Animal speculations: Cows with character


EXCERPT: A quarter of a century ago, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas wrote [...] The Hidden Life of Dogs [...] Its author was not shy about what she felt she had accomplished. “I have always wanted to enter into the consciousness of a nonhuman creature”, she wrote. There’s been no abatement since then of popular books that purport to expose the secret or hidden lives of animals. [...]

While the newer books tend to hang their cases on a growing body of scientific findings in animal behaviour, evolutionary biology and neuroscience, they all touch on age-old questions about consciousness and subjective experience. And because the invitation to journey into an animal’s mind requires at least a minor leap of faith, most writers will attempt to frame, or pre-empt, any concerns about anthropomorphism. Thomas brushed those off on evolutionary grounds, arguing that it is unscientific to draw too bold a line between our own mental experience and that of other animals, especially mammals, because our neural and hormonal networks evolved along similar pathways. That out of the way, she pronounced one dog pair husband and wife.

Rosamund Young’s The Secret Life of Cows, originally published in 2003, has overtones of Thomas’s classic, relying more on its author’s intimacy with her subject than on scientific scaffolding. “I have told the stories exactly as they happened but of course the interpretation of the actions of the ‘characters’ is mine”, Young writes in her introduction, challenging readers to take it or leave it.

Young’s characters are her cows [...] Young believes that the appearance of behavioural uniformity among cows, pigs, even chickens, is an upshot of factory farming. Animals and people can seem to lose their identities if forced to live in “unnatural, crowded, featureless” or boring conditions, she writes. On her farm mothers remain with their calves, sometimes enlisting female relatives as babysitters. (One cow named Charlotte did not take naturally to motherhood, Young writes, and her calf, Calpurnia, “was not permitted to suckle milk from her debutante-type mother who announced straight away that the nanny could bring up the brat”.)

It doesn’t really matter that Young’s depictions of her cows as expressing such complex cognitive states as bafflement, gratitude, or feigned ignorance when she’s scolding them fall outside the scope of the empirically demonstrable. Through decades of close observation, Young has uncovered many fascinating and unknown behaviours. As she acknowledges, however, these can be hard to separate cleanly from her imagination, or ours....


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