Even on a TV show, you’d think a farm sanctuary would know better than to treat their animals like they’re deaf, dumb, insensible creatures.
Since this is the Bovine Practicum, and yet another disturbing “case,” for lack of better words, came to my attention that occurred, yet again, on another farm animal sanctuary, I have to have a write-up on it.
Sure, it’s a TV show and when there’s camera crews around, people do get a bit nervous and say or do stupid things that they normally wouldn’t. But I think that’s completely inexcusable and a rather pathetic justification for how this sanctuary handled their bulls in getting them castrated.
Enter “The Vet Life” and their episode “Vegan Cowboys”, featuring the Rowdy Girl Sanctuary outside of Houston, Texas which advertises itself as a “Vegan Farm Animal Sanctuary” of sorts. In this episode, a couple of veterinarians were asked to come out to castrate five full-grown (around 2 years old or older) bulls. The reasoning by the owners was that they “don't need any more animals.” They had, at the time that this was filmed (which was likely back in 2016), 53 head of cattle on 96 acres. Quite a number of cows were filmed to have newborn or young calves with them.
And, since this is a sanctuary, none of the animals are sold or taken to slaughter. (I actually already had a good say on that which you can read HERE and HERE.)
There’s actually a video of what I was talking about above. It’s from Facebook, only under 10 minutes long. I suggest you have a look at it, if you can, before continuing to read on what I have to say about the literal shit-show that went under at this hell-hole of a “sanctuary.”
Scene One: Introductions
Let’s get over the introductory part first before I start critiquing the whole handling shenanigans that went down.
Oh, and skip the first 20 seconds, that's not the intro I'm talking about.
In this introduction, we were introduced to the couple who started this sanctuary, Renee and Tommy, and their, erm, 53 "bovine cows" on their property.
Give me a second while I gather myself and get back in my chair. Bovine cows?? Really?!
Okay, yes we're dealing with bovines, and yes we're dealing with cows in the most loosey-goosey colloquial fashion. But, most normal people will either say, "we have about 53 bovines right now," or even, "we have about 53 cows right now..." Ahh shit, whatever. I'm being a little petty, but have to admit that was a rather humorous slip of the tongue, even if it wasn't deliberate...
We're also introduced to the fact that Renee wanted her bulls to be castrated just like what's done with gelding stallions (which I'll talk a little more about below). Dr. Diarra Blue, one of the vets performing the castration, is absolutely right in that most bull castrations are done with the animals standing and fully awake. I'll also talk about that later as to why this is not just "standard practice" but it's done for some pretty good reasons.
But let's get into the whole handling fiasco. Crikey!! (And no I'm not Australian!)
Scene Two: The Chute and the... Panel??
"HEY, YAH, YAH, YAH!!!" Goes Tommy. On and on and on...
<Sigh> Here we go. First rookie mistake in handling cattle, and one that every single good-for-something cattleman/cattlewoman MUST know is:
NEVER EVER YELL AT THE ANIMALS YOU'RE HANDLING!!! IT DOESN'T HELP THEM MOVE FASTER OR SLOWER OR WHATEVER THE HELL YOU'RE TRYING TO GET THEM TO DO!!!!!
This should be rule #1 in proper stockmanship practices. Actually I think it is...
Why no yelling? For one, the hearing on those animals is very sensitive. They can hear a person just fine without that person even talking.
I'd just like to talk a little about what I've observed with working cattle on foot.
When I'm merely walking behind them without uttering a single word, I notice that their ears are "pinned" back against their skull; that's a sign that they're listening to what's going on behind them. Those animals can hear my footsteps and the dirt (or grass) being stirred up by my boots, the rustle and faint swish of my clothing, and can probably even hear me breathing. They know I'm behind them. An occasional glance behind tells them where I am, and in relation to that they know where they need to be or where to go.
They can also sense me, or anyone else, behind them (usually), or just with being around them. They have what's called a "flight zone", which is basically a comfort zone that is based on the distance that a perceived "threat" should remain in relative to their own level of comfort. A cow that is fairly comfortable with my presence (she may have her head up, ears pricked forward, and staring directly at me) isn't going to be moving away. But if I start to move towards her and I hit this invisible "wall" of that cow's flight zone, she will move away. If I stop, she will stop at relatively the same distance she wishes to remain away from me. If I back away, or walk away from her, she may follow me out of sheer curiosity, she may remain where she is and relax somewhat, or she may walk away too. Usually the first two are most likely to happen in my own experiences.
