My father would tell us about the clever dog who rescued a family from a burning house in the middle of the night. First, Rover woke up Dad, who unfortunately rushed outside before he realised that Mum wasn’t with him. But all was well; for in a few moments Rover appeared leading Mum to safety. Then Mum and Dad both got frantic because the baby was still somewhere in the flames. However, brave Rover turned up a third time, carrying Baby safely in his mouth. (“Still asleep,” my father used to add.) Then Rover himself disappeared
Tears and mutual comforting until once again this marvellous dog came staggering out of the house just as the roof fell in, carrying a rough sort of parcel which he laid at his master’s feet. And when Dad opened it, there safe and sound was the fire insurance policy and the premium receipts, all wrapped up in a wet teatowel.
Well, there’s a clever dog for you, and of course there’s no end of jokes about all sorts of animals. But have you ever noticed that in the wider sense of animal stories—the ones about how clever or almost human they are or their captivating ways—have you ever noticed that there’s one animal who hardly ever gets a mention at all?
It’s the cow. Yes. The cow. And it’s very odd, because in a country like ours with more than two million dairy cows, you’d expect to find any number of first-class cow stories. But no. We just ignore the ways of cows and go on reading stories about dogs, horses, lions, elephants, foxes, whales, wolves, otters and so on. Some even get whole books written about them while poor old Buttercup hardly gets a mention. I wonder why? I suppose it’s quite true that most cows are pretty solid, stolid kind of creatures (like most human beings for that matter), but some at least are individuals and I’m happy to say that once we owned several of them.
Darkie, for instance. A bigboned black beast who seemed as if she could go on supplying two and a half gallons of milk twice a day for ever. A splendid milker, and most of the time a child of five could have taken it from her. She was the easiest thing in the whole byre to milk. But unpredictably, often she wouldn’t let us have any milk at all. You could squeeze till your wrists seized up. You were only wasting your time because Darkie had turned off the supply at the main. For no apparent reason she’d hurriedly gulp down her cud then go stiff all over. She became a black statue of a cow. We could scarcely tell if she was breathing. Mental paralysis, we assumed.
Perhaps some very hard problem had suddenly demanded her full attention, or maybe no more than wondering what had become of her last calf, or if the gate to the lucerne paddock might be open. Ordinary things that you and I would hardly worry about, but great problems to Darkie. She refused to think about them and let her milk down at the same time. She might remain in this rigid state for anything up to half an hour and you could do nothing about it. You could shout and she didn’t appear to hear you. You could pummel her fat belly and you merely hurt your hand. You could only bide your time and go on with something else till Darkie, having either solved her problem or forgotten about it, relaxed of her own accord, happily began chewing her cud again, and let the warm milk flow.
As kids we tried over and over to stop cows’ cuds from reaching their mouths. Each of us hoped to be the first one to catch a cud on its way up the loose soft neck. But we never succeeded. The bulky cud always bumped past our small hands as if they weren’t there.
Lena got her name because she used to lean on my eldest brother. Bob and I could milk her any time and she’d remain upright and self-supporting as a factory chimney, but whenever my eldest brother sat down to her she leaned on him like a lovesick sweetheart. Not right away. She’d stand upright in the beginning but as the milking continued she’d sag. She’d gradually take the weight from her offside rear leg till the hoof was barely touching the concrete, when she’d have fallen over if it hadn’t been for my brother shoring her up with his head. Luckily she was small. A neat, cream-coloured Jersey. But holding up even a small cow for five or six minutes with only your neck muscles can be pretty tiring. Sometimes we’d hear my brother protesting in a strangled kind of voice but it made no difference. She still sagged. Yet in an odd way I think he was secretly flattered that she singled him out for this heavily amorous attention. Anyway, he was the only one she ever leaned on.
A far cry from cows to the American poet Walt Whitman? I’m sure he had them in mind when he wrote‑
I think could turn and
live with animals,
they are so placid and
A few more lines, then—
Not one is demented
with the mania of
Like Whitman’s animals I don’t think any of our cows ever wanted to own anything, but for a time we had one who was definitely demented. Dippy was obsessed with the thought of self-destruction and tried everything she could to do away with herself, her simplest scheme being to get lost, just stand, and starve herself to death. The first time she sneaked away it took us two days to find her, droopy and dispirited in a clump of manuka she could have walked out of any time she liked.
She lost herself several times, once in an old shed. She’d fallen through the floorboards and then couldn’t lift enough legs at one time to clear the joists. We had to saw them out (the joists, not her legs) in sections and lead her out.
