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What Cows Can Teach Us About Being Human

Some surprising new information about cows and people.

Pexel,no copyright
Source: Pexel,no copyright

What if you could have a conversation with a cow and ask it questions?

That’s what Catherine Douglas and Peter Rowlinson of Newcastle University wanted to do. And they had a number of questions in mind.

Dairy farming is a multi-billion dollar business with wide variations in profitability between herds. It can also be dangerous. In her work with different herds, Dr. Douglas has gotten several black eyes and broken ribs from upset cows. And there is a large body of industry data showing high costs that come from livestock injuries.

So, is there any way to improve the situation?

Douglas and Rowlinson set up a Newcastle University study and surveyed 550 different dairy farmers to see what the results were from their various different practices. Here are some of the questions they asked:

  • Do you think cows are intelligent?
  • Do you think cows have emotions?
  • Do your cows have contact with a female stock person? (There is anecdotal evidence that cows respond better to female stock persons.)
  • Do you treat your cows as individuals?
  • Do you treat cows not as individuals, but as part of the collective herd?
  • Do your call your cows by name?
  • Are there situations in your cows’ daily routine where they seem to exhibit fear?

In addition, there were 25 other questions that they included in their study.

Dr. Douglas said they set up the study in such a way that they could determine if any one of the 25-plus traits they asked about had any measurable effect on milk production. None of them did.

Except for one: Dr. Douglas discovered that whenever a farmer gave a cow a name and used that name with the cow on a regular basis, that cow gave an average of 500 more pints of milk a year!

The experiment was repeated in a number of other situations and produced the same results. This is an amazing experiment. It shows that by manipulating one simple variable, the name, dairy farmers can have a dramatic, consistent, quantifiable effect on their resultant milk production! Furthermore, it doesn’t cost anything to give a cow a name.

This Newcastle University study by Douglas and Rowlinson was published in the academic journal Anthrozoos.

In interviews with the farmers who gave their cows names, it turned out, quite expectably, that the act of giving a cow a name was simply the first step of entering into a relationship with that cow. By giving each of them a name, the dairy farmer was honoring the cow as an individual, separate from the herd. And the cow recognized her name and her relationship with the dairy farmer. And that relationship and acknowledgment of their own individuality created a profound physiological response in the cow. She gave 500 more pints of milk a year.

Take another look at that situation with the farmer and the cow, not so much from a quantitative standpoint, but qualitatively. What was going on between the farmer and the cow? The big thing is that the farmer was acknowledging the cow as an individual and treating it with kindness.

How might that experience relate to us as human beings, in our relationships with our fellow human beings?

I believe the experience relates profoundly. Kindness is kindness, regardless of where or to whom it is directed.

Indeed, it may well be that the ability to feel empathy and exhibit kindness may be the thing that makes us most human. According to Dr. Emma Seppala, the Science Director at the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research, “Research shows us that the long-lasting fulfillment we seek comes from living a life of purpose, of meaning, of compassion, and of altruism.”

So how much extra trouble is it, really, to be friendly to the harried clerk in the post office, and call her by name? And isn’t it a good use of your time and life energy to stop for a moment and say hello to a homeless person? And the next time a telemarketer calls, why not take time to put some joy in her life by thanking her for her call and wishing her a good day?

A little kindness can make a big difference. Just ask a cow.

© 2017 David Evans, All Rights Reserved.