Longhorn of the Vanities

How hardy Texas cattle became prestige pets for the rich and nostalgic

Peggy Dyer grew up in Texas, and three years ago, after she bought a house and land in north Scottsdale, she decided to buy herself a longhorn cow to decorate it.

So she and the man who is now her husband, Keith Brock, drove to Texas and picked out a little steer they thought was attractive. Then they rented a truck from Budget, loaded the steer and somehow drove it back to Phoenix before the smell of bovine waste overcame them.

Peggy was so innocent she called up the Department of Agriculture to ask if she needed to license her new animal, as you would a dog or a cat. The house whose backyard this longhorn would grace is near Scottsdale Road and Dynamite, in an area where signs sprout on Saturday mornings guiding people to model homes and development sites.

A former Aggie, Peggy had moved to Arizona after a bad divorce. She has a Texas accent, a warm openness and a mass of blond curls. She and Keith have been in and out of various businesses that have done well enough to net them a lovely old stone house on two and a half acres of land.

They've decorated the house with pictures and artifacts of the Old West, and blue ribbons the steer they named PK has won in shows.

Keith refers to PK as a 500-pound puppy, and nothing transpires this morning to contradict that description of the 3-year-old creature.

Peggy leads the way out to the corral containing the animal, which walks up to the fence after she shakes some feed in a can. Peggy scratches him on the head; he appears to enjoy the affection.

"I'd go out every night and talk to him and feed him apples," Peggy says with a laugh, describing the days after PK joined the family. "I'd go and sit down and lean on his shoulder and just talk. He'd put his head in my lap."

She even started a baby book covering PK's first months, and there is no escaping a careful perusal of its pages.

While this perusal continues, the real-life steer, this inheritor of all that was wild and woolly in the Kansas cow towns, eats the food in the can and curls upon the ground. His eyes are closed, and the head under the big horns is starting towobble. PK is about to doze off, like some bored business magnate feeling the effects of wine and a tedious after-dinner speaker.

Around the corral are tires and an old barrel. These are PK's toys. Sometimes Peggy will play chase with the steer. Sometimes at night, when she and Keith are in bed, they'll hear PK playing with his toys by himself in the corral.

PK's head is now on the ground. He is quite asleep. He looks just like the family pet the longhorn breed has become.

In the two decades after the Civil War, millions of head of cattle were driven north out of Texas to the Kansas railheads and shipped east. The animals were Texas longhorns, America's contribution to the bovine species, a breed of cattle that had developed in south Texas largely independent of human design.

Although Texas longhorns gave birth to the old Chisholm Trail, the cowboy and the myth of the Old West, sentiment has no place on the working ranch. Just as soon as they had marched most of the longhorns north, Texas cattle raisers replaced them with cows that were better at getting fat, fat being not only where the flavor is in meat, but where the profit is in ranching.

Longhorn, however, did not go the way of the dinosaur. It became an object of nostalgia. There was a government-sponsored effort to prevent its disappearance, and a show herd was installed on a wildlife refuge in Oklahoma.

Then, in the 1970s, longhorns began to be "discovered," much the way innocent mountain towns or funky artists' colonies are discovered, and by much the same people. Longhorn cows became the animals of choice for the guy who'd made his bundle and wanted some land to get away from the business that made him rich.

Mostly in Texas, but elsewhere in the West, too, longhorns became virtual lawn ornaments.

While any longhorn breeder can--and would love to--tell you how useful his animals are in the beef-cattle industry, it's mostly wishful thinking. Longhorns are a negligible factor in the cattle business, because they do not gain weight. The largest feedlot in Arizona will not even buy a longhorn cow, unless it is slipped in with a herd of other cattle.

Unlike Herefords, which are bred for qualities relating to beef production, longhorns are the equivalent of Miss America contestants, but without the talent requirement. A good Hereford is an animal that will gain weight. A good longhorn is an animal with long and twisty horns and a lively coloration.

Because longhorns don't produce beef, the market for them appears to be peculiar and artificial, and to consist largely of people who raise cows to sell to other people who raise cows.

There can be a great deal of money in that. In the early '80s, when prices were at their height, a cow from the herd raised at the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma sold for $32,000, a price so completely unrelated to reality, even the man who bred the animal found it foolish.

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