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Animal Intelligence: What they know and you don’t

Published: September 9, 2010, 12:30 am ET
Collegian Columnist

My father grew up on a dairy farm in Ireland, and the intelligence of farm animals has long been a hot topic for him. From informing my siblings and me that pigs bathe in mud to protect their skin from the sun to asserting that cows who are sold onto other farms find their way home to their loved ones, my dad has been convinced for at least as long as I’ve known him that the level of intelligence among cows and pigs is comparable to that of average human beings. (He even had a small pet pig for a long time – and liked this pig better than any dog he has had since!)

Any time throughout my childhood that I dared comment to my father on the intelligence of monkeys, dogs, cats or horses, my comment would be met with the same thick-Irish-accented response: “Monkeys don’t have anything on pigs, Fiona.”

After hearing recently from an alternative source that cows cry in slaughterhouses before they are about to die, I decided to look up farm animal intellect. It turns out that Farmer Patrick (my dad) is not completely wrong – most of the studies performed and articles written, however, have been published in the U.K. rather than the United States (something to think about in terms of how our nation regards controversial issues).

The idea of cow-tipping along with the particular tone of a “moo” (for anyone who has had the pleasure of overhearing one) are cow characteristics that have perhaps misled us into thinking of cows as the essence of “dumb.” Cows are actually incredibly emotionally complex beings.

Various studies have proven their ability to feel anxiety with rather intense capacities, wherein physical displays of anxiety preceded their cause. This means that cows anticipate the future, which in turn means they have a sense of the future — a huge landmark when it comes to measurements of intelligence. In slaughterhouses, they HAVE been observed to cry; my father tells many other stories where he has observed the same thing.

John Webster, a professor of animal husbandry at Bristol (U.K.), has performed the most progressive research on this front – after doing intensive research and performing numerous studies, he has come out with a book on this topic called “Animal Welfare: Limping Towards Eden.” He has demonstrated the emotional complexity of cows through their displays in herds, wherein they are shown to have close friendships as well as deep grudges (one cow refused to “talk” to her daughter after her daughter would not let her near her new calf — implying to me personally that there may have been a longstanding battle in place!). He has also documented sexual habits among cows, and – attention homophobics trying to use “nature” or “science” against homosexuality – these ladies are pretty sexual together.

Interestingly enough, Webster also ran tests to find out cows’ ability to solve puzzles – not only were they more than capable of achieving a solution, an electrograph measuring their brainwaves showed them to actually ENJOY (via stimulation) the challenge. This means that cows have a sense of “self” – an understanding of themselves as an actor in the world.

This is groundbreaking. It explains why there have been numerous reports of cows escaping slaughterhouses, finding their way home to their loved ones after DAYS of walking when sold onto other farms and figuring out ways around electric fences and doors in order to attain something that may be on the other side – they like the intellectual challenges, and like humans, have the capacity to see themselves as navigators.

This is further reaffirmed by a study performed by Catherine Douglass, the leader of the Newcastle University team in the U.K.; she found that cows who were given a name and treated like separate and cared-for individuals produced significantly more milk than cows who were not.

Pigs are not different — it was this same Douglass who pioneered research on them. They have the ability to understand and interpret their days (and presumably longer periods of time as well — but more research needs to be done), and to translate interpretations of their days into feelings. This means that pigs analyze according to their emotions, the same way that humans (and cows) do — this means that they are not only AS SMART, but SMARTER than dogs. A series of tests using Pavlovian methods further showed that like cows, pigs are also able to anticipate the future. They, too, likely cry in slaughterhouses when they realize their fate.

Sheep and chickens are undergoing research currently, but the more substantial information has been found on pigs and cows thus far. The only thing I found that is worth mentioning about sheep is that they have been found to form deep attachments to human beings, in a manner similar to dogs — they can love a human being so much that they will recognize them after years of not seeing them, and they fall into deep depressions when humans that they love leave their lives.

A word about this article before concluding: It is not at all satirical. I know my tendency is otherwise, and thus I feel this disclaimer is necessary. That being said, I have one more important point to make.

I am not a vegan, nor am I a vegetarian. I have always subscribed to thinking that the circle of life is not something we can fight. However, upon researching farm animal intellect, my thinking is changing — Webster asserts that: “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.”

The implications of animal intelligence are huge, and bring with them milestone implications for our shameless abuse of these animals for our own consumption (and, quite honestly, mass discarding). Something needs to be done about the treatment of animals on farms and in slaughterhouses across America, Europe and the world. I have seen firsthand the cruelty of animal “care” on farms in America, Ireland, China and Mongolia.

I now further acknowledge the inhumanity associated with castration, cow-calf separation and veal production, among others. It seems that we have been using the “circle of life” to perform serious genocides upon defenseless beings that we keep dependent upon and submissive to us through their own understanding and fear of pain.

I used the following sources in the construction of this article, and highly recommend anyone interested in the topic to read them as well: (**NOTE: propagandistic, but the videos are located there)

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  • Grant Gibbs

    Sorry, I’ll keep eating veal. My ancestors did not kill their way up the food chain only for me to give up the branched chain amino acids that come from eating animals.

