A cow contentedly chewing her cud may look like she doesn’t have a care in the world, but there’s a lot going on behind those big brown eyes. Cows are as diverse as cats, dogs, and people: Some are bright; others are slow learners. Some are bold and adventurous; others are shy and timid. Some are friendly and considerate; others are bossy and devious.
In addition to having distinct personalities, cows are generally very intelligent animals who can remember things for a long time. Cows interact in socially complex ways, developing friendships over time, sometimes holding grudges against cows who treat them badly, forming social hierarchies within their herds, and choosing leaders based upon intelligence. They are emotionally complex as well and even have the capacity to worry about the future.
Cows can not only figure out problems, they also, like humans, enjoy the intellectual challenge and get excited when they find a solution. Their big problem, of course, is that they’re being raised for slaughter, and just like all animals, they don’t want to be separated from their families, and they don’t want to die. So cows have been known to use their smarts to perform amazing feats, such as leaping over a six-foot fence to escape from a slaughterhouse, walking seven miles to reunite with a calf after being sold at auction and swimming across a river to freedom.
Because of their complex social interactions, cows also have the ability to learn from each other, another indication of their intelligence, which is comparable to that of a dog and a bit higher than that of a cat.
A herd of cows is very much like a pack of wolves, with alpha animals and complex social dynamics. Each cow can recognize more than 100 members of the herd, and social relationships are very important to them.
Cows form close friendships with some members of their herd—the relationships between mothers and daughters are especially strong, and calves bond with others in their peer group.
Raising cows in unnatural conditions, such as crowded feedlots, is very stressful to them because it upsets their hierarchy. This is akin to how humans would feel if we were penned in a tiny space with thousands of unfamiliar people. Just like us, cows like to be near their families and friends, and the stress of life on factory farms makes them feel confused, scared, and alone.
Cows are emotional animals who have likes and dislikes, just like humans do. Many cows are affectionate animals who are deeply loyal to their families and human companions. Cows can use their body posture and vocal sounds to express a whole range of emotions, including contentment, interest, anger, and distress. These gentle giants mourn the death of those they love, even shedding tears over their loss.