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Cows: Science Shows They're Bright and Emotional Individuals

A new essay reviews the detailed science that demonstrates bovine sentience.

Cows are truly amazing and extremely interesting beings. Often thought of as simply steak, burgers, beef, veal, leather, and global dairy producers, numerous people see them only as food items or products, rather than as highly sentient and intelligent individuals with markedly different personalities. However, a major review essay published in the journal Animal Behavior and Cognition by neuroscientist Lori Marino and Kristin Allen called "The Psychology of Cows" goes along way toward dispelling countless myths about who these bright and emotional bovines truly are.1,2

Because this landmark essay is available for free online, I'll simply review some of the significant topics this paper covers. I hope it will become required reading not only for people interested in cognitive ethology (the comparative study of animal minds and what's in them), but also for people who work in the food-industrial complex, those who consume cows under other names, and everyone who works with cows in any capacity at all.

The authors begin by correctly noting, "... when cow behavior is addressed, it is almost entirely done within the framework of and applied to their use as food commodities. Therefore, there is relatively little attention to the study of cow intelligence, personality, and sociality at a basic comparative level."

Cows are typically recognized for their ubiquity as various sorts of products, who value is cashed out in terms of their instrumental value—namely, what they can do for us. Their inherent value as living sentient beings with distinct personalities often is glossed or totally ignored. However, even people who work in the food-industrial complex or who are responsible for developing humane welfare guidelines (that all too frequently are ignored), know that cows are sentient beings and that they suffer and feel pain. Otherwise, they wouldn't even bother to develop regulations that supposedly protect the animals. Rampant abuse of cows and other food animals is the rule, rather than the exception.

Here is a general summary of some of their findings from Marino and Allen's detailed analyses of available literature found in books, book chapters, dissertations and theses, and empirical and review papers in peer-reviewed professional journals. The reference of "The Psychology of Cows" section is extremely comprehensive and taken as a whole, Marino and Allen's essay will set the standard for years to come.

Learning and Cognition, Emotions, Personality, and Social Complexity

Marino and Allen separated their findings into four broad categories, namely, Learning and Cognition, Emotions, Personality, and Social Complexity. Of course, there is overlap among these topics, but this delineation serves to highlight what we know in each.

Learning and Cognition: In this section, we learn that cows display the ability to rapidly learn different tasks, display long-term memory, extrapolate the location of a hidden moving object, discriminate complex stimuli, and discriminate humans from one another. The authors note, "Calves as well as adult cows show learned fear responses to humans who have previously handled them in a rough manner." Cows also display complex spatial memory and are able to discriminate among individual cows and recognize cow faces as different from the faces of other species.

Emotions: A good deal of research has been done on the emotional lives of cows and we know that they experience a wide range of emotions. For example, they display fear and anxiety and the less eye white that is seen, the better they feel. When cow mothers are separated from their calves, as is done as they are being prepared for meals, there is an increase in the amount of eye white.

Ears also are indicators of a cow's emotional state. Relaxed ear postures indicate cows are feeling okay. Cows also like to play, as do countless other nonhuman animals. Also, one very important discovery is that when cows are stressed, such as after they're branded with a hot iron, they show a decrease in the ability to judge ambiguous stimuli, as do humans. For more discussion of the emotional lives of cows, please see "The Cow's Nose Shows How They're Feeling About Life," "The Emotional Lives of Cows: Ears Tell Us They're Feeling OK," and links therein.

Marino and Allen also report that cows display emotional contagion. They write, "A series of studies on a form of emotional contagion mediated by olfactory cues has shown that when cows are exposed to stressed conspecifics they too show pronounced stress responses, such as decreased feeding and increased cortisol release."

I often stress that cows and other so-called "food animals" not only see family members, friends, and others being killed for food; they also smell and hear what's happening. It's also known that the presence of other cows can buffer the stress that cows feel on their way to market. This called "social buffering" and has been demonstrated in other nonhumans. Mothers and calves also show extreme distress when separated. This is not at all surprising but remains a common practice in the animal-food industry.

