Monday, January 18, 2010

The Sheep Are Trying to Tell Us Something

But what? I think their unsophisticated sheep communication abilities are only able to give us the first two sounds in what would otherwise be a valuable message. "Bahrain"? "Bafflement"? "Badminton"? Perhaps we will never know. However, that first syllable is so clearly "baa" that I must take a moment to chuckle at what various other cultures think sheep say: fwaah (French), maham maham (Spanish), googoogoowah (Chinese), and worst of all ¡vivilaravi! (German).

Seriously, despite having the collective brain power of shower mold, sheep herds do find ways to communicate with nearby humans. For example, they remind us all of their status as grazing, cellulose-processing powerhouses by burping, farting, shitting and pissing at all times, even when they're actually consuming more plant material that they will utilize as energy for future burps, farts, shits and pisses. Standing in front of a herd of sheep, then, is sort of like watching a bunch of people eat at Burger King. (I make that joke realizing that no one reading a blog that specializes in video game etymology and sexually perverse subtext in obscure pop culture has eaten at Burger King in the past decade. Stay with me here, snobs.)

The wooly-backed masses have other ways of communicating. They stamp their feet when angry. They pant like dogs when hot. And, when released from fenced-in prisons, they are prone to jumping in the air only to kick out their legs in brief but jubilant displays. However, there is one more thing that sheep do, and it does not make me feel any better about them or myself. When shoved into a corral, whether at the request of humans or dogs, they tend to anxiously breathe through their noses in unison.

Picture, if you will, stepping up to a wooden fence behind which stand a hundred sheep that have just been pushed from their cushy pasture land to a new, smaller pen that leads to God-knows-where. The sheep turn and look at you with their stupid, yellow eyes and for a few seconds it's quiet enough that you can hear a noise that sounds almost like the ocean. It's actually the whole lot of them breathing in unison, furiously and quickly. It's the panicked breathing of idiots that don't understand what's happening but know on some level that they should be afraifd. When Thomas Harris wrote about the silence of the lambs, he clearly hadn't spent enough time around the species to know about something worse: panic breathing in unison.

Today, the breathing stopped only when the sheep had been loaded onto a truck that transported them to a magical place that makes them into dinner. I point this out not to drive home any vegetarian point --- I do eat sheep --- but instead to point out the irony in these animals having panicked with good reason on the day they died. Sheep, being dumb, do this panic breathing whether they're lined up to be tagged or flea-dipped or dressed in oversized British lady clothes for humorous birthday card photos. These sheep doubtlessly did so every time they were pushed into a corral out of a primal dread of death that somehow overrode their primitive brain circuitry. Today, however, was the first time this instinct would have proved correct.

There's something in that, I feel, and there's something in the reaction of one lucky ewe that, upon my uncle's second inspection, proved to be too young for the slaughterhouse. Being deprived of its flockmates, it bleated like it had been the only kid in class not invited to the party. In a way, it was that tragic figure. Only it was too dumb to know it had dodged a metaphorical bullet --- and a literal bolt gun. Its panic breathing had been rendered unremarkable by virtue of being a solo effort --- and unprophetic by virtue of it having survived today.

The sheep are trying to tell us something, and that message is a lot more complex that they could ever understand.

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