Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Logistics of Converting Livestock to Pets

There's an old adage in farming that it's harder to eat an animal after you've named it. Lots of farm kids attempt to salvage a steer, goat, or pig by giving it a cute name. Sometimes it works. For instance, we named my sister and we ended up keeping her.

But most times it doesn't work. The first couple of steers we owned, Larry and Suzy, were downright evil. Yes, I'm aware 'Suzy' is a bizarre name for a steer, but they wouldn't let me name him 'Rose' after our Nana. This gender-bending of a name may have played a part in his poor attitude, but that certainly didn't give his buddy, Larry, any excuse to be rude.

Names alone were not enough to save those meanies from becoming veal parmagiana. They once chased our mother up into a tree and kept her there all day. After that, I never saw Mom tenderize beef so thoroughly. We kids soon realized that if any of our animals were going to live long enough to collect Social Security, we were going to have to take the name game a bit further.

So we not only named our farm animals, we tried to turn them into pets. For instance, we taught several of the cattle to hang out in the yard like big dogs. They learned not to cross the road or chase cars, and how to take the lid off the container of grain in the garage. My pet rooster, Chump, liked to be scratched behind the ears and would come when you called him. He wasn't quite housebroken, but his table manners were impeccable (sorry).

This pet project didn't always succeed. We often fed table scraps to the horses and cows. It's one thing to have your dog drooling patiently by the table. Quite another to have a herd staring in your kitchen window at your dinner plate-

Horse: Whinny! (You done with that?)

Cow: Moo! (Dibs on the potatoes au gratin!)

Chicken: Cluck!(Herb, is that you? Oh, my God!)

Nevertheless, we continued our furperson conversion, hoping to make them all members of our family. My dad knew exactly what we were up to. One day as I worked in the front yard, Ralph, our Black Angus steer/dog, walked by sporting chalk lines all over his body. As I looked closer, I realized the dotted lines followed the cuts of meat under his black fur. Today, Ralph was our oversized Labrador, but tomorrow....

One of my favorite moves was to sneak a steer into our house. And once we had done that a few times, we decided to up the ante and attempt the second floor. There were several key degrees of difficulty, all of which made this stunt even more exciting to pull off:

  • Mom - usually in the kitchen, but wary of any strange noises. Also wary of no noise at all, since that's when we were usually doing the most damage. Sometimes a sibling was bribed to launch a distraction. Sib-bribing was dangerous in its own right, though, since now the sib had a chance to snitch on you if the need ever arose. A creative counter-story and the threat of a noogie were needed just in case someone blabbed.

  • Front entryway- chosen because it was the widest and furthest from eagle-ear Mom. It was difficult to keep both the screen door open and the main wooden door open whilst rustling cattle through them without something going wrong. If the steer got hit by the door, it would usually reverse gear and attempt to fly out the nearest exit, usually located over your body. Any cowboy who's operated a loading gate at a cattle ranch has similar issues, except when they get run over, they don't also get grounded by their mom.

  • Front hallway - slate floor - loud and slippery, especially if you wear hooves. To muffle the sound, we made extensive use of throw rugs, carefully leading the animal so it wouldn't step on the loud floor. If we missed the rug, the hoof 'clank' on the stone floor would give us away. Imagine the game, Operation, but on a much larger and more physically punishing scale. To this day, when I see a throw rug, it reminds me of sneaking cattle down the hallway to the stairs. And I can still hear my mom calmly calling from the kitchen, "Get that animal out of the house." Yes, good times.

  • Staircase - wide, which was good, but cows are genetically stair-challenged, which is why you rarely see them in public libraries or performing in musicals. They're not keen on elevators either, but that's a story that I can't tell until the statute of limitations runs out. I can only afford so much litigation at a time.