Some of you reading this post may point out that there are actually two zones: The outer-most zone is in fact the comfort zone, so to speak, where I would get zero reaction by where I stand or even if I move just a wee bit (not taking a step or two towards her), and the inner zone is the true flight zone where the animal actually moves when I move towards her at almost any point (shoulder, hips, or head). This additional interpretation definitely isn't wrong.
Not only that, but cattle are just as good at using their eyes to know where you are too! They may be partly colour blind with dichromatic vision (they can't see in reds or pinks, just mainly blue and yellow hues), but if they notice some movement that isn't another bovine, or not a part of their normal surroundings, they're onto it and wanting to check it out. They'll often need to stare at it intensely for a few minutes to process what that "thing" is. Even if it's a human, or a dog, or a cat, or... well, you get the picture.
And what about smell? Ah yes, they can smell you too! Their noses are not quite as good as a dog's, but fairly close.
The second reason it's completely unnecessary to yell at the animals you're handling is that it stresses them out and agitates them BIG time. They already KNOW you're there. They can hear you, they can feel you, they can see you, they can smell you. Adding the whole yelling bit just causes a great deal of anxiety, nervousness and confusion that can make a simple job a whole lot worse and much more work than necessary.
Nobody likes getting yelled at. I don't. I know you don't (at least I hope you don't). And most animals don't either. So why should a person yell at a few innocent bulls that are going to go through an even more stressful event of, excuse my jargon, getting their balls chopped off?
Let's get back to this show.
So, on top of the whole hollering bit, they're "chasing" these bulls with a panel. Which I thought was quite amusing. I'm wondering why were they using the panel in the first place? Was it some form of psychological security to be "behind" some object that is put between them and these bulls? Or was it to make the two men seem a bit more bigger and intimidating than just by themselves without said panel? Or maybe it's their poor-man's "gate" that they're going to use to keep the bulls in their little make-shift, erm, "crowding pen"?? When they tried getting the first three bulls in, it sure appeared that way. I don't know, I'm only guessing here.
But here's the thing: IF the panel was being used as some kind of psychological barrier to put their minds at risk of being "protected" by these bulls, I'm sorry to say but that's a loose panel, they're hanging on to it, and if one of those bulls should turn around and ram them with it, both would topple to the ground with the panel and maybe even the bull on top of them. Not good, and NOT safe!
At least one thing could've been done better here in this first bit. Like the two men just standing out shoulder to shoulder and slowly moving in, letting at least one bull find the only escape route being down that race (or alleyway). It could even work that way with just one person; You'd be surprised at how effective just one person is at moving some cattle (cows, bulls, steers, heifers, whatever) and managing to separate out one and convincing that one bovine to go where you ask it, if you know how to ask the right "questions."
And that's with no repetitive, "Yah, Yah!!" necessary.
They also could use a much better crowding pen or tub than that silly panel...
One little problem where I'm sitting is that I really don't know Rowdy Girl's handling set up apart from what I can see in the video. Google Earth maps don't tell me a whole lot either, especially since it looks like much of their handling facilities are under a bunch of tall oak trees. The video would have to suffice.
At about the 1:40 mark, poor Mr. Tommy is panicking in his Yah's, and stomping his feet because BOTH bulls decided to back up on him and get the hell outta there. Gee, I wonder why??
I know that Tommy's constant and completely unnecessary yelling (I just cannot say it enough) created what he feared was going to happen: Panic, confusion, and those two bulls backing out on him instead of going down the race like a couple of good (and calm) bulls should do. Boy oh boy.
So, who's panicked and confused? Well, the bulls, definitely! They have no idea why they're being yelled at, what they're supposed to be doing with the ensuing HEY'ing! They really don't want to go down the race to the chute (they probably already know bad things happen there), so they'd rather risk it and back up into the human that's doing nothing but making a nothing but a whole lot of racket. That's their only ticket to escape. I don't blame them.
