When I was a teenager, I had a Jersey cow, and I had to milk her two times a day. No one made me do it; having the cow was my own idea. I loved animals, and I loved milk and seeing as how we had an acre of pasture and no good sense, my parents indulged me. I bought a book called The Family Cow, which was a wealth of information about the care, feeding, and yes, milking that was required to keep my cow healthy. With the book and occasional advice from a farmer neighbor, I channeled my interest in agriculture and love for animals into a far-too-ample supply of fresh, delicious, creamy milk. (The pigs got milk, the dogs and cats got milk, and even the chickens got milk. We gave milk to everyone.)
But it wasn’t all butter and cream. There was the whole thing about having to be in the barn every single day at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. No one else in my family milked the cow; the self-imposed chore was my responsibility. It was hot out there in the summer and muddy as heck in the winter. And sometimes, my cow didn’t feel like cooperating. On those days, it would take a few minutes for her to relax and “let down” her milk, and rushing her made things worse. Sometimes, if her udder was very uncomfortable, she would quite literally kick the bucket – and that beautiful milk would splash into the mud. And if I lost patience, she would escalate, aiming to stomp on my foot or whacking me in the face with a poopy tail.
I was 16 or 17 on the day I had the worst time with her – she had done everything to annoy and inconvenience me. She kicked over the bucket twice. When I yelled at her and whacked her on the butt, she swished her tail hard and stomped a hind foot into the bucket – like, “There, have some mud with your milk, you intemperate teen!” I flew into a rage. I jumped up from my milking stool and went to her head, grabbing her halter with one hand, and I punched her in the face!
And at that very moment, I heard my mother’s voice; she had entered the barn and was standing right behind me. “Oh, Nancy,” was all she said.
I felt profoundly ashamed of myself then, and to this day, I get filled with shame thinking about it. Losing your temper with an animal that you have put into a situation that they would never be in otherwise – and being mad at them for not magically doing what you’ve never really taught them to do – that’s bottom-of-the-barrel behavior. I buried my hot face in my cow’s neck and took some long breaths. Somehow, we got through that milking (though the milk was all ruined).
I’m not saying I’ve never lost my temper with an animal since; far from it. But every time I do, I swear I feel my gentle mother’s deep disappointment with me and feel that shame all over again. And that’s what keeps any frustration I experience with my animal companions in check.