The Inner Lives of Animals

Understanding animal behavior.

It’s Time (magazine) to Respect Cows

cows have “eureka” moments, taking pleasure in their learning achievements

Animal minds made big news this month with Time magazine dedicating its cover story to the topic. "Inside the minds of animals," by Jeffrey Kluger, provides an engaging glimpse into some of the exciting recent discoveries in animal cognition. That title is an improvement over that of a February 2006 Scientific American article which asked meekly, "Do Animals Have Feelings?" as if there should remain any doubt about that.

Kluger appears to have had an epiphany when he contrasts how sentient animals really are to the indefensible way humans have treated and continue to treat them, especially farmed animals. He emphasizes that the boundaries separating human and non-human animals are disintegrating. Time magazine, through him, has taken a bold public step in saying that "we could surely eat less meat." I hope this generates considerable angst among its readers and advertisers alike.

Kluger repeats the common prejudice that herd animals exhibit little intelligence. Intelligence aligns poorly with sentience, so even if deer and horses and giraffes were less smart than other creatures, it wouldn't follow that they can suffer less or feel pain less acutely. Further into Kluger's article, the Harvard University ethologist Marc Hauser is quoted as saying that "animals have a myopic intelligence; they never experience the aha moment that a 2-year-old child gets." While one can sympathize with Hauser for the turmoil currently surrounding his research methods, I can't sympathize with a statement like that. Tellingly, a study on herd animals puts the lie to both Kluger's claim of their lack of intelligence and Hauser's claim of human uniqueness. A 2004 Cambridge University experiment showed that young heifers exhibit behavioral expressions of excitement when they solve a problem. At critical points in their learning curve in a task that required pressing their nose against a panel to open a gate for access to food, the heifers showed behavioral signs of excitement (jumping, bucking, or kicking), and the animals' heart rates rose. A second group of heifers whose access to food was provided independently of their panel presses showed no such behaviors. This study suggests that cows-and probably many other animals-can have "eureka" moments, taking pleasure in their own learning achievements.

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Pressing a panel to get food may not seem like such an astonishing bovine act to us now, but it wasn't long ago when scientists gauged ape smarts by comparable feats. Perhaps it's time to form a counterpart to the Great Ape Trust that focuses on bovine consciousness and intelligence. After all, corvids (crows, jays, ravens, magpies, etc.) have leapfrogged social carnivores in Kluger's smartness continuum. Who would have expected birdbrains to do that?

By expanding our awareness of animals' feelings, we are gradually being forced to acknowledge that a new relationship to them is needed. Lawmakers in the Spanish region of Catalonia recognize that. In July they voted to ban bullfighting. Following heated debate, the 135-seat legislature ruled 68 to 55 (nine abstentions) for the ban. If cattle could read headlines, there would have been some more jumping in the air that day. Olé!

Jonathan Balcombe, Ph.D., has written scientific papers and lay articles on animal behavior, humane education, and animal research.

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