winter, and income for farm women in summer. Ours, typically, had their own clapboard hen house and an outside wire enclosure, less to keep them in than to keep out cats, dogs, and foxes. The chicken wire seemed a fragile and penetrable barrier, but it worked, and it allowed them to socialize in galliformity. But we readily anthropomorphized them; their vocalizations matched the intonation of old people making desultory gossip. It was also fun to catch one (they knew when they were cornered and squatted to await their fate) and move its body through various axes, watching as some internal gyro kept its head exactly steady and still. 

Once, I brought home a dozen chicks after they had served a purpose as live demonstrators in a high school biology class. They grew into twelve lordly roosters. I played a game of bluff with one of them, unaware that I was training it to batter Mom’s legs a mortifying black and blue. That battler showed his mettle one night when a proverbial fox slipped into the proverbial hen house; he battled Reynard halfway across a neighboring field. As my parents aged, they ceased to renew the flock, which dwindled to an impossibly ancient three. Finally, my dad, no longer up to making the long trek down the lane to the hen house, gave them their freedom, opening the enclosure. They disappeared almost immediately down the throat of some opportunistic predator. Dad knew that would happen, but could not stomach killing them, himself.

As children, my sisters named one of our chickens Wilbur, but Wilbur was the exception: most of the birds, meat birds especially, remained anonymous and unstoried. Just a very few of the many older chicken breeds, along with domestic turkeys, are now the material basis of a giant and controversial industry. Supermarket consumers have a choice of caged, free-run, free-range, organic, and other categories of eggs, but little actual sense of what these terms might mean.

Cattle Kingdom

Cattle Kingdom.
Cattle Kingdom.

My father came from a long line of Dutch dairymen, and while he worked many years in my grandfather’s orchard, his aim was to establish his own dairy and cattle-breeding operation, which he did about the time I was born. He never went big; his herd of purebred Holsteins topped out at 31, and his total acreage, owned and rented, at about a hundred. He was a mix of modernizer and old-school. He attended to his soil, proud of building it up instead of mining it. He bred cattle for overall conformation, not for show. He shook his head at latter-day dairying techniques that pushed milk cows to the edge of exploitative possibility. He looked after his herd and had particular affection for some of its members. He could pick them out by name while all I could see was an indecipherable mix of black and white.

In that mix were two brown anomalies: a venerable Jersey cow and her daughter. What economic role they played I could not say; perhaps they added minimally to the butterfat count. It was more clear that they held the affection of the whole family. We called the old one “Old Jersey,” though her name in the purebred herd book was Maude’s Snowdrop Queenie. Born in 1955, she was still going strong well into the 1960s, after most of her original herd mates had gone. Dad trained her to stand on a two-inch pine plank to give enough clearance for the Surge milking machine and its underslung container. She was also the herd boss; she led them to the barn for milking each summer evening and policed her status. I think she was kept so long out of attachment.

In winter, our cows were kept indoors, chained in stanchions, with room enough to stand, lie down, and shift position, but not to walk. In spring, when they were let out to graze, we would watch their awkward joy as they galumphed about in the new grass. But it took some of them a while to work out winter stiffness. From spring to fall, they were free to work out their own hierarchy and sociality. They would drift together across a field, eating; they would form a line to head out to pasture after morning milking, and to head back in evening. If they were late, Dad would call them, “Co-boss! Co-boss!” and it still amazes me that the “boss” part of that call goes all the way back to the Latin: Bos, Bovis (cow). If Dad were late, they would call him, bellowing peremptorily till he made an appearance to relieve their distended udders.

Our cattle seemed to like lines as much as they did hanging out in herds. When I was very young, our farm had hedgerows of hawthorn and hickory along one property line, a miniature forest a good 30 feet deep. The cattle wound between the trees and shrubs, forming labyrinthine trails that, as a child, I loved to explore. The trunks and branches lining the routes would be burnished to a fine polish, gleaming in the green and leafy light. When they followed each other to and from the barn, they strode exactly in the same track, wearing a hollow in the hard clay no more than a couple of feet wide. 

Occasionally, they would, with noticeable glee, follow each other in exploiting a break in the fence and then scatter, tails high. Once or twice, I accompanied Dad to a back field late at night to check on a cow giving birth, and they would all come galloping over to encircle us, snorting and tossing their heads animatedly; the very opposite of bovine placidity. Usually, Dad also had a small, separate herd of young cattle or steers, notorious for antics; “like teenagers,” Mom said. For some reason now forgotten, I walked one day to the back of the farm and they formed a line following me. Every time I stopped, the lead-most would walk into my backside, then stop, all innocent. We turned it into a game.

My cousins, who missed bovine company so grievously, eventually made arrangements with a neighbor to pasture his herd of young cattle on their land. But during a transfer to a different field, one saw a gap and, tail high and kicking, took advantage down the road and disappeared into a vast area of forest and scrub on nearby land optioned for industrial development but never developed. There it stayed in complete freedom for most of a summer, with only occasional sightings, until finally corralled. Some Easterner tried to lasso it if I remember the story right.

Work Animals

Early in the 19th century, oxen rivaled the horse as farm motive power in Ontario, but horses had triumphed by the 1860s. Donkeys and mules were rare as work animals. Horses were far more likely than cattle, sheep, or birds to be memorialized in story. And in story, they had individual names and personalities; willful and rebellious, gentle and loyal. This makes sense; they were work companions, and personality made a difference to the completion of field tasks. Dick and Jack, a pair of skittish “western” horses my grandfather acquired, given a moment’s lax rein or inattention, would head off the farm in the direction whence they’d legendarily come.

By contrast, Bob, a giant bay Percheron, was the epigone of gentleness and tractability. Mom watched him one day bow his great head and gingerly, with agonizing slowness, pick up and set down his dinner-plate hoofs to navigate without harm a litter of tiny kittens. After a day’s work, Mom would lead him a quarter mile down the road to an expanse of hay pasture that had proved inimical to an experimental peach plantation; Bob resting his great muzzle on her shoulder as they walked. He died in semi-retirement and was buried on the farm.

In North-East Scotland, whence my grandfather’s people came, horses were the subject of an entire culture of word, ritual, and song, and the hired men who handled them had an elevated place in the farm-servant hierarchy. On a whitewashed byre wall in the farm steading of Inverharroch, Moray, one of them left a charcoal graffito of two Clydesdales, executed with a feeling and grace reminiscent of the cave drawings of the Rhone-Alpes region in France, thousands of years earlier.

This regard was near-universal: the farm horse had a long folk culture and nostalgic genre painting, and poetry throughout Europe and North America in the 19th century, along with the named and sculpted horses of kings and generals. In Heartbreak House, George Bernard Shaw wrote, not without a tinge of irony, “Go anywhere in England where there are natural, wholesome, contented and really nice English people; and what do you always find? That the stables are the real centre of the household.” 

