Zooie–The Equine Escape Artist

By Dr. Lorin Swinehart

black arabian

 

One of the most unique individuals I have ever known went by the unlikely moniker of Casszuene, a combination of the names of her parents. We shortened it to Zooie. Good name for a horse. But, Zooie was not an ordinary horse. For one thing, she was very beautiful, and I think she knew it, causing her to be unbearably conceited. Zooie was an Arabian mare, a surprise Yuletide gift for my daughters one freezing Christmas Eve after midnight services at the Episcopal Church.

Zooie had her likes and dislikes. She loved carrots, refused to take her horse pills whenever they were prescribed by the vet, disliked getting her hoofs wet, enjoyed conversing with the wild deer who lived in a nearby woods, was terrified of cattle, and reacted to being bathed, combed and brushed with complete contempt. And, to top it off, she was an ingenious escape artist. Early in our friendship, I wondered what horses think about as they loaf in their stalls all day. I soon figured it out.

Zooie could perform masterpieces of manipulation with her nose, fiddling with determination at the latch on her stall door until she escaped into the aisle where a huge metal drum of oats awaited. Like all horses, Zooie was a slave to gluttony. Once sated but still not satisfied with her accomplishment, she would wander through the stable releasing all her equine buddies from their stalls.

When my friend the farmer went to the barn at feeding time, he would find 16 horses standing around eating and talking. Zooie would swish her tail, point her nose straight up, wrinkle back her lips, and utter the loudest self-congratulatory horselaugh imaginable.

Zooie’s horselaughs were among her most memorable traits. Each spring, as she shed her winter coat, I would scrub her down with warm water and give her a nice brushing, until she emitted a healthy glow. As soon as I turned her loose in the pasture with her small herd of friends, she would lie down in the mud and roll, then stand up and let loose with her most defiant laugh.

Horses seem to take great delight in spiting us. The owners of one of Zooie’s stable mates placed a basketball in his stall to provide entertainment. The horse would always find a way to push the basketball through the narrow opening in his stall door and out into the aisle. This seemed to be the equine version of standup comedy, because he took great joy it repeating the feat at every opportunity.

Recently, I was given Dr. John A. Shivik’s Mousy Cats and Sheepish Coyotes: The Science of Animal Personalities for my 76th birthday. Dr. Shivik’s premise, based upon years of painstaking observation and research, is that our fellow creatures exist on a level over and above the earlier assumptions of mainline science, when they were believed to be mere machine-like organisms energized only by seeking out food without themselves becoming the food of others, their numbers consisting only of the eaters and the eaten.

While Native American peoples and others who lived in close relationship to the natural order recognized the individuality of animals, it has served the purpose of modern industrial science to deny such realities.

Shivik addresses the question, “Do animals have personalities” by citing mountains of research. Immune to accusations of anthropomorphism, he argues that animal personality is an elusive alchemy of heredity and environment, as it is among humans, and that no two animals are quite alike. He goes as far as to recommend “zoomorphizing”, viewing animal behavior as a mirror of human behavior.

This concept seems realistic when one considers Jane Goodall’s research with wild chimpanzees and Dian Fosse’s experiences among mountain gorillas, but Shivik applies it across the board to include even the tiniest organisms.

Some Enlightenment thinkers found it convenient to reduce animal behavior to mere machine-like collections of stimulus/response reactions. Horrific surgical experiments were conducted upon hapless dogs and other creatures without benefit of anesthesia, while onlookers were smugly assured that their shrieks were only mechanical responses and not indicative of any genuine suffering. Thomas Jefferson’s fellow politicos castigated him for presiding over such abominations at Monticello.

Later, Mark Twain blasted such activities in his hear trending short story “A Dog’s Tale.” It would be comforting to hope that such practices have been eliminated by animal welfare legislation, but a recent story in the press about an Idaho high school science teacher feeding a live puppy to a snapping turtle now torments my dreams, as does the passive response of students and other community members, who referred to the perpetrator as a “cool teacher”.

Dr. Shivik documents behavior differences of among even such creatures as salamanders, fishing spiders and water striders. He finds that even among the simplest of creatures there are differences such as “hermits and herd joiners”, “brave fighters and serene lovers,”, “wayfarers and wallflowers,” that in some, as in humans, the selfish gene predominates, while in others it is the generous gene that calls the shots.

Zooie was an individual, differing in temperament and ingenuity from her stable mates Sea Star, Toughie, Susie, Shannon, and Taxi. Toughie was the alpha horse, the herd’s leader, Susie the pony seemed lost in her own thoughts, Sea Star would greedily accept a proffered carrot then try to bite the hand that had held it, Taxi had a wild spirit, Shannon was probably more docile because of her blindness. No two horses are alike, as no two people are quite alike. Ask any horse enthusiast. For that matter, ask any horse.

Horses and dogs are among the domestic animals I have been most acquainted with. In his memoir Dog Stories, the world famous veterinarian James Herriot shares many tales of personality differences among man’s best friends. I have a few of my own. My huskie dog, Lexi, used to entertain herself by devising games. One involved dropping her favorite ball down the stairs and then rushing to catch it before it reached the floor.

Whenever Lexi spotted my backpack in the corner of my office, she knew I was about to go off for a week or more on one of my many wilderness excursions and would go into mourning. After I had gone, she would take up residence in the spot where the backpack had been until I returned. She was so terrified of her annual visits to the vet that she recognized even the spelling of the word, V-E-T, so that I had to write it down instead of speaking it.

When my Labrador retriever Dusty was a pup, he would methodically carry all the logs from the woodpile and stack them on my front steps while I was away at school each day. Certainly, different breeds possess different personality traits, but individual dogs also differ from one another. I doubt that many retrievers take it upon themselves to stack firewood.

St. Paul tells us that all creation groans as a consequence of Mankind’s flaws. Perhaps as we grow in our appreciation of personality differences among our fellow creatures, we will come to take them more seriously, and creation will groan a little less loudly.

 

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