Skip to Main Content

The Hidden Lives of Cows

Cows are as diverse as cats, dogs, and people: Some are bright; others are slow learners. Some are bold and adventurous; others are shy and timid. Some are friendly and considerate; others are bossy and devious.  

According to research, cows are generally very intelligent animals who can remember things for a long time. Animal behaviorists have found that cows interact in socially complex ways, developing friendships over time and sometimes holding grudges against other cows who treat them badly.

These gentle giants mourn the deaths of and even separation from those they love, even shedding tears over their loss. The mother-calf bond is particularly strong, and there are countless reports of mother cows who continue to frantically call and search for their babies after the calves have been taken away and sold to veal or beef farms.

Brainy Bovines

Research has shown that cows clearly understand cause-and-effect relationships—a sure sign of advanced cognitive abilities. For example, cows can learn how to push a lever to operate a drinking fountain when they’re thirsty or to press a button with their heads to release grain when they’re hungry.Researchers have found that not only can cows figure out problems, they also, like humans, enjoy the intellectual challenge and get excited when they find a solution.

Pecking Orders Aren’t Just for Chickens

A herd of cows is very much like a pack of wolves, with alpha animals and complex social dynamics. Each cow can recognize more than 100 members of the herd, and social relationships are very important to them. Cows will consistently choose leaders for their intelligence, inquisitiveness, self-confidence, experience, and good social skills, while bullying, selfishness, size, and strength are not recognized as suitable leadership qualities.

Raising cows in unnatural conditions, such as crowded feedlots, is very stressful to them because it upsets their hierarchy. University of Saskatchewan researcher Jon Watts notes that cows who are kept in groups of more than 200 on commercial feedlots become stressed and constantly fight for dominance. (Feedlots in America hold thousands of cows at a time.)

Cows Don’t Want to Die

Like all animals, cows value their lives and don’t want to die. Stories abound of cows who have gone to extraordinary lengths to fight for their lives.

A cow named Suzie was about to be loaded onto a freighter bound for Venezuela when she turned around, ran back down the gangplank, and leaped into the river. Even though she was pregnant (or perhaps because she was pregnant), she managed to swim all the way across the river, eluding capture for several days. She was rescued by PETA and sent to a sanctuary.

When workers at a slaughterhouse in Massachusetts went on break, Emily the cow made a break of her own. She took a tremendous leap over a 5-foot gate and escaped into the woods, surviving for several weeks during New England’s snowiest winter in a decade, cleverly refusing to touch the hay put out to lure her back to the slaughterhouse.

When she was eventually caught by the owners of a nearby sanctuary, public outcry demanded that the slaughterhouse allow the sanctuary to buy her for one dollar. Emily lived out the rest of her life in Massachusetts until she died of cancer in 2004. Her life is a testament to the fact that eating meat means eating animals who don’t want to die.

Connect With PETA

Submit