Recognition is a noun. It is described as the action or process of recognising or being recognised, in particular: identification of a thing or person from previous encounters or knowledge. It is the acknowledgement of the existence, validity or legality of something. The verb is to recognise.
On Tuesday 6th of October 2015, we recognised the all-too-familiar sights, sounds and smells of bushfire as Edgar’s Mission stood between the out-of-control “planned” burn and the fire’s sinister plan to take over the world. Recognising the imminent danger we faced, we swung into gear to protect everything we loved and had worked so hard to achieve. As pilots of water-bombing helicopters recognised the close proximity of our four dams to the fire, these dams became a critical arsenal in the assault on the fiery menace. The cacophony of noise and embers that engulfed our tranquil sanctuary was met with an equal dose of choking smoke sent billowing over the farm and sending the sun to another realm while robbing our airways of their ability to breathe. And, in a paddock nestled between the two dams that had become a pit stop for the choppers to re-energise their firefighting efforts, our terrified sheep huddled.
Although our main vulnerability lay to our north, such was the voracity of the winds fanning the fire that embers were being hurtled some three kilometres ahead. And striking a target in a forested area just south of our boundary they did. If Pete’s priority in these situations is to protect our property, mine is to protect her animals, orchestrating their removal to safety as swiftly and calmly as I can. Suited up in firefighting gear, I looked a far cry from the gentle Lady in the Hat my sheepy friends know so well as I set about making safe passage from their paddock to the next, dispatching team members to move them up from behind. Yet despite their best efforts, the sheep could not be convinced to pass the terrifying beasts from the sky that zig-zagged so noisily overhead. Some people would cite that sheep are dumb as their reason for refusing to budge. However, sheep recognise the safety in numbers, just as we humans do—no one daring to move lest they be the first to be picked off and “eaten”. And yet as the sheep stood motionless with fear, the experienced chopper pilots were anything but. It was with precision-like timing they worked in tandem: no sooner did one chopper fill from the eastern dam than his comrade would zoom in and fill from the western. But their harmony was our sheep’s terror.
Standing on top of the hill looking south, a sense of hopelessness took hold as I recognised the gravity of the situation. I simply did not know what to do next, as abandoning my friends was not an option, yet nothing was going to get the sheep to relinquish their hold on their corner—nothing that was, except human kindness. In that short moment, two humans, far removed by both distance and circumstance, were united in their recognition of the situation that lay before them. Deviating off course to the east, the helicopter pilot who was to fill from the western dam was able to “push” the sheep up from behind just far enough for them to recognise that beneath that foreign yellow uniform lay their beloved Lady in the Hat. And I will never ever forget the look of recognition on their beautiful little woolly faces: joy, relief and gratitude, all rolled into one. It was a scene worthy of Chariots of Fire, as I, followed by125 of my bestest ovine friends, then raced up the hill and into the safety of our centre and protected paddock, with dear old Mummy Sheep bringing up the rear as fast as her short stumpy legs would carry her portly body. Smoke, emotion and sheer triumph caused salt water to well in my eyes. For as long as I live, my thoughts of sheep will always be laced with images of their faces in that moment and I know I will smile.
That sheep recognise faces is not something new to those who know, understand and love these much-maligned animals. That they share the same core emotions as we humans do is borne out by biological continuity, common sense and now science. With these things in mind surely the time has come to recognise sheep for the wonderfully unique, intelligent, fun-loving, gentle, sentient beings who they are—for when we do we will also recognise the greatness of our humanity.