It’s No (Aesop’s) Fable—Persuasion is Often More Effectual Than Force

AVMA Welfare Focus Newsletter - Featured Article - December 2012

Joseph Snyder, DVM
AVMA Animal Welfare Committee

I've always loved the early fall season when the big beef ranchers in the county south of my home gather cattle to wean the calves and determine the reproductive status of the cows. As a veterinarian, I am called to vaccinate the heifers for brucellosis and examine the cows. For me, this usually involves starting my day with a long drive to beautiful, remote hill ranches of natural prairie surrounded by timber. This is followed by a long work day and ends with good conversation and a nice cold beverage of your choice. Since these are fairly labor-intensive events, ranchers tend to help each other, and one often finds more or less the same crew at each ranch. The ranch owner operates the chute, friends and neighbors help vaccinate, and cowboys or hired hands bring the cattle up. Early in my career, I noticed that one of the more senior ranchers was never seen around the chute, even when we were working on his place. It turns out that he was always in back, bringing up cattle. It slowly dawned on me that when Howard was bringing up the cattle, I never heard any yelling or cursing, sounds of sticks whacking or hotshots buzzing; yet we never had to wait for an animal to enter the chute. It was always a steady, calm stream. He had an uncanny ability to read animals and handle them gently and smoothly.

As I matured in practice, I became more and more interested in livestock behavior and, inspired by Howard, how we can use behavioral knowledge to handle animals calmly and efficiently. I have found that animals are more often abused by loss of temper than by actual malicious intent. We lose our tempers because we expect animals to behave like people, to understand what we want them to do, and to proceed at the pace we desire. However, animals do not behave like people; they move at different speeds, they respond to different stimuli, they perceive the world around them differently, and they have strong flocking instincts. When we fail to realize these differences, we set the stage for failure, and potential loss of temper and abuse. Otherwise kind and gentle people will pick up a stick and whack an uncooperative cow across the forehead out of frustration and impatience. Most of this type of abuse can be prevented by training ourselves and those around us in animal behavior, and using that knowledge of behavior to handle animals calmly, gently, and effectively.

Picture of cattle

An understanding of the following is key to good livestock handling:

  • Flight Zone—How close you can get to the animal before it begins to move away from you, varying from a few feet to several hundred feet.
  • Pressure and Release—Stepping within the flight zone of an animal pressures it to move and stepping outside of the flight zone releases pressure, allowing the animal to feel safer and thus stop moving.
  • Point of Balance—Entering the animal's flight zone from an angle behind the point of balance, typically the shoulder, will cause the animal to move forward and entering the animal's flight zone from an angle in front of the point of balance will cause the animal to move backward.
  • Noise—Livestock are sensitive to noise, and loud noise will cause excitement and agitation.
  • Vision—Livestock have wide-angle vision and poor depth perception, which is why sight restriction (e.g., adding a solid side wall) can have a calming effect on some animals.
  • Herd Instinct—Livestock are motivated to maintain visual contact with each other and will readily follow the leader. Focusing on moving the leaders instead of pushing a group of animals from the rear will yield better results.
  • Speed of Movement—In most cases, livestock move more slowly than we do. However, slowing to their pace will likely get the job done faster.

Howard was an unusual man who had an interest in animal behavior and spent a lifetime learning how to manage animals gently and efficiently. Today we have resources* like Temple Grandin who has analyzed livestock behavior and published work that allows others to learn these practical skills before they fall into a pattern of abuse. Bud Williams is another individual who taught himself low-stress livestock handling and went on to establish schools to share that knowledge with others; now that he is retired, he also shares his information via a website. Bud's daughter and son-in-law are following in his footsteps and also provide training. drtomatbwtelcom [dot] net (Dr. Tom Noffsinger), veterinarian and consultant, is also an excellent resource, available for workshops, lectures, labs, and consultations on low stress livestock management. This is by no means an exhaustive list of resources available in this area, but I believe it is a good place to start.

As veterinary professionals, we should be aware and make use of these resources for ourselves, our staffs, and our clients. Livestock handling skills are not intuitive, and simply being brought up on a farm or ranch does not qualify one for this work. Good livestock handling requires thought, education, training, patience, and practice. The good news is that we no longer have to wait for a lifetime of observation and self-instruction to achieve the knowledge needed to move animals in a gentle and efficient way. We can improve the welfare of the livestock in our care and the success of the people who manage them by making current knowledge available, and by demonstrating and teaching the principles of livestock handling to our staff and clients.

*References and external links provided in this article are for information only and do not imply AVMA endorsement of particular individuals or their programs.



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