cattle (n.)

mid-13c., “property” of any kind, including money, land, or income; from Anglo-French catel “property” (Old North French catel, Old French chatel), from Medieval Latin capitale “property, stock,” (Online Etymological Dictionary)


As a child, I lived at the edge of a large town, on the outskirts of a large city. Miles of farmland surrounded my parents’ house on three sides, which my friends and I would hungrily explore, searching for unusual rocks, imagined foes, old crockery buried in the furrows, the right kind of stick, ghosts, places to build dens, and escaped zoo animals. Most of these were in short supply, so there were a lot of ‘near sightings’ involved. One Friday afternoon, when I was ten, we were forced out of our imaginations.

A friend and I were crossing a field, at the other end of which a herd of cows was grazing. We often cut across fields containing cows or bullocks, but knew to stay out of pastures containing only one animal, because that meant a bull. In this field, we were distracted by a kestrel hovering overhead. It was the one raptor we could put a name to, because they stayed still for so long, and one featured in Animals of Farthing Wood, an early-morning cartoon. Reveling in our successful identification, we congratulated ourselves for having mastered the wild.

We must have stared for too long, because my friend let out a scream and sprinted towards the ditch. Turning, I saw the herd charging, meters away, the whites of their raging eyes. I was addicted to Coca Cola at the time and was carrying an empty bottle. Unsure what I was doing, and envisioning my trampled remains, I produced a falsetto battle cry, started banging the bottle against my hand, and ran towards the cows. The herd parted and regrouped a little way off, allowing us to escape the field. I suspect mine is one of very few lives that the Coca Cola Company can claim to have saved.

I never tried that trick again, but our need to retaste the adrenaline of real peril brought us back to the cows. For months afterwards we would linger around the edges of fields until given chase, before hopping the gate to safety. There were ultimately so many near misses that we abandoned the practice and returned to ghost hunting. However, I continued to wonder about the cows. Why did they charge? Weren’t they supposed to be tame, docile creatures, basically food?

A wildlife documentary shed some light on things, the cape buffalo accelerating towards the hyenas that danced around their calves. In rural Kildare, we were the hyenas. Still, there was something incongruous about a herd of ‘beef cattle’ behaving like their wild cousins. The prevailing attitude is to view cows as so completely conquered and commodified that, even alive and healthy in the fields, they are a kind of inert foodstuff, great, hulking packets of Hobnobs on stilts. I realized much later that I had been conditioned to view them in this way, to elide the interiority, the goals of the wild animal, of migration, socialization, play, conflict, and long life. A question bothered me: just how much of the cow that we know is a myth designed to justify our relentless consumption of them?

A cursory Google search tells you that a cow has intelligence roughly equivalent to that of a three-year-old child. To me, that doesn’t sound right. Now, I’m sure that the scientists concerned will have tested the cow’s ability to perform the kind of problem solving tasks that a three-year-old is capable of. I simply wonder whether they will have tested the capacity of a herd of three-year-olds to, like their intellectual peers, navigate between watering holes in the Australian Outback, or perform the synchronized maneuvers required to fight off an appropriately scaled-down pack of coyotes (Westies perhaps). Perhaps a more appropriate, but still inadequate, way to think about how a cow’s intelligence relates to a three-year-old’s is a Venn diagram, where the intersection between cow and three-year-old intelligences contains a certain kind of problem solving task enjoyable to three-year-olds. Such a diagram, I feel, doesn’t shed much light on cows.

My frustration led me to the recent ‘landmark’ essay, ‘The Psychology of Cows’, by Lori Marino and Kristen Allen, which reviews the pre-existing literature on cow psychology.[1] The authors concluded that cows:

  1. are able to make sophisticated discriminations among not only objects but humans and conspecifics;
  2. possess not just simple emotions, but several emotional capacities, such as cognitive judgment bias and emotional contagion;
  3. show an apparent emotional reaction to learning, which may reflect a sense of self-agency similar to some other mammals;
  4. have distinct personalities;
  5. exhibit several dimensions of social complexity, including social learning.

They also found that cows engage in ‘all forms of play found in mammals, including playing with objects such as balls, gamboling and running, and also social play with members of other species’. This, when most three-year-olds I know struggle to engage in social play with members of their own species.

