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    Ch. 22: The Strange Instincts of Cattle

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    Chapter 23
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    My purpose in this paper is to discuss a group of curious and useless
    emotional instincts of social animals, which have not yet been properly
    explained. Excepting two of the number, placed first and last in the
    list, they are not related in their origin; consequently they are here
    grouped together arbitrarily, only for the reason that we are very
    familiar with them on account of their survival in our domestic animals,
    and because they are, as I have said, useless; also because they
    resemble each other, among the passions and actions of the lower
    animals, in their effect on our minds. This is in all cases unpleasant,
    and sometimes exceedingly painful, as when species that rank next to
    ourselves in their developed intelligence and organized societies, such
    as elephants, monkeys, dogs, and cattle, are seen under the domination
    of impulses, in some cases resembling insanity, and in others simulating
    the darkest passions of man.

    These instincts are:--

    (1) The excitement caused by the smell of blood, noticeable in horses
    and cattle among our domestic animals, and varying greatly in degree,
    from an emotion so slight as to be scarcely perceptible to the greatest
    extremes of rage or terror.

    (2) The angry excitement roused in some animals when a scarlet or
    bright-red cloth is shown to them. So well known is this apparently
    insane instinct in our cattle that it has given rise to a proverb and
    metaphor familiar in a variety of forms to everyone.

    (3) The persecution of a sick or weakly animal by its companions.

    (4) The sudden deadly fury that seizes on the herd or family at the
    sight of a companion in extreme distress. Herbivorous mammals at such
    times will trample and gore the distressed one to death. In the case of
    wolves, and other savage-tempered carnivorous species, the distressed
    fellow is frequently torn to pieces and devoured on the spot.

    To take the first two together. When we consider that blood is red; that
    the smell of it is, or may be, or has been, associated with that vivid
    hue in the animal's mind; that blood, seen and smelt is, or has been,
    associated with the sight of wounds and with cries of pain and rage or
    terror from the wounded or captive animal, there appears at first sight
    to be some reason for connecting these two instinctive passions as
    having the same origin--namely, terror and rage caused by the sight of a
    member of the herd struck down and bleeding, or struggling for life in
    the grasp of an enemy. I do not mean to say that such an image is
    actually present in the animal's mind, but that the inherited or
    instinctive passion is one in kind and in its working with the passion
    of the animal when experience and reason were its guides.

    But the more I consider the point the more am I inclined to regard these
    two instincts as separate in their origin, although I retain the belief
    that cattle and horses and several wild animals are violently excited by
    the smell of blood for the reason just given--namely, their inherited
    memory associates the smell of blood with the presence among them of
    some powerful enemy that threatens their life. To this point I shall
    return when dealing with the last and most painful of the instincts I am
    considering.

    The following incident will show how violently this blood passion
    sometimes affects cattle, when they are permitted to exist in a
    half-wild condition, as on the pampas. I was out with my gun one day, a
    few miles from home, when I came across a patch on the ground where the
    grass was pressed or trodden down and stained with blood. I concluded
    that some thievish gauchos had slaughtered a fat cow there on the
    previous night, and, to avoid detection, had somehow managed to carry
    the whole of it away on their horses. As I walked on, a herd of cattle,
    numbering about three hundred, appeared moving slowly on towards a small
    stream a mile away; they were travelling in a thin long line, and would
    pass the blood-stained spot at a distance of seven to eight hundred
    yards, but the wind from it would blow across their track. When the
    tainted wind struck the leaders of the herd they instantly stood still,
    raising their heads, then broke out into loud excited bellowings; and
    finally turning they started off at a fast trot, following up the scent
    in a straight line, until they arrived at the place where one of their
    kind had met its death. The contagion spread, and before long all the
    cattle were congregated on the fatal spot, and began moving round in a
    dense mass, bellowing continually.

    It may be remarked here that the animal has a peculiar language on
    occasions like this; it emits a succession of short bellowing cries,
    like excited exclamations, followed by a very loud cry, alternately
    sinking into a hoarse murmur, and rising to a kind of scream that grates
    harshly on the sense. Of the ordinary "cow-music" I am a great admirer,
    and take as much pleasure in it as in the cries and melody of birds and
    the sound of the wind in trees; but this performance of cattle excited
    by the smell of blood is most distressing to hear.