They're doing it NOT because they don't want to get their testicles removed (as those bulls really have no idea what's coming to them), but because they're sooo damned confused! The cameraman standing in front of them is also adding to the mix of confusion, as he's standing right where those bulls need to go by that cameraman to get to the chute. Here's the thing: If you stop right in front of an animal walking down the race, you will cause that animal to stop, and consider backing up. The camera guy, as much as he wanted to get a good shot, should've stayed a few more feet away from the race so that those bulls would move down the race and into the chute, even with the unnecessary yelling.
In my own experiences, there's a neat way to get a backing-up bovine to go back down the race again, if you get there fast enough. Simply swinging out from the race and then angling towards their hip as you move towards them can get them to reverse direction and mosey on back down the race.
As for the humans, probably Tommy is also panicked and confused, as I don't quite think he knows what he's doing, even though he's putting up an effort to make it seem like it, or at least an effort that he thinks is what should be done (I feel the same with the sanctuary volunteers trying to "help" out)... Boy oh boy!!
But even with all that, Dr. Blue was absolutely right in that putting in a post across the bars so that the vertical posts of the race would brace up against the post and thus help catch that bull.
Sometimes, though, that post or board won't stop a bovine from backing out, as some can get pretty smart and know to crouch underneath, raise it up with their butts and let it roll off them as they bugger off on you. Oh well, no big deal.
But with those bulls, and where Dr. Blue suggested to put the post, I can see how that's going to work well, and it actually did. My working with smaller (and younger) cattle would say that the post at that height may work, but if one sneaky little bugger figured out that ducking his ass under could get him out, then there would be no stopping him!
Tommy and your yelling though, PLEASE, for the Love of God, STOP!!
Scene Two Part Two: Down the Race We Go!
Now, they have the white-face bull going BACKWARDS down the race!! Yikes!
In my view they were pushing those bulls way too hard, which is why that white-face bull was forced to head down that race butt-first. Did you notice he was head-butting the black one as he tried to move back up the race again?
If, and only if, they would've let off just a little a bit of pressure (it doesn't take much) to let either the white-face bull turned around, or to get one of the black bulls to head down the race instead, followed by either the second black one or the white-face then the black bull, things would've been better.
And yes, normally those bulls *should* be heading down head-first into the chute so that their heads can get caught by the head gate, so that the injection in their neck can be done! But nope, not on this occasion...
If I were there and had control of the situation, I would've gotten them to move that white-face bull back up to where he started, got him turned around, and had him head down in the proper direction. But that's just me. What do I know?
Before I continue on with discussing more on handling rogue and rangy cattle (one of my favourite topics, as you probably noticed), is the whole castration event.
Scene Three: The First Castration (And Subsequent Others)
I can understand why Renee choose the castration method that she wanted Dr. Blue to perform: She was concerned about the fact that they would feel pain if they were castrated with only a local anaesthetic. Obviously she cares that much about the welfare of those bulls that she really wanted to minimize their pain.
But there's just one slight problem that she didn't quite understand: Those bulls were still going to be feeling pain even after they wake up and go on about their merry ways.. and were given pain meds after the surgery. They're still going to be going through a bit of discomfort in their nether region for a few days or longer as their wound heals. It's especially painful for full grown bulls, like with these dudes, as opposed to them getting castrated when they were much younger. I'll talk about that soon.
Doing castration via knocking them out is really best if:
Other than #3, which I commend these veterinarians for doing a good job under the pressure they were in with these rogue "vegan" bulls, in my humble opinion, this general anaesthesia wasn't the best thing to do. I know, Dr. Blue didn't have much of a choice except to heed the owners' request, but I think he too would agree that if it was any other cattle operation, the other much more common method of castration of fully-conscious with just a local anaesthetic would've been far better, and safer.
I often attribute this castration method to one usually done on horses. Actually, this method used on the bulls IS the best method for gelding stallions and colts. Again, I'm no vet, but I know a thing or two about horse anatomy to explain to you why.
The reason that general anaesthesia is best for castrating horses is because it's much easier to access the testes when the horse is on his side with the outer hind leg cinched up close to his body. It's very hard, and very dangerous mind you, to access a stallion's testicles when he's standing and fully aware of what's going on. The kick from a horse is well known to be fatal, and no vet wants to be so stupid to risk their life castrating a stallion that's on his four feet ready to lash out at any given moment. Also, horses in that area are quite sensitive, and I doubt even local anaesthetic would do much to prevent a stallion from doing a bit of damage to whomever is removing his stallion-hood.
