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Ch. 22: The Strange Instincts of Cattle

My purpose in this paper is to discuss a group of curious and useless
emotional instincts of social animals, which have not yet been properly
explained. Excepting two of the number, placed first and last in the
list, they are not related in their origin; consequently they are here
grouped together arbitrarily, only for the reason that we are very
familiar with them on account of their survival in our domestic animals,
and because they are, as I have said, useless; also because they
resemble each other, among the passions and actions of the lower
animals, in their effect on our minds. This is in all cases unpleasant,
and sometimes exceedingly painful, as when species that rank next to
ourselves in their developed intelligence and organized societies, such
as elephants, monkeys, dogs, and cattle, are seen under the domination
of impulses, in some cases resembling insanity, and in others simulating
the darkest passions of man.

These instincts are:--

(1) The excitement caused by the smell of blood, noticeable in horses
and cattle among our domestic animals, and varying greatly in degree,
from an emotion so slight as to be scarcely perceptible to the greatest
extremes of rage or terror.

(2) The angry excitement roused in some animals when a scarlet or
bright-red cloth is shown to them. So well known is this apparently
insane instinct in our cattle that it has given rise to a proverb and
metaphor familiar in a variety of forms to everyone.

(3) The persecution of a sick or weakly animal by its companions.

(4) The sudden deadly fury that seizes on the herd or family at the
sight of a companion in extreme distress. Herbivorous mammals at such
times will trample and gore the distressed one to death. In the case of
wolves, and other savage-tempered carnivorous species, the distressed
fellow is frequently torn to pieces and devoured on the spot.

To take the first two together. When we consider that blood is red; that
the smell of it is, or may be, or has been, associated with that vivid
hue in the animal's mind; that blood, seen and smelt is, or has been,
associated with the sight of wounds and with cries of pain and rage or
terror from the wounded or captive animal, there appears at first sight
to be some reason for connecting these two instinctive passions as
having the same origin--namely, terror and rage caused by the sight of a
member of the herd struck down and bleeding, or struggling for life in
the grasp of an enemy. I do not mean to say that such an image is
actually present in the animal's mind, but that the inherited or
instinctive passion is one in kind and in its working with the passion
of the animal when experience and reason were its guides.

But the more I consider the point the more am I inclined to regard these
two instincts as separate in their origin, although I retain the belief
that cattle and horses and several wild animals are violently excited by
the smell of blood for the reason just given--namely, their inherited
memory associates the smell of blood with the presence among them of
some powerful enemy that threatens their life. To this point I shall
return when dealing with the last and most painful of the instincts I am

The following incident will show how violently this blood passion
sometimes affects cattle, when they are permitted to exist in a
half-wild condition, as on the pampas. I was out with my gun one day, a
few miles from home, when I came across a patch on the ground where the
grass was pressed or trodden down and stained with blood. I concluded
that some thievish gauchos had slaughtered a fat cow there on the
previous night, and, to avoid detection, had somehow managed to carry
the whole of it away on their horses. As I walked on, a herd of cattle,
numbering about three hundred, appeared moving slowly on towards a small
stream a mile away; they were travelling in a thin long line, and would
pass the blood-stained spot at a distance of seven to eight hundred
yards, but the wind from it would blow across their track. When the
tainted wind struck the leaders of the herd they instantly stood still,
raising their heads, then broke out into loud excited bellowings; and
finally turning they started off at a fast trot, following up the scent
in a straight line, until they arrived at the place where one of their
kind had met its death. The contagion spread, and before long all the
cattle were congregated on the fatal spot, and began moving round in a
dense mass, bellowing continually.

It may be remarked here that the animal has a peculiar language on
occasions like this; it emits a succession of short bellowing cries,
like excited exclamations, followed by a very loud cry, alternately
sinking into a hoarse murmur, and rising to a kind of scream that grates
harshly on the sense. Of the ordinary "cow-music" I am a great admirer,
and take as much pleasure in it as in the cries and melody of birds and
the sound of the wind in trees; but this performance of cattle excited
by the smell of blood is most distressing to hear.

