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24 September 2014

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Cow with wooden puzzle
Moo-ving on up the evolutionary scale...

You clever cow!

Behind those big ol’ cow eyes, our bovine friends are a flurry of emotional angst and complex relationships. That’s according to the latest scientific research which claims that many farm animals are sentient beings. We set out to prove it…

Scientists at the University of Cambridge and the University of Bristol, say that cows can experience not only joy, pain, fear and anxiety; but also that they worry about their future, bear grudges and nurture friendships.  And, get this – they can actually become excited when faced with an intellectual challenge!

Mooved to tears?

Cow with puzzle
I'm pretty sure I can get the hang of it

To test this out, we sent BBC Radio Cambridgeshire reporter Catherine Carr and Look East’s James Blatch to Gains Lodge Farm near St Neots.  Their mission - to see if they could upset the poor creatures as well as make them jump for joy. 

"Cows look calm, but really they are gay nymphomaniacs..."
John Webster, professor of animal husbandry at Bristol University

Catherine began with some subtle intimidation tactics: “I think I’ll pick on the one with the big ears." She proceeded to break the news to the cow that Vera Drake, the only British film in the running for an Oscar, failed to win any awards. Would the cow be suitably shocked and upset to hear the news? Er, clearly not. There was no reaction at all - although the cow did look rather puzzled - which could be interpreted as a comment on the judges' failure to realise the true quality of the film.  OK, so that’s pushing things a bit, but we’re really trying here…

Meanwhile, James Blatch was relying on props for his experiments... So cows like an intellectual challenge, do they?  “Let’s see what they make of this shape sorter - my 16-month-old daughter can do this," he said, before placing the toy in front of a group of cows.  "Hmm, a display of curiosity - but a lack of opposable thumbs," he concluded.

Cow with a puzzle
Is there any food in here?

Let’s try another one. Experiment number two tested the cows’ emotional highs and lows. A short passage from Little Women was chosen by James - in fact, the section where Beth dies.  Now that would bring tears to the hardest of hearts, but elicited absolutely nothing – not a jot – from our herd of emotionally-stilted cows.  Meanwhile, Catherine was busy stirring things up with the other herd, telling the ‘big-eared’ one that other members of the herd no longer wanted her friendship.  Clearly, she didn’t really care.  Not a tear, not a moo, not a single, solitary reaction!  “I don’t think there’s much in this research,” announced Catherine.

Their attempts to make the cows jump for joy were equally inconclusive, so James resorted to dirty tactics for his final experiment.  “Let’s see how they react to disturbing horror,” he said, thrusting a jar of horseradish sauce under the nose of the nearest cow.  Finally!  We managed a reaction – but not quite the one we were expecting.  A bit of a sniff and a lick of the jar proved that this herd was more hungry than horror-stricken!

The science bit…

Horseradish sauce
Cruel and unusual...

Donald Broom, Professor of animal welfare at Cambridge University, Christine Nicol, Professor of animal welfare and John Webster, Professor of animal husbandry – both from Bristol University - are responsible for these latest claims.  The team carried out experiments on cows using puzzles and food. The cows' task was to learn how to open a door in order to get to food hidden behind.

"We monitored their brainwaves and found that the animals were excited at the point that they learnt something," explained Professor Broom.  "They showed increased heart rate and excitable behaviour - running and jumping - but they didn't show the same behaviour if they were given a reward without actually learning anything."

Cow with horseradish sauce
Scared yet, Daisy??

The last word goes to David Herdsman whose cows took part in the highly-unscientific BBC experiments: “What are cows thinking?  Basically, 'where's my next meal coming from'; 'I'm hungry, feed me'; 'I need a drink, get me to water'. Cows get used to routine - they're creatures of habit, that's all.”

The results of the university tests will be presented at the Compassion in World Farming conference to be held in London in March, where delegates will also be informed that other farm animals – sheep, pigs and even chickens - display similar emotions to cows.

last updated: 03/03/05
Have Your Say
Have you ever met a clever cow? Or what about a happy one, or one who's seriously depressed? Share your emotional farm animal stories with us...
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darren dean
i once met a holstein bull calf who had a bad front leg through a birth delivery accident. i used to help the calf to get to its mother to suckle to save it struggling and any discomfort. when my back was turned it would go to its mother to suckle faster than i could carry who is daftest ? still always help them because they wouldnt do you a bad turn on perpose .

ryan deans
Once apon a time, I happened to walk past a field of dairy cows with a ghetto blaster emmitting techno music. The cows bolted en mass to track me along the road, and appeared to be rather animated. This may appear to indicate that cows are rather more appreciative of novel stimulation, and certainly more intouch with the zeitgeist than baby-boomers; therefore much more worthy individuals. Thoughts anyone?

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