  • 180 degree rotation- in the rare event we got a steer all the way upstairs and into a room without being detected, turning the animal around without destroying anything (and making noise) was dang near impossible. If you don't believe me, try it sometime. One errant tail flick and a lamp or table bites the dust. We once got Ralph turned successfully but he then flicked his tail against the bedroom door, making a loud, cow-startling noise, which in turn made him leap forward, until he got to the staircase, which he tried to skip altogether. Cattle can't fly, at least not indoors.

  • Return trip - what's harder than getting a cow upstairs? Getting it downstairs. Something about looking downward and the fear of falling. Or maybe it noticed how our beds were so much more comfy than the pasture and didn't want to go back. Cows are hinged differently from us - their rear knees are backwards - so a staircase is a mechanical challenge. Some of them tried to 'hop' down, gaining so much speed that they'd miss the turn to the front door and end up skidding into the living room. If we were lucky, the pool table stopped their forward motion. But the eventual 'thud' usually tipped my mom off that cattle were in the vicinity. At this point it was everyone for himself. Sometimes the cow was left alone to talk things over with my mom. I never had a cow rat me out, though, unlike my sister. Cows ratted her out all the time.

Fortunately we never had a steer have an accident on the carpeting. I don't know how I would've explained that one, except to blame it on my brother. Perhaps the whole holy-cow-I'm-in-the-freaking-house situation was enough for them to keep their tails tucked tightly to their bottoms.

Once a few of the steers had been successfully smuggled into and out of the house, it was time for a bigger challenge -Tara, my horse. She was young, but still the size of a young horse. Farm animals look deceptively smaller when they're outside. Get them inside next to the couch, or even better, on the couch, and you get a better perspective on size. And if caught, a better perspective on corporal punishment.

Tara was a quarter horse, called that because they typically consumed many Quarter-pounders -thereby making their rear ends the size of buses. I never realized how big she was back there until I tried to fit her butt through the front door.

Quarter horses are known for their explosive speed. This is because their back ends are composed almost exclusively of huge, explosive muscles. And a 426 HEMI. At short distances, a quarter mile or less, they are faster than thoroughbred race horses. In a doorway, they can shift from forward to backward in .008 seconds, with enough strength to tear the wood trim off a door and crush an instep. Fortunately, the blunt force was usually sufficient to throw you far enough clear of the alleged incident to make blame difficult to prove. "I couldn't have done it, Mom. I was way over in this pear tree, pickin' apples."

Like most quarter horses, Tara also possessed incredible maneuverability. Many times we'd be trotting along and she'd spy something horrifying, such as a maple leaf or blade of grass. She'd drop her head, spin her shoulder out from under me, and I'd be left hanging in mid-air like Wile E. Coyote. This happened enough that my parents finally brought in a professional horse trainer to work with her. The trainer couldn't stay on anywhere near as long as I could, and eventually gave up on taming any of us. I think my parents wanted to give up, too.

Quarter horses are also known for their brains and easy disposition. Tara was easygoing as long as she got what she wanted. Once her brain hit tilt, however, all bets were off. So the main challenge with getting her into the house was to keep her mellow. For Tara, that involved beer.

When Tara was born, we all joined her and her mom in the pasture, basking in the glow of Mother Nature and the miracle of a new life on the farm. And the very first thing Tara did was line up my dad's Miller High Life, which was sitting innocently in the grass, and kick it over. Since then she's had a thing for beer. This would come in handy when executing the old livestock-in-the-parlor trick.

I gave her a sip or two outside, then placed the beer bottle in the hallway. Tara was not happy. I opened both doors for her and waited. She swiveled her ears, pawing at the ground. She could hear my mom in the kitchen making dinner, and she perked up at that. But she was still wary about going in the house. She shoved me, knowing I was up to something. Finally, with Tara watching closely, I went in and took a sip of the beer. Her beer. She started to whinny in protest, and I had to quickly shush her by grabbing her muzzle. She pushed me out of the way and lunged for the beer in my other hand.

I backpedalled into the hallway, aiming carefully for the throw rugs. Before I knew it, Tara was inside. I gave her a sip of beer. She dribbled shamelessly. While we had momentum, I headed up the staircase with my thirsty pony.