There's a second reason why a stallion (or colt) needs to be recumbent during castration is that there's a little gland that sits just above the testes that also must be removed along with the entire testicle. Don't ask me what the name of this gland is, but I've been told--by a veterinarian, mind you--that failing to remove this gland doesn't take the whole stallion-y behaviour tendencies away like you'd think with just removing the testes. Instead, you get a gelding that can't impregnate a mare, but can sure do a good job acting like a stallion. That's the gist, anyway.
Using this method on bulls though? I mean, we can see that it certainly can be done, so there's no point in arguing that it can't. But it's just not that practical, or safe, especially for the bulls themselves. And as I said above, it's not going to help remediate much of the pain that they're still going to have to go through after the surgery is complete. (The video doesn't show very much of the physical responses of these bulls after they've waken up, by the way.)
It's not safe, first of all, in the examples we can see where one of the bulls next up to be steered decides to make a break for it, and accidentally tramples on his still-quite-groggy friend. We saw that within the first ten seconds of this video. We're shown it again at the 3-minute mark as that silly black bull... named what? Tyrrell? ...Somehow popped his way out of the side-panel of the squeeze chute and upon making a run for it, mis-judged his attempt to avoid trampling on the white-face now-steer by leaping upward, but landing with his one hind hoof on the white-face's jaw (OUCH!) and then with both front feet on his ribs or belly (double OUCH)!! NOT good!!
Not only would that white-face steer ("Bubbles" is his name...) have had a sore scrotum to nurse, he would've also be a bit sore and bruised up (hopefully no broken bones) on his jaw and side. Poor guy!!
There's a second instance later on in the video. I cringed SO hard when the last bull nearly landed right on top of that blond Longhorn's horns. If that black bull did land on that longhorn's horns, that may have ended up being one or two dead bulls (or at least one that may have to be put down): One that would've gotten severely impaled, and the second that could've suffered a broken neck. Maybe I'm exaggerating somewhat, but let's face it folks, wreaks can and do happen, and have resulted in one or more injured or dead animals.
Interjecting here for a second: If those bulls were not knocked out and castrated standing in the chute, they would be done, out and gone and not in danger of getting trampled on by the other bulls, like what happened in this video. All it takes is someone gets behind the bull and hoists up the tail as far up as possible to prevent them from kicking (holding the tail up stretches out the hamstrings which immobilizes the back legs), and the vet does the ol' one-and-a-two with the knife and emasculator (which Dr. Blue used in this video), and done like dinner. This way took a bit longer. (Plus, it took longer because of how they were handled... <sigh>)
Anyway, no, these aren't small or light bulls by any means either. Even though they maybe around 1200 or even 1400 pound bulls, that's still a lot of muscle mass they're packing around.
And strong? Hell yes. It's never wise to underestimate a bull's brute strength, nor his speed and agility.
But honestly, "vegan bulls are stronger than regular bulls"? Nope. Nope, I don't believe that for a second. Living on a vegan farm sanctuary doesn't make a bull any stronger than any other bull living on another farm. Of course that third bull (Melvin) was fighting the drugs because he was way too stressed out, with being yelled at for no reason right up to the chute, getting poked with a needle, then having to fight Blue and vet tech Cameron tooth and nail for freedom. He was one feisty, confused, stressed, and maybe even-a-little-scared bull that was just more concerned about his self-preservation capacity than going down for a little nappy time. I think if he weren't so stressed out he'd probably go down a lot quicker, and wouldn't be fighting them as much. But, hindsight is 20/20.
Renee and Dr. Blue's conversation leads me to another reason why this method isn't normally used. Dr. Blue is absolutely right in that, on most operations, the majority of bulls are castrated much earlier, often when they're just days old (as young calves). Why? Because it's a lot less stress and pain than when they're being done at this age, versus as 2 year olds or older. It has been scientifically proven that the younger the bull is when castrated, the less pain and stress he has to go through. (See page 2 of this literature review of bovine castration on Pain.)
