Thursday, April 30, 2009

On animal sex

Red velvet femme and I met in grad school, in Women's Studies. There we talked a lot about how gender - even our physical bodies - are produced and shaped according to the norms of our culture. Every so often we would look at how biological sex plays a role in gender, but mostly we focused on all the ways gender is taken for granted and used to perpetuate social hierarchies. Before that program, I had always straddled the nature/nurture debate, and even bought into the "Men are from Mars" view that men and women tended to have certain "natural" tendencies, at least on the whole. But the program was eye-opening and mind-blowing - it helped me see how insidious and overwhelming are these cultural messages, and how we are hailed to do gender in very specific ways.

So with this background, I'm always inclined to downplay biological sex. But in the last few years, I've spent a lot of time learning about farming. Anyone who has farmed knows that male animals require different care and handling than females of the same species. "You can only have one cock of the walk," a friend told me when my first hen hatched a bunch of little yellow puffballs. I didn't listen, unable to part with (or even sex) any of the tiny fluffy angels. But within a year, the brothers and the father were scrapping. As soon as I heard the dogs barking, I'd know the roosters were going at it, and I'd have to rush outside to break up those bad boys. When one rooster was injured more than a little, I admitted to myself that I had to do something with all the dadgum roosters. I advertised in the farmer's market bulletin, but no-one wanted roosters. I think everyone else knew what I was just then learning and having themselves a pot of coq au vin. I couldn't house each rooster separately, so I took all but one to the feed store where I was paid a whopping $5 per rooster. The nice man took pity on me and assured me that people wouldn't eat these roosters, they were too handsome. I just had to steel myself and not worry about what might happen to them. Biology had won out; those roosters knew nothing of social construction. I was broken-hearted but my hens were much happier.

That's just one small example. It's rare to keep an uncastrated male animal as part of a herd, and with good reason. People don't usually ride stallions, or use donkey jacks to pull carts. No-one wants a stinky billy goat ramming its head into their house until there's a huge hole in the siding. Even male bunnies can't live together without bloody battles. I don't want to be reductive or essentialist, but there is this biological thrust to farm life that can't be ignored.

Dogs (and humans) are different from most farm animals in that they are not prey animals, but predators. Because dogs have prey drive, aggression has played a greater role in the evolution of dogs than in herd animals like sheep. And yet many people seem to expect dogs - even adult, uncastrated, untrained, unsocialized, male dogs - to have social inhibitions and skills. Before we even start to discuss all the complications of pack structures or dog aggression, I think it's important to situate dogs within a context of domestic animal populations. It seems as though the more urbanized and anthropomorphized pet ownership becomes, the farther we get from treating dogs as complex creatures.

This is not to play into the hugely overblown fear of dogs like pit bulls, but to say that it's just the flip side of treating them like all those little singing stuffed animals that line every shelf at Wal-mart. I'm also not a sterilization nazi - although spay/neuter is definitely the best choice for most pet owners. I know this is all very obvious to many of you, but I am often shocked how little dog owners seem to know about dogs. Sharing one's life with any animal, much less a dog, much less an uncastrated male dog, much less a dominant and powerful dog, it requires a good deal of knowledge and care. So many safety issues can be reconciled by actually learning about these dogs that we claim to love so much.

And another caveat: none of this is meant to support the fucked-up notion that that humans are better than animals or have dominion over nature. When people talk about dogs needing to be treated as dogs, it usually prefaces a lecture about animals being placed here for man's use (never woman's use), and how the rightful place of humans is at the head of the natural order. No and no. Somehow though, even while working to undo tired humanist notions that have undergirded centuries of animal abuse, we have to act as guardians of our non-human companions. We can't elide our differences or abandon our responsibilities in our quest for justice for animals. Categories of race, class and gender - uniquely applicable to humans - I'm not sure they provide good models for thinking about human-animal relationships. Or maybe there another view that emphasizes mutuality and commonality along with stewardship. I'd love to hear what y'all think.


  1. This conversation is too heady for me (I do better on topics like "mmmm - cake!") but it did put me in mind of something my high school Latin teacher said: "The suffix "man" is from HU-MAN and I am a HU-MAN not a HU-PERSON." That always stuck with me. She was a very spirited old lady, never married, and refused to abandon "Miss" when all the other teachers changed to "Ms". I liked her.

