Despite having been outstanding in their field for centuries, cows are just now starting to receive much deserved respect from human beings.
For years, the bovine among us have been on the butt end of flatulence jokes and demeaning activities, both real and imagined. For example, we have cow bingo — a game where a grid of numbered squares are marked on the ground, and contestants put money down hoping to correctly determine exactly where the cow will drop her contribution to the global fertilization effort. And then there is cow tipping, which is not a real activity, but an urban legend. As any dairy farmer will tell you, cows give their milk freely and never accept a tip.
Scientists are learning that cows are actually extremely intelligent. The Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology (FAB) in Germany released a report this month explaining how they were able to potty-train a herd of cows to reduce the acidification of soil on a farm.
The calves in the project were trained via a system of rewards and mild punishments. When they urinated in an assigned area, the cows were given a sweet drink, and when they relieved themselves elsewhere, they received a blast of cold water. While this method of reinforcement used with a child might garner a visit from protective services, it seemed to be both acceptable and successful with the livestock in the study. “Cattle, like many other animals, are quite clever and they can learn a lot,” stated FAB animal psychologist Jan Langbein. “I hope that, in a few years, all cows will go to a toilet.” If the good doctor’s prediction is correct, I imagine the port-o-let lines at the fair are going to double in length.
In other news concerning bovine intelligence, Alexandra Green, a Ph.D. student at the University of Sydney’s School of Life and Environmental Sciences, spent five months hanging out with a herd of Holsteins recording their moos. Green captured 333 high-frequency vocalizations from 13 cows and determined that each utterance meant something different. For example, “moo” means, “Hey, you’re chewing with your mouth open again,” whereas “moo” means, “Did you see that new bull in pen B?” and “moo” means “Yoplait’s new pumpkin spice yogurt is to die for!” Of course, I’m kidding; I’m not certain Yoplait’s pumpkin spice yogurt is any good at all. But the point is proof of cows’ communications skills further confirm they are smarter than we previously thought.
Our farm critter friends are not only intelligent, they also have become civic-minded. Heifers can now be found in Rotary Clubs and serving on school boards, and I don’t need to mention the supreme sacrifice many of them make so we can enjoy burgers at social functions. In addition, cows are occasionally in the news for assisting the local constabulary with law enforcement.
In June, the Cumberland, Wisconsin, Police Department was involved in a chase with a driver of a Chevy Cavalier. The pursuit lasted for 13 miles before the officers caught up with their quarry. The driver might have gotten away if it wasn’t for a group of cows who stood in the roadway and blocked his vehicle. Once the Chevy stopped, the cows surrounded the car and overwhelmed the subject until police arrived and apprehended him.
A cop on the scene herd the operator udder that he was in a very bad mooed and had a beef with the cows for their unwarranted actions. You are probably saying to yourself, “Mark is out of control. How dairy stoop so low with these cheesy puns.” If it’s any consolation, I realize I have milked this for all it’s worth and undoubtedly pasture tolerance for barnyard wordplay.
The ironic part of this story is that, as we are beginning to give pasture poopers their props, cows are distancing themselves from humans, and for good reason. Scientists have determined that the domestication of these animals has caused a reduction in their brain size (the cow’s brains, not the scientist’s).
After measuring skulls of extinct bison-like mammals from the Middle East that many believe are the ancestors to modern cows, researchers at the University of Zurich discovered the brains of today’s cows are 26% smaller. Further investigation revealed this shrinkage was only partially the result of cows watching “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.” Clearly, this news has upset the bovine, who are voracious science journal readers.
So if you see a cow on the street or maybe in line waiting to use the restroom, show her some respect. Say hi, tell her she looks very wise, and thank her for her contributions to society. But don’t be surprised if you receive a cold shoulder. And for goodness sakes, whatever you do, if you approach a cow don’t try to tip her …
Mark S. Albury lives in Northfield Falls.