Even Cows Get the Blues

Earlier this month a young bull escaped from a slaughterhouse in Brooklyn and ran for his life through the streets of NYC. He ended up two miles away in a field in Prospect Park. The bull, nicknamed Jimmy K, was taken to the Skylands Animals Sanctuary in East New York, Brooklyn.

Jimmy K’s desperate effort to live is characteristic of what all cows feel on their way to slaughter. And a new peer-reviewed paper in the journal Animal Behavior and Cognition, entitled “The Psychology of Cows” authored by Dr. Lori Marino and doctoral student Kristin Allen, provides the scientific evidence to support this conclusion.
Cows share a number of cognitive capacities with other highly intelligent species such as dogs, chimpanzees, and humans.

The authors reviewed dozens of peer-reviewed studies of cognition, emotion, personality and social behavior of domestic cows. They found that cows possess surprisingly high emotional sensitivity, including the ability to “catch” each other’s feelings. This sophisticated capacity, known as “emotional contagion,” occurs when one individual experiences an emotion by witnessing that emotion in another individual. Shown in many socially complex species, including humans, this adaptive ability to share the feelings of others allows both cows and humans to use social cues to deal with challenging situations.

In addition to their empathic qualities, cows are also deeply affected by their own emotions, resulting in a cognitive effect on decision making akin to what we call “pessimism” and “optimism.” For example, the emotional and physical pain of early separation from their mothers and dehorning – two common practices in the dairy and beef industries – can result in a negative feeling that can last for days and impact their willingness to play or take on a new challenge.

With intriguing examples based on an extensive review of the scientific literature to date, the authors conclude that “Cows lead rich and intense social lives; experience a range of emotions; and rely on one another for comfort.” For example, they:

  • ABC_Cover_Nov-2017-smShow excitement and signs of pleasure when they master intellectual challenges, suggesting that cows have a keen awareness of the consequences of their own actions
  • Differentiate between individual humans, other cows, and members of other nonhuman species
  • Possess long-term memories
  • Can navigate complex mazes
  • Love to play with objects and one another
  • Experience judgment bias, a cognitive effect on decision-making analogous to what we call “pessimism” and “optimism”
  • Experience emotions, exhibit emotional contagion, and show some evidence for feeling empathy
  • Stay calmer and less stressed when accompanied by fellow cows even during stressful situations
  • Form strongly bonded social groups, with mothers and calves sharing an especially powerful emotional connection
  • Learn from each other
  • And have distinct, individual personalities.

Dr. Marino explains:

“We have shown that cows share a number of cognitive capacities with other highly intelligent species such as dogs, chimpanzees, and humans.

“The capacities explored in this paper also emphasize the need for additional non-invasive comparative behavioral research with cows in natural settings.

“At present, the available research on cows focuses overwhelmingly on how these animals can be used to maximize the profits of farming industries. Consequently, most studies explore questions such as: “How can we make cows grow bigger bodies in smaller spaces?” and “How quickly after her calf is taken away can a mother cow be re-impregnated to maximize her efficiency?”

“We want to encourage future research to shift away from a focus on how to use cows. Until then, we hope that insight into the feeling, thinking lives of cows inspires a future in which cows are not used as commodities but, rather, celebrated for the individuals they are.”

This is the fourth paper produced with grant money from Farm Sanctuary’s The Someone Project, an endeavor aimed at using scientific evidence to raise the public’s understanding of farm animal cognition and behavior. The first three papers focused on the cognitive and behavioral complexities of fish, pigs, and chickens respectively, and generated international attention.

A white paper based on this publication is also available. Also, the paper is reviewed at Newsweek magazine.

Active SETI – WE are the big bad aliens!

Since the 1960s some of the world’s best scientists have been searching for signals from extraterrestrial intelligence using large radio telescopes. This program is known as SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. And while this planet has been leaking its own radio signals into space since the 1940s and actively listening for signals, we now have the capability to do more than listen and leak. We can send intentional and powerful radio signals into space. This kind of effort, called Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI) or Active SETI, would differ from standard SETI in that we would broadcast our existence and our ideas in a way that optimizes the chances of a technological extraterrestrial civilization finding out about us.

And it is this idea, Active SETI, that has recently become the topic of heated controversy in academic and scientific circles. The worry is that an extraterrestrial civilization will find out about us and come here and do something, well, bad. As our technology gets better and the data about the possibilities of life on other planets keep pouring in almost daily, many people feel that Active SETI is not just a pipedream but, rather, an issue that is increasingly realistic and, therefore, has to be carefully deliberated.

Recently, a small group of scientists published a statement entitled “Regarding Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI) / Active Searches FOR Extraterrestrial Intelligence (Active SETI)”, in which they propose we should have a vigorous global debate about doing Active SETI before we try it. Their main concern is that “it is impossible to predict whether ETI will be benign or hostile.” No wonder we’re afraid of our chicken wings coming home to roost.

I respect the signatories and their concerns. Many of them are colleagues. But I find it ironic that we should be concerned about some faraway extraterrestrials coming here to destroy the Earth. If that’s our concern, we need look no further than in the mirror! It’s hardly as though everything is fine here on Earth and all we have to worry about is someone else coming from halfway across the galaxy to mess it up. We’re doing that ourselves. Planetary destruction? Check. Mass extinction? Check. Enslavement? Check. Torture and killing? Check.

So what exactly are we afraid of that isn’t already happening right now?

If we’re concerned about becoming the proverbial “ingredient in someone’s soup” (as in the Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man“), then it’s even more ironic given that we consume other animals by the hundreds of millions every year. (Shark fin soup, anyone?) No wonder we’re afraid of our chicken wings coming home to roost.

The concerns expressed in the Berkeley document are a distraction from the real work we need to do to save this planet and its inhabitants. Articulating anxieties over a remote possibility over which we really have very little control is the easy part. We will decide to either do Active SETI or not. It is a simple binary choice. What is much more difficult, however, is to navigate the complex dimensions of human nature and our effects on life on this planet and find a way out of the “invasion” our species has already enacted.

Recognizing Intelligence – Wherever It May Be

Kimmela Center Director Lori Marino participated in a recent colloquium of scientists to discuss nonhuman communication research and the evolution of intelligence.

The meeting, which was held at The SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, on October 20-21, included discussion of new methods of exploring nonhuman animal complex communication systems on Earth that may provide insight into and tools for exploring potential future assessments of life on other planets.

Participants also presented a summary of the workshop at a public forum at the Institute. You can find the videotape of that event here:

Dr. Marino presented research showing that there is evolutionary continuity in intelligence across all animals on earth and that human intelligence is just one variation on a theme that was laid down over 600 million years ago. She also explained how there is no evidence for human superiority in the animal kingdom and that our species needs to gain better perspective on our identity as animals.

The workshop was organized by Dr. Denise Herzing of the Wild Dolphin Project and geologist Lori Walton. Dr. Marino was joined by a stellar group of participants from the fields of animal communication, biological computation, and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, including Dr. Brenda McCowan, Dr. Laurance Doyle, Dr. Michael Coen, Dr. Con Slobodchikoff, Dr. John Elliott, Dr. Doug Vakoch and Dr. Gerry Harp.

This initial workshop and colloquium on nonhuman communication will lead to a working group and future workshops to continue to address this important area of exploration.