The animals that had forced their way into the centre of the mass to the
spot where the blood was, pawed the earth, and dug it up with their
horns, and trampled each other down in their frantic excitement. It was
terrible to see and hear them. The action of those on the border of the
living mass in perpetually moving round in a circle with dolorous
bellowings, was like that of the women in an Indian village when a
warrior dies, and all night they shriek and howl with simulated grief,
going round and round the dead man's hut in an endless procession.

The "bull and red rag" instinct, as it may be called, comes next in
order. It is a familiar fact that brightness in itself powerfully
attracts most if not all animals. The higher mammalians are affected in
the same way as birds and insects, although not in the same degree. This
fact partly explains the rage of the bull. A scarlet flag fluttering in
the wind or lying on the grass attracts his attention powerfully, as it
does that of other animals; but though curious about the nature of the
bright object, it does not anger him. His anger is excited--and this is
the whole secret of the matter--when the colour is flaunted by a man;
when it forces him to fix his attention on a man, i.e. an animal of
another species that rules or drives him, and that he fears, but with
only a slight fear, which may at any moment be overcome by his naturally
bold aggressive disposition, Not only does the vivid colour compel him
to fix his attention on the being that habitually interferes with his
liberty, and is consequently regarded with unfriendly eyes, but it also
produces the illusion on his mind that the man is near him, that he is
approaching him in an aggressive manner: it is an insult, a challenge,
which, being of so explosive a temper, he is not slow to accept.

On the pampas I was once standing with some gauchos at the gate of a
corral into which a herd of half-wild cattle had just been driven. One
of the men, to show his courage and agility, got off his horse and
boldly placed himself in the centre of the open gate. His action
attracted the attention of one of the nearest cows, and lowering her
horns she began watching him in a threatening manner. He then suddenly
displayed the scarlet lining of his poncho, and instantly she charged
him furiously: with a quick movement to one side he escaped her horns,
and after we had driven her back, resumed his former position and
challenged her again in the same way. The experiment was repeated not
less than half a dozen times, and always with the same result. The
cattle were all in a savage temper, and would have instantly charged him
on his placing himself before them on foot without the display of
scarlet cloth, but their fear of the mounted men, standing with lassos
in their hand on either side of him, kept them in check. But whenever
the attention of any one individual among them was forcibly drawn to him
by the display of vivid colour, and fixed on him alone, the presence of
the horsemen was forgotten and fear was swallowed by rage. It is a fact,
I think, that most animals that exhibit angry excitement when a scarlet
rag is flourished aggressively at them, are easily excited to anger at
all times. Domestic geese and turkeys may be mentioned among birds: they
do not fly at a grown person, but they will often fly at a child that
challenges them in this way; and it is a fact that they do not at any
time fear a child very much and will sometimes attack him without being
challenged. I think that the probability of the view I have taken is
increased by another fact--namely, that the sudden display of scarlet
colour sometimes affects timid animals with an extreme fear, just as, on
the other hand, it excites those that are bold and aggressive to anger.
Domestic sheep, forinstance, that vary greatly in disposition in
different races or breeds, and even in different individuals, may be
affected in the two opposite ways, some exhibiting extreme terror and
others only anger at a sudden display of scarlet colour by the shepherd
or herder.

The persecution of a sick animal by its companions comes next under

It will have been remarked, with surprise by some readers, no doubt,
that I have set down as two different instincts this persecution of a
sick or weakly individual by its fellows, and the sudden deadly rage
that sometimes impels the herd to turn upon and destroy a wounded or
distressed companion. It is usual for writers on the instincts of
animals to speak of them as one: and I presume that they regard this
sudden deadly rage of several individuals against a companion as merely
an extreme form of the common persecuting instinct or impulse. They are
not really one, but are as distinct in origin and character as it is
possible for any two instincts to be. The violent and fatal impulse
starts simultaneously into life and action, and is contagious, affecting
all the members of the herd like a sudden madness. The other is neither
violent nor contagious: the persecution is intermittent: it is often
confined to one or to a very few members of the herd, and seldom joined
in by the chief member, the leader or head to whom all the others give