    The animals that had forced their way into the centre of the mass to the
    spot where the blood was, pawed the earth, and dug it up with their
    horns, and trampled each other down in their frantic excitement. It was
    terrible to see and hear them. The action of those on the border of the
    living mass in perpetually moving round in a circle with dolorous
    bellowings, was like that of the women in an Indian village when a
    warrior dies, and all night they shriek and howl with simulated grief,
    going round and round the dead man's hut in an endless procession.

    The "bull and red rag" instinct, as it may be called, comes next in
    order. It is a familiar fact that brightness in itself powerfully
    attracts most if not all animals. The higher mammalians are affected in
    the same way as birds and insects, although not in the same degree. This
    fact partly explains the rage of the bull. A scarlet flag fluttering in
    the wind or lying on the grass attracts his attention powerfully, as it
    does that of other animals; but though curious about the nature of the
    bright object, it does not anger him. His anger is excited--and this is
    the whole secret of the matter--when the colour is flaunted by a man;
    when it forces him to fix his attention on a man, i.e. an animal of
    another species that rules or drives him, and that he fears, but with
    only a slight fear, which may at any moment be overcome by his naturally
    bold aggressive disposition, Not only does the vivid colour compel him
    to fix his attention on the being that habitually interferes with his
    liberty, and is consequently regarded with unfriendly eyes, but it also
    produces the illusion on his mind that the man is near him, that he is
    approaching him in an aggressive manner: it is an insult, a challenge,
    which, being of so explosive a temper, he is not slow to accept.

    On the pampas I was once standing with some gauchos at the gate of a
    corral into which a herd of half-wild cattle had just been driven. One
    of the men, to show his courage and agility, got off his horse and
    boldly placed himself in the centre of the open gate. His action
    attracted the attention of one of the nearest cows, and lowering her
    horns she began watching him in a threatening manner. He then suddenly
    displayed the scarlet lining of his poncho, and instantly she charged
    him furiously: with a quick movement to one side he escaped her horns,
    and after we had driven her back, resumed his former position and
    challenged her again in the same way. The experiment was repeated not
    less than half a dozen times, and always with the same result. The
    cattle were all in a savage temper, and would have instantly charged him
    on his placing himself before them on foot without the display of
    scarlet cloth, but their fear of the mounted men, standing with lassos
    in their hand on either side of him, kept them in check. But whenever
    the attention of any one individual among them was forcibly drawn to him
    by the display of vivid colour, and fixed on him alone, the presence of
    the horsemen was forgotten and fear was swallowed by rage. It is a fact,
    I think, that most animals that exhibit angry excitement when a scarlet
    rag is flourished aggressively at them, are easily excited to anger at
    all times. Domestic geese and turkeys may be mentioned among birds: they
    do not fly at a grown person, but they will often fly at a child that
    challenges them in this way; and it is a fact that they do not at any
    time fear a child very much and will sometimes attack him without being
    challenged. I think that the probability of the view I have taken is
    increased by another fact--namely, that the sudden display of scarlet
    colour sometimes affects timid animals with an extreme fear, just as, on
    the other hand, it excites those that are bold and aggressive to anger.
    Domestic sheep, forinstance, that vary greatly in disposition in
    different races or breeds, and even in different individuals, may be
    affected in the two opposite ways, some exhibiting extreme terror and
    others only anger at a sudden display of scarlet colour by the shepherd
    or herder.

    The persecution of a sick animal by its companions comes next under
    consideration.

    It will have been remarked, with surprise by some readers, no doubt,
    that I have set down as two different instincts this persecution of a
    sick or weakly individual by its fellows, and the sudden deadly rage
    that sometimes impels the herd to turn upon and destroy a wounded or
    distressed companion. It is usual for writers on the instincts of
    animals to speak of them as one: and I presume that they regard this
    sudden deadly rage of several individuals against a companion as merely
    an extreme form of the common persecuting instinct or impulse. They are
    not really one, but are as distinct in origin and character as it is
    possible for any two instincts to be. The violent and fatal impulse
    starts simultaneously into life and action, and is contagious, affecting
    all the members of the herd like a sudden madness. The other is neither
    violent nor contagious: the persecution is intermittent: it is often
    confined to one or to a very few members of the herd, and seldom joined
    in by the chief member, the leader or head to whom all the others give
    way.