However when we got to know all her hiding places including an old Maori drain that had fallen in, she gave up the idea of getting lost and took to casting herself over banks, wading in swamps up to her belly, and falling down with her neck jammed between young poplar trees. Once she almost managed to drown herself in a flooded creek, a roaring creek, so wild that nothing else in the herd would have gone within yards of it. And when we came across her she was lying on her side waiting for her first glimpse of the heavenly pastures while the yellow flood raged round her. She refused to get up and we had to manoeuvre a sledge under her. Then when Old Prince, heaving and floundering, dragged her up the muddy bank, she staggered off—genuinely regretting, no doubt, that we’d saved her.
In the end she successfully hanged herself in a tangle of supplejack deep in the summer gloom of dense bush. A fitting Valhalla, I suppose, for such a morbidly determined cow. Some people might merely have thought her to be accident-prone. To us, however, she was a kind of bovine Hamlet.
I’m pretty sure to understand a cow properly you have to milk her by hand. Machine milking won’t do. With machine milking, Buttercup with her sadly docked tail is merely something to fasten a set of wheezing metal cups on to and there’s really no time for observing anything but the sight-bowl. But when you sit under a cow for upwards of fifteen minutes a day for most days of the year, milking her, chatting to her and perhaps singing her a song sometimes, then you get a pretty fair idea of what’s going on between those furry ears.
Ours was a mixed herd and Jessie was a plump plum-coloured Polled Angus who loved playing with children far better than just being another cow in the paddock. She’d been a pet from the start. As a calf we used to run races with her and wrestle with her. As a yearling, then a two-year old, we persuaded her to pull a small sledge and also to test our skill as bullfighters, killing her from time to time with swords of green flax. She made a splendid bull, darting in short runs, bunting us when she could, and I’m sure that all the time she knew it was only a game. However, even a bunt from a Polled Angus can be a bit shattering so we gave up bullfighting and took to riding her as a sort of farm hack.
She enjoyed that too, and I remember one entire summer when almost every day she came trotting to the fence to meet us as we came home from school. The first two or three lucky ones scrambled on her back, and Jessie, proud as a Trentham winner, stepped out the two to three hundred yards to home. She just ambled and we could all have got home faster on our own two feet than on her four, but she liked giving us rides and seemed genuinely disappointed on wet days, when no one was particularly keen to straddle her broad wet steamy back. Mind you, she was always rewarded for her efforts with carrots, apples, or lettuce, which may have helped her to accept her role as a beast of child-burden. But all things come to an end, and as Jessie grew older and we grew heavier she gave up playing games and settled down as a sensible matron cow.
Even then, however, her pleasure in things smaller than herself wasn’t quite over and one winter she made friends with a mouse. In Otago the milking cows were generally kept indoors on winter nights and given a last feed about eight o’clock, the time when the mouse would appear in Jessie’s feed-bin. Certainly, other mice were about, but this was the only one to appear publicly, as it were. With one good snort she could have blown the tiny creature through the back wall, but she kept very still and never even tried to touch it. All she did was half turn her head and follow its friskings with one kindly eye. We were able to watch too, because the mouse seemed to gain courage from the presence of his large friend and took no notice of us. Heaven knows what Jessie really made of the mouse, but she almost seemed to smile as she watched him, and plainly enjoyed his company.
Finally there was Rocker. Rocker was a comfortable patched-up Holstein and we all agreed that somewhere in the remote past one of her ancestors must have been a horse. Every now and again after she’d been lying down, she’d try to get up like a horse, front legs first. This method works pretty well with horses but with cows it’s different, and Rocker could only ever manage to get up halfway. That is, once she’d pushed herself into a sitting position by bracing her front legs, there she stuck. Her rear end was immovable. But this didn’t worry her and sometimes she’d stay in this equine or canine sitting position for as long as ten minutes, chewing her cud and contentedly surveying the world around her. When she eventually decided it was time to get herself on all four feet, she’d begin rocking, rather like someone starting a swing, and hoping no doubt for enough momentum to hoist her rear end off the ground. She’d rock and rest, rock and rest, but naturally enough, in the end she was always obliged to kneel down and get up hindlegs first, as cows are born to do. This continued throughout her life, on an average of two or three times a month. I never heard of any other cow who tried to get up like a horse.
I do like cows. I like their big kindly eyes, their beautifully curved or beautifully crumpled horns, and above all I like their air of easygoing serenity. I even like the smell of them, while the smell of too many sheep can make me physically sick.
So after that testimony it may seem a bit odd to end by quoting in full a poem by Ogden Nash who I don’t think regarded cows very highly at all:
The cow is of the bovine ilk
One end is moo, the other milk.
Memorable? All those. The lot. And by heavens I’m pretty sure that Darkie, Lena, Jessie and all the others would have thought so too. The dear old things.