My first reaction was to befriend the handsome black bull, a temporary tenant in my mother-in-law’s lower garden in Bloomfield.
Young and strong, his black curly hair gleamed in the rays of the morning sun as he looked me over fearlessly. His dinner-plate fate was foretold to all by a bright yellow tag sprouting from his right ear.
I greeted him with a head scratch, feeling his coarse but clean curly hair on top of his head and the smoother hair of his cheek. He paused his munching to give me a casual sniff, then went back to the business of cropping the fresh, damp grass.
I called him Jock, after the founding father of the Angus line of cattle from the area of Angus, Scotland. Old Jock was born in 1842 and did his best to sire the line of cattle so popular today with worldwide burger chains. If Old Jock had known his progeny were destined to be cut down in their prime, processed into bite-sized patties sandwiched between buns in styrofoam coffins and pushed out through small windows, he may not have taken to his siring duties with such enthusiasm.
Back in Old Jock’s day, breeding was done live, one on one. These days, breeders order the sperm they need from a catalogue and, when the time is right, they implant it into Bossy without ceremony. It’s not romantic, but it’s effective, although the gender of the offspring is not yet programmable.
So, in this way, Young Jock began his life at a dairy farm in the Bloomfield area. But because there is no role for a bull at a modern dairy farm, he was sold to Mother-In-Law’s neighbour for $100. His new owner planned to bulk Jock up for the barbecue.
I blame my tofu-toting daughter, now a midwife in the mountains of British Columbia, for ramping up my feelings for the animals we eat, although I may have been headed that way anyhow. It has been some time since I could bear to plunge a live lobster into boiling water, or pull a hook from the mouth of a living fish — never mind shooting a moose.
Once, tooling along at dusk in a Lincoln Town Car, I killed a young moose on the Trans-Canada Highway near Whitbourne. The Mountie who arrived at the scene told me I was lucky to survive, but I felt terrible. The only thing I could think of was to follow the native hunting tradition and apologize to the dead moose. The Mountie kept asking me if I was OK.
My experience with big animals is limited. There was a retired race horse who spent an entire winter in the basement of our Chamberlains bungalow, and cows appeared every now and then cropping grass at the edges of the since-renamed Pig Shit Lane.
On another occasion a calf went rummaging in a neighbour’s vegetable cellar and had to be winched out. I remember, too, visiting a very clean dairy farm in the Goulds area and staring at a giant bull tethered to the concrete floor by a heavy chain linked to a ring in his nose, his harem arranged at his sides.
I know big animals are powerful creatures, capable of unpredictable, even mischievous behaviour, and I know that wintering a horse in your basement with a hot air furnace is guaranteed to stink up your house. But I have spent far more time with the anthropomorphized caricatures dreamed up by television writers, like Bully The Crud from the bimodal animated series, “Beetlejuice” — a spinoff from one of Tim Burton’s offbeat box office hits. In the animated television series, when Bully the Crud’s wedding was interrupted, he snorted the unforgettable line, “Nobody cuts off my nuptials and gets away with it!”
Some days later, at my next meeting with Young Jock, I served him vegetable stalks and tops of fresh carrot, broccoli stumps and silky leaves from ears of fresh corn. We parted on good terms.
I next heard of Jock from Wife, who had made the trek through the lower garden with a real estate agent in tow to evaluate the property. The inspection of the lower garden proved stressful for the realtor because Jock followed the two of them, licking Wife’s bare ankles at every step. I had great fun with that anecdote, and even felt a kind of odd kinship with Jock, who obviously favoured my own mate’s tender hooves over those of the skittish realtor.
But suddenly Jock was gone, leaving the lower garden strewn with hoof marks and patties, a testament to fresh grass thoroughly enjoyed and slowly processed by the complex workings of Young Jock’s innards.
Sadly, I envisioned the numbers from his yellow tag being recorded as the great black head was ambushed with bullet or ball-peen hammer, no more to graze upon the lush lower garden.
On the appointed day we were to leave Bloomfield, I made one last visit to the lower garden with Wife’s chihuahuas on their leads. The purpose of our outing was, ostensibly, to find squirrels to bark at, but secretly I still clung to the hope that Young Jock was still with us. I thought perhaps he had been taken to the veterinarian for a checkup, or maybe he had been confined to a stall for a few days, power feeding on expensive grain.
As we tramped the bucolic meadow and threaded our way through the woods, dodging the drying patties, a few squirrels peeked at us, but no sign of Jock.
We made a wide sweep and turned away from the water of Goose Bay, heading south, back to the house. Suddenly, he was there! Blacker than the darkest shadows thrown by the clumps of evergreen, he stood stone still, staring at us.
“Jock!” I called. “I’m so glad to see you. I was afraid you were hamburger, already. Sorry I don’t have anything for you.”
But very quickly, it became obvious; I did have something Jock wanted. He wanted Wife’s chihuahuas. He wanted them dead.
Jock strode over to us in seconds and without delay began the business of trying to squish Wife’s precious pooches into the turf.
Diego ran for it, bringing up at the five-metre limit of his German-made retractable lead. Frida was dodging bull hooves in the tall grass.
The happy Disney tableau of man, dogs and bull I had envisioned just seconds before, had suddenly gone all Hemingway.
The first thing that had to be done was to free the dogs from their leashes, before all four of us became hopelessly ensnared in the strong, nearly invisible leads. I managed to get to Frida and released her clip, but not before Jock grazed her with a hoof, causing her to roll over, squealing, sending Diego into a frenzy, desperately leaping at the end of his tether and pulling me off-balance.
Fortunately, it is not easy for a bull, with his far-apart eyes set high in his head, to score a direct hit on a small moving target, but Young Jock did his best.
I tried to block Jock’s view of Diego as I reeled in the wild-eyed little dog and set him free of his leash. He sped off towards the meadow gate.
Frida, however, whether from fear or loyalty, stayed by my feet, keeping me between her and the bull. This probably wasn’t the best idea, because Jock kept trying to reach around me to get a good stomp at the odd little dog.
Jock didn’t actually snort, but he was breathing heavily through his nose. I saw he was wearing a loose nylon collar, so I grabbed it with my right hand. My first thought was to wrap it around my hand making it tight around the young bull’s neck, but I thought better of that strategy — it might be like handcuffing my wrist to a locomotive.
Taking stock of the situation, I was in the middle of a huge meadow with a restless bull in one hand and two tiny dogs on the loose — one out of sight and the other glued to my feet. The only thing to do was to move towards the gate with the bull. I couldn’t let him loose for fear he would mangle the dogs. So, with some words of encouragement, I struggled forward with the young bull and one little dog.
It was a tough slog back to the gate. Jock would walk with me for a dozen steps then try again to clobber Frida. I struggled on for some time, conscious of the bull’s great strength at my side, sometimes lifting me off my feet. He could easily have flung me aside with his great head and muscular neck.
Finally we reached the gate, Diego patiently standing guard. This was too much for Young Jock, he balked and wanted to turn back to the peace of his meadow. So as I relaxed my grip on his collar, he jerked away and trotted off. There was no sign of Frida.
I feared Frida was injured or dead somewhere in the tall grass. But I reasoned the best thing to do would be to return to the house, secure Diego, and then begin a search.
Upon reaching Mother-In-Law’s kitchen, Diego and I were greeted by Frida, tail wagging and uninjured.
Diego grinned at me from across the kitchen as Wife excoriated me for risking all by recklessly mixing big and small, but Frida, whether from fear or loyalty, stayed by my feet.
The adventure concluded not with my anticipated Disney tableau, but more of a Tim Burton moment.
Like the hapless Bully The Crud, I feared for my nuptials.