    Concerning this head of the herd, or flock, or pack, it is necessary to
    say something more. Some gregarious animals, particularly birds, live
    together in the most perfect peace and amity; and here no leader is
    required, because in their long association together as a species in
    flocks, they have attained to a oneness of mind, so to speak, which
    causes them to move or rest, and to act at all times harmoniously
    together, as if controlled and guided by an extrane-ous force. I may
    mention that the kindly instinct in animals, which is almost universal
    between male and female in the vertebrates, is most apparent in these
    harmoniously acting birds. Thus, in La Plata, I have remarked, in more
    than one species, that a lame or sick individual, unable to keop pace
    with the flock and find its food, has not only been waited for, but in
    some cases some of the flock have constantly attended it, keeping close
    to it both when flying and on the ground; and, I have no doubt, feeding
    it just as they would have fed their young.

    Naturally among such kinds no one member is of more consideration than
    another. But among mammals such equality and harmony is rare. The
    instinct of one and all is to lord it over the others, with the result
    that one more powerful or domineering gets the mastery, to keep it
    thereafter as long as he can. The lower animals are, in this respect,
    very much like us; and in all kinds that are at all fierce-tempered the
    mastery of one over all, and of a few under him over the others, is most
    salutary; indeed, it is inconceivable that they should be able to exist
    together under any other system.

    On cattle-breeding establishments on the pampas, where it is usual to
    keep a large number of fierce-tempered dogs, I have observed these
    animals a great deal, and presume that they are very much like feral
    dogs and wolves in their habits. Their quarrels are incessant; but when
    a fight begins the head of the pack as a rule rushes to the spot,
    whereupon the fighters separate and march off in different directions,
    or else cast themselves down and deprecate their tyrant's wrath with
    abject gestures and whines. If the combatants are both strong and have
    worked themselves into a mad rage before their head puts in an
    appearance, it may go hard with him: they know him no longer, and all he
    can do is to join in the fray; then, if the fighters turn on him, he may
    be so injured that his power is gone, and the next best dog in the pack
    takes his place. The hottest contests are always between dogs that are
    well matched; neither will give place to the other, and so they fight it
    out; but from the foremost in strength and power down to the weakest
    there is a gradation of authority; each one knows just how far he can
    go, which companion he can bully when he is in a bad temper or wishes to
    assert himself, and to which he must humbly yield in his turn. In such a
    state the weakest one must always yield to all the others, and cast
    himself down, seeming to call himself a slave and worshipper of any
    other member of the pack that chooses to snarl at him, or command him to
    give up his bone with a good grace.

    This masterful or domineering temper, so common among social mammals, is
    the cause of the persecution of the sick and weakly. When an animal
    begins to ail he can no longer hold his own; he ceases to resent the
    occasional ill-natured attacks made on him; his non-combative condition
    is quickly discovered, and he at once drops down to a place below the
    lowest; it is common knowledge in the herd that he may be buffeted with
    impunity by all, even by those that have hitherto suffered buffets but
    have given none. But judging from my own observation, this persecution,
    is not, as a rule, severe, and is seldom fatal.

    It is often the case that a sick or injured animal withdraws and hides
    himself from the herd; the instinct of the "stricken deer" this might be
    called. But I do not think that we need assume that the ailing
    individual goes away to escape the danger of being ill-used by his
    companions. He is sick and drooping and consequently unfit to be with
    the healthy and vigorous; that is the simplest and probably the true
    explanation of his action; although in some cases he might be driven
    from them by persistent rough usage. However peaceably gregarious
    mammals may live together, and however fond of each other's company they
    may be, they do not, as a rule, treat each other gently. Furthermore,
    their games are exceedingly rough and require that they shall be in a
    vigorous state of health to escape injury. Horned animals have no
    buttons to the sharp weapons they prod and strike each other with in a
    sportive spirit. I have often witnessed the games of wild and half-wild
    horses with astonishment; for it seemed that broken bones must result
    from the sounding kicks they freely bestowed on one another. This
    roughness itself would be a sufficient cause for the action of the
    individual, sick and out of tune and untouched by the glad contagion of
    the others, in escaping from them; and to leave them would be to its
    advantage (and to that of the race) since, if not fatally injured or
    sick unto death, its chances of recovery to perfect health would be
    thereby greatly increased.