  2. It's been fun reading your blog! These are just my rambling examples, without much real substance. :) Don't know if they add or detract.

    I have a different experience with farmed animals (I work for a farmed animal sanctuary). At the sanctuary, we have 16 roosters. Only one is kept with a separate flock because of his aggression, the other 15 live with about 80 hens. We have about 90 hens, which seems to keep the current pop comfy.

    Next to the sanctuary is a small cow-calf operation. There are 3 bulls (one is 5, the other 2 are 2-3 yrs) and the rancher has no problem interacting with the cattle. We don't either - all are afraid of us humans. There is one dominant bull who tends to get most of the action, but he isn't dangerously aggressive towards the other bulls...or to people, really. The cows with their calves are far more dangerous, as far as aggression towards predators (including dogs) and humans is concerned. Leaving the bulls with the cows is standard practice on cow-calf operations, less so on dairy operations.

    We also have 25 rabbits, all castrated. They are the most aggressive species here - introducing a new bunny is far more dangerous than introducing a new rooster or pig. Yes, the aggression would probably be much higher if these rabbits were not castrated (female rabbits are often more aggro than males) but the aggression persists even after castration. Same is true with our large "production" pigs - all are castrated and all go through normal social fighting to establish some semblance of a hierarchy. We'd probably prefer introducing an intact boar to a spayed female. :)

  3. YesBiscuit! I love cake! But doc says no sugar, so maybe that's why I get all twisted up in my head.

    Rinalia, I'm glad you stopped by and led me to your blogs! I am especially glad to see the one about dog shootings and I linked it on our sidebar.

    It's a great point that there is variation among farm animals. I'm sure there are differences among species, breeds, and individuals. That actually fits in well with talking about gender since it's easy to make unhelpful generalizations about men and women, roosters and hens, etc. But on the whole, would you agree that uncastrated males are usually not the best candidates for group living? Why else do farmers usually segregate intact males? I'd love to know more specifics.

  4. Hey, thanks for the link. :) It also encouraged me to update that blog, I'm so very behind.

    I think it depends on the species. For example, in parts of Europe, male pigs are not castrated before slaughter and are group-housed. Depending on the housing system, fighting is no different, and carcass quality is generally better in intact boars than barrows. In the wild, boars would either remain in the sounder or create bachelor groups.

    Certainly ruminants tend to kick out the juvenile males but at least with cattle, the bulls could live a good 2 years with the herd before the resident bull asks them politely to leave.

    Chickens are like pigs (roosters can remain in a mid-size-- large flock or create bachelor groups). Male turkeys spend a lot of time with each other in large male groups except during breeding season. This is as true for wild turkeys as it is for domestic turkeys.

    I can't say I'd throw ten boars together within sight and smell of an in-estrus sow or throw five roosters in with one hen and expect happy cohabitation. I think the biological drive for sex can make enemies out of friends if the situation is right.

    As to why farmers segregate intact males, I feel it depends on the species and farm. I buy pork for my dogs (I'm vegan) from a farm that has intact boars who live together just fine. They also have a lot of room to roam and they can pick who they want to hang out with. Dairies keep bulls separate because a) they are a lot more aggro than beef bulls (could be genetics, could be social isolation, could be poor association with people) and b) it's a lot easier to keep 50 bulls and AI the females than to keep a bull for each farm. Some cow-calf operations throw 2-3 bulls in with a herd at a time.

    Sheep and goats head butt, so I assume that's one of the driving forces with keeping them separate. Although, our castrated male sheep still head butt (much to our chagrin). I've really only met a few rams and bucks, all have been pretty docile and friendly...but I also never got in their way of in-estrus females.

    So I think there's a lot to be said about the context of the situation - group housing?, intact females present?, appropriate male:female ratio?, breed tendencies?, individual personality?, need of males? (e.g. egg laying farms don't need males)...those all seem to be driving factors in why some farms keep males separated and some don't.

    Geez, sorry about that. I really rambled on. Anyways, I'm looking forward to more posts - I like how you both write and what you have to say. :)

  5. Not rambling at all! Those are exactly the kind of facts and insights that interest me. It's very useful in having any discussion about animals and public policy to actually know something about animals! I'm using this blog to think through a lot of things that are rattling around in my brain - hopefully it can be a collaboration :)