Concerning this head of the herd, or flock, or pack, it is necessary to
say something more. Some gregarious animals, particularly birds, live
together in the most perfect peace and amity; and here no leader is
required, because in their long association together as a species in
flocks, they have attained to a oneness of mind, so to speak, which
causes them to move or rest, and to act at all times harmoniously
together, as if controlled and guided by an extrane-ous force. I may
mention that the kindly instinct in animals, which is almost universal
between male and female in the vertebrates, is most apparent in these
harmoniously acting birds. Thus, in La Plata, I have remarked, in more
than one species, that a lame or sick individual, unable to keop pace
with the flock and find its food, has not only been waited for, but in
some cases some of the flock have constantly attended it, keeping close
to it both when flying and on the ground; and, I have no doubt, feeding
it just as they would have fed their young.

Naturally among such kinds no one member is of more consideration than
another. But among mammals such equality and harmony is rare. The
instinct of one and all is to lord it over the others, with the result
that one more powerful or domineering gets the mastery, to keep it
thereafter as long as he can. The lower animals are, in this respect,
very much like us; and in all kinds that are at all fierce-tempered the
mastery of one over all, and of a few under him over the others, is most
salutary; indeed, it is inconceivable that they should be able to exist
together under any other system.

On cattle-breeding establishments on the pampas, where it is usual to
keep a large number of fierce-tempered dogs, I have observed these
animals a great deal, and presume that they are very much like feral
dogs and wolves in their habits. Their quarrels are incessant; but when
a fight begins the head of the pack as a rule rushes to the spot,
whereupon the fighters separate and march off in different directions,
or else cast themselves down and deprecate their tyrant's wrath with
abject gestures and whines. If the combatants are both strong and have
worked themselves into a mad rage before their head puts in an
appearance, it may go hard with him: they know him no longer, and all he
can do is to join in the fray; then, if the fighters turn on him, he may
be so injured that his power is gone, and the next best dog in the pack
takes his place. The hottest contests are always between dogs that are
well matched; neither will give place to the other, and so they fight it
out; but from the foremost in strength and power down to the weakest
there is a gradation of authority; each one knows just how far he can
go, which companion he can bully when he is in a bad temper or wishes to
assert himself, and to which he must humbly yield in his turn. In such a
state the weakest one must always yield to all the others, and cast
himself down, seeming to call himself a slave and worshipper of any
other member of the pack that chooses to snarl at him, or command him to
give up his bone with a good grace.

This masterful or domineering temper, so common among social mammals, is
the cause of the persecution of the sick and weakly. When an animal
begins to ail he can no longer hold his own; he ceases to resent the
occasional ill-natured attacks made on him; his non-combative condition
is quickly discovered, and he at once drops down to a place below the
lowest; it is common knowledge in the herd that he may be buffeted with
impunity by all, even by those that have hitherto suffered buffets but
have given none. But judging from my own observation, this persecution,
is not, as a rule, severe, and is seldom fatal.

It is often the case that a sick or injured animal withdraws and hides
himself from the herd; the instinct of the "stricken deer" this might be
called. But I do not think that we need assume that the ailing
individual goes away to escape the danger of being ill-used by his
companions. He is sick and drooping and consequently unfit to be with
the healthy and vigorous; that is the simplest and probably the true
explanation of his action; although in some cases he might be driven
from them by persistent rough usage. However peaceably gregarious
mammals may live together, and however fond of each other's company they
may be, they do not, as a rule, treat each other gently. Furthermore,
their games are exceedingly rough and require that they shall be in a
vigorous state of health to escape injury. Horned animals have no
buttons to the sharp weapons they prod and strike each other with in a
sportive spirit. I have often witnessed the games of wild and half-wild
horses with astonishment; for it seemed that broken bones must result
from the sounding kicks they freely bestowed on one another. This
roughness itself would be a sufficient cause for the action of the
individual, sick and out of tune and untouched by the glad contagion of
the others, in escaping from them; and to leave them would be to its
advantage (and to that of the race) since, if not fatally injured or
sick unto death, its chances of recovery to perfect health would be
thereby greatly increased.

