What nature tells us about bullying.

I am not sure I know if bullying is a good thing or a bad thing. For people, yes, it’s not a good thing. Or is it? I have two examples taken from nature and it has made me think about the subject  much more deeply than the knee-jerk “no it’s never okay to be a bully” line of thinking. At least it warrants a deeper look.

Please know, in no way am I making light of anyone who has been a victim of bullying. And I am not condoning the practice. Too many people have been hurt by it. But maybe there is a better way around things? Maybe nature is trying to tell us a few things about it? I always look to nature for examples on how to handle what life throws me.

Example 1: North America’s smallest hummingbird is the Calliope, small and delicate with beautiful, long, deep purple-magenta throat feathers. The Calliope is a gentle creature. Hummingbirds come to New Mexico in early spring. They have a few short months to enjoy nectar at feeders and flowers until mid July when the Rufous comes and takes center stage. The Rufous has been described as a ‘relentless attacker’ at feeders and flowers, chasing of any and all other birds. Except, that is, for the diminutive Calliope.

The tiny Calliope is unflappable as he sits and sips as much nectar as he wishes. How is that possible with the bully around? Their secret weapon is to totally ignore the big bully of the neighborhood. That’s his take on it. Ignore the bully and that seems to solve the problem. For hummingbirds that does work, because they rarely, if ever, actually make physical contact when fighting or defending territory. It’s just a big show of flying around, making lots of noise, ‘sword’ fights mid air with those long beaks, airal dogfight pursuits, and no-contact dive bombing others at the feeder. So, no matter how relentless and ongoing the attack of the Rufous is, the Calliope simply ignores the attacks, and keeps on quietly sipping nectar. I have seen it dozens of times.

I wonder if people that bully are the same. I would think bullies are loud and obnoxious and ‘relentless attackers’ but would rarely make physical contact. Is this true? It seems to me bullies are hiding behind their cowardice. That’s what all the bravado is about—fear. So, it might be worth a shot to try something different like ignoring the bully as much as possible. At least it is worthy of thought. In no way am I giving advice here, just seems to be worthy of examining what makes a bully tick, and how to handle an encounter with one. I would think that being sweet and kind in response might throw a bully off track. They usually expect fear, retaliation and anger in response to their efforts. Kindness might totally throw them off track. This is not the reaction they expect at all. I call it killing them with kindness. In any case, it might be a new way to unhook from the bullying scenario.

Example 2: Switching to horses, the story is different. A neighbor of mine, Bud, recently acquired a 10 year-old gelding named Sarge. Sarge was raised by a sweet lady, with no other horses around. He had a nice area to run in, a lovely stall, saw the best vet, and was fed grain, and lead a pampered life as a trail horse. She had to sell him because of her declining health.

Sarge had a nice attitude and was obedient when he first got to Bud’s home. (My horses are kept with my neighbors for five months of the year.) Upon releasing Sarge to the pasture where my horses live, his attitude and obedience changed over the space of a few short weeks. He started kicking and biting both of us people! What? How come? He was so sweet when he came to us. What happened to turn him? I figured it out simply by being observant. For most of my life I have been an ardent observer of nature and animals. So much can be learned by observation alone.

I realized his horse, upon being introduced to my old-timer horses, well seasoned in the way of herd mentality, changed him into a bully. In a herd of horses, there is a dominant horse. There is a hazing of sorts and a pecking order that exists and it must be adhered to for the safety of the herd. Horses are taught this by living in a herd, or small group of other horses. They trust their lives to this lead horse. But it is a position that is fought for.

My older, larger horse, Scar, weighing in at around 1400 lbs, was the lead horse in my little herd, or anywhere he went. No one messed with him, but normally he was a gentle giant. He was not a draft horse, but very well muscled and large. Think Hoss Cartwright of Bonanza (Dan Blocker). My other horse, Silver, is about 900lbs, slight frame, and almost always the bottom of the bunch. He’s too sweet and never wants to fight anyone. I think he’s a closet unicorn! With the introduction of a new horse, he was no longer on the bottom rung of the ladder. But not for long.

As the horses mingled over the weeks and got to know each other, we noticed this change happening. Sarge would bite or nip us when we were leading him to the front yard to be brushed and saddled. Horses usually don’t do this to people. Especially horses that have been sweet and gentle. He bit Bud on the chest, hard, and left a mark. He also kicked him hard in the leg one other time. This can be a dangerous habit if not fixed. Most lead horses will not kick and bite people. They have good boundaries and respect for humans. Sarge should know those boundaries when it comes to people! So what happened to make him a bully?

My observations: Sarge was a horse, raised totally by a human almost from day one. A sweet human at that. So he was not raised in a herd of horses. He was raised with gentle human hands. There was no hazing, no biting and kicking to say “Hey, you are not above me. Get back! Move away. That’s my hay! Get your own.” Sarge was raised by a very gentle human. His ‘herd’ was himself and his human owner. She showed him no real boundaries nor asked for his respect. Once he was introduced to other horses (mine), they showed him how horses act in a herd. How to find his place, and know who was leader, whose example to follow. Sarge learned from the other horses that it was totally okay to kick, bite, charge, and run after other herd members if you want a shot at being the leader of the pack. It’s how they do it. That’s how life is lived in a herd where someone is seeking domination. This reasoning is sound, but does not explain his behavior toward us. I had more figuring to do, which follows.

