Story and photo by Trudy Frisk
It was a sight to make a rancher rejoice. Two fearsome bulls faced each other. Dust swirled in clouds as they pawed the ground. Menacing bellows resounded throughout the valley. A circle of admiring cows watched in eager anticipation. Nature at work on the range.
Hah! After half an hour of snorting and stamping the 'rival' bulls buddied up and, shoulder to shoulder, strolled down to the water-hole for a drink leaving the chagrined and disappointed cows glaring after them.
During my twelve year's close observation of bulls on the range such sad scenes have been commonplace. Often cows are batting their eyelashes, swinging their hips, all but asking the bull's astrological sign to get his attention. The result? Indifference. And, it's taking a toll on the cows.
Remember the stern, dedicated bulls of bygone days? Bulls with a good work ethic and strong sense of duty. Given a chore to perform they promptly and skillfully did it. They roamed the range, guarding the herd from coyotes, bears or opportunist poachers.
When an old-fashioned bull checked off his 'to-do' list at the end of his shift, he could be proud. "Coyotes frightened - 2. Cows contented -3 Potential calves - ditto."
Modern bulls, in comparison, are a lax and sorry lot. They seem to want a day's pay (grazing) while not doing a day's work. Oh, sure, they stand around in the bull pasture in early spring, bragging to one another what a hectic summer it's going to be. "Busy? I don't expect an hour's rest!" Watching those muscular, masculine creatures you'd feel confident that come autumn their cows will trail home fat and full of calves to come.
It's all glamour and show as dozens of lovelorn cows could attest. Possibly the bulls believe that the appearance of action will deceive the rancher into assuming if there's so much noise and dust, the bull is definitely on the job. It's not so. In fact those bull's indifference to the charms of their bovine companions requires explanation.
What 's the problem? Has feminism infested the herds? Are males worried that the blustering bull of yore is passé, that the today's cow really wants a sensitive post-modern male who understands her and is in touch with his feminine side?
I don't think so. Those cows seemed to me to be expecting the rugged, old-fashioned , straightforward male of their species. They looked extremely disappointed when he went missing.
Well, possibly bulls have heard the dreaded words 'artificial insemination' and are feeling threatened and displaced, no longer part of the process. Could their disinterest in cows be part of a work stoppage intended to make their displeasure obvious to the rancher?
If this truly is a mental problem there are several ways of treating it. One would be to show the bulls a can of dog food , reading aloud the ingredients. Or the rancher could call in an animal psychologist to counsel the bull and reassure him. Surely some of the many animal psychologists must specialize in bulls and their insecurities - a Dr Phil of cattle country.
Was the problem confined to B.C. I wondered. Fortunately I had an opportunity to discuss the matter with an expert. A group of Australian and New Zealand ranchers recently toured the west and I asked their advice.
Brian Murphy, grazier, (rancher) from New South Wales, was chosen spokesman. He want directly to the important point. "What time of day are you observing the bulls?" he demanded. "About 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m." I replied. That's the trouble", declared Brian. "These animals aren't going to work up a sweat in the heat of the day. A bull does his best work at 3:00 a.m.! There's research to prove it." There was a chorus of agreement from Aussies, Kiwis and a few scattered British Columbians. A well-known fact, they assured me. I was relieved, and impressed with yet another example of the value of maintaining our Commonwealth ties.
And yet…doubts began to creep in. Was it true that bulls only did their best work at night time under controlled conditions? Moreover, how did these ranchers and graziers, good and reputable people though they were, know for certain what went on out on the range at 3:00 a.m.? What strange experiences had they had?
Furthermore, how did bulls tell time? By the stars? Or a watch tucked discreetly away on a forefoot? Let's not overlook the sleeping cows. I've been among cows and their calves when they were bedded down, tucked in for the night, you might say. Not one gave me the impression she'd welcome an amorous bull waking her with a nudge. There's a time and a place, after all.
Possibly that 3:00 a.m. approach was just radical Antipodean behaviour. I was definitely confused. On the one hand, the Australian opinion, reinforced with scientific evidence. Impressive… but…?
So, I consulted a friend. Boy and man Phil's had as much experience with bull as anyone alive. He spent his childhood on a cattle ranch in the Alberta foothills. He's roamed the range for sixty years. His opinion? These modern, slacker bulls are aberrations. A truly active hard-working bull pays no attention to light or heat. His heart is in his job and he's ever vigilant and alert. Those were the bulls Phil used to know.
Could it be an effect of global warming? The Australian people were the first to react to the thinning ozone layer, after all. Why couldn't animals react too? Possibly Canadian bulls, like their Australian cousins, are becoming wary of stronger solar rays. They might have heard warnings about the dangers of over-exertion in intense heat. Anyone want to stroll out on the range at 3:00 a.m. and investigate?
(Trudy is a freelance writer living in Kamloops, B.C.)
Other articles by Trudy Frisk