    It remains now to speak of that seemingly most cruel of instincts which
    stands last on my list. It is very common among gregarious animals that
    are at all combative in disposition, and still survives in our domestic
    cattle, although very rarely witnessed in England. My first experience
    of it was just before I had reached the age of five years. I was not at
    that early period trying to find out any of nature's secrets, but the
    scene I witnessed printed itself very vividly on my mind, so that I can
    recall it as well as if my years had been five-and-twenty; perhaps
    better. It was on a summer's evening, and I was out by myself at some
    distance from the house, playing about the high exposed roots of some
    old trees; on the other side of the trees the cattle, just returned from
    pasture, were gathered on the bare level ground. Hearing a great
    commotion among them, I climbed on to one of the high exposed roots,
    and, looking over, saw a cow on the ground, apparently unable to rise,
    moaning and bellowing in a distressed way, while a number of her
    companions were crowding round and goring her.

    What is the meaning of such an instinct? Darwin has but few words on the
    subject. "Can we believe," he says, in his posthumous _Essay on
    Instinct, "_when a wounded herbivorous animal returns to its own herd
    and is then attacked and gored, that this cruel and very common instinct
    is of any service to the species?" At the same time, he hints that such
    an instinct might in some circumstances be useful, and his hint has been
    developed into the current belief among naturalists on the subject. Here
    it is, in Dr. Romanes' words: "We may readily imagine that the instinct
    displayed by many herbivorous animals of goring sick and wounded
    companions, is really of use in countries where the presence of weak
    members in a herd is a source of danger to the herd from the prevalence
    of wild beasts." Here it is assumed that the sick are set upon and
    killed, but this is not the fact; sickness and decay from age or some
    other cause are slow things, and increase imperceptibly, so that the
    sight of a drooping member grows familiar to the herd, as does that of a
    member with some malformation, or unusual shade of colour, or altogether
    white, as in the case of an albino.

    Sick and weak members, as we have seen, while subject to some
    ill-treatment from their companions (only because they can be
    ill-treated with impunity), do not rouse the herd to a deadly animosity;
    the violent and fatal attack is often as not made on a member in perfect
    health and vigour and unwoundecl, although, owing to some accident, in
    great distress, and perhaps danger, at the moment.

    The instinct is, then, not only useless but actually detrimental; and,
    this being so, the action of the herd in destroying one of its members
    is not even to be regarded as an instinct proper, but rather as an
    aberration of an instinct, a blunder, into which animals sometimes fall
    when excited to action in unusual circumstances.

    The first thing that strikes us is that in these wild abnormal moments
    of social animals, they are acting in violent contradiction to the whole
    tenor of their lives; that in turning against a distressed fellow they
    oppose themselves to the law of their being, to the whole body of
    instincts, primary and secondary, and habits, which have made it
    possible for them to exist together in communities. It is, I think, by
    reflecting on the abnormal character of such an action that we are led
    to a true interpretation of this "dark saying of Nature."

    Every one is familiar with Bacon's famous passage about the dog, and the
    noble courage which that animal puts on when "maintained by a man; who
    is to him in place of a God, or _melior natura;_ which courage is
    manifestly such as that creature, without the confidence of a better
    nature than its own, could never attain." Not so. The dog is a social
    animal, and acts instinctively in concert with his fellows; and the
    courage he manifests is of the family, not the individual. In the
    domestic state the man he is accustomed to associate with and obey
    stands to him in the place of the controlling pack, and to his mind,
    which is canine and not human, _is_ the pack. A similar "noble courage,"
    greatly surpassing that exhibited on all other occasions, is displayed
    by an infinite number of mammals and birds of gregarious habits, when
    repelling the attacks of some powerful and dangerous enemy, or when they
    rush to the rescue of one of their captive fellows. Concerning this rage
    and desperate courage of social animals in the face of an enemy, we see
    (1) that it is excited by the distressed cries, or by the sight of a
    member of the herd or family dying from or struggling in the clutches of
    an enemy; (2) that it affects animals when a number af individuals are
    together, and is eminently contagious, like fear, that communicates
    itself, quick as lightning, from one to another until all are in a
    panic, and like the joyous emotion that impels the members of a herd or
    flock to rush simultaneously into play.

