Excerpt: 'Animals in Translation'

Things had gotten so bad the handlers were using cattle prods, which are fiberglass rods with two prongs on the end that deliver an electric shock to an animal. Prods will get an animal moving, but they're stupid things to use because they can panic the animals and make them rear up, which is dangerous for the workers. Prods always stress an animal, and when an animal is stressed his immune system goes down and he starts getting sick, which means higher veterinary bills. Plus stressed animals gain less weight, which means less meat to sell. Dairy cattle who've been handled with prods give less milk.

Stress is bad for human growth, too, although most people don't realize it. The one thing people do know about is failure to thrive, when children who've been badly abused or neglected suffer stress dwarfism. The child's biology is normal and he's eating enough food, but he doesn't grow. Stress dwarfism is pretty rare, but there's evidence that stressed children, just like stressed animals, can grow more slowly than calmer children. Researchers have known for quite a while that anxious adults often have low levels of growth hormone, and a study in 1997 found that anxious girls, though not anxious boys, were more likely to be short than calm girls.

My guess is that eventually we'll find out anxious boys are smaller, too. Anxious male animals are smaller than calm male animals, and I don't see any reason why human males should be different. I think the German orphanage story probably tells us stress is bad for boys, too. That's the famous case of two orphanages in postwar Germany where one was run by a nice headmistress, while a mean lady who made fun of the children in front of their friends ran the other. She was nice only to the eight children who were her special favorites.

None of the children had enough food, and all of them were smaller than they were supposed to be. Then a natural experiment happened when the government gave the children living with the nice lady extra rations -- at the very same moment that the nice lady quit her job and left, and the mean lady was hired in her place. The eight teacher's pets moved to the new orphanage with the mean director. Doctors were measuring all the children's growth, and they found that even though the children in the first orphanage were getting extra food, now that they were stressed by a nasty adult they didn't grow as well as the children in the other orphanage. They had more food but grew less. The eight favorites grew better than anyone. Both orphanages had boys as well as girls, so I assume the boys' growth was slowed by stress, too.

With animals there's no ambiguity: stress is horrible for growth, period, which means stress is horrible for profits. So even a feedlot owner who doesn't care about an animal's feelings doesn't like using prods, because a stressed animal means financial loss.

When I got to the feedlot it took me about ten minutes to figure out the problem.

To get to the squeeze chute, first the animals had to walk inside the barn door into a round holding area called a crowd pen. That part of the procedure went off without a hitch. The cattle didn't have any problem stepping inside the pen.

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