The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Bovids of Destiny

On reflection, it's amazing how many of my field stories involve cattle.

Recently, I was responsible for a survey in eastern Tulare County. We were surveying potential routes on which an electrical utility is planning to build a major transmission line, and much of these routes traversed ranch land.

Throughout most of this survey, when we encountered cattle, they moved away from us, more than eager to be away from the bipeds. However, there was one ranch on which the opposite was the case. On this land, the cattle, usually rather dumb and disinterested animals, seemed to be very curious about us, and what we might be carrying with our magnificent opposable thumbs.

For safety, I told my crew to stay on the opposite side of the fence when a herd was close by. However, this land still needed to be surveyed, and so I jumped the fence and examined the ground. The cattle would routinely come within five feet of me and stop, staring at my with their big, bovine eyes. They kinda' freaked me out, as I sat there wondering what, exactly, they were plotting.

Every time I moved, they followed, keeping their constant distance. I quickly discovered that I could control the movement of the entire herd with little more than a few footsteps, leading one of my crew to start referring to me as "the Moosiah."

And then the mooing started.

Now, you may have heard a cow moo before. You may even have seen an entire herd moo before. But imagine, just imagine, being in the center of a herd, guiding it, and then being struck dumb by the sudden and unexpected sound of the entire herd bursting into mooing simultaneously. At first, it sounded like just the classic "moo" - but soon, there were all manner of variations, from a low, growling moo, to a loud, high-pitched yelp that sounded like a wounded jackass being pushed through a meat grinder.

It was eerie.

I quickly moved to the other side of the fence, and the cattle began pressing towards the fence to be near me. My crew and I moved on with the survey - pushing eastward, afraid that the cattle were about to break through the fence and attempt to follow us with evil on their minds. Eerily, all along the route, we found piles of decaying cow carcasses and dense scatters of cattle bone (no, I'm not making any of this up).

We eventually came to the eastern end of our survey route, and found ourselves near another herd, grazing on the side of a hill. This one was small, and was some distance away from our survey route. We figured that this was fine, as the cattle would probably ignore us, and we would be able to finish our work for the day.

We crossed the barbed-wire fence and began walking our survey transects. And then we heard the mooing, again. This time it was from a distance, but we saw a single cow come from around the hill, walking towards us. Turning around, we could see the herd that had been distant begin moving towards us, vocalizing along with the the one that had come from around the hill. Then, on the heels of the first one that had begun making noise, we saw another herd following her, coming from around the hill.

We continued trying to work, but soon one of the cows was close enough to try licking us, and two bulls had appeared, and were moving towards us, heads lowered. We found the nearest barbed wire fence, and jumped over it, the cattle continuing to move towards use, stopping only when the barbed wire made it difficult for them to follow.

Odd as this experience was, it was only the latest of a series of odd cow encounters.

A year ago in November, I was working on a pipeline survey along a route that ran from King City in Monterey County to Coalinga in Fresno County. We had two vehicles, and would perform survey by driving to our end point, dropping off one vehicle, and then driving tot he begin point, walking back to the first vehicle, and then driving back to our starting point before moving on to the next portion of our survey route.

We came to a ranch where we were to drop off our first vehicle. As soon as the truck came to a stop, cattle began to move towards it. I figured that they would disperse once I got out of the car and began moving about, so I grabbed my equipment bag and stepped out of the car, only to find that the cattle sped up, and began mooing in unison. I quickly got back in the car (perhaps a bad move, maybe cattle can smell fear), and waited for my partner to show up with the other car. As soon as he was there, I jumped out of the car, only to have a cow begin grabbing towards me with it's teeth and tongue.

I have been close to cattle on many occasions, but I always forget what snotty, saliva-covered slimy beasts they are until I am up close. Truly, these are revolting animals, and they wanted to slime me. I didn't run, but I did walk quickly to the other vehicle, and we headed off, watching the cattle watch after us int he rear-view mirror.

