Her question struck me at first as funny, even though I knew she was serious in asking it. A few weeks ago a reader and fellow blogger named Trudy Darman—unquestionably an avid pet owner—plaintively asked me if we had names for the animals on our farm when I was growing up.

Her writing reveals that she grew up in a small town in Michigan. My writing reveals that I grew up on a small farm in Tennessee. For international readers, these two U.S. states are separated by about a 10-hour drive, border to border, along a north-south axis.

But her question has been bouncing around in my head ever since she asked it. It brings several things to mind:

  • Young people in 4-H Clubs and FFA chapters who raise animals as projects, usually naming them, who then go through psychological trauma when it comes time to sell or slaughter their animals. It’s easy to understand why this happens.
  • Chickens or chicken parts sold in grocery stores and supermarkets in the Western world in which the customer finds the chicken under plastic wrap on a Styrofoam tray. The chickens that shoppers see that way most likely never had names. [This also applies to similarly wrapped beef, pork, lamb, turkey, and farm-raised fish.]
  • The cattle, hogs, chickens, cats, and dogs we had on our farm. Only one cow, as far as I can remember, had a name, and she was our milk cow that Mother named Bessie. Only two of our dogs remain in my memory, Spot and Shep, and their time with us did not overlap. As I have previously written, we were a one-dog family but we had 35-plus nameless cats. Truly, and understandably—I think.
A Guernsey cow named Thistle.

A Guernsey cow named Thistle, quite similar to our Bessie. (Photo credit)

My recent blog post about my son-in-law Luke and daughter Joy starting a small flock of backyard chickens led to my asking him their names. His reply is instructive—and entertaining:

Funny.  One of them doesn’t have a name yet, and one of them I can’t really tell anymore from the one who doesn’t have a name!

Lucy and Ginger, the two Rhode Island Reds (names of redheads – Ginger from Gilligan’s Island and Lucille Ball).

Twiggy is the Leghorn (play on legs).
Buffy is the Buff Orpington.
Lynn (aka The Eagle) is the white-headed Ameraucana.
Pasha is the other Ameraucana (named because she’s the same colors as our old cat Pasha).

The two Austalorps – one is Slowpoke (had to help her out of her shell a whole day late), and the other one is not yet named. I can’t tell them apart anymore since Slowpoke feathered in and quit being a runt.

Luke is handy with his hands, as well as his brain, and I think he should make nameplates for Slowpoke and her lookalike. They could hang from a short necklace. Speaking of “her” in reference to Luke and Joy’s chickens, they implemented a sensible sexual bias in selecting their chickens. Hens have proven for thousands of years that they are superior to roosters in laying eggs.

I may be getting a little too silly here.

The fact that we named none of our farm animals, except for a milk cow when I was very small, does not mean we didn’t care deeply for our animals. We did. They were a big source of our livelihood, such as it was. We enjoyed working with them, for the most part, except for such things as someone calling in the middle of the night to tell us our cattle were out on the road, or when we scooped out loads of fresh and not so fresh manure.

But even hauling manure had meaning, not just because it was necessary, but also because it made the animals happier. A freshly cleaned cow lot, hog house, or chicken house almost always caught the positive attention of the occupants, as evidenced by their heightened attention and chipper attitudes. I’m not kidding. People who work closely with farm animals can see such things.

One never knows what a good question can trigger.

Reader note: I’m very grateful to Trudy Darman for reviewing a draft of this story. If you check her blog, you might find some animal stories there.