It remains now to speak of that seemingly most cruel of instincts which
stands last on my list. It is very common among gregarious animals that
are at all combative in disposition, and still survives in our domestic
cattle, although very rarely witnessed in England. My first experience
of it was just before I had reached the age of five years. I was not at
that early period trying to find out any of nature's secrets, but the
scene I witnessed printed itself very vividly on my mind, so that I can
recall it as well as if my years had been five-and-twenty; perhaps
better. It was on a summer's evening, and I was out by myself at some
distance from the house, playing about the high exposed roots of some
old trees; on the other side of the trees the cattle, just returned from
pasture, were gathered on the bare level ground. Hearing a great
commotion among them, I climbed on to one of the high exposed roots,
and, looking over, saw a cow on the ground, apparently unable to rise,
moaning and bellowing in a distressed way, while a number of her
companions were crowding round and goring her.

What is the meaning of such an instinct? Darwin has but few words on the
subject. "Can we believe," he says, in his posthumous _Essay on
Instinct, "_when a wounded herbivorous animal returns to its own herd
and is then attacked and gored, that this cruel and very common instinct
is of any service to the species?" At the same time, he hints that such
an instinct might in some circumstances be useful, and his hint has been
developed into the current belief among naturalists on the subject. Here
it is, in Dr. Romanes' words: "We may readily imagine that the instinct
displayed by many herbivorous animals of goring sick and wounded
companions, is really of use in countries where the presence of weak
members in a herd is a source of danger to the herd from the prevalence
of wild beasts." Here it is assumed that the sick are set upon and
killed, but this is not the fact; sickness and decay from age or some
other cause are slow things, and increase imperceptibly, so that the
sight of a drooping member grows familiar to the herd, as does that of a
member with some malformation, or unusual shade of colour, or altogether
white, as in the case of an albino.

Sick and weak members, as we have seen, while subject to some
ill-treatment from their companions (only because they can be
ill-treated with impunity), do not rouse the herd to a deadly animosity;
the violent and fatal attack is often as not made on a member in perfect
health and vigour and unwoundecl, although, owing to some accident, in
great distress, and perhaps danger, at the moment.

The instinct is, then, not only useless but actually detrimental; and,
this being so, the action of the herd in destroying one of its members
is not even to be regarded as an instinct proper, but rather as an
aberration of an instinct, a blunder, into which animals sometimes fall
when excited to action in unusual circumstances.

The first thing that strikes us is that in these wild abnormal moments
of social animals, they are acting in violent contradiction to the whole
tenor of their lives; that in turning against a distressed fellow they
oppose themselves to the law of their being, to the whole body of
instincts, primary and secondary, and habits, which have made it
possible for them to exist together in communities. It is, I think, by
reflecting on the abnormal character of such an action that we are led
to a true interpretation of this "dark saying of Nature."

Every one is familiar with Bacon's famous passage about the dog, and the
noble courage which that animal puts on when "maintained by a man; who
is to him in place of a God, or _melior natura;_ which courage is
manifestly such as that creature, without the confidence of a better
nature than its own, could never attain." Not so. The dog is a social
animal, and acts instinctively in concert with his fellows; and the
courage he manifests is of the family, not the individual. In the
domestic state the man he is accustomed to associate with and obey
stands to him in the place of the controlling pack, and to his mind,
which is canine and not human, _is_ the pack. A similar "noble courage,"
greatly surpassing that exhibited on all other occasions, is displayed
by an infinite number of mammals and birds of gregarious habits, when
repelling the attacks of some powerful and dangerous enemy, or when they
rush to the rescue of one of their captive fellows. Concerning this rage
and desperate courage of social animals in the face of an enemy, we see
(1) that it is excited by the distressed cries, or by the sight of a
member of the herd or family dying from or struggling in the clutches of
an enemy; (2) that it affects animals when a number af individuals are
together, and is eminently contagious, like fear, that communicates
itself, quick as lightning, from one to another until all are in a
panic, and like the joyous emotion that impels the members of a herd or
flock to rush simultaneously into play.