Frederick George Cotman, "One of the Family." (1880)
Frederick George Cotman, One of the Family. (1880)

Companion Animals

The broad backs of horses bridged a category gap between animals of use and companionship. Those who guided the plough and those who pulled it worked and worked hard together, as Raymond Knister noted in an early 20th -century Imagist poem, “In The Rain, Sowing Oats”:

The Horses

Cracked shoutings;

A heavy wet line swung down

To sting wet ribs,

Wet backs;

Aching jaws, aching necks

And blistered shoulders.

The Man

Shoes dragging the clods,

Eyes busy;

Arm-weight hanging limply

To the lines

Thoughts of horses that take

Half the land for grain and hay;

Amid thoughts of supper.

But note those final three lines. Note them. Companionship was inflected

A legion of smaller ghosts, named and un-named, also populated our family’s animal stories; a train of dogs and cats arcing over three human generations. In the panoply of early 20th-century farm animals, dogs, cats, and horses were most likely to be accorded a right to a personality, and to be featured individually in stories. Dogs and cats were inveterate boundary-crossers; cats uncontrollably so. Their utility was also anomalous, far less quantifiable than the cost/benefit ratio of a milking cow, a batch of yearling pigs, or a work horse. This liminality, I think, has fed the superstition of having one’s path crossed by a black cat, and collective cat-murder was a common ritual in medieval festivals. At the same time, it has fed affection for and identification with them on the part of equally-unpredictable humans.

A legion of smaller ghosts . . .
A legion of smaller ghosts . . .

Nominally, both dogs and cats had a vermin-control function: dogs were encouraged to catch rabbits, rats, and groundhogs; cats to keep down populations of rats and mice in granaries and barns. Barn cats often were fed only cow’s milk (many suffered diarrhea as a result) and, under some regimes, were slightly underfed to encourage them to hunt. I’m not sure how effective they were; the barn cats I knew caught their fair share of birds, and the rodent populations of outbuildings seemed to vary more with the presence or absence of humans and cattle than cats. Dogs could count on table scraps, bones, and perhaps some bought kibble. No one realistically expected them to catch a significant component of their diet on the run or down a burrow.

Some farmers who hunted kept a dog for that purpose. Some also trained a collie to help with cattle or sheep herding. But this function, so common in Britain, didn’t translate all that well to the Ontario countryside, perhaps because there were fewer open grazing spaces, heaths, or downs. Fenced fields made herding dogs an optional benefit. The main role of the farm dog was to keep watch and to raise an alarm at the nocturnal approach of potential trespassers or robbers. Where they were encouraged to be suspicious, they could be a hazard to curious children. I remember one dyspeptic collie who regarded the entire highway frontage of his farm as home territory and chased me, growling and snapping at my feet, as I pedaled my bike madly from one property line to the other.

Different farmers had different philosophies about the watch function. For many, it was incidental; the dog was mainly a pet. Others kept a dog on a long chain near the house or barn. The longer a dog was chained (and some were chained 24 hours a day), the more bored it became, and the more it barked, advertising its presence as a security system. If it also reacted with fear and anger at anyone but a family member approaching its chain arc, so much the better in some eyes.

In my experience, many farmers chained their dogs only at night, to a stake by a doghouse, or they closed them in the main barn until morning. During the day, they were often free to roam, sleep, laze around, play, or accompany members of the human family on their rounds. Sometimes, they wandered off on their own for days, mostly to return, sometimes not. Rarely, one might come back with a muzzle-full of quills from a porcupine; more often stinking from a skunk encounter or a roll in a pile of well-rotted fish or manure. One or two limped back with a severely torn ear or lip from a fight with a racoon. Raccoons were reputed to lure dogs into water and then drown them. A dog that smelled of skunk but was otherwise uninjured was greeted with a mixture of relief and disgust: it had gotten close enough for a dose, but not to get bit. Emboldened skunks were widely feared as a reservoir of rabies. 

Farm dogs usually were trained only in the most rudimentary commands: “Down!” “Shush!” “Come!” They also trained us, especially the children and soft-hearted, begging for entrance to the house or for table scraps. If they saw we were not busy, they might play-bow and yap us into a game of “catch me if you can” or fetch. Dogs were almost always named and trained to come to their name. The closest of companion dogs would be allowed into the house at particular times of the day but not overnight; a final ritual before bedtime was to chain the dog to the doghouse stake. On particularly inclement nights, or if aged and arthritic, a dog might be allowed to bed down in the basement; this became more common as the century wore on. My grandfather was unusual in having three dogs in a row as house pets, all of them Cocker Spaniels, too small to risk leaving outside at night.

Cats were divided into two categories: barn cats and the house cat. House cats once served the same vermin-killing function as their barn relatives, but by my time were purely companions. They inhabited laps, got the best scraps, supplemented by bought pet food; they served as warming devices for those with chills, calming devices for the nervous (the purr), and occasionally-irascible playmates for children. Some barn cats, especially friendly toward humans, might receive nominal descriptors, like “Black Cat,” “Friendly Gray Kitty,” or “Row-Row” (the latter an old tom who growled if patted too enthusiastically). But house cats got proper chosen names: Sparky, Muggs, Heidi, Patches, Major One, Major Two. Like companion dogs, they were accorded personalities, and might become subjects of stories. 

When a barn cat that had been noticeably pregnant turned up at the milk pan hungry and with slack sides, the hunt was on for the kittens; we children would leave no hay bale unturned or cranny uninvestigated. But cats could hide their young well. Some mothers led us proudly to the offspring, but other litters wouldn’t be discovered before the kittens became feral; small fierce balls of hiss and spit.  If there was an interregnum in the house, a particularly attractive or friendly kitten (or two) would be chosen from a barn litter to be handled and tamed for succession.

. . . the hunt was on for the kittens . . .
. . . the hunt was on for the kittens . . . 

Dogs, unless they were small and exclusively house-dwellers, were not indoors long enough to need house-training. Their rules were simple: to bark or scratch (once) when they wanted in or out, and never, ever to get up on any piece of furniture (toy dogs being an exception). Cats could not be kept off furniture, but they were usually put in the basement (with a litter box) at night, and never allowed on a bed, unless a sick person needed warming or comforting. They were often allowed out during the day, sometimes to be disciplined if they brought back a small bird, dead or paralyzed by fear. Letting them out exposed them to danger from raccoons, packs of dogs, or brush wolves; many also lost their lives crossing roads and highways.