So, the cow-calf operations are actually doing a good thing, and are more humane, than this farm sanctuary by not leaving their bulls until they're 2 years old (or even a year old) to castrate them. Some cow-calf farms don't castrate until weaning, which puts added stress on the calves in addition to being separated from their mommas; castrating much sooner is much more wiser. Also, most cow-calf operations make sure they don't sell bull calves to market because they'll get docked in price pretty heavily if they do. Most, if not all buyers of these calves want them castrated well before the sale is even made.
By the way, it would be in the best interest of their cattle, especially if they really want to brag about how much better a place they truly are for the animals in their care, to make sure they castrate any male calves on their place as soon as possible after birth, to mitigate any further stress and pain that those calves would have to endure when they get older if they're not done so early. (Plus it'll really help with their "baby boom" problem...)
Going right back to the safety issue, the third and final reason that this method isn't used on bulls is because bovine bulls--if I dare use the term--are Ruminants. As ruminants, they have a fore-stomach (three actually, one of them is called the "Rumen") that tends to fill up with gas pretty quickly as the microbes within are digesting and fermenting the feed that was consumed. If a bull is knocked out for a period of time where he can't burp out the excess gas building up in his rumen, he could bloat. When a bovine bloats, it puts a lot of pressure on their lungs so that it makes it increasingly hard for them to breath the more that gas builds up. The more the gas builds up, the less air they can take in, and eventually a bovine can die of asphyxiation.
Think of it this way: It's just like an animal getting squeezed to death by a giant python, only it's from the inside, by their own increasingly-inflating organs.
This is why, when a bovine needs to be put under general anaesthesia, the veterinarians MUST work very quickly so that that animal has time to get himself awake enough to be burping regularly (once every minute), and maintain normal rumen function. If they can't work fast, there's the impending risk of losing that animal.
Horses, dogs, and cats and humans can be put under general anaesthesia more often when undergoing surgery because they/we don't have this multi-chambered stomach of a fermentation vat constantly producing gases that need to be, pardon my jargon again, eructated (or burped) every minute or so.
I will say at this point that horses still carry a bit of risk with being under anaesthesia for an extended period of time, and again it's not because they have a rumen (they have a simple stomach with a very large functional cecum attached to their large intestine instead); it's mainly because the whole mass of their organs, cecum included, are so heavy that it can put a lot of pressure on their lungs to the point where they are at risk of death via asphyxiation. For horses, in my limited knowledge, most veterinary procedures are done while the horse is standing up and under a light general anaesthesia that doesn't knock them off their feet. Except castration, of course, and other lesser-common surgical procedures that requires a lot more equipment and hoists and such than what a general mixed-practice veterinary clinic or hospital can provide.
So, those are all some pretty valid reasons why bulls are castrated with only a local anaesthetic and done so fully awake and standing up in the chute/head-gate.
Scene Four: Day Two and a Bull that Had Enough!!
At around the five-minute mark we're taken to day two of the bull castration event. Things are going not to bad (save Tommy's regular and now notorious and loud, "hey, hey, hey, yah, yah, yah, yah, yah!!"), with two bulls down for the count, until things really start getting dicey...
By the way, that first bull going down within five minutes? He must be a whole lot more even-tempered and tolerant of the hollering going on than the rest of the bulls. He looks it too; looked kinda bored with the whole thing. But the Brahma-cross bulls? Holy flip, were they ever getting stirred up...
Dr Blue: "Bulls are very intelligent. They can tell something's goin' on and they're getting very agitated."
Gee, I wonder why??
And damn rights bulls are intelligent!! Same with cows. They're not stupid. And they'll let you know if you're pushing things way too far. They're really good at that.
So, it really was only a matter of time. This one bull in particular (which just happened to be a Brahman-cross bull, not surprisingly) had the balls to go in and say in his own way, "ENOUGH!!!!!!" with Tommy's constant and super-annoying yelling.
He didn't do it to kill or intentionally maim, but to teach that man a lesson. And sorry Dr. Blue, that wasn't Tommy getting ran over, that bull had his head down low and he meant business.
Did you notice how quick that bull was moving his head around as he was at the panels after he did his head-butting business? Like a deer on high alert? Yeah, same thing. He was clearly showing he was very agitated, very anxious, and ready to run or fight some more at any moment.
(And he's one handsome boy too; I sure like him... "attitude" and all. I've also been told that Brahman cattle are very smart, more so than most other cattle... and those ears!!)