    Now, it is a pretty familiar fact that animals acting instinctively, as
    well as men acting intelligently, have at times their delusions and
    their illusions, and see things falsely, and are moved to action by a
    false stimulus to their own disadvantage. When the individuals of a herd
    or family are excited to a sudden deadly rage by the distressed cries of
    one of their fellows, or by the sight of its bleeding wounds and the
    smell of its blood, or when they see it frantically struggling on the
    ground, or in the cleft of a tree or rock, as if in the clutches of a
    powerful enemy, they do not turn on it to kill but to rescue it.

    In whatever way the rescuing instinct may have risen, whether simply
    through natural selection or, as is more probable, through an
    intelligent habit becoming fixed and hereditary, its effectiveness
    depends altogether on the emotion of overmastering rage excited in the
    animal--rage against a tangible visible enemy, or invisible, and excited
    by the cries or struggles of a suffering companion; clearly, then, it
    could not provide against the occasional rare accidents that animals
    meet with, which causes them to act precisely in the way they do when
    seized or struck down by an enemy. An illusion is the result of the
    emotion similar to the illusion produced by vivid expectation in
    ourselves, which has caused many a man to see in a friend and companion
    the adversary he looked to see, and to slay him in his false-seeing
    anger.

    An illusion just as great, leading to action equally violent, but
    ludicrous rather than painful to witness, may be seen in dogs, when
    encouraged by a man to the attack, and made by his cries and gestures to
    expect that some animal they are accustomed to hunt is about to be
    unearthed or overtaken; and if, when they are in this disposition, he
    cunningly exhibits and sets them on a dummy, made perhaps of old rags
    and leather and stuffed with straw, they will seize, worry, and tear it
    to pieces with the greatest fury, and without the faintest suspicion of
    its true character.

    That wild elephants will attack a distressed fellow seemed astonishing
    to Darwin, when he remembered the case of an elephant after escaping
    from a pit helping its fellow to escape also. But it is precisely the
    animals, high or low in the organic scale, that are social, and possess
    the instinct of helping each other, that will on occasions attack a
    fellow in misfortune--such an attack being no more than a blunder of the
    helping instinct.

    Felix de Azara records a rather cruel experiment on the temper of some
    tame rats confined in a cage. The person who kept them caught the tail
    of one of the animals and began sharply pinching it, keeping his hand
    concealed under the cage. Its cries of pain and struggles to free itself
    greatly excited the other rats; and after rushing wildly round for some
    moments they flew at their distressed companion, and fixing their teeth
    in its throat quickly dispatched it. In this case if the hand that held
    the tail had been visible and in the cage, the bites would undoubtedly
    have been inflicted on it; but no enemy was visible; yet the fury and
    impulse to attack an enemy was present in the animals. In such
    circumstances, the excitement must be discharged--the instinct obeyed,
    and in the absence of any other object of attack the illusion is
    produced and it discharges itself on the struggling companion. It is
    sometimes seen in dogs, when three or four or five are near together,
    that if one suddenly utters a howl or cry of pain, when no man is near
    it and no cause apparent, the others run to it, and seeing nothing, turn
    round and attack each other. Here the exciting cause--the cry for
    help--is not strong enough to produce the illusion which is sometimes
    fatal to the suffering member; but each dog mistakingly thinks that the
    others, or one of the others, inflicted the injury, and his impulse is
    to take the part of the injured animal. If the cry for help--caused
    perhaps by a sudden cramp or the prick of a thorn--is not very sharp or
    intense, the other dogs will not attack, but merely look and growl at
    each other in a suspicious way.