Now, it is a pretty familiar fact that animals acting instinctively, as
well as men acting intelligently, have at times their delusions and
their illusions, and see things falsely, and are moved to action by a
false stimulus to their own disadvantage. When the individuals of a herd
or family are excited to a sudden deadly rage by the distressed cries of
one of their fellows, or by the sight of its bleeding wounds and the
smell of its blood, or when they see it frantically struggling on the
ground, or in the cleft of a tree or rock, as if in the clutches of a
powerful enemy, they do not turn on it to kill but to rescue it.

In whatever way the rescuing instinct may have risen, whether simply
through natural selection or, as is more probable, through an
intelligent habit becoming fixed and hereditary, its effectiveness
depends altogether on the emotion of overmastering rage excited in the
animal--rage against a tangible visible enemy, or invisible, and excited
by the cries or struggles of a suffering companion; clearly, then, it
could not provide against the occasional rare accidents that animals
meet with, which causes them to act precisely in the way they do when
seized or struck down by an enemy. An illusion is the result of the
emotion similar to the illusion produced by vivid expectation in
ourselves, which has caused many a man to see in a friend and companion
the adversary he looked to see, and to slay him in his false-seeing

An illusion just as great, leading to action equally violent, but
ludicrous rather than painful to witness, may be seen in dogs, when
encouraged by a man to the attack, and made by his cries and gestures to
expect that some animal they are accustomed to hunt is about to be
unearthed or overtaken; and if, when they are in this disposition, he
cunningly exhibits and sets them on a dummy, made perhaps of old rags
and leather and stuffed with straw, they will seize, worry, and tear it
to pieces with the greatest fury, and without the faintest suspicion of
its true character.

That wild elephants will attack a distressed fellow seemed astonishing
to Darwin, when he remembered the case of an elephant after escaping
from a pit helping its fellow to escape also. But it is precisely the
animals, high or low in the organic scale, that are social, and possess
the instinct of helping each other, that will on occasions attack a
fellow in misfortune--such an attack being no more than a blunder of the
helping instinct.

Felix de Azara records a rather cruel experiment on the temper of some
tame rats confined in a cage. The person who kept them caught the tail
of one of the animals and began sharply pinching it, keeping his hand
concealed under the cage. Its cries of pain and struggles to free itself
greatly excited the other rats; and after rushing wildly round for some
moments they flew at their distressed companion, and fixing their teeth
in its throat quickly dispatched it. In this case if the hand that held
the tail had been visible and in the cage, the bites would undoubtedly
have been inflicted on it; but no enemy was visible; yet the fury and
impulse to attack an enemy was present in the animals. In such
circumstances, the excitement must be discharged--the instinct obeyed,
and in the absence of any other object of attack the illusion is
produced and it discharges itself on the struggling companion. It is
sometimes seen in dogs, when three or four or five are near together,
that if one suddenly utters a howl or cry of pain, when no man is near
it and no cause apparent, the others run to it, and seeing nothing, turn
round and attack each other. Here the exciting cause--the cry for
help--is not strong enough to produce the illusion which is sometimes
fatal to the suffering member; but each dog mistakingly thinks that the
others, or one of the others, inflicted the injury, and his impulse is
to take the part of the injured animal. If the cry for help--caused
perhaps by a sudden cramp or the prick of a thorn--is not very sharp or
intense, the other dogs will not attack, but merely look and growl at
each other in a suspicious way.