Such losses were expected and accepted, with momentary sorrow. I have the impression that the animal-care culture of farm households in the 1950s and ‘60s lagged a few decades behind the extant modes of transportation. Until the early 1930s, the most lethal transportation device–to cats, dogs, stray cattle, and absent-minded or deaf humans–was the electric interurban trolley, a passenger rail precursor to buses. These would make many flag stops between villages and towns, but they could get up to significant speed between stops. Aside from rail vehicles, dogs and cats could roam roadsides and crossroads at will and with little danger. It was expected, even when cars began to run at 30 or more miles an hour, that smaller animals could and would learn to get out of the way. Those attitudes, and the notion that people were too busy for the constant vigilance needed to keep a cat in the house at all times, led to many deaths on later asphalted highways with speed limits of 50 or 60. Such roads still exact an annual toll of wild and domestic animals, human children, and the elderly alike.  

Roaming dogs and cats met up with their peers from other places often. Barn cats were rarely spayed or neutered. That operation was more likely to be reserved for dogs, and often only after a female had a first litter. Of these, one pup might be kept as a successor companion; the others being sold for a nominal amount or given away. There was interest in what breed characteristics pups might show, but little interest in purebred dogs, unless a farmer bred a particular working type or crossover pet. 

The freedom of dogs and cats to roam also meant that populations on any given farm fluctuated. Barn cats would regularly leave one barn and take up residence in a more amenable one. House cats did so too, migrating from one house to another, as urban cats still do, or migrating between house and barn. A stray cat might turn up on a windowsill demanding entrance, as did one gray tabby who thereby earned house-cat status from my grandparents. Other house cats went feral. When we moved from my grandfather’s farm to a new-built house on my father’s place, a watermelon-patterned house cat named Juniper refused capture to accompany us and joined the ranks of the wild.

Dogs came and went in similar ways. The earliest I remember, a placid elderly beast with heart trouble named Duke just showed up one day and stayed, adopting us. Sometimes, such arrivals bore physical or psychological markers of abuse. The first dog my parents bought for me, named Lady, had a tendency to wander (we wondered if she was part brush wolf), and left one day, never to reappear. A little before my time, a hound turned up at my grandparents’, was taken in and named Pupper. But he was identifiable; he belonged to a neighbor who used him for hunting. Informal custody arrangements were accepted: Pupper stayed with us until hunting season, when the neighbor would collect him; at season’s end, he returned to us.

. . . a placid elderly beast with heart trouble named Duke . . . 
. . . a placid elderly beast with heart trouble named Duke . . .

These informal flows of animals between places were accepted exceptions to the private property regimes that regimented the ranks of hundred-acre farms along the straight concession roads of southern Ontario. Teenaged children sometimes made similar moves, though these were treated as exceptional cases needing more formal discussion between parental parties and sometimes the police or a township official. But such moves did happen, in similar ways and for similar reasons.

The Domestic & The Wild

I recall little interaction between our cattle and wildlife. Occasionally, someone would lose a calf to dogs or a cow to an incompetent hunter. An occasional deer might graze with cattle early in the morning or at dusk. By the 20th century, the charismatic species that populated southern Ontario farm country at the time of initial settlement were gone or scarce, along with the old-growth forests and the oak plains once managed by indigenous peoples. Golden and bald eagles, and wild turkeys have returned, as have Canada geese and white-tail deer, both now so populous as to be a nuisance or disease vector. What remained were grassland, hedgerow, woodlot or orchard birds, raccoons, skunks, squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, and hares (the jack-rabbit). These are now joined, courtesy of climate change, by possums. 

Honeybees, imported by settlers after some earlier indigenous bee apocalypse, are more properly placed among domesticated working fauna, employed in orchards and clover meadows: my grandfather kept several hives (I still have his 1920s copy of The ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture, published by Rodale Press). He would occasionally order a queen that would arrive by mail. Bees of course were not specifically trainable, but the architecture and placement of hives, the introduction of queens, and the extraction of honey were all done in ways that turned bee sociality and survival into work that produced crops of fruit, a household sweetener, and an economically-viable commodity.

With cattle also came millions of flies: houseflies, botflies, horseflies, and deerflies; lighting between the constant swish and slap of tails, irritated, chafing kicks, or swings of the head. The insects that survived settlement adapted to them and to barnyards, pasture, ploughed fields, hedgerows, woodlot verges, or orchards. To the pastures came swallows and kildeer. Barn swallows were regular companions every summer, feasting on flies attracted to cattle and the flying and jumping insects stirred up by the raking and baling of hay. They swung back and forth in figure-eights in front of the baler as it advanced across the field, snatching meals on the wing. But the milking barn was where they cemented their clay and grass nests to ceiling beams, out of reach of the cats who learned to ignore them, taking advantage of the ingress and egress of cattle and humans. There, right above our heads, and flying within inches of us through open windows or half-doors, they raised their yearly crop of young. Of a summer evening, they would gather on the electrical line to the barn exchanging vocalizations that varied from twitter to warble to staccato clicks. I am appalled that they are now a threatened species in Ontario, along with the decaying post-and-beam barns that once gave them habitation. 

Barn Swallow. (Photo by Derek Keats.)
Barn Swallow. (Photo by Derek Keats.)

Kildeer, for those who don’t know them, are plovers with a white upper chest slashed with black, and long, impossibly thin legs. They run about in pastures searching out insects stirred up by grazing animals, and make their presence known with high-pitched, piercingly-nervous calls. They are known for nesting in the most amazing places, including, once, the entrance to our carport, right between the tire tracks. Somehow, they survived; the cat was kept in and we watched where we drove coming in and going out. Perhaps as an adaptation to the insanity of their nesting choices, they developed a tactic of dragging a wing and hobbling noisily under the nose of any predator or human, never quite close enough to catch, moving in a line directly away from the nest where their young sat immobile and (unbelievably) silent. I imagine that they and the cattle worked out some sort of compact; I never saw evidence of a kildeer nest disturbed by hoofs.

Dad found a nestling once and cradled it in his hands to show us before carefully returning it. He would occasionally leave a patch of grass standing in haying season when a kildeer’s vector alerted him to the presence of an active nest. Alas, field mice and bobolinks evolved no such human-tuned warning systems, and the decimation of the latter’s ranks is traceable in part to haying practices. (Much to the dismay of some Ontario farmers, haying season may in future be regulated to accommodate bobolink nests.) 

Another wild bird familiar to rural Ontarians was and is the Chinese pheasant. We would often hear the “cuck, cuck” of pheasant cocks at a distance and finding a tail feather was a child’s prize. Once I sat a while at the edge of a stand of corn, and heard a soft, strange sound behind me. I turned, and the air exploded as more than a dozen hens took flight right behind me (my heart was in better shape then than now). But Chinese pheasants as local wildlife? They were an acclimated import, brought over for North American sportsmen to bang their guns at.