It's amazing what some asses will do for alcohol. By now all Tara saw was the beer. I was hoping that by the time she realized where she was, she wouldn't care. We made the turn at the top of the stairs and headed for my bedroom where I gave her a nice, long drink.

Success! At least halfway, anyway. We still had the return trip to navigate. Tara slobbered Miller all over my floor and looked about happily. The door to my balcony was open and inviting. She decided to investigate. Not a good idea, and she quickly realized that the grass in the front yard was ten feet down. The beer was gone, and Tara wanted out. Now.

I had to get her away from the balcony and turned around. I clanked the empty beer bottle, hoping to get her to follow. She glared at me, then turned her attention back to the view outside. I could see her gathering her legs for a jump. She didn't seem to consider that after clearing the railing of the balcony, she had at least a fourteen foot drop to the grass. I didn't understand her logic at all until years later, after attending a few fraternity parties.

Mom: Ann! Get down here and set the table. Dinner's almost ready.

At the sound of those magic words, Tara spun around. Thank goodness my horse ran on leftovers. The problem was that she was now headed for the kitchen. If she figured out where we kept the beer we were all doomed.

She lumbered down the hallway to the staircase. She stopped for a moment, then caught the scent of pasta wafting its way up from the dinner table. Angling her butt around, she sidestepped handily down the stairs.

To the left was the front door, to the right - the kitchen. Tonight, Tara was determined to sit at the table with us. I slipped in front of her and quickly closed the door to the kitchen. We stood, nose-to-nose. She outweighed me 6-1, but she had no opposable thumb to operate the doorhandle.

Mom: Ann? Come on, I need help setting the table.

Me: I'll be right there!

Tara responded to my mom, too, but I yelled loud enough to cover her whinny. I figured I had less than a minute to de-horse the house before my mom got suspicious.

I looked up to see my youngest brother, Bob, standing in the open front door, mouth ajar, staring at Tara's butt. To be fair, that's probably all he could see from that angle. I waved the empty beer bottle at him and whispered-

Me: Is this yours?

Bob: Wha- what? No!

Me: It is if Mom catches Tara in the house. Help me!

Bob stood there, face to face with a horse's ass, wondering how old you had to be to qualify for the witness protection program.

Me: Get some grass. Hurry!

Still stunned, Bob walked outside and picked some grass. Tara turned to see. She preferred rigatoni, but the grass was in sight. I shoved her toward the door. Bob waved the grass at her and she hit a trot on the slate hallway.

Mom: Do I hear a cow in the house again?

Me: No. I was just showing Bob my tap moves.

I tapped a quick version of a shim sham riff as Tara's butt cleared the front door. Bob closed the gate, er, front door, as Mom stormed in from the kitchen.

Mom: Quit horsing around and get in here!

I flipped my brother the international symbol for noogie-warning and headed in to eat.


tom said...

that was really good how you got your horse into your bedroom using beer, which is also how you got your first husband there too.

Cat R said...

Love it! No livestock where we lived, but my brother and I were known for sneaking in an entire litter of stray flea-ridden kittens, a garden snake, and a succession of pet mice that he kept hidden in the basement on a shelf. The mice escaped from their cage, one by one, causing my dad to set traps to solve our mouse infestation problem.

Oh, the garden snake escaped too, but the lawn mower found it.

What is it about kids bringing animals indoors?

Melody said...

Hilarious. I'm going to post this on Digg. Thanks for the laughs.

Melody Platz
Melody’s Silly Site

PracticallyJoe said...

OMG that was a fun story to read. I feel so bad now about yelling at my three daughters for sneaking a stray cat into our house. I need to call them and beg for forgiveness. Great post!!!

diverdowndoc said...

That was hilarious!

And a *rim shot* for Tom.

Mr. Completely said...

Wait - roosters have ears?

Anonymous said...

Yup...lips and teeth, too.