Saturday, February 21, 2009

Equine cargo cult

I am a gynormous fan of the writer Nevil Shute. Not just On The Beach or A Town Like Alice; my favorite is definitely Round The Bend. I just love all those lists of airplane parts (oh fixed asset inventory, how I adore you). & I find cargo cults (& mummies) irresistible.

Cargo cults, for those who do not know are yet another example of man's interpreting as divine what he cannot explain through his experience. Specifically, when native (technologically immature) people were slammed right up against modern (technologically dependent) people, the natives saw the results of technology as miraculous. The most common example is the Pacific islanders of WWII. After seeing US troops clear drop sites & landing strips & line them with burning torches so supplies could be delivered with some accuracy, the natives would make similar clearings of their own & wait for manna.

What I did not realize until I took up Useless Ranching was that cargo cults are not limited to human beings. This is an excellent argument for the 'animals have souls' crowd & I would have clued them in earlier if I actually believed in souls, which I do not.

Our donkey, as I believe I have mentioned, is a clever bastard. Equal emphasis on clever & bastard. People go on about the nobility of horses. With very few exceptions, horses are idiots (so nobility just might be the right word). Donkeys are quite intelligent & not the least noble.

Bert (the donkey) likes puzzles. No really. He likes watching you do things & then he likes to undo them. This can be anything from the knot in your shoe laces to the latch keeping the gate closed. He is fascinated by the all things mechanical. He has stolen power drills, cell phones, all kinds of things of that ilk. He has never stolen the scoop I use to give him his food. He has tried to bump it out of my hands, spilling feed every where (he is a glutton, have I mentioned this? Well, he is), but the scoop itself holds not interest for him.

Not so the horses. If I pick up a bucket & put it down, they will kill each other trying to get their heads into what the donkey knows is an empty bucket. The donkey waits until I come out of the feed room with the full scoop. Then & only then does he behave as though it were dinner time. This usually means trying to muscle me around before I can pour the feed into a bucket that will be claimed by a horse, who may or may not be in a sharing mood. Pound for pound the donkey is stronger & pounds aside more clever by far, but he is always, above all things, lazy. He has no interest in expending energy fighting with a horse when he can steal from the barrel itself.

This brings us to equine cargo cults. The horses are not complete idiots, they know the feed is kept in the feedroom. They have seen me chuck out hay & refill the scoop from that magic den. But they accepted they cannot get into the feed room; the feed must come to them. Until the day the donkey opened the door latch.

Donkeys have a prehensile lip. You would be amazed how strong & limber it is (keep it clean, people). One day, Bert opened the feedroom door with it. This means he flipped a loop of metal from flush against the plate to 90degrees from the plate, leaned his weight on the door & pulled towards himself, sliding the locking pin back & opening the door. Then he went in & made a total pig of himself.

Captain, being a big Big horse could not have fit in there while the donkey was in there, but still managed to pull several bails of hay out & they had a grand time. Bert did this more than once (I thought I was forgetting to latch the door properly before I actually saw him do it). A has since made an addition to the locking mechanism: a latch that prevent the loop from moving up to that 90degree position, unless you can unclip it & lift it out, something a prehensile lip cannot do.

As soon as he saw this, Bert gave up. He knows what he cannot do. He then went on to accomplish other assinine feats, but I will save them for another day. Captain on the other hand could not be deterred. On any given day, he would stand at the feedroom for hours, hours & hours licking....wait for it....the hinges. He had seen Bert do this trick & open that door & dammit he was going to do it, too. It never worked but he never really gave up. You can argue that maybe the hinges had some quality he liked, a mineral taste maybe.Except he never licked the hinges before this & he never licked any of the other hinges, including those on the doors of the adjacent stalls.

As far as I am concerned that meets the definition of Cargo Cult. & I do not just mean Captain's behavior. The donkey is the modern person in this little tale & he is too close for my comfort: he would rather steal than work, he would rather work than wait & he would rather give up than pretend he could ever make it work again.

In rereading this, I realized I may have given the impression there are mummies in the Shute books. There are not, that I can recall. If you want mummies, let me recommend the works of H. H. Ryder (that's right, the King Solomon's Mines guy) or even better The Egyptologist by Arthur Phillips, which does for mummies what The Historian did for vampires. Well worth the pages.


  1. Thank you so much for this hilarious insight into the mind of the donkey and lamentably many people.

  2. That is a really interesting story - and enjoyable read too,

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