And Reason

By Lin Stone and

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Back in cowboy days it was common to hear cowboys cussing the cows out for not trailing. Those that left the trail received lash after lash from the stiff lariat until the cows gave it up and went back to the herd. “Stupid!” was the adjective heard most.

But, was the cow stupid that wanted only to return home, to the cactus and the brush that sustained them?

We were loading one cattle truck when a brindle-coated brimmer suddenly realized that truck was taking the cows to a dinner engagement. He decided he was not going on that truck. Our quirts, kicks and screams merely strengthened his resolve.
I was 6'2” in them days and my head barely cleared the top of the steel gate. That steer came close to being driven into the loading chute and I popped the whip one last time. Instead of going forward that steer reared up, turned around on 2 legs and bucked the trend to get clear of the last few steers and here he came, straight at me.

He only had a few feet of running room, but he gathered himself up like a catapult and soared right over my head. When he landed he leaped again and cleared another gate, then he cleared a steel fence, another, and then the grand fence that let him out into a field of young alfalfa.

He must have been tired by then because he stopped to turn about and look at us, or for us, I couldn't tell which.. then he snorted and paused to rest.

We secured what we had on the truck and bid them biddies bye. Then I started towards the brimmer by the shortest line. Cowboy Jim went after his horse. When I came to that last fence Cowboy was just loping into the field. The brimmer paid him no mind but he had his eye on me and he charged. It was all Cowboy could do to save me and the fence. The brimmer snorted once, twice, then trotted off a little ways and turned around to study us.

He saw me climbing through the fence and here he came again. Again it was all Cowboy could do to save my life.

Cowboy took off his hat and scratched at his head for a few minutes then he said: “Tink, I think it's a man on foot that riles him up. You go on back out of sight and I'll try to work him out of this field.”

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I waited on him but it was hours before Cowboy came back. “That brimmer's crazy. He's out on the highway now and I just hope some big truck runs over him.”

I never thought that steer was crazy. Nor did I believe he was stupid. His ancestors had been sacred over in India and now he wanted the kind of treatment due an exalted species animal. I wished him all the luck in the world.

Teddy Roosevelt firmly believed that animals could not think or reason. That feeling hasn't changed much in the public's mind. I've been privileged to see things differently.

When I was cutting hay toad frogs would always jump to the side and get out of danger. Mammals that got in front of the swather would run from it, straight as an arrow, seldom more than a few yards from the swirling reel. Then at the end of the field they would move over and get themselves right square in front of me again. It was enough to break my heart to see them run themselves to death when they could have been like the frogs and jumped to the side, out of danger.

One time I was supposed to water the boss's yard. I sent a stream of water down the ditch and when it had built up a head I popped the flune open. Just as I reached the other end of the flune I saw 5 little skunks come out, fussing mad that they had been drenched.

Mama skunk was swept out next with a spurt of swift water, but she tried to go back inside. She couldn't make it, though she tried 3 times. Then she went to gather up her babies and carry them out of danger.

Last of all, out came Papa skunk, but he couldn't swim. I used my shovel to help him out of the water.  When I got him to the bank I saw that he wasn't going anywhere very fast; both his hind legs had been broken a long time ago.

There wasn't any way that papa skunk could have done his own foraging; Mama skunk must have done it for him, out of love – supposedly one of the higher emotions that man reserves for himself.

I know that animals do think, they do reason and occasionally they even find true love. On one occasion, many years ago, when in Sri Lanka, I, in connection with my brother, had organized a scheme for the development of a mountain sanitarium at Newera Ellia. We had a couple of tame elephants employed in various works; but it was necessary to obtain the assistance of the government stables for the transport of very heavy machinery, which could not be conveyed in the ordinary native carts. Therefore we hired a large number of elephant wagons to be drawn by their colossal teams, some of which required four elephants.

It was the wet season upon the mountains but we were determined to get the work done. Our settlement was 6200 feet above the sea, and the zigzag pass from Rambodde, at the base of the steep ascent, was fifteen miles in length. The crest of the pass was 7000 feet in altitude, from which we descended 800 feet to the Newera Ellia plain.

The elephant wagons having arrived at Rambodde from Colombo, about 100 miles distant, commenced the heavy uphill journey. The rain was unceasing, the roads were soft, and the wheels of the heavily laden wagons sunk deeply in the ruts; but elephants are mighty beasts, and when they began laying their weight against the work, they slowly dragged the vehicles right through the mud and up the yielding and narrow way.

It was heartbreaking work with the rain and the drizzle of flying mud splattering all over us. It was cold and it was wet, very wet. The bridges over dangerous chasms made it necessary to unload all of the heavier carts, and that caused even greater delays.  The abrupt zigzags in the road bothered the long wagons and the elephants became frustrated by the conflicting orders.