Personality: Cows, similar to numerous other nonhumans, display a full range of personalities including boldness, shyness, sociability, gregariousness, and being temperamental. Of course, these are not surprising results, and people working with and studying cows have known this for a long time.

Social Complexity: Concerning this topic, Marino and Allen write that the social complexity hypothesis "suggests that the challenges encountered in the social environment place selective pressures on brain evolution" and "there should be a positive relationship between social complexity and individual intelligence across species." From a practical point of view, they note, "Bergman and Beehner (2015) propose a contemporary definition of social complexity that preserves the central role of cognition: "... social complexity should be measured as the number of differentiated relationships that members of a species have with conspecifics” (p. 205).

The authors conclude that research on cows clearly shows that "given a general definition of social complexity as the number of differentiated relationships, the knowledge about conspecifics, and the knowledge of one’s own and other animals' social interactions and relationships, cows display broad parameters of social complexity in empirical studies. They have demonstrated knowledge about conspecifics and the exchange of relevant social knowledge with conspecifics. Through dominance hierarchies and affiliative bonds, they have demonstrated knowledge about conspecifics and of their own social interactions with them."

The knowledge translation gap

As in many other venues in which nonhumans are routinely and brutally abused, detailed information from scientific studies is not used on their behalf. Along these lines, Marino and Allen write, "Yet, despite empirical evidence for complex emotional, social, and cognitive functioning, there is still a gap between our understanding and acceptance of complex emotions and intelligence between our pets (namely, dogs and cats) and farmed or 'food' animals (Herzog, 2010; Joy, 2009)."

It's essential to use what we know on behalf of other animals with whom we interact, use, and abuse. Unfortunately, a "knowledge translation gap" still exists and what we know is not used on their behalf in far too many situations. Basically, the knowledge translation gap refers to the practice of ignoring tons of science showing that other animals are sentient beings and going ahead and causing intentional harm in human-oriented arenas. On the broad scale, it means that what we now know about animal cognition and emotion has not yet been translated into an evolution in human attitudes and practices (for more discussion please see "Animals Need More Freedom, Not Bigger Cages").

Would you do it to your dog?

All in all, the cognitive and emotional lives of cows are not all that different from many other non-food animals, including the companions with whom we share our homes. To bring the discussion of "food animals" into focus and bring it closer to home, I often ask people if they would allow their dogs, or other dogs, for example, to be treated in the incredibly inhumane ways that cows and other food animals are routinely mistreated. I've never gotten a "yes" to this question. So, why is it that cows and other food animals are brutally mistreated "in the name of food," given what we know about these bright and emotional bovines and others who humans consume in great numbers?

Along these lines, in a wonderful essay called "Esther the Wonder Pig is wondrous indeed — but so are all pigs" former pig farmer Bob Comis writes, "Esther is clearly a unique individual being, with interests that are personal and particular, and that should be fostered and protected. She has great emotional, psychological and intellectual capacities. She is a being that one can bond with. Esther is every bit as dear as Fido." He also writes, "During 10 years as a pig farmer I came to know pigs as well as I know my own dog. That's why I quit."

I look forward to further discussions on this disconnect and how Marino and Allen's essay will inform future discussions, as it should and must.

The "Temple Grandin Effect": A "better life" is not necessarily a "good life"

Some people will also claim that Temple Grandin's so-called "stairways to heaven" have solved the problem of pain and suffering experienced by cows on their way to killing floors of slaughterhouses. Even if a tiny fraction of individuals have a "better life," it's still a life filled with enduring trauma before they arrive at a slaughterhouse and when they're waiting to be killed, and doesn't border on what anyone would reasonably call a "good life."