Among a plethora of artifacts I saved from my family’s past is my great-great grandfather’s double-barreled black-powder gun, and a story that came with it; that he used it to shoot eagles out of the sky. I have little doubt that it was also used on passenger pigeons. Both Dad and Mom had fished occasionally in their youth, but Mom found it cruel, though she allowed us to buy tackle and use it to fish out a nearby pond. Neither of them hunted nor did they encourage us to do so. To Dad, the magical property-line hedgerow that sheltered so many songbirds and pheasants, and through which I followed the twisting paths of cattle, was an offense to order, utility, and efficiency and, eventually, he had it ripped out. And indeed, from the old-broken-down place he had bought, he did create a sort of utopia of care and neatness. It’s hard to see what remains of it now, still used for pasture but awaiting the developer’s bulldozer, just over the fence where the hedgerow had been.

Awaiting the bulldozer: Dad where he cleared the hedgerow.
Awaiting the bulldozer: Dad, where he cleared the hedgerow.

A story passed down in my family from my great-great grandmother tells of her listening at night to the howling of wolves echoing over half-cleared land. These would have been Eastern timber wolves, a slightly smaller variant of the gray wolf of the north and west. They were long gone from southwestern Ontario, but brush wolves persisted. In the farm country of my youth, roaming dogs would form occasional bands or packs, often temporary, but sometimes consistent over time. Occasionally, these would involve contact with wild cousins, resulting in mixed bands of semi-feral dogs and brush wolves, and their mixed offspring.

But it’s hard to pin down either brush wolves or eastern timber wolves as species. Just as wild and domestic animals have tested the settled farmscape of southern Ontario in the 20th century, so wolves have tested our classifications of wildlife. North American domestic animals have been corralled and categorized as economic assets within units of property, but have continued to exert pressure on, evade, and blur these boundaries for just as long. Our attempts to contain our fellow animals within narratives of clearly-defined species and modes of utility has met resistance and evasion from the objects of our classification. “Brush wolf” is a southern Ontario colloquialism for the animal called out west the coyote. Or is it? Brush wolves are physically and behaviorally variant from coyotes and have long interbred with domestic dogs. And is “eastern timber wolf” a genetically-pure classification in its own right or an amalgam of wolf, coyote, an eastern coyote-cousin, and feral dogs?

Something more complex went on during settlement than a simple opposition of domesticity and wilderness. Much of the wildlife originally resident in southern Ontario was extirpated by the mid-20th century. The “wild” fauna with which we were familiar were composed of remnants and new arrivals able to take advantage of human habitation and agricultural practices; cattle herds, chicken pens, orchards, pasture, fields of corn, wheat, and oats. Between the fauna called wild and the fauna of settlers there were unequal but varied states of accommodation as well as conflict.

Being Kind

My mother, grandfather and at least two sets of great grandparents all preached a gospel of kindness to animals. One maternal great grandfather raised prize Clydesdales with care and attention; the other hackney horses for the carriage trade in New York City. It is said that one was outraged when an over-hasty young man (probably courting his daughter) arrived at the farm behind a horse flecked with perspiration. When one of the first automobiles in the nearby city of Woodstock made its hacking way past his acreage, he observed dyspeptically that the things were good only for scaring horses. As a child, I was given to read both Black Beauty and a worn family copy of Beautiful Joe; the latter a book that spurred the formation of societies for the protection of animals in Canada, as Uncle Tom had galvanized antislavery sentiment (of a paternalistic sort) a generation earlier. 

In the 1930s, my grandfather was convinced by a chemical-company sales agent to try a new orchard spray, a bud thinner called Elgitol. He and my mother did an application and noticed a disturbing result: passing up one row of trees and turning down the next, they noticed dead birds lining the ground under the previous row. Their neighbor tried the same chemical, and the white coat of the horse that drew his sprayer turned an eerie yellow. “That’s it,” my grandfather is supposed to have said, “we’re not using this stuff again.” Three decades later, he bought a copy of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and was, it is said, deeply affected by it. I inherited his copy and I wish I could verify the family story that he immediately ceased buying DDT. The farm bills I salvaged from his papers tell a different tale. Economic necessity, I can only suppose.

Sensitive though he was to the mistreatment of animals, my grandfather owned a shotgun and a rifle, and used both to kill or scare off the songbirds who rivalled him for his cherries. My grandmother would do laundry in the basement to escape the sound of the blasts. (To switch to flora for a moment, he also used to beat the trunks of his apple trees with a baseball bat. Shocked by such bruising, the trees initiated a genetic-transmission survival response and produced more fruit.)    

I have an early memory of my own to add to this mix. I was a small boy trailing a small crew of older men hired by my grandfather to gather pruning brush and set it afire. They scared out a groundhog from under a brush pile; it tried to escape but was caught by the encircling men who used rakes and shovels to dispatch it. I remember its screams; I remember it also blowing great bubbles of blood as blows rained down on it. I remember one of the men laughing at it as it died.

Groundhogs–a large marmot (also called a woodchuck) native to eastern North America–were anathema to farmers of the horse generation. They tunneled large burrows in pasture that could sometimes tip farm wagons or machinery. A horse that stepped unknowing into the mouth of such a burrow could easily snap a leg and, in those days, there was no solution for that save to end its agony with a bullet. This animus against groundhogs long outlasted the farm horse. A neighbor, a quiet man, carried a .22 hornet rifle in a clip on his tractor fender. I saw him dispatch a groundhog at a hundred yards with a single shot; it chilled me knowing the hellish front he’d served on in battle a quarter century before.

Once, the family dog, nosing about the orchard where we were picking pears, scared up a rabbit, and we all–this time, me too–cheered her on wildly as she followed the rabbit’s desperate zigs and zags, as if we were at the racetrack with a twenty or a fifty on the favored horse. She caught but could not hold it, and it made off, minus a bit of skin and fur.

When I was about twelve, I went with Dad to a local butcher to pick up the cut-up and packaged remains of a steer he had delivered a few days earlier. The butcher, a cheery, ruddy-faced man who used to give us kids a free wiener, was just about to slaughter a heifer, and invited us back to watch. I remember the heifer being pulled in with a halter, pulling desperately backward, eyes wild. The butcher and his assistant were not cruel, but businesslike; they brooked no delay. A chain was quickly slipped round her, a .22 was put to her head, there was a single shot, and she sagged against the chain, eyes rolling and haunches quivering spasmodically. Quickly, she was ratcheted up, her jugular cut, and the knives, honed to the keenest edge, went to work. Within minutes she was gutted, decapitated and halved into what, in the industry, is called a carcass.

When it was over and we were outside, Dad said to me, weakly, “Well, that was something, wasn’t it?” Did he mean the death and disassembly, or the expertise with which it was carried out, or both? Did he intend for me to see it, or was he disturbed that I had? Was he glad or sad I had seen where part of my diet came from? Or both? Was this what anthropologists might call a rite de passage? It was clear to me that witnessing this death had affected him as well as me. But it was also clear to me that such a death was part and parcel of dairy farming; something both centripetal and integral to it.