    • Euterpe

      and what exactly gives you the right to take credit for what your ancestors have gotten? that cow could be easily as intelligent as you and has grown up in an environment with absolutely no chance to kill and eat you. Or survive for that matter. Where’s the sport in that. Resting on your laurels is lazy, especially when they aren’t your laurels to begin with. you better hope the Karma is not an actual law on this universe or you will know the feeling of having your infant child stripped from you and watching her be chained down and killed. and you will know the feeling of being a young life striving for potential that is shot down in the.most viscious sadistic way.

    • Frederik

      What our ancestors did (‘kill their way up’), was hunt, it has nothing to do with factory farming. Euterpe made a great point before!

      • ana manea

        That is not quite true. We farm since a good 10 000 years, and our brain capacity has much grown since then. Now is this growth of our intelligence dependent upon animal meat? Has it been caused by the abundance of meatfrom farming.. it does look as though in general vegetarian animals are less intellugent, but thatcould be cause theydint hunt. However it stands to reason that the highest concentration of energy will be founf in animaks not plantd.. unlesd maybe if we modify
        them. Maybe we could… maybe we ought to try to find out. However banning hunting is harder to justify. Paradoxically, harder to justify the ban of it than of farms…

  • We’re Not Food

    My husband and I are vegan for the reasons you outline – animal intelligence examples are voluminous and it became increasingly more difficult to think of animals as food; we are unequivocally convinced they are not.

    • ana manea

      What about the cats. Are animals food for cats? They still are food than but in a sad way perhapd

  • Anonymous

    Wonderful article, Ms. Carmody! As a vegetarian, I strongly identify with the sentiments you expressed…

  • Sb62476

    Thanks Fiona for this great article. I never thought about what we are doing to animals until recently that I started reading Micheal Pollan’s, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” I have read enough on studies on animal intelligence since then and I have become a semi-vegetarian in hopes of one day being able to give up meat.
    @ Mr. Gibbs, I too thought you could only get proteins from animal products but there are people who have lived vegan there whole lives. Just fyi.

  • Nancy

    For a couple of years I’ve lived in a house next to a large rolling cow pasture. I’d never been around them, but have observed some of their behavior out the back window. Mostly their behavior seems very mechanical. They have no facial expression, nor do they tilt their heads or move their ears to show interest in their surroundings. Except for one that got sick and was obviously suffering, they don’t seem to care how cold, wet, hot or humid it gets. I’ve only observed rare instances of actions that show they have individual characters. Even though they have plenty of space and food and water, their lives seem pretty dreary to me, probably because they show so little interaction or interest in their environment. They look healthy, but move listlessly. It actually saddens me, and I think I’d rather believe their intelligence is almost nil. It would be too much to bear to believe they are actually thinking about their lot in life.

  • Simple

    I feel sorry for people like Grant Gibbs. There are still a lot of ignorance about this. Go Vegan!

  • VegLady

    Thinking about those poor cows crying in slaughter houses breaks my heart.
    How can such an animal loving society condone this?
    What can we do to stop this?
    Most people roll their eyes when you bring up vegetarianism.
    They consider it self-righteous. Same people who cry over puppy mills.
    We are not cavemen. We have options for survival.

    • ana manea

      But how do you know it is not detrimental to expressing our best performances? We have options if the goal is to not die, but would the sprint record time be as high and our chess champs as good? That would be a hard thing to measure… Because if it slows our evolution or has any other type of undesirable effect like altering mood, it has to be considered as an option cost,

  • Cbone

    All my life I’ve been convinced of animal intelligence. Growing up, almost every dinner consisted of some form of meat. I’ve considered becoming a vegetarian before, but as a child, even one extremely fond of animals, it was difficult to give up in a family setting. But having brief contact with pigs, sheep and cows, as well as reading this article and others besides, has convinced me it is time to go Vegetarian. I’ll keep fish on the menu for now, but I want to thank you for giving me something to remind myself of when the smell of burgers on the barbeque tempts.

  • Nathan

    Great article Fiona. I think if more people understood that farm animals have feelings and understood factory farm conditions and their treatment of animals there would be a lot less meat consumption. Glad to see some companies making the move away from sourcing from farm practices such as gestation crating and we still have a long way to go.

  • Manel Dias

    There are so many Vegan or Vegetarians are in this world and they are extreamely healthy & happy. To name a few The fastest Race car driver in Russia, the fastest man on earth Carl Lewis, Rich & famous people such as Paul McCartney, Pamela Anderson, Stella McCartney, Clint Eastwood, Madonna, Brigitt Bardot, Abraham Lincoln, Bob Marley, Holy Dalai Lama, Drew Barrymore, Brad Pitt, Tina Turner, Leonardo Da Vinci, Mahatma Ghandi, Buddha Tolstoy the the list goes on & on. Then again the followers of the Hinduism and the Buddhism they are completely Vegetarians or Vegans. So please people when you talk about those rubbish protein and amino acid do your reasearch first and then start arguing. Other wise you simply say BS & looks like a fool fallen from an outer space.