Day after day passed away; but although the ascent was slow, the wagons still moved upwards, and the region of everlasting mist (at that season) was reached. Dense forests clothed the mountain sides; the roar of waterfalls thumped and resounded in the depths of ravines so deep they were black. Beside the road, tangled bamboo grass crept upwards from the wet soil into the lower branches of the moss-covered trees, so thick that it formed a green curtain, impenetrable to sight.

The thermometer fell daily as higher altitudes reached out to cover our elephant train. Breathing rasped the cold air into our lungs and two of our most beautiful elephants began to sicken; then they died.

There was plenty of food, as the bamboo grass right beside the road was the elephant's natural provender. In the carts was a good supply of unhusked rice, but the high I.Q. of the elephants was acting against them--they had reasoned it all out, and they had become despondent over the summit never reached and usually not even visible around the next bend in the road.

For ten long, brutal days they had been exposed to ceaseless, drenching wet and the fury of cold, howling winds, dragging their unmanageable wagons up a road that even in dry weather was insufficient to sustain all that weight. By that time the wheels sank deep below the metal foundation, and became hopelessly embedded. Again and again the wagons had to be emptied of their contents, and extra elephants would be harnessed to the empty wagons, which were by sheer strength and weight of our elephants dragged from the deep, clinging mire. A man in boots would gain 4 inches in height just by walking 10 feet as the mud clung to his boots.

Thus had our time passed, and the elephants had given heavy thought about the situation. Sick at heart and surrendering to their fate they looked up at the top of the heap, and saw no end to their toilsome trial. They concluded that there was no summit to this mountain, and no end to the steep and horrible ascent. Could there be any top to it? The elephants decided that under these heart-breaking circumstances, that there would be no end to their work and, therefore, they decided that they would go on strike.

The next morning two of the elephant drivers appeared at my house in Newera Ellia, and described the situation. They declared that it was absolutely impossible to induce the elephants to work because they had given it up as a bad job!

I immediately mounted my horse and rode up to the pass, and descended the road upon the other side, timing the distance with my watch. The way I counted the elephants were less than two miles from the summit.
The poor animals had gouges and rips along their necks where the drivers had spurred them unmercifully onward. The ones that were turned towards me looked very much as if they had been crying, though they were half-heartedly grazing upon bamboo grass in the thick forest.

The rain was still drizzling, and a thick mist increased the misery of our poor elephants. Being “the man in charge” I ordered four of the stoutest elephants to be harnessed to a cart intended for only one animal. This was quickly effected, and the drivers were soon astride the animals' necks, and prodded them deeply with the persuasive iron hooks. It didn't do an ounce of good; not one elephant would exert itself to draw. The cart. Not once did the chain come tight.

In vain the drivers, with relentless cruelty, drove the iron points deep into the poor brutes' necks and heads, and used every threat of their vocabulary; the only response was a kind of marking time on the part of the elephants, which simply moved their legs mechanically up and down, and swung their trunks to and fro; but none would pull or unleash the slightest power, neither did they move forward a single inch.

Several times in this life I have seen men goaded past their limits but I have never seen such an instance of passive and determined obstinacy as these elephants presented us with.

I glanced up the hill, and thought to myself. We were so close that I almost wanted to cry.

Then an idea struck me. I ordered the drivers to detach the four elephants from their harness, and to ride them unfettered up the mountain, behind my horse.

It seemed to me that the elephants must be heart-broken, and in despair at the apparently interminable mountain pass that never appeared, therefore it would be advisable to let them know the actual truth. That could only be done by showing them that they were less than two miles from the summit, and there they would exchange their uphill labor for a sweet and restful descent into Newera Ellia where they would be fested with an extra feed chunked full of coarse brown sugar.

Better yet, they would then be introduced to the companionship of our two female elephants.  My thought was that if they passed an agreeable night, nurtured with the best of food and warm quarters, they would possibly want to return the following day even when they were harnessed to their carts.

The elephants accompanied me to Newera Ellia, and were well fed and cared for. On the following day we took them back down the trail and turned them around to be harnessed to their heavy carts.

Lo and behold, I myself witnessed their buoyant leap forward. Chains snapped taut with the hitherto unyielding wagon. Not only did our four privileged elephants exert their full powers and yank the lumbering load straight up the steep hill without the slightest hesitation, but, because of their example, or perhaps through some unaccountable form of communication between them, the rest of the elephants were almost as eager to work as well. I employed the most willing elephants as extras to each wagon, which they drew to the summit of the pass, and then returned to assist the others,--thus completing what had been pronounced by the drivers as utterly impossible only the day before. There can be no doubt that the elephants had at once perceived the true situation, and in consequence they hadrecovered their lost courage.

Yes, I know that skunks can show an endearing love. I know that dogs can love their masters as their best of friends. And I know that elephants can think, and reason about the work they are made to do.

We really should be more kind to the animals around us for the same Good Lord God did indeed make us all.


the end

the author:  Lin Stone has adapted this essay from work first produced by SAMUEL WHITE BAKER.

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