A Cow’s Life

0630824800By Jonathan Leake

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 presented her findings to a scientific conference to held in London by Compassion in World Farming, the animal welfare lobby group.

John Webster, professor of animal husbandry at Bristol, has 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.

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 realized and can remember 50 ovine faces—even in profile. They can recognize 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.”

This article orignally appeared in the Times Online.


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6 Responses to A Cow’s Life

  1. Fabulous article. Some people who profess to loving animals and want to protect dogs and cats think nothing of eating “other” animals as if their only purpose was to feed humans. If only they could understand that their “food” has as much or more intelligence and feelings than the animals which have been sanctioned as pets. Perhaps we should have classifications of “preferred” animals for pets and others as food bio-machines, but in some countries the food category would also included cats and dogs. This fact incensed the British during the colonial period, though they never considered how the Hindus felt when their cows [who were often like family members] were slaughtered. Somehow everyone doesn’t mind taking the life of their preferred food animals [as long as someone else kills it], while they want to protect their preferred pets. Why not protect all animals, seeing then as sentient feeling creatures worthy of our respect? The questions remains on how to have this discussion beyond the dinner table, and on the level of what is right. Than again one person’s “right” is another person’s “wrong”.

  2. In the material world we observe that one living entity is food for another. It is the law of nature.
    Is a person who has no knowledge of the soul, Supersoul and Dharma, still held liable for the karma of eating animals for food?
    Why is it sinful for a human to eat animals, yet it is not sinful for an animal to eat another animal?
    If a person has no information about the sinfulness of eating animals, then is it really a sin for him to eat animals for food?

    We hear that most beef cattle were humans in their previous life that had to take birth as a cow to be killed and eaten.

    Why then is it wrong for a person to kill and eat another living entity whose karma dictates that he must be born as an animal and be killed for food?

    If the beef cow was destined by karma to become a beef cow and be killed for food, then why is it sinful to kill and eat that animal?

    Aren’t all weaker animals food for stronger animals?
    Isn’t the human the stronger animal that is making food out of the beef cows?

  3. Very good article. Even aboriginal people knew there is not much difference between humans and animals – all you need to see that is a careful observation of their behavior. It was the influence o the Abrahamic religions that made people believe that having no soul, animals were simply automatons with no individuality and no emotions.

    As to the question whether it is a sin to kill and eat animals “meant to be killed and eaten”: for you as an individual it may or may not be a sin. If you were a cow in your previous life, killing and eating these ‘former tormentors’ might be an act of pre-ordained fate. If not, you will probably be eaten in your next life. Do you really want to take that chance?

    If you consider yourself a stronger animal whose right it is to eat weaker ones, you are wrong, because you DO have a choice.

    Sometimes we are merely an instrument of karma (like driving the car that runs over a squirrel), and sometimes we are the ones who set in motion a new karmic chain (like deciding to hunt, kill, and eat an animal).

    IMO those who have no moral qualms about eating meat and killing animals for food have a much less developed consciousness then those who became vegetarians out of compassion for suffering animals. Those people who see animals as their spiritual kin impress me far more then most self-declared ‘people of God’ who see nothing wrong with eating veal.

    In many native cultures people killed animals in order to survive but felt bad about doing so. Consequently they had rituals and prayers to ask spirits of these animals for forgiveness. I would like to see a once famous former Pope who liked veal pray for forgiveness to the spirits of the animals killed to satisfy his palate. Unless meat eating people do so, I will find their spirituality seriously lacking. But that is just me…

  4. The most number of vegetarians in the world are in India, but does that mean Indians are the most compassionate people. I seriously doubt that. For many people in India, vegetarianism is a cultural conditioning and a way of feeling superior to others who do not follow the same ideal. Many vegetarians treat men from lower castes worse than animals.

  5. Sometimes humans are forced to cull animals because of their overpopulation, which causes disturbance to humans. In Australia there are culling camels for the same reason. http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/news/environment/flora-fauna/Australia-to-cull-650000-camels-Report/articleshow/4874777.cms

  6. This is really good stuff. Having lived with cows I have seen that they form friendships with some and dislike others, have unique personalities, etc., just like humans do. They don’t like to sit out in the rain and be cold and uncomfortable, and love to chill in the warm sun. They come when called by someone they are familiar with and who they know loves them. It bewilders me how people can live with such animals, sometimes even naming them and treating them as pets, then kill them and eat them. There is a huge cognitive disconnect there–denial can make us do amazingly stupid things.

    Worminstool, you said:

    Aren’t all weaker animals food for stronger animals?
    Isn’t the human the stronger animal that is making food out of the beef cows?

    The whole point of humanity is to rise above animality. Of course there is an animal aspect to humans–they eat, reproduce, etc.– but if they behave like animals then they are not living up to the responsibility that accompanies the human form. The sastra calls such people “dvi-pada pasu”–two-footed animals. And although humanity is “superior” to other animals by dint of its possessing the faculty of intelligence, it is the corruption of humanity’s intelligence due to misidentifying with our animal nature that causes us to live as animals and ignore our potential as compassionate beings.

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