    To go back to Azara's anecdote. Why, it may be asked--and this question
    has been put to me in conversation--if killing a distressed companion is
    of no advantage to the race, and if something must be attacked--why did
    not these rats in this instance attack the cage they were shut in, and
    bite at the woodwork and wires? Or, in the case related by Mr. Andrew
    Lang in _Longman's Magazine_ some time ago, in which the members of a
    herd of cattle in Scotland turned with sudden amazing fury on one of the
    cows that had got wedged between two rocks and was struggling with
    distressed bellowings to free itself--why did they not attack the
    prisoning rocks instead of goring their unfortunate comrade to death?
    For it is well known that animals will, on occasions, turn angrily upon
    and attack inanimate objects that cause them injury or hinder their
    freedom of action. And we know that this mythic faculty--the mind's
    projection of itself into visible nature--survives in ourselves, that
    there are exceptional moments in our lives when it comes back to us; no
    one, for instance, would be astonished to hear that any man, even a
    philosopher, had angrily kicked away or imprecated a stool or other
    inanimate object against which he had accidentally barked his shins. The
    answer is, that there is no connection between these two things--the
    universal mythic faculty of the mind, and that bold and violent instinct
    of social animals of rushing to the rescue of a stricken or distressed
    companion, which has a definite, a narrow, purpose--namely, to fall upon
    an enemy endowed not merely with the life and intelligence common to all
    things, including rocks, trees, and waters, but with animal form and
    motion.

    I had intended in this place to give other instances, observed in
    several widely-separated species, including monkeys; but it is not
    necessary, as I consider that all the facts, however varied, are covered
    by the theory I have suggested--even a fact I like the one mentioned in
    this chapter of cattle bellowing and madly digging up the ground where
    the blood of one of their kind had been spilt: also such a fact as that
    of wild cattle and other animals caught in a trap or enclosure attacking
    and destroying each other in their frenzy; and the fact that some
    fierce-tempered carnivorous mammals will devour the companion they have
    killed. It is an instinct of animals like wolves and peccaries to devour
    the enemy they have overcome and slain: thus, when the jaguar captures a
    peccary out of a drove, and does not quickly escape with his prize into
    a tree, he is instantly attacked and slain and then consumed, even to
    the skin and bones. This is the wolf's and the peccary's instinct; and
    the devouring of one of their own companions is an inevitable
    consequence of the mistake made in the first place of attacking and
    killing it. In no other circumstances, not even when starving, do they
    prey on their own species.

    If the explanation I have offered should seem a true or highly probable
    one, it will, I feel sure, prove acceptable to many lovers of animals,
    who, regarding tins seemingly ruthless instinct, not as an aberration
    but as in some vague way advantageous to animals in their struggle for
    existence, are yet unable to think of it without pain and horror;
    indeed, I know those who refuse to think of it at all, who would gladly
    disbelieve it if they could.

    It should be a relief to them to be able to look on it no longer as
    something ugly and hateful, a blot on nature, but as an illusion, a
    mistake, an unconscious crime, so to speak, that has for its motive the
    noblest passion that animals know--that sublime courage and daring which
    they exhibit in defence of a distressed companion. This fiery spirit in
    animals, which makes them forget their own safety, moves our hearts by
    its close resemblance to one of the most highly-prized human virtues;
    just as we are moved to intellectual admiration by the wonderful
    migratory instinct in birds that simulates some of the highest
    achievements of the mind of man. And we know that this beautiful
    instinct is also liable to mistakes--that many travellers leave us
    annually never to return. Such a mistake was undoubtedly the cause of
    the late visitation of Pallas' sand-grouse: owing perhaps to some
    unusual atmospheric or dynamic condition, or to some change in the
    nervous system of the birds, they deviated widely from their usual
    route, to scatter in countless thousands over the whole of Europe and
    perish slowly in climates not suited to them; while others, overpassing
    the cold strange continent, sped on over colder, stranger seas, to drop
    at last like aerolites, quenching their lives in the waves.

    Whether because it is true, as Professor Freeman and some others will
    have it, that humanity is a purely modern virtue; or because the
    doctrine of Darwin, by showing that we are related to other forms of
    life, that our best feelings have their roots low down in the temper and
    instincts of the social species, has brought us nearer in spirit to the
    inferior animals, it is certain that our regard for them has grown, and
    is growing, and that new facts and fresh inferences that make us think
    more highly of them are increasingly welcome.
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