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5 February 2013

I was watching a new TV programme last week on Great Animal Escapes and was very amused at the escapades of an African honey badger, who, it seemed, had got that down pat. Time and time again when a keeper forgot a broom or shovel, the Honey Badger would carry it to his wall, stand it against that, climb up, leap joyfully from the wall top and head for the zoo’s kitchen, there to pig out and make a horrendous mess. It reminds me of my original house cow, Bette Davis, known as Bet. In my early days at the farm I’d pasture her on my large lawn in Spring, there to eat down the rampant spring grass growth, at a time when that often hadn’t yet begun in her paddock. And, time and time again, I go out to shift her back to her own field, only to find her grazing happily along the roadside instead. I couldn’t work out how she was doing that, until, finally, I devoted half a day to watching her from concealment.

She looked around cautiously about an hour after I put her onto the lawn, marched up to the gate, inserted the tip of a horn into the latch circle and shook it vigorously. The latch opened, fell away, she leaned gently on the gate and it opened. Bet strode triumphantly onto the roadside and started munching her way along. I stared. Then I went out, hauled her in, and returned her to her own paddock while I examined the latch. The one I used was just an ordinary dog-snap, that is, the type used on a dog chain, brass, and opened by pulling back with a thumb or finger on a protrusion that, when pulled back, leaves a gap in the circle through which you slip the chain or in my case, the ring on the gate that allows it to be opened. Bet couldn’t pull back the lever, but inserting a horn tip and shaking meant that somewhere during this, the ring slipped between the two areas where they made contact, which had the same effect. Heaven alone knows how she learned that, but it worked. She stayed in her own paddock for a week until I was able to get into town and find a dog-snap of the type where the sections that opened overlapped when shut. There was no gap that a ring could be shaken through. Bet was disappointed next time she was on the lawn and I was grateful that I didn’t have to keep rounding her up from the roadside. But it made me more aware that farm animals could be far from stupid an awareness that they’ve reinforced ever since.

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