Notes From the Urban/Rural Divide: Working Animals

As many readers know, I have a pair of cats of whom I’m inordinately fond, even though they also drive me absolutely up the wall sometimes because they refuse to get it together and reach a peaceable state of mutual dislike rather than active hatred. My cats occupy a somewhat unusual position: they don’t go outside, and thus don’t hunt gophers and other garden-destroyers, and they don’t hunt mice indoors, because my house doesn’t have any. It’s possible it’s mouse-free because the cats are around, but it’s a bit had to prove that—mice in general aren’t a problem around here, in no small part because a lot of people have cats, and most of theirs are indoor-outdoor, stalking the meadows around the neighbourhood in search of delicious prey.

My cats are, well, they’re pets. I keep them around because I find them comforting and I love them. I enjoy chasing them around the living room and curling up with them on a soft chair and reaching out in the night to touch Loki’s warm back and elicit a sleepy ‘brrrrt’ before he settles back down. I like it when they purr, when they settle onto my lap and play with the strings of my pajama pants, the way they sense when my mood is not the greatest and reach out in an attempt to make me feel better. My cats may provide an important emotional function in my life, but they are not working animals, nor are they serving some sort of specific external function like managing vermin.

Pets aren’t unusual in rural communities; many of the people I know have them, and some would probably describe their animals as dual-purpose. They are both functional (‘our cat keeps the gophers down’) and emotionally satisfying (‘she sleeps on our bed at night’). But a lot of people here also have working animals, like livestock who are bred and raised to produce milk, meat, or fiber, dogs to herd and guard that livestock, and other animals trained to perform specific tasks. Our relationship with animals is somewhat different than that of a lot of urban people I know, who primarily think of animals as pets.

The idea of ‘working’ animals is alien to them because they live in an environment where every animal they know is either a pet, or something exotic on display at the zoo. (I always giggle to see goats and sheep at the zoo like they’re mystical creatures from a far-off land.) Their animals are all pets, even when they come from working stock; I know a lot of people in the City, for example, who have dogs that come from breeds and lineages I associate with working animals. To my utter perplexity, they invest shocking amounts of money in training the working traits out of their dogs, and in hiring services to take care of them while they’re away at work all day because their animals are, well, worky, and they get bored easily.

And they’re often astounded, simply astounded, when their dogs exhibit natural traits associated with their breeding. They get upset when their dogs try to herd, or guard, or perform other tasks that they’ve been bred to do for centuries, in some cases. They’re shocked when their animals have prey drives, when they streak off after smaller animals or stress out the cats that share their homes or cause problems with neighbourhood dogs. These behaviours are unwanted and must be trained out, when they’re the very thing those animals were bred to do.

I know people with pet dogs here, of course; it’s not like the idea of having pets is totally alien to rural people. But I know a lot more people with working dogs. I know people with hunting dogs that help them track and bring down prey, or fetch birds after they’ve been shot. I know people with herding dogs, livestock guardian dogs, and dogs that they use for personal security. I know people with service dogs—pretty much the only kind of working dog ever seen in urban areas with the exception of police dogs. Dogs, to me, are working animals. They like to work. They’ve been bred to work. Their mission in life is to work and please their handlers. Some dogs wash out of training and maybe then they become pets.

My personal experience with dogs has all been with working animals. We had livestock guardian dogs in Greece and later we had a herd dog in Elk. I understand that some people keep them as pets, but it still seems odd to me; why would you want to bring an animal bred and historically trained for work into your home, tell it to sit still and be quiet all the time, and then be surprised when the poor thing is bored to tears and starts acting out because all it really wants is a job to do? This stance on dogs seems to surprise a lot of people, who mistakenly equate working animals with cruelty or think that I dislike pet dogs—I don’t dislike them, I just don’t get them.

And working animals are treasures, to be handled with care, respect, love, and, yes, also firmness. You aren’t cruel to working animals of any species because they’re a serious investment that requires not just money but time, training, and patience. Whether you’re talking about milk goats who need to be trained to stand for milking or a herd dog, your working animal is not a ‘beast,’ but a coworker, someone to be handled respectfully. Do some people abuse their working animals? Absolutely, and it’s horrific and wrong, and I fully support measures to bring those people to justice. But having working animals, and viewing animals primarily in their role as working members of a household rather than pets, doesn’t mean that one supports animal abuse or thinks of animals as objects.

The fundamentally different relationship with animals in urban and rural communities stems in part from lack of exposure; some urban people have never actually interacted directly with livestock, for example. But it’s also about a different way of life. You don’t keep herds of sheep in urban areas because it’s impractical and this is the function of rural areas, and thus you (theoretically) don’t need sheepdogs in urban areas, because there are no sheep for them to busy themselves with.

When people betray their lack of understanding about the relationship rural people have with our animals, I have to remind myself that they haven’t been exposed to the complexities of the human-animal relationship. Just as their insistence on keeping working animals cooped up all day confuses me, because I have trouble understanding the give and take of that particular instance of the human-animal relationship.