The story of human-(other) animal interaction in regimes of North American settlement is as anomalous and hard to pin down as the bloodlines of eastern and brush wolves. The boundaries between deliberate, casual, and systemic or economic cruelty are not always clear, not always well-policed, not always impossible to cross, not always easy to defend. Not always comfortable; not settled.

Further Unsettements: Contexts & Contrasts

Thus far, I’ve spun together rambling narratives much like my mother’s, filled with humanized animals and animal-loving humans. I could so easily end it here with a brief condemnation of modern industrial farming, and the loss of the values my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents brought to the land and to its animals and theirs.

But not so fast.

These soft-hearted people, who genuinely cared for their soil and their animals, also made their living from the exploitation and sacrifice of those same animals. There were things involved in that work that we all knew but didn’t talk about. Dairy cows, when their useful breeding and milking life was coming to a close, would be sold on, at times to harder souls who would extract what they could from their last years. Or they were sent to an abattoir or butchered for our own table. Even Old Jersey was not allowed to live on in semi-retirement like Old Bob. After more than a decade of service to our economic standing, she went to the slaughterhouse. We noted her departure but didn’t talk much about it.

Dad raised a few bulls from prime cows but, otherwise, all bull calves were sold for veal or castrated to become steers, and raised for meat. By the time I was on the scene, the neighborhood bull was no more; our cows were fertilized by artificial insemination. (That innovation did lead to a decline in accidental deaths among farmers: the purebred dairy bull, as American author Albert Payson Terhune once observed, was bar none the most dangerous animal on the North American continent.)

All of our cows were de-horned as calves, using a searing implement that clearly caused them great pain and terror and filled the air with the odor of burning hair and flesh. But they were animals; they would get over it. Dad, who knew his animals so well otherwise, never quite “got” the psychology of his beloved Holsteins, and when one or more of them panicked, broke, and ran in the process of some transfer or containment, he would become visibly angry, giving an animal an emphatic whack to move it in the right direction–which as often as not had the opposite effect.

At a certain age, I was given a role in evening chores, and I knew that my willingness (and tractability) were being watched. Would I measure up to eventual succession of my father? Unlike my maternal grandfather, I didn’t have it in me to be a successor. But I was at an age and in a situation in which that was hard–impossible, actually–for me to admit, either to Dad or to myself. So, I did my job, feeding calves, often in a mixture of guilt, rage, and resentment. Now, calves, if they are hungry, will bawl, in a loud, blaring voice that set my teeth on edge. One night, I snapped and took a broomstick to the head of a blaring calf. I hoped both to hurt it enough to make it stop, but not enough to be noticed by my father. I failed utterly on the first count. I left no physical marks, but one of those calves grew into a notoriously skittish cow my dad found hard to deal with. I wondered then and wonder still if that cow’s reactions were my doing. 

Other than occasional impatience which never amounted to intentional cruelty, Dad took good care of his cattle. But his breed of choice was the Holstein-Friesian, a large, nervous animal that now absolutely dominates the dairy industry due to its prodigious production of milk and low butterfat count. It is the perfect grain-to-milk machine, and indeed is now treated as such, subjected in the US to rBST injections to coax yet more production out of its lean frame. Even a half-century ago, it was clear, I think, that Holsteins were being overdeveloped by selective breeding. And despite his own care in breeding and maintaining them, Dad’s milking Holsteins would fairly regularly develop mastitis in stressed udders, or ketosis, or foot rot from congregating on damp ground.

Holstein Friesian cow: productivity’s ideal type (USDA)
Holstein Friesian cow: productivity’s ideal type. (Image: USDA.)

A few years ago, I encountered an evangelist over coffee and sandwiches after a church service. I didn’t know he was an evangelist till we found out we both had an interest in agricultural history. It turned out he was a consultant on the newest, most modern methods of stabling and milking cattle. These innovations involved robot milkers that would automatically hook up when a cow entered a milking stall, sending a stream of milk via pipeline directly to filtration and storage in a bulk cooler. They also involved free-stall stabling: no more chaining of cows to stanchions. Cattle got to mingle as they wished in large, open-concept barns. And there was no milking hour, either. When a cow felt “full,” she would enter a milking stall of her choice to be relieved, at any hour of the day or night. The farmer was transformed from a stable laborer to an overseer of an automated process; one involving not 30 cows, not 50 but a 150, 500, a thousand or more. Scaling-up was easy as long as you factored in a certain amount of free-roam space per cow, and feed–minutely formulated for maximum health and yield–could be trucked in.

As he described this process to me, my table-mate’s eyes shone; his voiced developed the timbre of conviction. The farmer, he said, we now free of drudgery–and his cattle were freed to develop and express their own behaviors, and to be milked on their own schedule, as often as they liked (less stress on that udder!). Any time I wanted to visit one of these new establishments, he assured me, he would be happy to make arrangements. It was a miracle; the perfect confluence of humane treatment, technological and organizational efficiency, and gallons upon thousands of gallons of fresh, healthful milk.

We will come back to this vision.

Minus these reservations, the stories I’ve told amount only to idylls punctured by a few traumatic moments and necessary harsh truths. A simpler time, slower, more flexible, less rule-bound, more practical and pragmatic. That’s true as far as it goes. But here’s the astringent. 

I’ve described a system in which certain animals were owned as property and economically exploited, for their milk, their flesh, or their labor, or all three. The disposal of spent dairy cows or surplus bull calves was handled in terms of a practicality defined by subsistence, standard of living, and opportunity for profit. That practicality extended to necessary psychological adjustments. Affection for exploited animals was limited, especially if the animals were raised exclusively for slaughter. Animals exploited for labor, especially if they were tractable, gentle and willing, could be accorded sentiment, including sadness at their departure. Some escaped the knacker’s yard and glue factory for burial in a sandy knoll in a back field. Otherwise, the departure of an animal of long-standing and gentle nature might induce private sadness but would not be spoken of. Necessity was necessity.

On the other hand, companion animals, especially those with rights to enter the house, would be accorded affection, personalities, places in the family narrative. They earned a veterinary visit based on perceived suffering, not on economic function They would be allowed natural deaths or, if in terminal suffering, “put out of their misery” and then buried, sometimes with a simulacrum of a funeral.

Do you see a pattern here that is comparable to another sort of “property arrangement”? 