The other side of the Venn diagram was beginning to be filled, but there were issues. Marino and Allen found that behavioral studies on cows are ‘almost entirely done within the framework of and applied to their use as food commodities’, relating their ‘cognitive abilities to characteristics mainly relevant to intensive farming’. This suggests that such studies encourage the idea that an intelligent cow is one best suited for its own captivity and eventual slaughter. To say that this is a cunning inversion of the facts is a bit of an understatement. The authors further concluded that false assumptions of cows as ‘simple grazers’ are ‘largely maintained by powerful economic and political forces’, and that ‘scientific knowledge has been similarly shaped and limited by this ideology’. Clearly the cow is molded not by breeding alone, but by discourse that aims to justify our ancient and accelerating customs of abusing them. The words of Franz Fanon come to mind. He described the colonizer’s attempts to empty the ‘native’s brain of all form and logic’, ‘disfigur[ing], and destroy[ing] the past of the oppressed’, to legitimise their exploitation.[2] The same dynamic is present in the colonization of the cow, who we have similarly emptied as a pretext for brutal harvest.

a map showing feral and domestic cows ranges; feral cows roamed over three times as large a territory as domestic cows, with a small amount of overlap between their ranges
Figure 1. The territorial ranges of three free-wandering domestic cattle and three feral cows, from six separate herds, in Mexico’s Chihuahuan Desert
A further problem with Marino and Allen’s study led me to another Venn diagram. How can we base our understanding of a being’s capabilities on its performance under conditions of persecuted captivity? Separated from their mothers at birth, horns scalded from their heads, force-fed hormones that keep them either pregnant or in heat, isolated in a pen if male, witnesses to the slaughter of their friends and relatives: are domestic cattle really in a position to thrive on an intellectual or interpersonal level? Marino and Allen’s finding, that ‘much like humans, when cows are distressed, they exhibit a relatively more negative response bias towards ambiguous stimuli’, suggests not. Figure 1 displays the territorial ranges of three free-wandering domestic cattle versus three of their feral counterparts, in the Chihuahan Desert of Mexico.[3] With a range of 47 km2, the feral cows roamed over three times as large a territory as the domestic, at 14km2, and used a wider range of habitats. They were also nocturnal, like cape buffalo. The authors suggest the feral group’s unusual behavior was down to the risk of predation by ranchers with lassos. The struggle made them flexible. One can’t help but admire the fact that they were willing to sacrifice the daylight for their freedom.

Another herd displaying more diverse behavior in response to liberation from human affairs are the Chillingham cattle of Northumberland. This breed has long roamed ‘wild’ in Chillingham Park, possibly since as early as the 13th Century.[4] Nobody knows how they got there, but we know they’re staying put; a border wall surrounds the 330 acres on which they live (I resist the impulse to write ‘graze’).[5] These are highly social animals; both bulls and cows form lifelong bonds with small groups of members of their own sex.[6] The Chillingham herd are far chattier than farmed cattle, with a more frequent call rate than any domestic breed.[7] They also have a greater variance of calls, with different types of lowing used to signal social status, and a ‘hooting’ system unique among bovines, through which bulls compete and identify one another.[8] It seems that, undisturbed in their stone Petri dish for centuries, these cattle have developed a language system more complex than any of their farmed peers. Wouldn’t you be more productive without any bolt guns around? These studies suggest that the cow has been constructed not by biased discourse alone, but by the stultifying environments and repeated trauma that we subject them to. We have not only emptied their minds, but robbed them of culture as well.

The Chillingham cattle serve as a potent reminder of what humans are liable to do with the structures that they hollow out. The apparent ‘wildness’ of the herd and mystery surrounding their origins led to them becoming a subject of fascination for Victorian audiences, particularly elite ones. Aristocrats who could afford animals captured from Chillingham established herds on their estates, while many who couldn’t had paintings done of their own grounds, featuring Chillingham bulls that had never actually been there.[9] Harriet Ritvo describes how the white cattle were seen as ‘ancient Britons’, ‘totems of distinguished and powerful families’, ‘their presence […] address[ing] questions of origin and identity’.[10] The ideology and traditions of British elites were foisted upon the breed, with the Countess of Tankerville writing that ‘the fittest and strongest bull becomes ‘King’. . . Nature seems […] to have ensured the carrying forward of only the best available blood’.[11] In fact, the genetics of these cows were so conflated with those of aristocratic lineages that at Chartley estate, any black Chillingham calves were killed, as they were believed to forewarn of a death in the family.[12] The independence, vintage, and supposed genetic purity of these cattle were co-opted by aristocrats as symbols for qualities they associated with themselves, but the most disturbing aspect of the analogy is what it leaves unsaid. If the aristocracy were the ‘wild’ cattle in forested estates, who were the domestic breeds in the fields, subjects of ‘king bulls’, equal only to the commodities they could produce and destined for the slaughterhouse?

Of course, the Chillingham cattle are not really wild, but feral (What is feral but a barb we throw at anything with the audacity to run?). Modern scholars believe them to have descended from medieval husbanded stock.[13] The two surviving herds now suffer from decreased fitness due to inbreeding depression.[14] I guess that’s what happens when a portion of a population becomes isolated behind grand stone walls for too long.

