When Animals Attack

Editor’s Note: We’re celebrating EHN’s one-year anniversary this week! And that means we’ll be posting a piece every day to mark the occasion. Nicole Welk-Joerger‘s piece last year was also one of our most-read ones. Today, she reflects on real vs. representational interactions of farm life.

Perhaps evidenced by my first contribution to Environmental History Now, I am preoccupied with the different ways we can write about the body in environmental history. My dissertation, in part, traces how the waste of different industries became fodder for cattle, where the language of bodily “conversion,” “transformation,” and “efficiency” continues to sit on the tongues of experts when describing interventions in animal nutrition today. Harnessing the heat, gas, and gut microbes of cattle, scientists rendered a slew of individual animal personalities and accompanying bodies into a standard (and ideal) meat and milk producing one. But for animals to enact this standard, it takes a lot of work on the part of feed companies, testing agencies, and farmers. This work is often ignored, invisible, or thought to be unimportant. This work, in a word, is maintenance

To flesh out this labor between humans and animals, I sometimes find myself struggling to write between the “real” and “representational” interactions I experience on farms and see on paper in the archive. Do we need to meet the animals we read about to really know and write about them? What is to be gained from an in-person animal encounter? How might these interactions change standard historical narratives?   

As I try to answer these questions, I feel added pressure in the fact that I grew up on a farm. I take great care to think about my analyses with reflexivity in mind, and I use my anthropological training to reflect on the stakes of this project not only for me but for the many people I’ve met and talked to along the way. The result is something I hope will give my readers pause about the assumptions they might have about farm life. We all have a personal stake in the topics we choose to study in this field. It is a matter of how open we are to reveal the personal in our histories.

I’m going to take a page from my colleague, Jessica M. DeWitt, and consider how “Honesty and openness are empowering. They create connection. It is in the silences and dark corners that insecurities and misconceptions thrive and grow.” With this spirit, for the rest of this post, I’m sharing something that teeters between memoir and historical inquiry [1]. A work-in-progress that can only be shared on a platform like Environmental History Now!

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Like many farm kids, my first job on my family’s farm was pushing manure and mucking stalls. I used a scraper to push waste into the grates that sat behind the forty cows in my parent’s tie-stall barn. With a plastic rake, I picked up cow pies for the “special” animals that had their own box stalls. We reserved these stalls for the larger cows, sometimes the most beautiful cows, and oftentimes for the cows that were about to come in heat.  

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An old picture from the Welk farm, with one of our “special” cows. 

My dad usually took a moment before our barn work to warn me when someone was in heat. For those reading this who don’t know exactly what this means, it’s when a heifer or cow is ready to be bred. She can signal this to the farmer in a few different ways, but one way is to mount the animals around her. Depending on the individual, this behavior can be unpredictable, so it is always beneficial to get that heads up about a heat before entering an enclosed pen with an animal.

One night, my dad forgot to warn me about a heat. I was older, finishing high school. I had been pushing manure and mucking stalls for years. I was a pro. But I pulled a rookie mistake that night in that stall with that in-heat animal: I turned my back to her. As I was depositing her cow pies into the corner chute, I remember catching a quick glimpse of her behind me. She towered over me with her front hooves in the air, and she was about to drop her 1500-pound body on top of me. As fast as my muscles could react to the moment, I leaped over the gate in front of me. In the process, her hooves grazed the length of my back and left a long bruise and sensitive peeled back skin. I tolerated the injury without seeking medical assistance, and it healed over a few weeks. But the moment was terrifying and has stayed with me to this day. I was incredibly lucky. I had known people to break bones, lose limbs, and even die in similar circumstances.

My story is far from unique. These interactions with animals are the norm for many farmers, farm managers, and farmhands. But their documentation can be sporadic. My incident resulted in a “you didn’t tell me!” verbal confrontation between my father in the milkhouse, but nothing else. You won’t find many of these interactions with animals flipping through letters and pictures in an A/C blasted archive unless they ended in death or featured a heroic story. The physical and psychological presence of everyday animals can get lost in history, and this presence is inevitably replaced by something else. Sometimes it is something that is idealized. Sometimes it is standardized, or maybe made more complicated and theoretical. Regardless, these everyday physical interactions are crucial for understanding human-animal relationships, because they have impacted the decisions humans have made for animals and about animals throughout history. 

Take, for example, the adoption of AI (artificial insemination) technologies. American Breeders Service newsletters log the early days of the AI using frozen semen, a practice widely adopted by farmers by the 1950s. One newsletter from 1954 featured a cartoon of a male farmer hanging from a ceiling light to escape an aggressive bull. The caption revealed he called “Joe Smith the inseminator” to tell him he’d like to give “artificial breeding a try.” Frozen semen revolutionized animal agriculture, enabling dairy farmers, in particular, to have access to prestigious studs found across the country and even around the world. But as the cartoon suggested, it also changed a farmer’s physical relationship to their cattle in the breeding process. They didn’t have to keep a bull on their dairy farm, and they could limit the time they spent moving animals and standing in enclosed pens with them during breeding. 

For many, eliminating that stress of working with a stud on a growing farm operation was a “godsend,” and I’ve heard this relief firsthand on Amish farms in conversations comparing AI to the “traditional” breeding practices (there’s a good mixture of both on the farms I’ve visited). Additionally, I have felt firsthand the stress of working alongside an animal that is larger and stronger than me. It can be a rewarding, humbling, and dangerous experience. And when working on the farm, you try and control the uncertainties wherever you can to protect yourself. Developments in science and technology have aided farmers in this mission to alleviate uncertainty, or at the very least have helped farmers feel just a little more control in an otherwise erratic livelihood dependent on animal life and death. It may not excuse some of the adoptions humans have made over the years, but it complicates the “entangled empathies” we may attend to with humans and other animals as we think through our past and present as we contemplate our agricultural futures.


[1] Inspirations sitting between memoir and academic analysis include: S. Lochlann Jain, Malignant: When Cancer Becomes Us (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2013), Christine Walley, Exit Zero: Family and Class in Postindustrial Chicago (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2013), and Donna Haraway, When Species Meet (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).