“How do you know THAT is Harry?”, a journalist recently asked as I affectionately patted the head of the sheep standing by my side, cordially introducing Harry. “How do I know that’s Harry?”, I perplexedly countered, “How could I not?”. And I quickly added, “By the same reasoning I know that’s Lyn”—pointing to the person we both so readily recognised as Lyn standing only a few feet away.
So how did I know that the sheep before me was in fact Harry and not Sparky (tall, distinguished, curious), Elma (diminutive and shy) or Fifi (cheeky, rotund, loves to wag her tail). Or Fanta (crowd surfer, singularly determined), Rosie (loner, friendly) or Walker (in your face, determined to claim every wheetbix as his own, make sure you wear protective footwear). Whilst to me it seemed odd that I would be questioned on my ability to recognise my buddy, it is indeed a perfectly natural thought for someone who had just been introduced to 97 sheep. (Indeed, should I be introduced to 97 people I had never met, the chances of me remembering their names would be pretty low!)
It is a question I am often asked by visitors to the sanctuary. But I bet my bottom dollar that if they too had been blessed with the wondrous opportunity that I have been fortunate enough to have over the years—of getting to know 97 individual beings, each imbued with their own unique story, their own lived history, their own undeniable personality and their own defined looks, the process spanning many a year—they too would know Harry.
Knowing animals as individuals comes with consequences though, none the least remembering their names J. And if you sit at the helm of a not-for-profit sanctuary for rescued farmed animals, that means a LOT of names. But ask anyone for whom an animal has found a place in their hearts and home to tell this tale, and their face will warm, the sides of their mouth will curl upward as their heart sings out a quirky story of love, enchantment and wonder. Our empathy sweeps us up as we readily recognise many of the traits of our beloved furred, fleeced, feathered or finned companion—our thoughts coming to rest on the fact it doesn’t matter the form the animal has taken, because beneath that surface they (and we) are the same.
All of this gives more than pause for thought for what, or rather who, is on our plate. So many people experience cognitive dissonance around farmed animals. We can see that they are like us, yet we treat them as production units. Whilst some believe in the necessity of killing these animals for food, along with that belief often comes a discomfort in knowing that there actually is no necessity. Seeing the individuality of those who make up a mob of sheep, a herd of cows, a sounder of pigs, a flock of chickens, a shoal of fish or a tribe of goats—it tugs deeply at one’s conscience. So much of our world view of the animals who are farmed for food and fibre is prejudiced by the inherited notion they have been bred for this purpose, thus circumnavigating our impartial critical thinking, compassion and even science.
So often we hear that animal activists are the worst nightmares of the meat and livestock industries, but I don’t believe this to be correct. And it is not whistle-blowers or disgruntled workers coming forward who will bring these industries to their knees. Despite the impacts both of these groups have on the industries who profit from animals, the two most formidable foes are both meeker and a little closer to home—the animals themselves and the goodness of the human heart. After all, who best to argue the case of a sheep than a sheep—the same for a chicken, fish, rabbit, pig, cow or goat? And who better to hear that plea for mercy than a kind heart?
Science is now weighing formidably in on the argument, with evidence that the brain structures and neural biology we share with animals means they experience joy, pain, fear, regret and even basic logic in much the same way we do.
An example: Fanta recently was not herself, off her game so to speak. Though not in the literal sense: sheep are too pure of heart to pretend to be someone they are not. But she was not behaving like the character we know her exuberant self to be. This raised a red flag for us. On closer examination, Fanta was found to have an abscess brewing in her left hind leg, just above her coronet band. A small pocket of pus had formed, trapping bacteria. All this was pushing against the surrounding tissue, causing the area to become red, swollen and sore, and causing Fanta to be “not herself”.
It is more than simple chemistry at play: science and common sense tells us that. Fanta felt pain. Her response was to act as we would—limping, demonstrating increased sensitivity, avoidance and the like. Pain is nature’s way of telling us we need to do something to restore homeostasis, this having far more than a mere physiological component but an emotional one as well.
Recognising this commonality is also nature’s way of reminding us of our shared origins and that there is more that unites us with animals than divides us. In shutting both our eyes and hearts to the pain of animals, we should find cause to not only question who they are, but who we are as well.
So finally, back to the original question, “How do you know that’s Harry?” I just do, and so would you if you had the chance to know him too.