Joan Crawford, Dennis and Mr. Wilson

One of my favorite past times on our farm is observing the animals there. In so doing, I have learned that, while we humans can idealize animals as being kinder and more decent than the human race, that is not always the case. Sometimes animals can be just as loathsome as we humans.

Our farm is actually a racehorse breeding business where owners bring their female horses to our farm to be inseminated, gestate and give birth under the knowing hand of The Sheriff, his father The Mayor and their right hand gal, Wonder Woman. About a year into our farm adventure, a mare came onto the property already pregnant. She gave birth according to plan and her little colt began nursing and thriving. Then the horseshit hit the fan. Mrs. Horse was clearly not right. Out of nowhere one day, she began beating up on her little colt. The foal, a colt they named Dennis, had scrapes and cuts inflicted by his nutty mom. It was emotional for the whole staff of the farm to witness. But the Sheriff and his team knew that colt needed mother’s milk as long as possible in order to thrive, so they hesitantly left him with her a few more days … until it became obvious that the mare, we’ll call her Joan Crawford, was a Mommy Dearest nightmare and had taken to trying to rip the hide off her colt. They finally separated them, sending Dennis to the animal hospital at The Ohio State University to recover from his wounds before he returned to the farm.

Enter The Companion Goat. I’ve learned that occasionally this kind of thing can happen in horses, that the mother is just a bad seed and needs to be separated from her foal. While the foal can be supplemented with formula or granular milk, he still needs companionship to thrive, so horse farms will routinely bring in a “companion goat.” They will also do this if a mother horse dies in childbirth. The little goat’s job is just to be a buddy, a wingman, a roommate. So, walking through the barns one would pass the stalls and see mama horse and filly, a mama horse and colt, a baby horse and … goat. It’s an unusual sight.

Dennis and the goat got along famously. They would nuzzle each other, run together out in the paddock or, like old friends in a coffee shop, just munch their food silently next to one another. It was really sweet.

The staff grew to love that silly goat and named him Mr. Wilson as a nod to the character in the “Dennis the Menace” comic strip. Mr. Wilson acted like a playful dog, scampering around the barn, chasing the cats, peaking around the corners. He even figured out how to open his and Dennis’ stall door, the little scamp.

But eventually, things took a dark turn. One misty morning, the Sherriff entered the barn to start the day’s chores and witnessed a disturbing thing. Dennis was abusing Mr. Wilson, just as his own mother had abused him. Again, it was shocking, and heartbreaking. The Sherriff and his staff had worked so hard to nurse that colt back to health and make him feel loved and nurtured. And poor Mr. Wilson. He must have been equally disillusioned. “Dude, I’m on your side,” he must have thought. “What the farm?”

And so, to the sadness of all, Mr. Wilson went back to his original owner and Dennis lived alone in his stall, growing bigger and more combative every day. When all the other foals were eventually weaned from their own mothers, all the colts were put in the same paddock. Dennis was by far the biggest and meanest of them all. The other colts instinctively knew something was off with Dennis and took turns going at him, kicking him, and generally bullying him. It was like a very rough schoolyard scene and it helped make Dennis a badass, a thug. It was sad really. Dennis didn’t have a chance.

Joan Crawford wasn’t popular in the fields after the separation. The other mama horses kept her at bay on the outskirts of their circles. They new she wasn’t right either. Eventually, Joan’s owner sold her at an auction, with the caveat that she never be bred again because clearly girlfriend couldn’t be trusted as a mom. The day she was sent to auction, her paperwork was out of order and she had to return to the farm for a few days. When she was put back into the field with the other mares, there was a tense scene. One by one, each of the five or six mares in that field charged up to Joan, kicking and braying, as if to say, “Aw, hell no, Joan Crawford! You hurt your baby and we all know it, you crazy bitch. You are not welcome here.” That display continued for a couple of days until Joan Crawford finally left the farm for good and calm returned.

I’m sure Dennis went on to be a successful racehorse, big and mean as he was. And hopefully Joan Crawford is living a peaceful existence pulling an Amish plow somewhere, thinking about the error of her ways. Was Joan abused as a foal? Did she have a genetic screw loose somewhere? Was Dennis abusing Mr. Wilson because of an equally loose genetic screw or did he learn that behavior? Perhaps some combination of both? Who knows, but the whole cycle of abuse and nature vs. nurture was as distressing as it was interesting.

Life has gone on at the farm with dozens of foals being born and raised without incident each year since Dennis and Joan Crawford left. Watching the good, normal moms devotedly tend to their young each season is a beautiful sight and often makes me think of my own mom, of being a mom myself and how blessed I have been to have an excellent mother, good role models, a safe upbringing and good genes. In life and on horse farms, that should never be taken for granted.

Mr. Wilson and Dennis, in happier days.

Mr. Wilson and Dennis, in happier days.