In the large field across the street from my new home four small ponies resided last week, but they have now been replaced by five adolescent sheep. The first day these obviously anxious sheep stayed so close together they were literally touching while they grazed. On the second day they spread out a few feet from each other occasionally, and on the third day they occasionally ran along, not so much frolicking like the ponies did, but just galloping along for thirty yards or so, then stopping and instantly starting to graze. For the most part, after a few minutes, watching sheep is about as exciting as watching grass grow, or in this case watching grass being eaten. But today something unusual did happen.
One of the sheep was trapped inside the chicken yard and couldn’t get out to rejoin the small flock. How it got in there I don’t know and apparently it didn’t know either, and more important for that sheep he wanted to get out and rejoin his companions. The word companion comes from the old Latin word for bread which is pan, and it refers people who eat their bread together. The term companion for sheep should be com-grass-ion perhaps or some such word. In any case this sheep was trapped with the chickens in their coop, which is about six yards by fifteen yards in size in the middle of a well-fenced grassy field about two hundred yards by eighty.
I watched the sheep for five minutes or so, while the trapped one would walk over as close to his flock as he could get, nibble on some grass for a bit and then when the flock moved a little away from him he would try valiantly to get close to them, but the wire fence for keeping chickens in was also keeping him in and separated from the group. It was comic-pathetic because this sheep had somehow gotten into the chicken coop, but he refused to go more than a few steps away from the closest possible position to the flock in his search for freedom. Having observed this I departed my front window to perform some more demanding human activity.
A half hour later I looked out the window again, and strangely there was a second sheep inside the chicken coop, and for a minute they were grazing together only a few feet from the rest of this tiny flock which was near one end. Then as nonchalantly as could be imagined this second sheep walked over to the fence where there was a swinging gate and with the slightest of difficulty wiggled through and out to where the other sheep were. I suspected the sheep who had been trapped from the first and who was touching-close to the second sheep when this happened would simply follow. However, this didn’t happen. Instead he started his old routine of going as close to the flock as possible, which at this time was next to the fence only a couple of sheep steps away from the gate. He started moving anxiously and futilely left and right along the wrong side of the fence as the flock randomly wandered away as they grazed.
What was intriguing about this super-conforming sheep-like behavior is that it is so much like human behavior of people sometimes. It strikes me that many people, perhaps the majority, are so conforming to local social norms that in an effort to stay as close to their human pack ideal as possible they cannot see even the most obvious alternatives. I have observed a lot of that kind of behavior and it has always puzzled me, but it would seem when the stress level is raised above some threshold, which for sheep is very low, the thinking process is shut down and even obvious actions are impossible and simple memories are clouded. The only thought which can arise is to get close to the group and remain unobserved. To get as near as possible to the group’s ideal center of mass becomes the goal. For sheep, and sheep-like people, the safest place they can be is in the middle of the mass and this trait is most compelling when there are some threats thought to be near. It has survival value for the individual when the mass of sheep is larger than the wolves’ appetite.
I must be stupid, because I have learned a valuable lesson from a sheep.