Think chattel slavery, legal and practiced until 1833 in Canada and in the US for three further decades. Think about another genre of nostalgic storytelling that arose in the States alongside and contemporaneous with the Lost Cause mythology assiduously promoted by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and similar organizations. Think about all the popular songs of the 1910s, 20s, 30s and even later, celebrating “my old plantation home” or “Mammy.” Think of Gone With the Wind. What were the common tropes in nostalgic Old South narratives told by the children and grandchildren of slave owners and spread in popular culture far more widely? Inevitably, they feature the plantation owner who “reluctantly” kept slaves out of–you guessed it–economic or social “necessity,” but who had always intended to free them. Who perhaps died too soon to carry out that wish. Or owners who were “kindly” to their slaves, mitigating the punishment dealt out by overseers; who sought to keep slave families together in the course of buying and selling them. Think of the stories in which the children of slaves and slaveowners played together–until the age the latter needed to separate off, to be trained for their future roles in marriage and property alliances, the ownership and management of land, of paid employees, of animals–and of slaves.

Think also of how often such stories accorded house slaves the right to a personality, a function of companionship, a length of tenure, mourning on their deaths, and a place in the family narrative, while treating field hands as a more or less anonymous mass. Think of the slaves who figured individually in such narratives and held that figuration through their depicted tractability, gentleness, and loyalty, or conversely, lost it because of notable waywardness or rebellion.

Think also of how so many pictures and films in the post-slavery era represented Black and Indigenous people in caricatured situations, posing them with pain in their eyes next to white men clowning around, and then think of photos in your collection, perhaps taken by you or depicting you with dogs or cats dressed in funny costumes or posed in anthropomorphic positions. You meant no harm.

. . . posed in anthropomorphic positions.
. . . posed in anthropomorphic positions . . .

Stables and stanchions for cattle featured chains. Horses were whipped and beaten; so were cattle and even dogs. Farm museums feature the finery of the household parlor but treat stables as matters of architecture or bygone technology rather than as housing for animate beings. How often does a farm museum guide interpret a doghouse with its stake and chain? Or the details of loading screaming pigs for slaughter?

The stories less often told of slaves by the descendants of their owners were those in which slaves actively and consciously sought to work what leverage they could to ameliorate and humanize their existence: gaining a household place for a child, requesting a transfer for family reunification, running away, secretly teaching or learning literacy, working an unequal economy of small favors. Testing the limits set by Property.

Many of you, dear readers, will know that the parallel I have drawn is not original to me. It’s been made many times by others recently. I just did a web search for it, and the very first two (of many) articles that came up described it in opposite terms. In the first, it is an “offensive comparison.” In the second, it is “not a stretch at all.”  

Am I claiming that the treatment of animals in historical and modern agriculture is the direct equivalent of slavery; is a form of slavery as vile as that practiced legally in the 19th-century Canada, in the American South, in the Caribbean, in Brazil? Or as bad as the forms of de facto slavery that still today provide child care for rich families, along with the subcontracted slavery that fills today’s grocery shelves with a percentage of their seafood, chocolate, and fruit?

No. They are not exact equivalents. But there are structural parallels that should give pause; should discomfort, whatever your position on them. The ownership and exploitation of animals divides humans from other animals in ways that are increasingly open to serious question. So was the eventually-destroyed credibility of divisions between “races” in the 20th century. Despite its discrediting, “race science” continues to be resurrected as a particularly persistent undead. These distinctions have tended to depend on scientific or philosophical criteria for post-hoc justification, but came to exist in the first place for “practical” reasons: what we have become accustomed, too accustomed, to call economic necessity, as if that necessity just exists, out there in the world, obdurate and with nothing, nothing to do with our self-interest or complicity; nothing to do with power. 

The agricultural-modernization evangelist who engaged me after church a few years ago, who so happily pointed out the freedom that milk cows in modern free-stall barns have to express their own herd behaviors, was really arguing for a humane mode of exploitation. Cattle get to choose when to be milked. But they do not get to choose to be or not to be milk cattle–or beef cattle. “Humane” farming is farming that practices kindness on human terms for human ends. And such practices, now as then, edge up against the exploitation of humans by humans, and not only in the form of outright slavery. The historian Gabriel N. Rosenberg has chronicled the deeply unsettling ways in which humans have inserted themselves in the very center of animal sexuality in the name of agricultural economics, and how agricultural organizations in turn have worked to shape the sexuality of aspiring farm young people in the interests of both race and reproduction.  

For thousands of years, farming has constituted a system of human subsistence and profit that leaves room for both kindness and cruelty; both affection and objectification. Can it be separated from exploitation? Can humans relate to animals in mutual and non-exploitative ways? How would we even begin to define that? 

I would love to be able to end this column with a ringing denunciation of profit-oriented industrial agriculture and an equally ringing defense of agriculture as practiced and hymned by the likes of Wendell Berry, organized in terms of an ethics that embraces locality, limited scale, and sustainability. It’s not quite that easy to do. I could not do it in complete comfort. Nor can I see my way quite clear to an ethic that excludes all so-called sentient animals from exploitation without questioning also the mining of the world’s soil, the dispossession of its peasantry, and the mono-cropping of its plant life. I am particularly unwilling to condemn the hunting and fishing practices, and the cultivation of companion and working animals, carried out for thousands of years by the world’s indigenous peoples. I see in their practices other possible ways of evaluating the relations of humans to other animals. But some of these have entered popular culture in romanticized form, courtesy of people willing to claim alliance with indigenous peoples and their world views in the name of an idealized pan-humanism, pan-Indianism, or pan-speciesism, without undertaking the hard work of dealing with the fundamental practical and ontological challenges such an alliance requires.   

Let me end by telling and then unraveling one more story.

One late evening, when I was about 15, I heard a racket of barking coming from a field across the road from our home. Our family dog at the time was a medium-sized German Shepherd-Terrier cross. Her personality was like that which, in human terms, one might call a “sub”–gentle, passive, retiring, a sucker for love. Hilariously, we’d named her Perky.

That night, she was AWOL. 

I pulled on my boots and headed across to the neighbor’s field to investigate the source of the noise. It was farther away than I’d anticipated, beside a dark clump of old apple trees, distant from the neighboring house. I came across a circle of some dozen and a half madly-barking dogs of all sizes and configurations; some clearly from a nearby town. I couldn’t see what they were barking at, but their intensity raised the hair at the nape of my neck.

I called, “Perky! Perky, come here!” There was instant silence, and then, a second later, the dogs broke and scattered as if driven by some devil wind. All except one, who came trotting over to me in the dark, ears down, tail wagging. Perky. She and I walked back home; I held her by the collar at the highway till I saw it was clear, and when we got home, I put her in the basement to sleep.  

That’s the end of the story, except for one thing. Every time I remember it, I feel a chill. What if, when I called my dog’s name, the others had not broken and fled, but had come after me? My voice had thrown a switch in their brains, recalling them from pack to possession; from spark to subordination. What if I’d thrown another switch that set them upon me? What made the difference? 

