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This week, Willie, Brittany, Dorothy, Barbie and my animal behavior expert professor Patricia McConnell demonstrated sheep herding for my zoology class.

Dr. McConnell brought three of her sheep for the demonstration. Brittany is the whiter one, Dorothy is sandwiched in the middle and Barbie is the sheep closest to the camera (Photo by M. English).

Rather than meeting at our usual lecture hall, students were herded (pun intended) to the campus’ stock pavilion to watch the demonstration. UW-Madison, like other research-heavy institutions, has quite the agriculture extension presence (UGA, where I studied as an undergrad, has great ag resources as well).

Historically speaking, herding dogs are the most efficient way to round up small livestock. In the case of Willie, a brilliant 4-year-old Border Collie, his goal is to herd the sheep towards his owner, Dr. McConnell.

McConnell and her canine companion’s intense connection and months of training definitely show. In the video below (by yours truly), you’ll learn how the length of whistle signals — as well as their pitch — affects Willie’s actions and approaches to the sheep. Amazingly, one whistle can symbolize a message as specific as “Willie, herd the pack counterclockwise this time.”

The fact that dogs display natural, predatory tendencies contributes the activity’s success as well. Imagine a non-predator such as a pig, for instance, trying to motion a herd of livestock forward. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but it’s better to take advantage of canine/bovid history — a longstanding predator and prey relationship between wolves (dogs’ closest ancestors) and sheep. Stalking behavior alone is enough to get the sheep moving.

I also learned a great deal about the imaginary line spanning across the shoulders of prey animals called the “flight zone.” Essentially, you’ll make an animal nervous if you approach them by this angle, especially if you’re in a stalking position. To make this alarmlike system work, prey animals such as sheep have eyes positioned looking outward on the sides of the head to allow for a better view of possible predators.

After a bout of herding (and after I turn off my camera), McConnell switches to a lulling, drawn out tone to slow down Willie’s behavior.

“That’ll do, Willie, that’ll do,” she says softly. Willie drops to a laying position with his paws directly in front of him, awaiting the next command. Despite the sheep huddled a few feet away from him, his eyes remain fixed on McConnell. The pair’s bond is like nothing I’ve ever seen. It’s amazing the connections we can make with animals.

Sorry Cesar Millan, but McConnell and Willie’s skills take the cake — or bone, I guess you can say.


(source: Marshall Space Flight Center's Marshall Image Exchange)

Fifty years ago yesterday, donning a custom ape spacesuit, a chimpanzee named Ham was catapulted beyond Earth’s atmosphere.

Competing with the Soviet Union’s space program, NASA rushed to launch an animal into space before sending astronauts. Too bad Yuri Gagarin beat them to it.

Ham went up anyway in a Mercury Redstone Launch vehicle, where he came back down into the Atlantic after 16 minutes.

Ham, after landing (source: Great Images in NASA)

Ham wasn’t alone, though. Between the United States and Soviet Union, a handful of animals made the unknowing journey to space (or didn’t make it, sadly), including all of the rhesus macaques named “Albert,” Belka, Strelka and Laika — stray dogs from Russia, and Ham and Enos the chimps. Of course, this list isn’t complete, but it gives you an idea of which animals were used.

Mary Roach‘s recent book Packing for Mars details some of these experiments wonderfully. Some have happy endings, others don’t. She even visited Ham’s supposed grave in New Mexico. In case you’re wondering, Ham died later in life — a happy and chubby chimp.

Roach also points out that some astronauts (namely, John Glenn) were angry at NASA for sending nonhuman primates up first. Thinking chimps didn’t serve a purpose, Glenn thought Ham unjustly stole the spotlight. He wanted nothing to do with the primates.

Au contraire, Mr. Glenn.

Ham, who had no clue (really) where he was headed, inadvertently ensured the safety of these astronauts who followed. The question is: Would I launch animals into space today? Probably not. But it disheartens me to hear that some of these space legends bashed their primate brethren — animals with no idea of what was going on.

If veteran astronauts won’t say it, I will.

This banana’s for you, Ham.

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About Me

Marianne is a science communicator working in Madison, Wis.