Brainy Bovines (a brief overview of cow intelligence)

Most people view cows as big, bumbling, dumb creatures that just stand around and chew grass all day.  We like to imagine that they don’t think and that they certainly don’t suffer, but this couldn’t be farther from the truth.  Cows are social animals that have hierarchies and structure to their herds; are naturally inquisitive; and have their own distinct personalities ranging from shy, adventurous, friendly, bossy, or crafty.  Research shows that they are very intelligent and have great memories.  Like humans, primates, and other mammals, they naturally lead socially complex lives. They form friendships with one another as well as hold grudges against those who have hurt them.  They mourn the loss of loved ones and I’ve read many accounts of mother cows on factory farms who will bellow continuously until they go hoarse, in an attempt to call to their calves, who are taken away almost as soon as they’re born to be raised for veal.

John Webster, a professor of animal husbandry at Bristol University, lead a study that examined the complex social relationships within herds of cows.  Professor Webster actually published  book on the matter, Animal Welfare: Limping Towards Eden.  Webster says, “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 study documented how cows within a herd form friendships and cliques where they protect and groom one another.  Cows can remember and identify all the members of their herd, which sometime include more than 100 cattle.  They also bear grudges, lasting anywhere from months to years, against other cows who have wronged them. Webster’s also dismisses the idea that cows have no sense of self, saying “sentient animals have the capacity to experience pleasure and are motivated to seek it.” They are just as capable of feeling joy and seeking pleasure as they are of feeling pain and suffering.

Yet most people also mistake a cow’s reaction to stress or pain as the cow being stubborn or stupid.  Cattle are prey animals and so they crave the comfort and security of their herd.  They choose herd leaders based on criteria such as intelligence and social skills, keep track of one another, and call out to and search for those who are missing.  When their social structure is disrupted on factory farms, they become upset and stressed out.  They may scatter or become easily spooked.  This isn’t because they’re stupid.  In fact, a study done in the UK that was led by Donald Broom of Cambridge University disproves the idea that cows are unintelligent.  This study, like Webster’s, concluded that cows, like humans, lead socially complex lives and will gladly accept intellectual challenges. They can even be trained.  In a UK study conducted by Cambridge University, cows were taught to press buttons and levers to get food and water and in anther study they learned to open doors to get to food, showing that they understand cause-and effect relationships and are capable of problem solving.  Like pigs, cows also have a good sense of direction and there are stories of cows who find their way home after being sold to other farms.

I know it’s easier not to think about this stuff, to just enjoy your hamburger or steak and tell yourself you deserve it because you’re at the top of the food chain.  But let’s not fool ourselves.  When cows suffer third degree burns from being branded, have their testicles cut from their body without anesthesia, have their horns burned off, and suffer respiratory infections from the disgusting conditions they are kept in, they suffer.  They feel pain.  They do not want to die.

So what can you do to reduce or eliminate your consumption of cows?  First think about why you truly like the taste of meat.  Is it the meat itself?  If you were handed a piece of unseasoned beef, would you want to eat it?  It’s most likely the sauce, gravy, marinade, or batter the meat was cooked in that is tickling your taste buds.   What makes sloppy joes so delicious?  It’s not the ground beef.  It’s the sauce!  What makes ribs so mouth-watering?  Would you eat a plain, unseasoned rib with no sauce?  No, it’s the tangy, sweet, smoky sauce that you like!  Try using the things that typically bring flavor to your favorite meat dishes in vegetarian dishes.

For example, if you like BBQ, try Morningstar Farms Hickory BBQ Riblets; barbecue tofu or tempeh; barbecue baked beans; a black bean burger topped with slaw, barbecue sauce, and onion rings; or a veggie burger with teriyaki sauce and grilled pineapple rings!

You can easily replace the ground beef in spaghetti sauce, tacos, and sloppy joes with seasoned lentils and onions.  Just mix cooked lentils and sautéed onions with the marinara sauce, taco seasoning, or sloppy joe sauce.


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