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Opinion >  Column

Sue Lani Madsen: Every sheep needs a sheepdog, every community needs police

UPDATED: Thu., Oct. 7, 2021

Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes a weekly column for The Spokesman-Review.  (JESSE TINSLEY)
Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes a weekly column for The Spokesman-Review. (JESSE TINSLEY)

Storytelling is the oldest and most effective means of communicating abstract ideas. But stories only work when the listeners and the tellers share context. So when the Inlander ran an article with a headline screaming “Spokane cops read children’s book authored by controversial ‘Killology’ trainer to preschoolers,” it was clear the writer and those he interviewed didn’t understand the underlying analogy.

The book is “Sheepdogs: Meet Our Nation’s Warriors,” co-authored by Dave Grossman and Stephanie Rogish. It’s hard to tell if the objections were primarily to Grossman’s previous books exploring “the psychological cost of learning to kill in war and society” on our military and police officers, or to the analogy of society as consisting of sheepdogs, wolves and sheep.

Grossman uses the sheepdog, also known as a livestock guardian dog or LGD, to explain the role of police and the military in protecting and serving the community. In an author’s interview posted at personaldefensenetwork.com in January 2014, Grossman described the sheepdog’s role in society, saying, “The ultimate love is not to sacrifice your life, but to live a life of sacrifice. To place the welfare of others ahead of your own.”

This is what we as a community ask of every law enforcement officer and every military member. We respect that commitment to be ready to place the welfare of others ahead of their own lives. It’s what sheepdogs do.

Several years ago, we lost nine goats in one night to a cougar attack on a grazing project near Leavenworth, Washington. Six were dead and three missing. One goat was left wounded. Without the help of my niece, newly graduated from the Washington State University school of veterinary medicine, we would have lost 10 goats. Logan Belleque came to the rescue, treated the wounds and showed me how to follow up for the next month with dressing changes and antibiotics. We nicknamed that doe McQueen for her great escape.

Major wildfires had disrupted normal territories that summer for predators and prey alike. The game warden from Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife checked the “scene of the crime” and determined there had been three cougars involved, likely a mature female and two adolescent cubs displaced from their normal territory. The missing goats were presumably dinner, the other seven victims of play or practice. Big cats like to toy with their prey just like a house cat.

Two border collies sleeping in the truck had not alerted anyone, but they weren’t bred or trained for a protective instinct. Not their job. It didn’t matter to us or to McQueen that the cougars were just playing or were temporarily homeless. Our goats needed protection. The next year, we bought an Akbash/Komondor-cross LGD to travel with the herd and have added two Akbash rescue dogs at home on the ranch. We haven’t lost an animal to a predator since.

Not even the autumn night when a cougar attacked and killed our neighbors’ pigs. Not even the winter day another neighbor chased a wolf away from their cows and up the draw next to our pastures. Not this summer when Gigi treed and ultimately chased off a bear at a project near Cle Elum, Washington. Our guardian dogs don’t have to fight. Warriors protect by being ready to fight and letting the predators know it.

Sheep and goats both need protection from predators, whether they be wolves, cougars or bored teenagers making stupid decisions to toy with fences. Gigi has chased off a few of those two-legged types as well.

Watching any herd animal, including sheep, provides plenty of analogies to human behavior. There’s nothing wrong with being a sheep, as long as you are in the hands of a good shepherd. But as Grossman’s book points out, humans also have choices to be a sheepdog or wolf.

A herd of goats or a flock of sheep merely tolerate or ignore the presence of the sheepdog, until they need help. But when a predator approaches, they bunch together while the LGD inside the fence places herself between the herd and the hazard, and her partner outside the fence gives chase.

The analogy could as easily be rabbits, sheepdogs and coyotes. Before we had guardian dogs protecting the ranch headquarters, there were no rabbits. Now we have cottontail rabbits everywhere because they know a coyote-free safe zone when they see one. In the same way, people seek out the comfort of protectors.

The 23rd Psalm is familiar to many of the non-religious as well as Christians and Jews. Known as the Shepherd’s Psalm, the words “thy rod and thy staff comfort me” once were a puzzle to this city-raised kid. How could two sticks of wood be comforting? It only made sense after I found myself married to a shepherd. A staff refers to the shepherd’s crook, used for guidance and direction, while the rod is a defensive weapon against predators. The shepherd needs a rod as well as a staff. When the shepherd can’t be on guard himself, he needs a sheepdog. So does every sheep, because the wolves are out there.

Contact Sue Lani Madsen at rulingpen@gmail.com.

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