As Ritvo writes, because what was ‘known about them was ambiguous and insubstantial, [the] white cattle could function as a kind of tabula rasa’, however, this condition is hardly unique to the cattle of Chillingham. Her interiority cauterized along with her horns, the hollowed-out cow has been a vessel for human meaning for millennia. In Sanskrit, the second oldest known language, dating at least four thousand years back, the word for ‘war’, Gavisti, directly translates as ‘desire for more cows’. What appears a bizarre inversion of the established human-bovine hierarchy, suggesting the trading of human lives for those of cows, is really a conflation of the cow not just with the products harvested from their bodies, but with the power those products confer.

War in the name of cattle is actually a widespread phenomenon. Ireland’s national epic, Táin Bó Cúailnge, or ‘the driving-off of cows of Cooley’, describes a protracted war fought over a particularly fertile bull. In the end, the bull escapes, having killed his rival, another particularly fertile bull. The hero bull wanders the island, pieces of his foe falling from his horns and becoming place-names. In this potent metaphor, the identity of the land literally arises from the blood of cattle. In Ireland, this is hardly surprising. Our word for road, bóthar, derives from the Latin for cow, bovis, and means ‘cow path’, suggesting a reliance so great that mobility itself can be conflated with cattle.

The continent of Europe is similarly named for the mobility afforded by the union of humans and cattle. Zeus approached Europa in the form of a white bull (why always white bulls? Oh, wait…) and convinced her to ride on his back, before diving into the Mediterranean. The bull Zeus and Europa had a son, Minos, who became king of Crete, reaffirming the link between power and the human-cow relationship. The tale ends in tragedy, however, as the wife of Minos fell in love with another white bull and gave birth to the bull-headed Minotaur, a bloodthirsty creature confined to isolation in the famed Labyrinth; these interspecies power relations do tend to have a degenerative arc.

The practice of appropriating the cow’s image as a symbol for any manner of human cause is so ubiquitous as to be crystallized in the phrase ‘sacred cow’. This idiom refers to the Hindu deification of cows, but is used to convey a concept that is taboo to question, but warrants questioning. The carnivorous logic behind the phrase is a pessimistic one for the complex and sensitive creatures that humans have so hollowed out and refilled. It is also a fragile logic. The meat and dairy industry accounts for 14.5% of all human-made carbon emissions, with beef doing by far the most damage.[15] Like Europa, our repose on the backs of cows is plunging us into the sea. If we wish to avoid this fate, we must not only stop farming these animals, but also deconstruct the fictions of them that have been handed to us on a plate. Otherwise, we might, like children in a field, stare at the sky and miss the stampede.

[1] Lori Marino and Kristen Allen, ‘The Psychology of Cows’, Animal Behaviour and Cognition, 4 (2017), 474-498 (p. 474).

[2] Frantz Fanon, ‘On National Culture’, in The Wretched of the Earth (London: Penguin Books, 1967) pp. 166-171 (p.169).

[3] Lucina Hernandez, Henri Barral, Gonzalo Halffter, and Salvador Colon, ‘A Note on the Behaviour of Feral Cattle in the Chihuahuan Desert of Mexico’, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 63 (1999), 259-267 (p. 261).

[4] Hall, Margaret Vince, Elizabeth Walser, and P. J. Garson, ‘Vocalisations of the Chillingham Cattle’, Behaviour, 104 (1988), 78-104 (p. 78).

[5] Hall, p. 78; ‘The Park’, Chillingham Wild Cattle, [accessed 03 April 2022].

[6] Hall, p. 79.

[7] Hall, p. 100.

[8] Hall, p. 92; p. 101; p. 102.

[9] Harriet Ritvo, ‘Race, Breed, and Myths of Origin: Chillingham Cattle as Ancient Britons’, Representations, 39 (1992), 1-22 (p. 1).

[10] Ritvo, p. 1.

[11] Ritvo, p. 14; p. 15.

[12] Ritvo, p. 9.

[13] Hall, p. 78.

[14] Hall, B. Brenig, A. Ashdown, M. R. Curry, ‘Conservation of rare wild- living cattle Bos taurus (L.): coat colour gene illuminates breed history, and associated reproductive anomalies have not reduced herd fertility’, Journal of Zoology, 315 (2021), 319-326 (p. 319).

[15] David Vetter, ‘Got Beef? Here’s What Your Hamburger is Doing to the Climate’, Forbes (2020), your-hamburger-is-doing-to-the-climate/ [accessed 03 April 2022].

Figure 1.
Hernandez, Lucina, Henri Barral, Gonzalo Halffter, and Salvador Colon, ‘A Note on the Behaviour of Feral Cattle in the Chihuahuan Desert of Mexico’, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 63 (1999), 259-267 (p.261).