Farm Animals Take On Distinct Personalities Commentator Julie Zickefoose says cattle wrangle on a farm — and each animal takes a different approach, based on its temperament.

Farm Animals Take On Distinct Personalities

Farm Animals Take On Distinct Personalities

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Hateful Mary Grace, a cow on an Ohio farm, pins her ears back and rolls her eyes to protect her calf. Julie Zickefoose for NPR hide caption

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Julie Zickefoose for NPR

Betty is the head cow on the Warren farm. Julie Zickefoose for NPR hide caption

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Julie Zickefoose for NPR

Cattle are individuals. Their herds are orderly societies, complete with a pecking order. Any farmer can tell you that. I've spent time recently hanging over the fence on my neighbors' property, watching my friends, the Warren brothers, work with their cattle.

I find cattle wrangling fascinating because each animal requires a different approach, based on its temperament. Mary Grace is a black Angus with a white stripe on her forehead. Her name is usually prefaced with the word "hateful" — so she's Hateful Mary Grace, or Mary Grace You Worthless Ol' Blister.

When Mary Grace has a new calf, the Warrens don't even go in the corral with her. She pins her ears back and rolls her eyes, and even someone who doesn't know anything about cattle knows she's loaded for bear. Hateful Mary Grace can throw a kick like lightning, front, side, back — she can get you wherever you may be.

And then there's Betty, a mouse-gray cow with a white face. She's gentle to people, but heck on the other cattle. They all defer to Betty. Her calves are just like her — gentle but firmly dominant to their peers.

Mary Grace is not boss cow like Betty, but perhaps she'd like to be. Could she be taking out her frustration in pure nastiness? My father, an Iowa farm boy, always said, "The chicken who's next to last on the pecking order pecks the hardest."

My farmer friends turned from the cowpen to show me a cat nest in the barn, a nice deep bowl in the hay, like a rabbit nest. I'd never seen a cat nest like that. The mother left reluctantly, slinking a few yards away to reveal two tiny kittens, their eyes just opened. A little gray kitten was hissing madly, trying to scare me away, while a black one trembled and hid its face with its paws. So young, and yet so different already; their personalities manifest before their eyes were fully open.

Behavioral scientists are just now trying to establish that fact with quantifiable, reproducible studies. Their work has started to crack the door on animal personalities, starting with water striders and fruit flies, which nobody could hope to think have them. Scientists have just shown that some water striders and fruit flies are demonstrably more aggressive and "bossy" than others; some are timorous and retiring. It's a start, I guess, to look at insect individuality; no one could accuse a researcher of bias in a study of fruit flies.

But those of us who live among animals know that quantifying insect personalities is just the frost on a very large, animate iceberg. News flash: Hominids aren't the only ones out there who think and feel, who chart their own individual course on the planet. And not everything that goes on in the head of a dog, cat, cow or fruit fly can be quantified or reproduced.

As far as I'm concerned, that's just fine. Let scientists argue whether animals could possibly have distinct personalities. I'd like to invite them to hang on the corral boards with me in early spring. You can argue all you want. Just remember to watch out for Hateful Mary Grace.

Commentator Julie Zickefoose lives and writes in the farmland near Whipple, Ohio. She is the author of Letters from Eden, and is working on a new book about the minds of birds.