To go back to Azara's anecdote. Why, it may be asked--and this question
has been put to me in conversation--if killing a distressed companion is
of no advantage to the race, and if something must be attacked--why did
not these rats in this instance attack the cage they were shut in, and
bite at the woodwork and wires? Or, in the case related by Mr. Andrew
Lang in _Longman's Magazine_ some time ago, in which the members of a
herd of cattle in Scotland turned with sudden amazing fury on one of the
cows that had got wedged between two rocks and was struggling with
distressed bellowings to free itself--why did they not attack the
prisoning rocks instead of goring their unfortunate comrade to death?
For it is well known that animals will, on occasions, turn angrily upon
and attack inanimate objects that cause them injury or hinder their
freedom of action. And we know that this mythic faculty--the mind's
projection of itself into visible nature--survives in ourselves, that
there are exceptional moments in our lives when it comes back to us; no
one, for instance, would be astonished to hear that any man, even a
philosopher, had angrily kicked away or imprecated a stool or other
inanimate object against which he had accidentally barked his shins. The
answer is, that there is no connection between these two things--the
universal mythic faculty of the mind, and that bold and violent instinct
of social animals of rushing to the rescue of a stricken or distressed
companion, which has a definite, a narrow, purpose--namely, to fall upon
an enemy endowed not merely with the life and intelligence common to all
things, including rocks, trees, and waters, but with animal form and

I had intended in this place to give other instances, observed in
several widely-separated species, including monkeys; but it is not
necessary, as I consider that all the facts, however varied, are covered
by the theory I have suggested--even a fact I like the one mentioned in
this chapter of cattle bellowing and madly digging up the ground where
the blood of one of their kind had been spilt: also such a fact as that
of wild cattle and other animals caught in a trap or enclosure attacking
and destroying each other in their frenzy; and the fact that some
fierce-tempered carnivorous mammals will devour the companion they have
killed. It is an instinct of animals like wolves and peccaries to devour
the enemy they have overcome and slain: thus, when the jaguar captures a
peccary out of a drove, and does not quickly escape with his prize into
a tree, he is instantly attacked and slain and then consumed, even to
the skin and bones. This is the wolf's and the peccary's instinct; and
the devouring of one of their own companions is an inevitable
consequence of the mistake made in the first place of attacking and
killing it. In no other circumstances, not even when starving, do they
prey on their own species.

If the explanation I have offered should seem a true or highly probable
one, it will, I feel sure, prove acceptable to many lovers of animals,
who, regarding tins seemingly ruthless instinct, not as an aberration
but as in some vague way advantageous to animals in their struggle for
existence, are yet unable to think of it without pain and horror;
indeed, I know those who refuse to think of it at all, who would gladly
disbelieve it if they could.

It should be a relief to them to be able to look on it no longer as
something ugly and hateful, a blot on nature, but as an illusion, a
mistake, an unconscious crime, so to speak, that has for its motive the
noblest passion that animals know--that sublime courage and daring which
they exhibit in defence of a distressed companion. This fiery spirit in
animals, which makes them forget their own safety, moves our hearts by
its close resemblance to one of the most highly-prized human virtues;
just as we are moved to intellectual admiration by the wonderful
migratory instinct in birds that simulates some of the highest
achievements of the mind of man. And we know that this beautiful
instinct is also liable to mistakes--that many travellers leave us
annually never to return. Such a mistake was undoubtedly the cause of
the late visitation of Pallas' sand-grouse: owing perhaps to some
unusual atmospheric or dynamic condition, or to some change in the
nervous system of the birds, they deviated widely from their usual
route, to scatter in countless thousands over the whole of Europe and
perish slowly in climates not suited to them; while others, overpassing
the cold strange continent, sped on over colder, stranger seas, to drop
at last like aerolites, quenching their lives in the waves.

Whether because it is true, as Professor Freeman and some others will
have it, that humanity is a purely modern virtue; or because the
doctrine of Darwin, by showing that we are related to other forms of
life, that our best feelings have their roots low down in the temper and
instincts of the social species, has brought us nearer in spirit to the
inferior animals, it is certain that our regard for them has grown, and
is growing, and that new facts and fresh inferences that make us think
more highly of them are increasingly welcome.

W. H. Hudson