Say moo to all things bright and bovine

As a new research confirms, cows are more human than many of us suspected


Suresh Menon | August 12, 2011

So cows are human, after all. Whether that is cause for cheer in the animal kingdom or not, up here (at least I think it is up here) in the human kingdom, the news has been received with some joy. Cow-fanciers are not as well-known a class as dog-breeders or giraffe-tenders, but that is not the cow’s fault. Somehow we tend to look down on that excellent creature as being boring, emotionally challenged and of interest to us only when they saunter in front of our cars when we are late for an appointment.

But now things are set to change. New research (Northampton University, since you ask) has shown that cows have friends and get stressed if they are separated from them. As so often happens with such earth-shaking discoveries, one response has been: “Wow! How earth-shaking! Soon you’ll tell us that horses can write poetry. Oh! The wonders of science!”

The other has been: “We knew it all along. Don’t pretend you have discovered something new. Haven’t you read D H Lawrence?”

Lawrence wrote about his relationship with Susan, a black cow that he milked every morning on his ranch in New Mexico. He spoke of her ‘cowy oblivion’, her ‘cow inertia’, and her ‘cowy peace’ and suggested there was “a certain untouched chaos in her”. Some days she swung her tail at Lawrence while he was milking her, just to irritate him. And on such days (although Lawrence doesn’t say this, but it’s a fair assumption), he wrote passages that irritated his readers in much the same manner.

The literary expression, “like a cow’s tail swinging into your face” hadn’t yet been used about Lawrence’s works (in fact, you read it here first), but now you know its origin.

Few poets have written about the cow which has had the unfortunate image of a lazy, cud-chewing, overly peaceful animal which is completely bland. Even those who tend the cows have had bigger roles in literature. Cowherds die many times before their death, said Julius Caesar,
as reported by Mr William Shakespeare; it seemed out of place in our school plays, and nobody bothered to explain Caesar’s interest in bovine creatures, but there it is.

One poet who did have something to say about cows was Robert Louis Stevenson:  The friendly cow all red and white, / I love with all my heart:/ She gives me cream with all her might/ To eat with apple tart.

Had Stevenson known about the social aspect of cows discovered recently by scientists, he might have written a different poem.

So cows without friends are like students approaching an examination; they are stressed, and what can be more human than that? Many humans I know are not likely to get stressed if they are separated from their friends or family. Unless, it is the stress that comes from excessive joy at unexpected freedoms. But that other thing – exam stress – is uniquely human. No animal is known to have developed ulcers on the eve of a geography test (or if they have, Northampton University is keeping silent about it).

Which brings us to a related question: Why do some animals have such a poor public image? Cats are graceful, dogs faithful, horses intelligent, crows clever, bulls physical, foxes cunning, bears grumpy and so on. But cows are just boring. Perhaps they never had a good press agent who placed stories of their bravery or wide range of interests in the right publications.

Even seals, who do little more than lie around in the sun waiting for a trainer to teach them how to balance a ball on their snouts, seem to be living exciting lives compared to cows. Giraffes are exciting simply by virtue of standing still. Cows may, like Katrina Kaif, be traffic-stoppers; they might appear to be on the verge of starting to commence doing something dramatic; their stillness may be deceptive (you think it is deceptive but it is not, thus the deception), but they are not dramatic. And that’s the problem.

It meant that the few poets who wrote about the animal tended to paint them in less than heroic colours. Here’s Ogden Nash, for example: The cow is of the bovine ilk:/ One end is Moo, the other milk.

New research has made the cow interesting. The answer to the eternal question, How now brown cow, suddenly has possibilities.



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