I reasoned it this way. Sarge thought we were part of that herd. After all, at his former residence, his herd had a human in it. We must be part of the herd! After we saw this naughty behavior from Sarge, I asked Bud to spend time with him every day, to show where respect can be learned and foster a better relationship between them. His horse did not respect me or Bud. Sarge felt we were simply others in the herd to be tested and bossed around, bit and kicked to put us in our place. This is a dangerous situation and it needed to change pronto. Unfortunately his owner, Bud, was a softie and very afraid of any sort of confrontation, or rocking the boat in any way. This sort of attitude is okay for some things, but not okay for all things in life.

When I was leading Sarge out to be ridden, he took a hold of my hat between his teeth from behind and yanked so hard I almost fell down. I quickly grabbed a lunge whip and ran him around the small pasture until he was tired. Please know in using a lunge whip, it never has to touch the horse. They will run from the noise and physical action. As he was running, he bucked and bucked, which was his “I don’t like it! You are not the boss of me” showing. Good. Let’s get all that pee and vinegar out of him. Finally he tired out.There was no physical harm done, but this horse learned to respect me a little bit more. We had some better boundaries.

It can be dangerous to have a 1000 lb animal not respect you, and kick and bite you. But I didn’t like the feeling that went with having to boss him around. What bothered me was, I had to be a bully to do it! I had to be more assertive than my normal self. I had to walk the walk, talk the talk, and be mean to him for it to sink in. I let him take no quarter, did not give him a break, until he got the lesson. After the lesson I dropped the whip and kissed at him to come to me. He gladly came and put his muzzle in my hand. There was no lead rope, or reins. Just him and me. I had to prove I was higher up than him in the pecking order, but also a kind and gentle leader. I find that being a bully with Sarge works. He respects my loud and brash tone of voice and body language. When a horse is bested, they quickly are obedient and polite again. They have found their new place in the herd. When we walked back to the trailer to get ready for a ride, he was peaceful and polite. But for me, I had to go well outside my comfort zone of making everyone happy. It really pushed me, and I felt like a bully. I didn’t like it, but in this case, it was necessary.

As of the writing of this blog entry, Sarge is now lead horse, and Scar, for the first time in his 24 years, is not. Yet Sarge is learning to be a much more polite and respectful horse to people. He is stretching and learning about being a true leader, not just a bully.

These two scenarios with bullying in nature does not seem to point to any quick, obvious answer. I know for humans bullying is not acceptable. But should it be? In some instances? Are there weaker, smaller people who need to exhibit some bravado to chase off someone else? Does this person need to ‘bully the bully’ if ignoring him doesn’t work? I don’t know. It might if a woman is being followed down a dark street, maybe she has to turn around, face this person and be assertive way outside her comfort zone. That could be a case where bullying and assertiveness comes in handy. That’s why I am writing this. For input and rumination.

In no way am I intending to diminish or not respect those out there who have been the subject of being bullied. But I feel this topic does merit some discussion.

What say you?

2 thoughts on “What nature tells us about bullying.

  1. With good intent, I ‘say’ my point of view is… I believe ‘bullying’ is a bad thing.

    I feel, bullying is a human ‘trait’.
    People ‘bully’ for the false sense of ‘power’.
    They are like an “Energy Vampire”.
    When you ‘stand up to a bully’, their false sense of power is worthless. They discover they cannot ‘suck your energy’ and they have to leave.

    I believe a ‘bully’ is a form of ‘dark consciousness’. We have crossed the tipping point (post-2012) in our shift. For the first time in human history, “Light” outweighs the “Dark.
    The ‘dark’ has lost. One day, as we evolve, the ‘bully’ will become extinct, as we learn to live in harmony. I believe the ‘dark’ will eventually ‘die out’.

    In the animal world, I do not view their actions as ‘bullying’. I feel it is the pecking/survival order, as you described it.
    Animals ‘cohabitate’, ‘balance’ and live in the ‘now’.
    I do not feel an animal has the ‘mentality’ to bully, as we know ‘bullying’. Not for the ‘false sense of power’ anyway.
    I believe something else ‘reigns’ in the animal kingdom, that we may just not quite understand yet.
    We do not know, what we do not know. 🙂
    Thank you for your post and allowing me to share.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I respect your message, but I feel that there is a problem with how you have presented it.

    At the beginning you spoke as though bullying might not always be a bad thing. Yet in each example bullying was presented as problematic. It was the challenge to be overcome, not a behavior to be embraced and accepted and encouraged.

    Also, your message in the second example seemed to be that solving the problem of the horse’s bullying meant being a bigger bully, yet you used the word ‘assertive’ to describe your behavior as you did this. A bully isn’t assertive. A bully is aggressive.

    There’s always something a bit sadistic about bullying. Did you feel that way . A bully delights in harm and the suffering of others.

    I expect it isn’t accurate to attribute sadism to hummingbirds but I do feel that the behavior you described can properly be considered bullying because it was a matter of intentionally attempting to gain power over another at the other’s expense. This behavior turns to sadism in humans because we can not help but understand how we are making each other feel — even people who do not respect others’ feelings have the power of empathy (there is some masochistic about sadism).

    I really don’t think that what the horses do should be considered bullying.

    And defending oneself is never bullying.

    It seems, perhaps, that your message is that bullying is natural and serves a purpose. I couldn’t disagree with that. That doesn’t make it good. Every negative behavior is in some sense natural. Of course, we want to be really precise, everything is a part of Nature, therefore natural. Bullying, as I see it, is a sign of poor health in humans in particular. It’s perfectly natural to get sick, but when that happens we work to heal ourselves.


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