The Internal Life of Cows

two cows by a fenceI have a conflicting relationship with cows.

I love them. I love to look at them, touch them and hang out with them. I’ve had the opportunity to feed a cow, see cows mate and give birth, and even once tried my hand at milking a cow (I sucked). I dream of having a pet Jersey cow some day. I even collect cow paraphernalia for my kitchen. This past weekend, while celebrating our one-year wedding anniversary, my husband let me stop and take pictures of cows (that’s how much he loves me!).

However, alas, I like eating them on occasion, too.

And this is where I’m most conflicted. Would I be willing to eat a dog or cat? No. But why do I eat a cow? Well, the easy answer is that I’ve been socialized that way and once you like the taste of cow flesh it makes it easier to justify eating them. I’ve never tasted dog or cat, so I can’t bring myself to start.

Carma's cow kitchen

Cows Are Like Dogs?

New research has just come across my desk that makes this conflict for me even more of a challenge: A peer-reviewed scientific article has concluded that cows are emotionally, cognitively and socially complex individuals. “We have shown that cows share a number of cognitive capacities with other highly intelligent species such as dogs, chimpanzees, and even humans,” says neuroscientist Dr. Lori Marino, who authored the paper, which appeared in the journal Animal Behavior and Cognition, with doctoral student Kristin Allen.

“Cows lead rich and intense social lives,” she says, “experience a range of emotions, and rely on one another for comfort.” For example, cows:

  • Show excitement and signs of pleasure when they master intellectual challenges, suggesting that cows have a keen awareness of the consequences of their own actions;
  • Differentiate between individual humans, other cows, and members of other nonhuman species;
  • Possess long-term memories;
  • Can navigate complex mazes;
  • Love to play with objects and one another;
  • Experience judgment bias, a cognitive effect on decision making analogous to what we call “pessimism” and “optimism;”
  • Experience emotions, exhibit emotional contagion, and show some evidence for feeling empathy;
  • Stay calmer and less stressed when accompanied by fellow cows even during stressful situations;
  • Form strongly bonded social groups, with mothers and calves sharing an especially powerful emotional connection;
  • Learn from each other; and
  • Have distinct, individual personalities.

The journal article detailed dozens of peer-reviewed, scientific studies to determine what we do and do not know about cow cognition, emotion, and sociality. The areas examined in the article include cognition, emotion, self-awareness, personality, and social complexity. For more information on this topic, read this white paper based on the publication.

Writing Prompts

The writing prompts in this post are provided for your use and thought experimental pleasure. Feel free to create (and publish) your own stories inspired by them.

  • Clifford D. Simak wrote a novel called City about the far future when dogs are sentient. A sub-story of the novel followed the intellectual evolution of a colony of ants into sentience. What if cows evolved into sentient life? What would that look like?
  • What would it look like if the world treated cows like cats and dogs and no longer raised them for food? Would we still use them for dairy production? If so, how would our current dairy raising practices change?
  • Tad Williams wrote a fantasy novel, Tailchaser’s Song, based in a world of cats. What would an epic fantasy look like if the dominant characters were cows?
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