he part of Yunnan Province, in Southwest China, where I live is a paradise for bird watchers. About a year ago, the local birders organized a trip to the top of the western slopes of the Cangshan Mountains, which lie behind the town. My wife and I decided to go and bring our 44-kilogram Alaskan malamute, which is a breed of dog that can be mistaken for a bear. Little did I expect the reception our dog, called Cupcake, would get. It’s chilly in Alaska, but not as cold as the stares from our fellow bird watchers. They apparently felt he would scare away the birds.
As we walked down the mountain paths, the birders gave us the cold shoulder as they chatted, checked their social media, made phone calls, and shouted to each other, “Look, over there!” Meanwhile, Cupcake made not a sound.
My dog and I decided these birders were scaring all the birds away and broke off on our own. Part of the mountain is covered with grasslands, so I decided to let him off his leash to run around.
My wife and I sat on the gently rolling hills as our dog played, drank from the creek, and weaved in and out of sight through the stands of trees and small valleys on the mountaintop. Over a hill, a herd of cows appeared. Cupcake took off after them like a bullet.
Farmers live on this mountaintop, and I was sure they would not want my giant dog chasing their cattle around. Cupcake might even injure them, or scare them into a stampede. I got up and started to chase my dog to stop him from chasing the cows.
The cows scattered, seeming to run every way at this unexpected threat. Soon, my dog and the cows went through a valley, out of sight.
I dashed around the hill at full speed, and encountered a stand of trees. I was whacked by a thick branch, which knocked me on my back, and briefly out of consciousness. A few seconds later I shook myself awake and sat up.
The first thing I saw was Cupcake in a hunch and growling. My eyes followed his gaze, and I realized both Cupcake and I were in great danger.
The cows had organized. They were standing shoulder to shoulder, facing Cupcake. They had the initiative, and were about to charge. I looked around, and realized we were trapped in the small valley. If the cows charged, there would be no time for me or Cupcake to get out. We could be trampled to death.
Despite the severity of the situation, I was impressed by the cows’ acumen and organizational skills. I had always considered them to be stupid, docile creatures. Who knew after a lifetime of hamburgers, I might meet my end from them.
I slowly moved forward toward my growling dog, who despite his bluster must have sensed the direness of the situation. The cows all watched me carefully.
The moment I snapped my leash on his neck, they instantly relaxed. The cows could not only organize, I thought, they understand what a leash is. And they also understand that I, the human, had a different agenda than my dog.
After about 30 seconds, the cows mostly broke their formation, and went back to grazing, with two or three bigger ones staying put and watching us carefully. The cows had a command structure.
Later that evening, after we arrived home, I received a message from the birder group, saying someone had been inadvertently left behind on the mountain. He could not be reached by mobile phone. They wanted people for a search party.
I briefly considered volunteering, but decided to stay in bed instead. Would I have chosen differently had they been more welcoming of Cupcake? It’s hard to say. I told myself I might help in the morning if he still was lost.
It turns out that the missing man had spotted a very rare bird, and decided to skip the ride home to pursue a once in a lifetime photograph. His cellphone ran out of battery, and he hitched a ride home and went to bed, without checking his messages or thinking to tell anyone he was safe.
My wife and I were never invited on another birding expedition. I always assumed it was because they thought Cupcake would ruin the trip. However, about a half year later, I met the leader of the group, who I considered a friend. I asked what had happened.
There have not been any trips, she explained. There was a power struggle within the organization, and she had been pushed out in a coup. The new leaders have not organized any activities.
Why was she pushed out? “Power,” she said.
I had always underestimated cows. It seems sometimes they work together and have more common sense than people.