Perfectly OK to go against herd

By Glenda Price: CNJ columnist

FFA and 4-H youngsters learn early that livestock they’re raising for the shows eat better and grow faster if they’re not alone.

Two or more steers or lambs fed together compete for the feed, and everybody gains faster. When show lambs are let out of their pen to run for exercise, they stay together. They are herd animals.

Humans have always taken advantage of that herd mentality. In the old days when cattle herds were driven to the railhead to be loaded onto the train taking them to market, a Judas goat accompanied them. When the time came for the cattle to go up the ramp and into the train car, the Judas goat took the lead and the herd followed.

Then the goat was let out of the train car, the train moved forward and the process was repeated until all the cattle were loaded.

Slaughter houses use Judas goats as well, and animal experts use them to lead cattle into certain pastures or pens.

Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus, is their namesake.

When you think about it, we humans are similar to herd animals, even if we don’t like to admit it. The after-Christmas sales we’ve witnessed the past few days are a great example. “Herds” of people packed the stores.

One lady was asked what items were on her shopping list. She laughed and replied, “I just want one of those new games everyone is talking about.”

Did she know how to play it?

“Not really,” she admitted uncomfortably.

This herd mentality has been repeatedly documented in both fiction and non-fiction.

Still, we have a saving grace. Most every herd has a “herd quitter” — the one who does not go along with all the others for whatever reason.

The old lead cow — or steer — decides not to go along with everyone else and quits the herd, usually blazing a new trail up the mountain in the process. I’d be willing to bet that Benjamin Franklin was a herd quitter. I’m sure Alexander Graham Bell didn’t just follow along, either.

My suggestion is to assign high school students to read “The Ox-Bow Incident” by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, published in 1940. I guarantee they will come away with a new view of “groupthink,” and will realize the persuasive voices of the self-appointed leaders of such groups are dangerous.

My cowboy dad had me watch as an old cow left the herd and started up the mountain. The trail she left was not straight. It had many twists and turns, but as we watched she calmly reached the top of the mountain.

“That cow’s trail looks difficult,” Dad said, “but you can be sure she has found the easiest way up the mountain, and she didn’t find it by following along with the herd.” I never looked at crooked cow trails the same way again.

My New Year’s wish for my grandchildren — and all young people — is that they find for themselves the easiest way up their particular mountains, and to make sure they’re not following a Judas goat.