We arrived at the other end of the survey route and parked the vehicle. We then walked our transects, arriving back at the other vehicle a few hours later. As we came close, we discussed the cattle, and decided that they likely had become bored and moved away in the hours since we had left. As we arrived near the vehicle, though, we were disabused of this notion. The cattle were still around the truck, and as we came into view, they moved towards us.

My partner picked up a disused wooden fence post from the ground. He began beating it on the ground as we approached, yelling things such as "Hey? You know what fillet Mignon is? It's YOU!" I simply kept my eyes open, looking for escape routes should the cattle have gotten the taste for human flesh.

As we came even closer, the unison mooing began again, and in earnest. And then, out of nowhere, a horse galloped across the pasture and began to make its way towards us. The horse ran past us, and then looped around to walk up between my partner and I. Every time a cow would come close, the horse would dart out and chase the cow away. And with the help of our equine savior (hallowed by his name), we arrived at our truck to discover that the cattle had decided that it was tastier than a salt lick - the entire truck was covered in a foul mix of cow spit and snot (as I later discovered, this is not unusual, cattle often like to lick cars, and occasionally have been known to climb on top of them).

Needless to say, we paid a trip to the car wash on our way home.

However, the there is one cattle story that stands out above all others in my memory. This is the story of an event in which so much of my life and personality seemed to be crystallized in one single moment...

I was working for a federal facility, and the facility management was interested in building a radio tower in a location near an archaeological site. One of the other archaeologists, an engineer, and I headed out to take a look at the location.

The location was on a small knoll overlooking a beach, and this area was frequently used as a cattle pasture. We stood on the knoll, trying to figure out whether the site was here or not, when we heard a rumbling. We looked up just in time to see a herd of cattle running at full speed in our direction.

We didn't have time to move, the cattle were moving quickly enough that we couldn't have gotten out of their way in time. I believed that I was about to die - I was later told by the other two that I had an "enigmatic" look on my face.

Talking about it later, we discovered that the engineer had begun praying, the other archaeologist had begun panicking, and I had a sense of amusement as the following go through my head:

"Huh? So, I get killed by a cattle stampede. I never saw this coming."

So, apparently, I react to certain death by being mildly amused.

At the last minute, the cattle turned and went around us, and in less than a minute, they were past us, and still running.

I remember once reading an essay by Penn Gillette, in which he described being in a plane that was experiencing mechanical problems. While the other passengers were frightened, he was grinning like a maniac, figuring that he'd enjoy the ride if it was going to be his last. Now I think I know how he felt.


Anonymous said...

ok. read this. mulled a couple days. then popped back and the only thing I kept thinking was "wow dude, you never played push cow huh"

it is fun. when I am in my eighties which would place you somewhere in your .. twenties... we'll go out for a spin.

you will gain a new respect for the stupidity of cattle. Like eye opening... prove darwin wrong... holy shit this is beyond stupid... there is nooo survival for this branch o' organism... in the most scientific of terms... WTF?

Anthroslug said...

Well, Mr. Bud, as I am in my 30's, that would put you in your 90's, so we'd better get a move on and do some cow pushing!

I remember talking with some biologists once about the cow's mental shortcomings, and they argued that it was a good case of evolution in action: we are part of the environment, and by selecting for certain traits (more beef, ability to withstand droguht, etc.) and against others (aggression, intelligence, ability to bluff in poker), we have pushed cow evolution in a particular direction, just as our environment pushed us in another one (which is why we have opposable thumbs and the snot-bag cattle don't).

I had to think about it for a bit, but it made sense,a nd I have since revised my opinion about cattle. They may be dumb, but they are definitely one of the most reproductively successful species on the planet. All thanks to their environment - which includes us.

Anonymous said...

Farmers and Ranchers FEED cattle out of trucks. Often they get out of their trucks to scatter feed pellets or hay. They always run to the farmer and since they are waiting for the goodies they begin to moo....tell me you didn't know this?