Features & Stories
Canny Cows

Cows are smart. It's been said on television so it must be true. After years of being dissed because they refused to fetch, heel, roll over or perform other humiliating tricks to please humans, cows have been recognized as having their own skills, Researchers, realizing that cows make poor dogs or chimpanzees, devised tests that make sense to a cow. Maybe you've seen the results? Cows can tell the difference between a man and a woman. Even if the people change places. Even if the woman stands on a box to appear taller. There's more. After just a few lessons, cows learned to bunt a large red button with their heads to obtain grain. Cows have been moved way up the IQ ladder.

No more will the adjective 'bovine' denote something large, lethargic, placid and dim.

Stop the press stuff, I'm sure, to scientists, but no news at all to people familiar with wily cattle. We're waiting for word on the real questions.

Where do cattle learn engineering? If there's an M.I.T., is there a B.I.T. (Bovine Institute of Technology)? As any hiker who's followed a cow trail knows, cattle are unsurpassed at constructing maximum gain with minimum grade. Not for them the anguish of the Matterhorn. The Sea to Sky highway leaves cows unimpressed. Cows are calm creatures. No straight up, curling round the precipice paths for them, but, cows get there. No puffing, no huffing, just steady meandering upward avoiding obstacles while munching the occasional clump of grass.

When they're away from human scrutiny, do cows practise sneaking? I bet researchers assume cows are clumsy. Hah! One winter day a friend and I were lunching during a hike on ranch land. Not a single cow was in sight. Our attention was drawn to crashing and crackling along the dry streambed to our left. Eventually two very noisy cows appeared. When we turned back we met the inscrutable gaze of forty pairs of bovine eyes. While the scout cows in the coulee distracted us, forty of their sisters snuck silently to within ten feet of us. That's one hundred and sixty tippy-toes! They planned the diversion before they snuck. Scientists should be asking how.

Cows long ago resolved that very contentious issue, care of the young. Any herd with several calves has a crèche or calf care centre. Calves gather in a selected spot under the watchful protection of two or three cows. The rest of the mammas go off happily grazing, confident that their little ones are safe. Childcare isn't a feminist plot; it's female wisdom in the bovine species. (Big horn sheep do this, too, but that's another story.)

How does the herd share calf watching? There must be a system. How do cows choose? Is the rotation always the same? Maybe there's a lesson here for humans.

Anyone willing to join me in applying for a Canada Council grant to investigate? Cattle obviously have complicated and interesting lives. We should know them better.

(Trudy is a freelance writer living in Kamloops, B.C.)

Other articles by Trudy Frisk

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