Every year I spend some time at the local 4-H fair. I grew up not knowing about 4-H, and the discovery of the organization as an adult has been an education for me. The local university extension that supports 4-H is Rutgers, although on campus you never hear about this rural aspect of the sophisticated world of academia. My daughter has been a member of the cat club for years, and although not a member myself, they are cordial and always offer me a chair (something no university has ever done) to spend a few hours in the shade while the kids showcase their skills and knowledge. Young potential is one of the few sources of optimism I find in a culture obsessed with selfish gain. My daughter’s cat club shares a tent with the alpacas, the epitome of herbivorous tranquility. With wool so soft as to be unbelievable, the alpacas with their long, graceful necks and huge brown eyes, look to be the least offensive creatures at the fair (except maybe the bunnies).
People in crowds, however, often shift dynamics and stress systems that would otherwise find their own balance. While many of the thousands of visitors at the 4-H fair are respectful of the animals, many others seem unaware that loud voices and running children and constant noise can stress even docile animals kept in small enclosures. Kids will find a cat in its cage and bark at it to get a reaction, and we all know the glass-tapping behavior that drives the reptiles wild. The fair has been part of my life for three years now and I’ve never noticed a stressed alpaca. They seem above it all. Yesterday, however, one stressed animal took on a surprisingly human behavior and began to bully a smaller alpaca in its pen. Apart from the caricatured spitting, the larger animal began licking and biting the smaller one, snaking its long neck after the smaller camelid’s head, biting its ears, and generally making its life miserable. The aggression lasted only a few minutes, but it felt to me like the tension of seeing bullies rough up a kid on the playground. The fairgoers felt uncomfortable, with some even wagging their fingers at the larger, aggressive animal.
Club members eventually stepped in to separate the fighting alpacas, and the poor, smaller animal kept trembling for several minutes after the attack. No blood was let; the assault was mostly psychological. I went out to get a snack at the food tent. When I returned I was relieved to see the smaller animal had been removed from the pen, given some space. Later I learned the young animal had died from the stress of the attack. I had seen the incident, and the violence had mostly been of an unrelenting display of dominance with a minimal physical attack. The aura of threat had created the stress. Saddened, I realized that a parable had unfolded before my naïve eyes that afternoon. Like all parables, only those with perceptive eyes may be able to see through the drama and get to the heart of the matter. If only people were as perceptive as even the innocent herbivores, perhaps such parables could finally come to an end. In the meantime, maybe I’ll watch the bunnies and forget what I read in Watership Down.