Along these lines in an essay called "Animals Need More Freedom, Not Bigger Cages" about our book called The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age, Jessica Pierce and I note that "Temple Grandin is the iconic welfarist in that she tries to make the life of factory farmed animals 'better' on their way to the killing floor of slaughterhouses. She feels comfortable calling the chute on which they stumble to their brutal death a 'stairway to heaven,' when actually it is a stairway filled with horror until the cows are killed. She refuses to call for an end to this practice, while maintaining that she’s giving these animals a 'better life' than they would have without having the stairway on which to trod as they hear, see, and smell other cows being killed. Welfarism of this sort allows us to maintain the status quo, as if we’ve done our due diligence, morally speaking. Of course, a 'better life' for these cows is not a 'good life.'" All in all, the "Temple Grandin Effect" is not very effective at all. For more on how Temple Grandin's methods fail millions of individuals please see "Stairways to Heaven, Temples of Doom, and Humane-Washing," "My Beef With Temple Grandin: Seemingly Humane Isn't Enough," "Going to slaughter: Should animals hope to meet Temple Grandin?," "Killing 'Happy' Pigs Is 'Welfarish' and Isn't Just Fine," and links therein.

As I wrote above, I hope "The Psychology of Cows" becomes required reading for everyone who works with cows in all of the venues in which cows and humans interact. Cows are routinely dissed and detailed scientific research shows that they do not deserve to be treated as unfeeling objects. I fully know that some people will quibble that cows are indeed respected for who they are, but that we have to use them as we do and they're doing the best they can to give them a "better life." It worth bearing in mind as I've written above that a "better life" is not necessarily a "good life," so feel good excuses and rationalizations don't really help these bright and sentient bovines or other so-called "food animals."

A cow by any other name is still a cow

The amount of abuse that currently goes on in the animal-food industrial complex is rampant and inexcusable, so what we've known for a long while and what we're learning really isn't used on the animals' behalf. And the words we use to refer to these sentient individuals — products such as steak, burgers, beef, veal, and leather, for example — hides what we know about their deep and rich emotional lives. I often wonder how people would view their meals and if they'd change their meal plans if they were referred to as cow, pig, or bird. A cow by any other name is still a cow — a sentient feeling being.

Marino and Allen's comprehensive and focused essay sets the standard for what is needed for many other animals. Please stay tuned for more discussion about their cognitive and emotional lives. I look forward to sharing this information with a broad audience because it's essential that we understand, appreciate, and respect other animals for who they are, and that we use what know to protect them in an increasingly human-dominated world.

1Kristin Allen and Lori Marino's response to comments that have been posted about their essay can be found in a short piece titled "The Psychology of Cows — Commentary Response." In response to one commentary by Heather Hill called "The Psychology of Cows? A Case of Over-interpretation and Personification" that accuses them of not being objective or parsimonious and of claiming that they overstate the case about the incredible cruelty to which "food animals" are routinely subjected by noting that they're treated in a “distressful and unnatural” manner, Allen and Marino write, "She fails to mention that farmed animals are exempt from most state anti-cruelty laws, and there are no federal laws protecting farmed animals. There are also state exemptions for most commonly accepted agricultural practices (Bauer, 2008; Favre, 2016; also see Steier & Patel, 2017). We reaffirm that intense confinement that restricts movement, interference with mother- child attachment bonds, and removing individuals’ body parts, such as testicles and horns, is both distressing and unnatural. We appreciate Hill’s critique but suggest that 'objectivity' must be applied in all directions." (My emphasis.)

I agree with Allen and Marino that there is absolutely nothing natural about these horrific and brutal "business as usual" practices which are known to be incredibly physically and psychology harmful. Indeed, as I note above, reprehensible cruelty is rampant in the animal-industrial complex. As one of my colleagues notes, "I guess those steaks and hamburgers taste better with a side dish of denial."

While people can quibble about the details of this or that research, they can't quibble about whether or not cows and other animals suffer and feel pain when they're abused, as they are on their way to human mouths.

2Marino and Allen's piece is also discussed in Newsweek in an essay by Kristin Hugo called "Cow Science: Cattle Are Intelligent, Emotional, and They Have Eureka Moments—So Should We Be Killing Them?"

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