If you do an internet search for combinations of terms like “stray dogs,” “feral dogs,” “Indigenous communities,” or “reserves/reservations,” you will be served up a plethora of news and opinion pieces on issues posed by the circulation of “stray” canines in Indigenous reserves and northern communities in Canada and the US. Stray dogs are generally defined as dogs not under the ownership, control, and responsibility of particular persons or families; dogs not attached to a specific individual or residence. Feral dogs are defined as dogs that have escaped from domestication or that were born outside it; dogs who no longer exhibit obedience or subordination to humans; who exhibit pack behavior.  

Both categories of dog are seen as problems by police, social workers and, often, by reserve or community administrators. They pose a danger to human children or even adults in vulnerable circumstances. There have been news stories about children mauled to death by stray dogs in remote northern Canadian Indigenous communities. Such dogs breed indiscriminately, increasing their ranks. They forage for food, sometimes relying on handouts from local people, supplementing that with hunting (not only wild animals but smaller pets and even cattle) and scavenging from garbage dumps. They are not healthy, live hard lives, and may be reservoirs for disease.

A number of programs have been instituted to deal with the problems they pose, including capture, spaying, adoption, and so on, but they and their issues persist. In some stories, the problem of stray dogs is linked to other issues in rural and remote communities, including poverty. This has the effect of isolating and localizing–and othering–“the problem.”

Think back to the story of me confronting the circle of dogs. It took place on prosperous farmland, near a town, and it involved a mix of dogs, some of which, like mine, had collars and license tags. Remember what I said above about how it was common practice in my youth not to spay barn cats or even dogs, to allow dogs and cats to roam freely? Or talk to anyone at any urban animal shelter in North America. They will tell you they are overwhelmed by homeless cats and dogs, many un-spayed and unregistered. Do an internet search for articles on how many millions of songbirds may be killed every year by domestic cats–many stray or feral, but many allowed out by owners, urban and rural, to roam.

Who owns this problem? Who is made to own it?

And one other thing. In the plethora of articles detailing the stray-animal problem in Indigenous communities from the perspectives of police, social workers, administrators, and animal-welfare agencies are some that feature a different kind of voice. That voice notes that many Indigenous people do not think of the animal world as one that needs management. Rather, they think of it as their language bids them. And I can tell you that the very little I know of just one Indigenous language –Blackfoot– is that it is profoundly kin-oriented. Interestingly, the English term “animal” descends from the Latin anima, meaning breath, but also later taken to mean “soul.” You would think, then that a culture that uses this term, a culture which accords humans the status of souls, would continue see animals as at least spiritual kin. But it is not in English that the kinship of animals and humans, of dogs and people, is most compellingly and practically expressed. 

To speak of dogs as kin is to institute a different kind of bond between canines and humans. To work (at serious risk of misrepresentation, I know) within the English language, it means to treat dogs as fellow-beings, fellow-subjects, fellow-agents, engaged in their own forms of sociality. In settler culture –my culture–we treat dogs this way all the time, don’t we? We treat our dogs as if they are self-conscious like us, ethical like us, consciously motivated as we are, companionate as we are, loyal as we are, caring as we are. Oh, but wait! Our dogs? “Like us?” “As we are?” This is not kinship; it is identification, carried out exclusively from the human side. We, in our love of dogs, speak for them. Just as I have written here of and to a degree for the animals my family and I knew. Just as slave-owners and their descendants spoke of and for their slaves.

In settler cultures, despite the blurring of boundaries between people and animals, by both people and animals, which I have described anecdotally, we tend to default to more rigid and legalistic categories when something becomes a threat or challenge. Thus, when we problematize feral or stray animals, we fall back on categories that define civilization, domesticity, and, especially, ownership in particular, Eurocentric ways. A dog is meant to be owned (and cared for) by an individual or family responsible for it. Caring for a dog means training it, controlling its reproduction, showing it affection, shaping its “behaviors.” We settlers often readily romanticize Indigenous ways of relating to animals. But what happens to that when our way of problematizing what we call “strays” or “feral” animals runs up against communities not as sold on the concept of individuality and ownership as we are?

Are settlers prepared to listen to the idea that dogs can choose to attach themselves to us, and may choose to do so as dog-communities to human-communities, as kin, or collectively? Are settlers prepared to listen to arguments that spaying programs, adopting-out programs, programs to teach animal care and control, can be formulated and implemented in ways that disrespect fundamental Indigenous ways of relating and also disrespect animals and their ways by treating them as objects of management?

Beware an either/or reaction here. In raising these questions, I am not suggesting that there is no problem when a child in a remote northern community is killed by a pack of free-roaming dogs, or when packs of such dogs kill wildlife and domestic animals, threaten human mobility, or serve as vectors of disease. I am not suggesting it is no problem that the number of such dogs impacts their own health. I am not discounting the millions of birds killed every year by outdoor cats, contributing to a future in which scores of once-numerous species will go extinct within 20 years. I am not suggesting that the environmental degradation caused by feral horses in the US southwest is not worthy of discussion.

But Indigenous people have lived with dogs for thousands upon thousands of years. And those of us who are settlers have to own not only our way of naming problems but also our practical hand in constructing them. Most feral and stray dogs and cats in North America do not live in Indigenous communities. The populations of abandoned animals generated by non-Indigenous people have spread to and invaded Indigenous communities, in circumstances that have overwhelmed traditional knowledge and wisdom. Then, to add insult to injury, fellow-citizens of the perpetrators descend on these communities, define the problem, assign responsibility for it, and implement programs.

Sometimes, such programs get support, and sometimes they work. Only when people listen respectfully, formulate plans and programs respectfully, share agency respectfully. 

Members of settler cultures and those who have been touched by or shaped by it have a problem, and a problem with the problem. Our relations to animals are deeply problematic in ways we often do not recognize, nor wish to or even are able to recognize. The consequences of those relations are burdensome, despite our efforts to ignore or deflect them. It’s no longer good enough to write pretty stories about these relations; stories that romanticize settler life or that romanticize Indigenous life in terms settlers find comforting.  

It’s also no longer good enough to retreat into categories of blame and responsibility in order to yell at each other about villains. To repeat: for me to suggest structural parallels between animal ownership and slavery is not to assert that every loving dog-owner is the same as a plantation overseer; that any consumer of milk or meat or honey is a cold-hearted exploiter. Nor to assert that it is no problem that children are killed by dogs, and birds by cats. But owning that problem means hard thinking and hard conversations. Yelling and blame are easy outs. We also need to take care to think about what it is that frames our listening and our talk. When you look out or yell out of a window or a door, you do not normally pay much attention to the frame. Pay attention to that frame. Walk out across the road into that field, the one that, in the dusk, is no longer familiar and bounded, but vague and dangerous; in which you are no longer the owner or master, but someone who may call in the right way or the wrong. Be wise, be watchful. But take the steps.


“. . . horses were the subject of an entire culture of word, ritual and song”

For example, the sentimental bothy ballad, “Princie and Jean,” sung by Tam Reid on Gentle Giants: A Celebration of the Clydesdale Horse in Song. Produced by Robin Laing. Greentrax, 2004.  

