“Alice is my name, explaining is my game!”
How does one know that one is an individual with a unique identity? To begin with, it helps to have a label for that identity — specifically, a name. Here at the Abbey, everyone and everything has a name, even those who technically weren’t supposed to have them. When we got our first flock many of the manuals on raising backyard chickens then available went with the old-time approach of not naming livestock animals, so we decided we wouldn’t name ours. That lasted for all of a week once the chicks’ individual personalities became evident. Three hens ended up with “real” names — Camilla, Dreamer and Messenger — but the others’ names were basically descriptive: Zipping Girl, Curly, and Littlest Girl. All of them came when called as individuals.
When we got our current flock, DS and DH enjoyed choosing names just as much as I did. It’s not the naming process itself that is most interesting, however; it’s what comes next as the named individuals learn their identity. Descartes may disagree, but creatures are born with a sense of self, even if that self needs only the most basic of things to survive: “I must eat,” “I must take to the water,” “I must get on my feet as fast as possible.” A name bestowed from outside the self assists the individual with distinguishing itself from the group, even where the group itself almost constitutes its own organism, as in a flock or herd. Every creature needs to know both itself and its group to make its way in the world. A name just makes this process visible.
“Hold on! We’re coming!”
All of the Abbey’s residents know not only their individual names, but their group name as well. For the chickens, teaching them started as soon as we had decided on their names. Whenever I picked them up, I would say their names as I stroked them, and whenever one came up to me to peep something important, would reply with their name: “Oh really, Alice? You don’t say!” By the time they were in the awkward teenage phase it became clear that they each knew their names; if I called “Sally!” Sally would lift her head or pause what she was doing — no one else. To this day, when I address them by name they reply with an acknowledging cluck.
“OK, I rounded everyone up! Where are the mealworms?”
Intriguingly, Chancellor seemed to learn not only his name but also everyone else’s. As his roosterly instinct to herd the hens kicked in, I would say, “Chancellor, go get the girls!” and he would round them up and bring them to wherever I was. If most of the hens were already nearby, I could ask him to retrieve the straggler: “Chancellor, go get Jenny!” Off he would go, herding the recalcitrant Jenny with indignant sounds of “Come on, I shouldn’t have to come get you, you know better!” If I called “Chickens!” all of them would come, and still do, usually with Jenny taking the lead. (Coming, of course, is subject to whether they feel they’ve had sufficient
“Yes, ladies — there’s enough Chancellor for everyone!”
dust bathing time, or time to dig for worms, etc.). Further proof that Chancellor truly knows his name came when he left the Abbey for his new farm, and that he comes when his new humans call him as well — it is not just my voice, or the intonation in which I say his name, to which he responds. He is Chancellor, and he knows it.
“Of course I’m Cookies!”
The cats, meanwhile, learned their names more or less instantaneously, which impressed me not only because of the speed with which they learned them but because they each already had other names. Cookies was known as K.C. to the family who cared for him while he was feral, and would come to them when called. When he moved in with us, he took Cookies in stride immediately, and comes bounding out from wherever he is when he’s called. We referred to Linus as Little Cat while he was living under our porch for a year, and even though he was as shy as can be, if I called “Little Cat!” he would pause in his dart through the woods and look
back at me over his shoulder. When he moved in with us it took us a few days to settle on a new name for him, but once he was Linus he understood right away. When called he responds with a little questioning trill — “You rang?” — and comes trotting with his tail in the air and his eyes bright. And when I call “Cats!” both of them come running, particularly when they know there’s a treat in the offing.
So what does all of this demonstrate? We are all distinct individuals. In addition to being a fun aspect of bring friends with particular animals, it should give us pause when we think of how we treat most of them. The millions of laying hens housed in cages their whole lives could each be Sally, Jenny, Pumpkin, Nutmeg, or Alice. The cats that our neighbors abandoned to breed and breed and be coyote food would happily have learned to be Cookies or Linus. (In fact, two of them did — once Animal Control dealt with the incident in question, two of them became regulars at Cookies’ old house and now know themselves as Fluffy and Butterscotch, respectively.) Just because something has not yet received an official name, doesn’t mean it doesn’t already know itself.
“I’m Fluffy, and if you rub my chin I’ll give you more purrs than you’ll know what to do with!”
“Butterscotch is my name, being sweet is my game!”