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Times - Britain
February 27, 2005
The secret life
of moody cows
Jonathan Leake, Science Editor
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
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 presenting her findings to a scientific conference to be held in
London next month by Compassion in World Farming, the animal welfare lobby
John Webster, professor of animal husbandry at Bristol, has just 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.
Dairy cow herds can also be intensely sexual. Webster describes how the cows
become excited when one of the herd comes into heat and start trying to mount
her. 'Cows look calm, but really they are gay nymphomaniacs,' he said.
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 realised and can remember 50 ovine faces --
even in profile. They can recognise 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
'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.'