"Animal rights or animal welfare? These two terms are not synonymous. Animal rights is the belief that animals have the same rights as people and people should not use animals for any purpose--food, clothing, experimentation, etc. Animal welfare is the belief that animals deserve humane treatment at all times. The sheep industry, along with all other livestock industries, believes in this premise."
MG and I drove up to Atchison County this sunny Suday morning to take Luna to my friend who breeds and trains working and competition (sheep herding trial) Border Collies. Luna will be there for conditioning (she's chubby, soft-footed, and lost a lot of muscle tone during her confinement for heartworm treatment, and I don't have the time to work her hard enough to rebuild her), training, and hopefully sale to a handler who can help her express her full natural talents. She's a competition class dog, and I can't ever help her live up to her potential on my small farm, with such a busy schedule. When my beloved old B.C., Toss, can't do my simple chores any longer, another "rescue" Border Collie will surely come into my life, as Toss did 9 years ago.
Vast acres of corn and soybean fields roll over the hills between here and Eldemar Farm. We're crossing a tiny portion of the breadbasket of America--our source for food, fuel, plastics, a huge array of products. But when one is out in the middle of it, it is intimidating. How could this huge land possibly produce food for humans when we can no longer depend on cheap oil to plow, fertilize, control pests, harvest, dry, transport, and process crops? Well, the way it was broken: With horses and oxen.
But we have a changed society, a society that is in the process of re-writing its contracts with the animal kingdom, one pet at a time.
I had an odd conversation with a vegan friend the other day, an animal rights enthusiast. Normally we just focus on our common interests--gardening and sustainable living--and the ideological gulf between her veganism and my shepherding doesn't come up. But this time I innocently commented that the extensive chemically-manicured acres of lawn around some local factories would be much more sustainably managed as pastures and hayfields--for sheep, of course. She replied, "Well, yes, when everyone wakes up and stops killing animals, we'll need somewhere for the animals to live out their lives during the transition...."
Is turning them loose as prey, vulnerable to diseases, parasites, and predators (coyotes are animals, too, and the lion has yet to lie down with the lamb), "humane" and an expression of their rights, when they have been selected by humans for thousands of years to live in harmony with us, people and sheep taking turns feeding one another in environments where neither could survive without the other? Or will society decide to actually pay some of us for the relentless skilled labor of husbanding them, as I do with my sheep? Will we sterilize them to allow their numbers to dwindle by natural death, or let them multiply until they have devoured every green space around them, and die of starvation? Will she let them eat her tidy flowers and kitchen garden, or demand that they be fenced in somewhere at great expense and labor?
Would she allow the use of horses as draft animals in place of tractors? If not, how many people in our cities would starve before they learn the complex skills of farming with their bare hands to produce all their own food but also food for those who are physically unfit for such labor, and those who are shepherding the retired sheep that want to eat the hard-won fruits of manual farm labor? Is subjecting them to "very intensive labor, expecting little in return" (quoting a disgruntled former apprentice, not surprisingly a "city girl") for their own sustenance "inhumane"?
The rolling corn fields, where we turn right, left, then right again, are bordered at every swale and creek by woods. We see several families of deer browsing on tender soybean leaves at the field margins. This is an environment that, without the plow or fire or relentless grazing, would become forest in a couple decades, forest that would offer very little nourishment for human sustenance. Without chain saws, the thought of tackling that forest is daunting. I know. I'm watching this cycle on my own farm, a miniscule 11 acres which seems huge at times. It began 11 years ago with not a single tree; now there is a large "baby forest" and trees are my most tenacious "weeds" in the garden. Trees I planted with my own hands, or watched spring from seeds, are now 40' tall.
In a dream/vision, years before I came to Pinwheel Farm, I had an encounter with a deer:
I was part of a group of people attending a retreat at a cabin among wooded hills. At night, I stepped out of the cabin into the darkness, away from the noisy fellowship of humans into the sibilant, busy quiet of the cabin clearing in the woods. As I stood under the stars, a group of deer moved into the clearing.
One of them fearlessly approached me. I was in his space, I was the intruder. I was not afraid, but in awe of him.
He looked me directly in the eye, mere feet away from me, challenging. I listened. He spoke telepathically, directly into my mind [I have since found that my sheep actually do this in real life, on occasion].
"We don't mind if you hunt us," he said. "It's a game to us, we don't mind testing our wits against yours. It's a fun challenge for us. You get to make the rules--that's ok with us. All we ask is that you play by the rules you have chosen. Don't spotlight, don't hunt out of season, don't hunt on the roads or where the signs say "no hunting". Hunting's fine with us as long as you play fair."He kept looking at me for a long time. He's right, of course. It doesn't matter to a deer how it dies. It is born to die. People might as well eat it, as maggots, vultures, or coyotes. It DOES matter that we are honorable in our dealings with animals.
In my heart, I vowed to him, to all deer, to all prey animals, that I would honor the rules and insist that others do likewise. With considerable relief, feeling lightened of a long-time burden, I looked forward to a long life as a guilt-free omnivore.I do the best I can by my sheep, my dogs, the goldfish in the stack tanks, the wild things here. We are all in this together, this community of life at Pinwheel Farm.