“. . . one of them left a charcoal graffito of two Clydesdales, executed with feeling and grace . . .”

Digging Up the Past at Inverharroch, The Cabrach Trust, August 17, 2016”.

“In Heartbreak House, George Bernard Shaw wrote, not without a tinge of irony . . .”

G. B. Shaw, Heartbreak House, Act Three, quoted in wildturnip, 2012.

“. . . as Raymond Knister noted in an early 20th -century poem, “In The Rain, Sowing Oats”

Raymond Knister, “Sowing Oats,” in Gregory Betts, ed., After Exile: A Raymond Knister Poetry Reader. Holstein, ON: Exile Editions, 2003, p. 42.

“Honeybees, imported by settlers after some earlier indigenous bee apocalypse . . .”

Kathy Keatley Garvey, “First Native American Honey Bee,” Bug Squad: Happenings in the insect world. University of California, UCANR, 2009.

“. . .  haying season may in future be regulated to accommodate bobolink nests.”

Jack Kyle and Ronald Reid, “Farming with Grassland Birds. Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association, 2016.”

“. . . an amalgam of wolf, coyote, an eastern coyote-cousin, and feral dogs?”

See “What is the difference between a wolf and a coyote in Ontario?” Wolves Ontario, n.d.

“. . . I was given to read both Black Beauty and a worn family copy of Beautiful Joe . . .”

Marshall Saunders, Beautiful Joe. Philadelphia: Charles H. Banes, 1893. Wikipedia entry at

Anna Sewell, Black Beauty. London: Jarrold and Sons, 1877. Wikipedia entry at

“. . . a bud thinner called Elgitol.”

Crop Profile for Apples in Washington, pp. 3-4. Washington State University, 2001.

“. . .  he bought a copy of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring . . .”

Rachel Carson, Silent Spring. Houghton Mifflin, 1962. See

“. . . American author Albert Payson Terhune . . .”

See “Albert Payson Terhune,” Wikipedia.

“. . . subjected in the US to rBST injections to coax yet more production . . .”

See “Bovine somatotropin,” Wikipedia.

“In the first, it is an ‘offensive comparison.’ In the second, it is ‘not a stretch at all.’”

See Ashitha Nagesh, “Vegans need to stop comparing the treatment of animals to slavery,” The Independent, 14 June 2015.

See also Charles Horn, “Animal Slavery and Other Comparisons: Who Should Be Offended?Free From Harm, August 23, 2014.

“The historian Gabriel N. Rosenberg has chronicled the deeply unsettling ways . . .”

See “Gabriel Rosenberg, Visiting Scholar (May 2019-Aug 2019) Max Planck Institute for the History of Science.

“. . . as practiced and hymned by the likes of Wendell Berry . . .”

See Amanda Petrusich and Wendell Berry, “Going Home With Wendell Berry,” “The New Yorker,” July 14, 2014.

“I see in their practices other possible ways of evaluating the relations of humans to other animals.”

See, e.g., Melissa Marie Legge and Dr. Margaret Robinson, “Animals in Indigenous Spiritualities: Implications for Critical Social Work.” Journal of Indigenous Social Development, 6(1).

“In the plethora of articles detailing the stray-animal problem . . .”

Here is just a small sample of the varied constructions of, opinions about and coverage of such issues. Note especially the wording used in some of these.

Roberta Bell and Sam Wark, “Rez Dogs,” CBC News, May 25, 2019.

Jen Gerson, “Volunteers struggle to reduce wild dog population plaguing native reserves,” National Post, February 2, 2013. 

Chelsea Laskowski, “The Controversial Challenge of Dealing with Packs of Wild Dogs on First Nation Reserves,” Vice Canada, November 23, 2015.

Bill Graveland, “Stray dog problems on First Nations could be reduced by bands passing laws,” CBC News, April 23, 2018.

Andrew Brighten, “Aboriginal Peoples and the Welfare of Animal Persons: Dissolivng the Bill C-10 Conflict.”

A Kanji, “Colonial Animality: Constituting Canadian Settler Colonialism through the Human-Animal Relationship.” Critical epistemologies of global politics, 2017.

Image Credits: Image 1: Clydesdale horses, charcoal on whitewash, m.20C, Inverharroch © The Cabrach Trust, Inverharroch, Lower Cabrach AB54 4EU SCT. By permission; Image 2: The landmark barn he erected in 1917 . . ., Author photo; Image 3: Cattle kingdom, Family collection; the author, his father’s cows, his grandfather’s stable; Image 4: Frederick George Cotman, One of the Family (1880), Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. Image from Wikimedia Commons. Public domain; Image 5:A legion of smaller ghosts . . ., Family collection; Image 6:  . . . the hunt was on for the kittens . . ., Family collection; Image 7:  . . . a placid elderly beast with heart trouble named Duke . . ., The author with Duke. Family collection; Image 8: Barn Swallow (photo by Derek Keats), On Wikimedia Commons, shared under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.; Image 9: Awaiting the bulldozer: Dad where he cleared the hedgerow, Author photo; Image 10: Holstein Friesian cow: productivity’s ideal type (USDA), From (Image Number K5176-3) via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.; Image 11: . . . posed in anthropomorphic positions, Family collection.

William Ramp teaches sociology at the University of Lethbridge, in Alberta, Canada. He’s bemused to find himself in his sixth decade, nursing both a long and faulty memory, and age-inappropriate attitudes. He is fortunate to be organized, inspired and kept in line by dear friends and cheerfully-irreverent children. He contends as best he can with a host of garden-variety demons, imagining that some day he will beat them all, but suspecting he really should invite them in for coffee and a chat at fireside. Though trained in academic prose, he’s returning to a love of creative and incidental writing left behind in high school. That love is now his lifeline; a way to retain a footing on new paths and to contribute to uncaged and free-range conversation. His interests tend to be intellectual, but he delights in poring over antique machinery, grafting strange sprigs onto unsuspecting trees, listening to frogs in spring, watching thunderstorms outside and in bare feet, and talking to crows and magpies. He bumbles at night around the porch-lights of culture and ideas, and gravitates to redolent old things left at the curb of modern life. He tries not to let frustration with bad politics and worse news eclipse his sometimes wayward and over-ardent affections for the things of this world. Banner(1) photo used by permission of photographer Penny McCoy:; banner(2) photo used by permission of photographer Bradley Rawlings; headshot photo by Louis-Philippe Valiquete, Laboratoire d'études durkheimienne, UQAM.


  • William Ramp

    They are, they are…so fleetingly, so deeply. Thank you for your own contribution, which I’ve now read twice. How powerfully we are claimed by the animals we call ‘ours’; we carry them in memory, but they bore us.