Saturday, April 16, 2005


Shit, scat, feces, frass, whatever you want to call it, everything has it. Why are we so fascinated with it?

As the proud new parent of five acres in Rural Texas (versus Urban Texas, the 'other' habitat), and an ex-grandmother of a 20-A sheep/horse ranch in Oregon, I keep and eye out for..... yes, shit. Am I sick? No.

An animal's feces reveals alot about the excreter (is that a new word?). Sheep normally excrete perfect little balls of brownness. They pop out like little underpowered bullets, falling to the ground in a indiscrete mound of round little pebbles. A sheep eating lush green grass, as Oregon is best known for, excretes blobs of runny greenish-brown poop. Not that dissimilar to that of a small calf. They also retain a small portion of that on the wool under their tail and on their butts if it is not sheared away. When it dries it forms poop-cement. There's nothing worse that trying to pry away a lamb's tail that has been cemented to their butt by runny poop. In some cases if it is left to build up, it can actually plug up their anus and they become constipated.

Because I have an insatiable curiousity and I'm a scientist, I asked my fellow organic chemistry buddy, who was also a sheepwoman, why sheep feces is excreted in perfectly round little pebbles. After one of her weird looks at me and shaking her head (anyone else, she'd expect they were being silly, but she knew me better than that), she thought about that and offered a hypothesis: sheep have evolved to extract as much fluid from their food as they can. Possibly, as the undigested portion moves through the colon it is compacted into little balls by smooth muscle action. It certain seems easier to excrete.

Then why haven't cows evolved the same? Or horses? I would ask my vet but she's an exceptional vet and I don't want to scare her off.

As any land owner out in the country can relate to (or any veteran backpacker in the wilderness), feces on the ground can tell you what and how many animals (or birds) have been in the area. The area around the ranch in Oregon was overpopulated with coyotes. Sheep are a favorite coyote food item. I always looked to see if there was any coyote scat near or inside the pastures and always found it around the perimeter. "Hmm.. lots of seeds; they're eating the blackberries." "Wow, look at all that hair; that one ate a rabbit."

I recently met my new neighbor: a red Angus bull. Since I tore down one of the perimeter fences, he visits every day, eats my grass, and deposits cow pies everywhere. "Well, at least he's fertilizing your ground," a colleague said. Well, maybe, maybe not. Here in Texas, everything dries out quickly. Unless rain leaches the nitrogen out of the cowpies, the only thing they are good for are cow frisbees. They dry hard. Unless I use them as fuel to cook my dinner like they do in Africa, they are only token "Thanks for letting me eat your grass, human."

What prompted this story? As I got out of my truck today, I found two canine-like turds in my driveway. I don't have a dog. Where did these come from? Is there a dog visiting me, or did one of the elusive coyotes decide to leave a deposit? Other than the prolific deer droppings, and the more recent cowpies, this is the first scat I've seen with no explanation.

Hmm..... will the real pooper please sit down?

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