But for f*ck's sake, these bulls were being treated like they're dumb, bumbling animals that don't know their tails from a fence post. While it's funny at the whole shenanigans that is going on, it's NOT funny when it's clear these bulls, as I've mentioned again and again, are being stressed out to the max by constantly being yelled at for no f*cking reason. It's also NOT funny when someone does such stupid shit as that yelling and pushing and yelling and pushing, putting themselves directly in danger of getting hurt, or worse!!
You bet Mr. Tommy was damned lucky to get out of that alive with just a crushed phone. As much as I strongly disagree with his methods and am rather angry with him with the way he treated those bulls (and happy that that black bull put the fear of God and life and limb into him, even though it's too bad the actual lesson wasn't learned), I am actually glad that the ambulance didn't have to be called out.
You've already read above why these bulls have been getting agitated. Let me reiterate again:
That big ol' Blackey (again, love him) wouldn't have done what he did to Tommy if he wasn't being yelled at, and the handling process was a lot more calmer and quieter than it went there.
Now--and I probably should've mentioned this before, but no matter--I almost wonder if they were doing this for the camera crew on purpose to create more drama, or if they were actually doing this because they really don't know of any other and better means of handling those bulls? Hmmm... Just a thought.
All it really would've taken is take that dumbass with the blue paddle out (he's not helping any), get the other people to be quiet or stand away to where the bulls won't see them, and just have one person with a sorting stick (or not even that, I personally rarely use a sorting stick to work cattle; it's more of a good walking stick than anything) standing and moving to the side, forward, or backward when and where necessary to guide--not push--these bulls where they need to go. No yelling necessary.
That's really all it takes. Like Dr. Blue said, these bulls are such smart animals, they're not stupid, and they're very sensitive and responsive to a person's frame of mind and state of calmness. If you're calm, they will be calm too.
And calm cattle are an absolute dream to work with. Those are my favourite times to work with them. When I'm calm, I find that I'm more attentive to what these animals are doing, what kind of eye contact their giving me, how they're moving, where they're going, what their ears are telling me, where their heads are, etc. I respond to guide them where I'd like them to go, and they respond with equal enthusiasm. When I'm calm, they're calm.
Okay, so I don't keep totally quiet when I'm working with cattle. I do like to quietly talk to them... it's just a habit I have. And I seem to always have a smile on my face when I'm with them.
One last point, and from Mr. Tommy himself: "These cows, they'll hurt you a little bit almost every time you work 'em."
Hahaha! Sorry, but no, they won't hurt you all that much, not especially if you work 'em with the dignity, respect, calmness and quiet they deserve. I think Mr. Tommy could use some proper stockmanship teachings from some pretty well-known stockmen like Steve Cote, Tina Williams & Richard McConnell of Hand 'n Hand Solutions (Tina is the daughter of the famous stockman Bud Williams) and others. I've learned some awesome tips and tricks from the latter folks, and have put them into practice more than once. The results were simply amazing.
Yes, animals have a lot to each us. If we could only listen to them more often...
All in all, there was a lot of things that happened in this video that were totally preventable.
For one, better handling practices would've made things go a lot more smoothly, made the bulls a lot more calm, less riled up and difficult to work with, and Mr. Tommy wouldn't have had such a close call as he did. Calm cattle make for a smoother and quicker process. This, I believe, is the most important part of this video to learn from, without a doubt. And that's even if these bulls weren't going to get castrated.
This whole shit-show also would have been avoided if these bulls were castrated at a much younger age. It doesn't matter if they were rescued or born on the ranch; it would make things a lot less stressful for both the bulls and the people, and the bulls would have less pain to deal with after the anaesthesia and pain meds wore off. Adult bulls do have to go through more pain and stress with castration than if they were much younger.
Finally, I commend the vets for doing a great job under this amount of pressure.
This video provided a great learning opportunity for people to see how NOT to handle bulls. Bulls are dangerous, fast, powerful, and not to be trifled with. They're also very smart, responsive, sensitive, and good natured--most of the time--if you treat them right. If you treat an animal right, it will return the favour right back to you equally or ten-fold. Kinda like how karma works.
Range Nerd, Forage & Grazing Fanatic and a Bovine Enthusiast. A love for farming, and for the soil.
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