George Clooney, my bull, growled at me in the pasture yesterday. Growled, you say? Yes.
Cattle make many different noises. Katika has at least four calls: her usual moo; “calf talk,” which are low organ notes — mmmm — that she uses with her own calves; another version of this quiet note that she uses with me (mmmm? — “Aren’t you done milking yet?” or “Have you forgotten me standing here patiently?”); and the excited bellow when she’s in heat and looking for love. Calves bawl, sounding almost like sheep: “Meh! Meh!” And when I bring Katika in morning and night for milking, leaving Georgie and our visitor Roxanne in the pasture, they do not comfort each other but instead stand at the fenceline, voicing their individual protests. Georgie’s bellows are high and distraught — a mmmmmooooo!!! that is almost a shriek. Stolid Roxanne has a deep, monotonous, unceasing bellow that sounds like a foghorn.
The roar of a bull is entirely different from all of these. I first read about it in Mary O’Hara’s children’s book, Green Grass of Wyoming, a second sequel to her bestselling My Friend Flicka. In the story, the prize bull Cricket trees the hero’s mother and baby sister in a pasture and then paces beneath them, roaring and trying to knock the tree down to get them. The scene was terrifying and indelible. When I heard a bull roar, almost forty years later, I knew exactly what it was.
I raised Ferdinand, my first Jersey bull, on a bottle. When he came to me he was a sick day-old calf and lived in our kitchen in a playpen (it was December). He became extremely tame. I brushed him every day and even Lucy, at 7, could lead him anywhere.
I didn’t realize then that this was a recipe for disaster. Much later I read this brief passage in my copy of A Veterinary Guide for Animal Owners:
There is quite a bit of risk involved with [keeping a bull], especially if you have a dairy bull. No matter how tame a bull seems, you always have to remember that he is a bull. Most people are not hurt by a mean bull because these bulls are watched constantly. It is the tame, friendly bull that is dangerous.
… I’ve seen a bull lift the front end of a tractor like a tinker toy, and another push out the whole end of a barn, beams and all. I’ve seen one who walked through a five-strand barbed wire fence as if it were string, and another get a man down, kneel on him, and ignore pitchforks stuck into him in an effort to get him off. These are not scare stories but facts to consider…
Ferdinand was about ten months old, and still perfectly friendly with me, when some young men in their early 20s stopped by my barn to help me stack a truckload of hay. The change in Ferdy was dramatic. Clearly he did not like these strange people in his barn. He lowered his head, turned broadside, the hair on his neck bristled, and he stalked up and down his stall, roaring. A bull roar is described as being like the roar of a lion. (Here is an audio clip of a bull roaring; open and click preview play.) In that small barn, I found it unearthly — the roar of a Tyrannosaurus Rex in a Steven Spielberg movie. The hair rose on my own neck.
Now, Ferdinand was still the size of a pony. How could anyone be afraid of a bull so small? But there was something in his angry, glaring, almost reddened eyes that stopped such questions. At that point, he wasn’t angry or aggressive with me but I now realized he could be. And small for a bull or not, a 750-lb battering ram is no joke. It was the beginning of the end for Ferdinand.
From then on, I never turned my back on him. When he came in at night (the snow was deep and I couldn’t bear to lock him out), Ferdy would sometimes stop and stare at me, measuringly. He pushed me into walls — not yet with intent to harm, but just to establish that he could. I started carrying a sawed-off 2×4 in the back pocket of my coveralls during chores, just in case. I put a lunge whip in the rafters of my low-ceilinged barn where I could reach it if I were suddenly cornered. But I was afraid. Tense weeks passed. Finally, two days before Christmas, I could no longer stand the strain of worrying I’d be alone and attacked. I called the local butcher, who shot him through the fence while he had his head down, eating a pan of grain. Ferdinand never knew a thing. I was sad, and Katika went un-bred that year, but I felt an enormous weight roll off my shoulders.
Since then I’ve raised my bulls differently. They are tame but still wary of me. When scampering young bulls try to push me, playing, in the pasture, I bash them with a swinging bucket — my version of a cow’s irritated kick or head-butt that teaches them to respect my space. Still, they are dear babies for so long that you can be lulled.
George Clooney is not quite eleven months old. His rumbling growl yesterday wasn’t a real challenge. It was teenaged back-talk. Rudeness and sass. He didn’t roar at me. But when I heard the growl I looked up from where I was spreading hay in the pasture, saw him standing broadside to me and staring me in the eye (both challenges) and felt a chill. I was seventy-five feet from the electric fence, with Georgie between it and me. I had nothing in my hands or pockets to swing at him, and in the bare pasture there was nothing either. I had been very, very foolish.
I kept myself broadside to him (though a human “broadside” is not so broad), stared back, and used my equivalent of a growl — my sharp teacher voice. “Knock it off, Georgie!” I snapped, and walked forward toward the gate. Georgie looked away and gave ground, and I got out of the pasture. But I won’t do that again.
When I got home I called the butcher and made his date with destiny.
Fall is a busy time for butchers, with livestock cycles coinciding with deer season. Georgie won’t go until mid-December. Until then he will be growing bigger and more dangerous. I expect he’ll soon be roaring. I’ll be as careful as can be.
People always ask me, “How can you eat those darling calves?” It is hard to explain that though I love all my animals, I will be counting the days.