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The single worst thing you can do to an animal emotionally is to make it feel afraid. Fear is so bad for animals Dr. Temple Grandin thinks it is worse than pain. Even an animal that’s completely alone and giving full expression to severe pain acts less incapacitated than an animal who’s scared…and an animal in a state of panic can’t function at all. (Temple Grandin, 2005, Animals in Translation)
It is important when handling livestock to keep the animals within a familiar group. The reduction or elimination of fear is basic and this needs to begin at the moment of separation from the animal’s home, whether that is a meadow, barn, feedlot, prairie, or mountain environment. During this transition period, it is important to keep animals with known members of their group. Studies have shown that sheep recognize faces of members of their flock and people (Royal Society Open Science, 11/2017).
Stress is reduced if members of their home flock or herd are allowed to remain together for as long as possible. The ability to touch each other, to be in physical contact, is reassuring to flock and herd animals such as sheep and goats whereas isolation is extremely stressful. Sheep will follow a flock member or another of its own kind at a comfortable pace with casual touching of the animal ahead and behind. The animal may show signs of being curious about its surroundings or follow as if in a trance when in a chute.
Sheep and goats will frequently vocalize to each other when calm and curious and this is not a sign of stress as it is with cattle vocalization. Sheep will normally find comfort in each other’s presence and being in physical contact. If there is balking or backing up at the entrance to or within the chute, the environment should be checked for what might be distracting or frightening from the animal’s perspective. This is also true when moving sheep through new areas, unfamiliar gates or loading for transport.
Vigilance: Sheep, goats, and cattle are prey animals. Instinctively they will be alert to differences in their environment to prepare for flight from danger—the eye of the cougar, the bite of the wolf. Everything from jiggling chains, puddles of water or wind-blown trash can be perceived as a threat by the animal.
Grazing animals’ sensory systems are constantly vigilant. Prey species animals are always on the lookout for predators. With eyes located on each side of an animal’s head they can easily scan the horizon for danger while grazing. Grazing animal vision is designed to detect motion. This allows them to be constantly aware of any sudden movement that may signal the approach of danger. Many of the things that grazing animals perceive as frightening have the visual quality of either rapid movement or high contrasts of light and dark. Rapid movement is perceived as dangerous because it mimics predatory behavior. They cannot quickly focus on a fast-moving object that is nearby. Slow, steady movement in close quarters with the animals is less threatening to them. When moving livestock through chutes solid sides are used to prevent animals from seeing movement and people deep in their fight zone.