The eyes have it (3)

This is the third in a series of posts concerning the dispositions and characters of various breeds of livestock. It goes without saying that individuals within breeds may differ from one another in this way but what we’re getting at here are differences in disposition between and among the various animal breeds themselves; the hardwired, rather than differential, expression of personality. We believe that these differences are most freely revealed through the eyes, the gaze, and countenance.

Of all of the animals we have raised over the years, we have had the most experience with sheep. They are quintessential flock animals. It is difficult to approach an individual sheep; when you do, the behavior of that animal will influence that of the individual near it, which will influence the behavior of the animal near it, and so on … until the entire flock becomes stirred into a chain of reaction. A positive feedback loop ensues which manifests as an explosion of hooves dashing from whatever it was that started the reaction, or alternately, toward whatever stimulus started things off (if the stimulus happens to be food, for example). Those of us who raise sheep have often heard the joke … What is it that you see when you look into the eyes of a sheep? And, the wry reply … The back of its skull. Sheep are complex animals and the preceding is, I believe, unfair. On one level, sheep seem unthinking and unreasonable. Why won’t they let us pet them, and why don’t they seek us out as companions as do cats and dogs? It is interesting to ponder the differences between animal breeds, their behaviors, and the basis for them. Because sheep are small, it is reasonable to assume that behaviors such as the sort described above are defensive. It’s not that sheep are unfriendly … flocks simply respond as do schooling fish and act collectively to perceived threats and dangers. Individuals do not or can not size up situations. Having described sheep in this way paints them, perhaps, as dim witted or one dimensional … this is not true. Although the flocking instinct is strong, individuals do have personality …  some are bold, dominant, and pushy, while others are quiet and happy to follow the lead of others. Getting to know, understand, and to appreciate sheep takes time.

The other defining character of sheep you should know is that they are stoic … in the extreme … in contrast, for example, to goats which are anything but. I have heard it said that Sheep spend their entire lives looking for a dramatic way to die. And, to an extent, this is true. Unless a sheep has a significant, and outwardly manifesting, health issue it won’t let on that anything is wrong. It is these outward manifestations of ill-health however that shepherds depend upon. Even in its debilitated state a sheep will run from you, if it has the strength. Who was it that said, If you can’t catch your patient then it isn’t all that ill? It’s the individual you can catch that is in real trouble.

If a sheep were transmogrified into human form the result would be someone at ease with the routine; the out of ordinary would be met with suspicion. Negative reactions to novel situations would be swift and without consideration. The individual would be free with those within its circle and unaffected by those without. I don’t believe the transmogrified sheep would enjoy books or chess, but might be enthusiastic about a good puzzle or paint-by-number.

Next time you get the chance to watch a flock of sheep consider these characterizations.

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