Friday, April 9, 2010


photo by Glen Larson

I am amazed by the role instincts play in daily life. The most fundamental, only a few of us see everyday, but they are still there. When I watch a newborn baby turn his head, mouth open, toward my arm as I hold him, searching for his mother’s breast, I see a basic instinct. The human baby roots around on his mother’s breast until a difference in surface texture or the presence of warm milk focuses his attention and he latches on.

We see these same instincts in the barn. New born lambs stagger to their feet and begin to explore the dark crannies of their mothers’ bodies – between her front legs, in the arm pits of her back legs. Finally, entirely by chance, instinct and persistence, they fumble across a nipple, open their mouths and begin to nurse.

Mothers also have instincts. The adult human parent sits, transfixed by a new baby, memorizes the pouty lines of his lips, the fine curl of an ear, the way his tiny hands grip her finger or clench as he explores the movements of his body.

Sheep learn their babies too, licking, sniffing and listening to imprint themselves onto their baby and their baby onto themselves. When the babies and their mothers are released from the group pen after three or four days, they find each other wherever they might be, by baaing. And when baby comes running, the moms make sure it’s the right one by smelling. Baby lambs know they have the right mom if she lets them nurse.

When a mother hen sees a hawk, or the shadow of a hawk, overhead, she flaps her wings and chivies her chicks into the shelter of the barn. Her babies follow, instinctively.

Even non-parental adults protect and nurture instinctively. I can sit for hours, our new grandson cradled in my arms. I handle him like spun sugar, always aware of his floppy head. I wrap and unwrap him as the breezes cool and warm the room. “Those are stairs,” I point out to him. “Your Baba will put up a baby gate to keep you safe.” I am prepared to protect him from the world.

Cali, our alpaca, screams when a stranger steps into the barn yard. She wasn’t trained as a guard animal, it just happens. The sheep respond to her scream by running to safety (illusory or not) behind the barn.

When our friend, Genette, brought her dog Buddy into the barnyard to see if he had any sheepherding instincts, Cali screamed; the sheep all ran behind the barn; and Buddy, well, Buddy ran to the end of his leash, as far as he could get away from Cali.

Sound instincts.

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