The Secret Life of Moody Cows

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ONCE they were a byword for mindless docility. But cows have a secret mental life in which they bear grudges, nurture friendships and become excited over intellectual challenges, scientists have found.

Cows are also capable of feeling strong emotions such as pain, fear and even anxiety — they worry about the future. But if farmers provide the right conditions, they can also feel great happiness.

The findings have emerged from studies of farm animals that have found similar traits in pigs, goats, chickens and other livestock. They suggest that such animals may be so emotionally similar to humans that welfare laws need to be rethought.

Christine Nicol, professor of animal welfare at Bristol University, said even chickens may have to be treated as individuals with needs and problems.

“Remarkable cognitive abilities and cultural innovations have been revealed,” she said. “Our challenge is to teach others that every animal we intend to eat or use is a complex individual, and to adjust our farming culture accordingly.”

Nicol will be presenting her findings to a scientific conference to be held in London next month by Compassion in World Farming, the animal welfare lobby group.

John Webster, professor of animal husbandry at Bristol, has just published a book on the topic, Animal Welfare: Limping Towards Eden. “People have assumed that intelligence is linked to the ability to suffer and that because animals have smaller brains they suffer less than humans. That is a pathetic piece of logic,” he said.

Webster and his colleagues have documented how cows within a herd form smaller friendship groups of between two and four animals with whom they spend most of their time, often grooming and licking each other. They will also dislike other cows and can bear grudges for months or years.

Dairy cow herds can also be intensely sexual. Webster describes how the cows become excited when one of the herd comes into heat and start trying to mount her. “Cows look calm, but really they are gay nymphomaniacs,” he said.

Donald Broom, professor of animal welfare at Cambridge University, who is presenting other research at the conference, will describe how cows can also become excited by solving intellectual challenges.

In one study, researchers challenged the animals with a task where they had to find how to open a door to get some food. An electroencephalograph was used to measure their brainwaves.

“Their brainwaves showed their excitement; their heartbeat went up and some even jumped into the air. We called it their Eureka moment,” said Broom.

The assumption that farm animals cannot suffer from conditions that would be considered intolerable for humans is partly based on the idea that they are less intelligent than people and have no “sense of self”.

Increasingly, however, research reveals this to be untrue. Keith Kendrick, professor of neurobiology at the Babraham Institute in Cambridge, has found that even sheep are far more complex than realised and can remember 50 ovine faces — even in profile. They can recognise another sheep after a year apart.

Kendrick has also described how sheep can form strong affections for particular humans, becoming depressed by long separations and greeting them enthusiastically even after three years.

The Compassion in World Farming conference will be opened with a keynote speech by Jane Goodall, the primatologist who founded the study of animal sentience with her research into chimpanzees in the early 1960s.

Goodall overturned the then accepted belief that animals were simply automatons showing little individuality or emotions. It has taken many years, however, for scientists to accept that such ideas could be applied to a wide range of other animals.

“Sentient animals have the capacity to experience pleasure and are motivated to seek it,” said Webster. “You only have to watch how cows and lambs both seek and enjoy pleasure when they lie with their heads raised to the sun on a perfect English summer’s day. Just like humans.”

Jonathan Leake, Science Editor

12 Comments on “The Secret Life of Moody Cows”

  1. Diane

    While I do not disagree with this study, being an extreme animal lover, duh…animals have feelings!!!!! What is the news there? Anyone who as ever kept and loved an animal realizes this fact. What I don’t understand is how we can murder millions of innocent people and have more concern for out pets or beasts of burden than we do our own species. Abortion does not take into consideration the lives of the unborn, their feelings and emotion, it’s so unreal to me. I am pro-choice, don’t get into to bed with someone without knowing the consequences your actions may lead to but, once you’re pregnant there’s another life involved not just your own…….All life is precious human and animal alike, be aware.

  2. Mark Andrews

    I have said this in other postings but it should be repeated here…
    EVERYTHING is part of the universal consciousness.
    EVERYTHING “thinks” within its own “scope” of existence.
    humans, animals, rocks, atoms, etc….all have a level of consciousness

    I will add this…
    Matter, and the conscious “scope” (individual perspective), is expanding linearly,
    while E/M radiation is the sphercal expansion.

    The sperical expansion is the WHOLE…the ONE…the universal consciousness.

    The “scope” of an individual is the percieved differential between the linear and the sperical.

  3. Paula Yevenes

    I love you all. We’ve stumbled upon a wonderful awakening this lifetime (finally!) Question though… What’s the deal with soulmates? If we’re all one, how does that work? I can’t seem to solve this question without using my ego… If you have a reliable source that can answer this email please!

  4. Mike B

    We should have love and compassion for all sentient beings, whether they are cows, dogs, chickens, Bengal tigers or one cell amoeba’s. How else can you espire for enlightenment and Nirvana.

  5. April Rhoden

    This is not surprising to me, I read a study that claimed even plants have emotional responses to good care or traumatic experiences. If plants have physical response to emotional stimuli, why wouldn’t a cow? Factory farming must come to an end, for the welfare of the individual animals and humanity. I don’t think everyone should be vegetarian, however, if we continue to eat meat the least we can do is pay some respect to the creatures that give their lives so that we may live.

  6. Paul Pilcher

    In 1974, when living on a ranch in Northeast Texas and not hauling hay, I helped a group of ranch workers with cattle. I discovered when I arrived on duty, I was to help cattle walk into a trailer headed for auction. i witnessed cattle not wanting to enter trailer, to the point of dropping all fours on their belly and had to be tied with rope, strung through trailer bars and pulled/dragged by truck up ramp into trailer, each one until full. That was the day I changed to a plant-based diet and never looked back and enjoyed so many different plant foods that you are not aware of when all you think of is “meat”, “fish”, or “chicken”?
    I would be very surprised if you read the book, “Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan and continue consuming animals.

  7. necroclerico

    there is a serious point to clear in such assunptions.
    farm animals are capable of feeling and complex emotions? true?
    assume that: yes. true.
    so I cannot understand how could be concievable a farming welfare when it’s obvious that the only possible true way to let those animals in peace is totally “no-farming-at-all”.

    no farmer, no farm.

    farming is exploitation and animal-napping, soft or hard. admit that animals could suffer could only lead to a total reject of the idea of making any livestock at all.

    otherwise is most coherent and reasonable the logic: i am the strongest being, i do anything I want, exploitation included.

  8. Allen

    I grew up in south Texas the grandson of a grocery store owner which included a small meat market.It was a small town and a small storejust north of Austin. I learned quite a bit about processing meat and chicken for human consumption, Humans consume much more animal flesh than their bodies require to be healthy. It is pure common sense.

  9. Michelle in Australia

    When our chickens get old, we let them live in the house and care for them. The more they stay with us, the more they take on traits that amaze us. We learned that they got very depressed in a pet box and started to put their wing or a foot out in the hope the door wouldn’t be shut. They loved sitting at our feet, they loved their bath time, they wagged their tail when we got home. It takes about 6-8 weeks before they pass away peacefully in their sleep cuddled up with their teddy. Their life is made short due to their commercialized breeding. They deserve our respect.

  10. Marcela

    This is a “Cowtrophology”, anyway there is no doubt that those individuos do have feelings as well logic thoughts , my question is if they could beyond a awareness, which kind of behaviors they could create? Imagine all that mamos, birds, till insects making a behavior revolution. I almost can see a matched to die Moody Cow called Star, starting to think – Now, I choose more than a jump I choose to learn how to fly!

  11. Connie Jaeger

    One of my favorite statements is “Some of my favorite people are not human.”

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