HAVRE DE GRACE -- We shipped out 34 six-month-old calves this week, about nine tons' worth. Their mothers are desolate. They spend much of the day and part of the night at the pasture gate, staring out the lane and bellowing forlornly.
The bull, who's in another field, is restless too, but for different reasons. He's been separated from the herd since midsummer, before the heifer calves reached puberty, and all the recent noise has reminded him that he's lonely and would like some company. Now that the calves have gone, we'll probably put him back with the cows for a while, but the visit won't be as exciting as he hopes. They're all pregnant again, and any interest they have in him is currently only social.
It's safe to say that he doesn't miss the calves, certainly not in the way the cows do. He spent several months with them in the pasture this summer, but he paid little attention to them at the time. Being a bull, he doesn't know much about the more complex implications of fatherhood, or about the concept, so frequently in the news these days, of fathers' rights.
That's just as well. If he were human and had a lawyer, he could have a lot to say about what happens to his offspring, and cause no end of trouble in the process.
The bull fits a pattern established by many other modern fathers. He has a lot of children, many of whom he's never seen. He hasn't helped to raise any of them, or contributed to their support. His relationships with their mothers have been uniformly fleeting and casual.
That's a reportorial observation, incidentally, not a value judgment. The socially aware understand that it would be gauche to criticize him for his lifestyle, even if he weren't a bull. If his taurine behavior is consistent with the norms of his culture, then in the interest of cultural diversity it should be respected, protected and even encouraged.
Humanity recapitulates bovinity
Cattle, of course, reproduce without benefit of matrimony, much like an ever-increasing number of Americans, especially teen-agers. It doesn't seem to affect the ability of the calves to fill their designated role in life, and an important segment of society seems to have concluded that it doesn't affect the teen-agers or their children either.
The fatherless kids often turn out to be incorrigible or ineducable, it's true. They may be unable to multiply fractions, write a coherent sentence or hold down any kind of a job. They may spend their lives on public assistance, commit violent crimes and produce new generations just like themselves. But they must never be described as illegitimate, for that would violate their right to self-esteem.
Neither should they be denied, as the delegates to the recent gathering in Beijing resolved, any of their assorted "reproductive rights." While these are primarily intended for the benefit of women, as a matter of gender equity males are claiming them too.
For example, were it not for his inconvenient bovinity, the values-neutral courts would be glad to help our Mr. Bull reach out and assert his rights as a biological father. And perhaps if he's patient even his bovinity won't be an obstacle. Lawyers have had such a field day promoting the rights of human fathers, it may be only a matter of time until they start representing bulls in calf-custody cases.
Don't laugh. If the law can, as it did earlier this year, tear a 4-year-old child away from the family that had adopted him when he was a few days old and lovingly raised him, only to turn him over to his unmarried biological father, it shouldn't have any trouble ordering calves returned to bulls.
There is a case now in the courts in which a sperm donor -- human -- is suing to locate any children produced by his contributions. He is not seeking custody, but can there be any doubt that in the not-too-distant future a similar litigant will? Bulls donate a lot of sperm, by the way. Surely some hungry and imaginative lawyer has noticed that.
In some respects it's not a bad life, being a bull. There's plenty of sex, free food and no obligation to work or keep track of your children. People, including those in authority, seem to respect you. They understand that you can be dangerous, and quickly step aside when they see you coming. Whether this is from fear or prudence, it can easily be mistaken for respect.
All this is no doubt gratifying to bulls. And while it's certainly true that they have no real control over their destiny, and can expect to come to an early and undignified end, that probably doesn't bother them. Because as animals, they live only in the present.
Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.