For the livestock on your list...

I WAS surprised to see a cow on the subway in Chicago. Nestled in with the graffiti was the definite outline of a cow smiling at commuters. Later, rounding a corner, I confronted a whole herd of cows drawn on a wall.

Two of the artists responsible for the cow graffiti say that ``cows represent the things that urban people are looking for. Cows are easy-going. They're content.'' They say they have put cows in Chicago because it makes people happier to see their cows than to see traditional graffiti.

Whether cows really are content, though, has been the subject of recent research. Preliminary findings show that modern livestock, including cows, are encountering their share of anxiety in the barnyard.

Researchers have thoughtfully provided farmers with suggestions on how to create a low-stress environment on the farm. Among other things, toys for livestock, to lessen boredom and provide a creative outlet, appear to be the up and coming thing.

Which rather puts a damper on my shopping list because some livestock, like some people, are easier to shop for than others.

It comes as no surprise to me that pigs are easy to please and will play with almost anything. When consulted, they indicate that they prefer cloth toys, which are chewable. But if you want to give a gift they won't destroy within hours of opening the package, used bowling balls are also popular.

One warning. The researchers tell us that if a bowling ball becomes soiled, the pigs quickly lose interest. This seems like an impractical, if admirable, preference on the part of pigs.

Cattle are considerably harder to shop for. No one has yet come up with a toy that cattle really take to, cleaned or not. Knowing that cows are famous for chewing their cuds, some of my friends have suggested I give them the occasional rawhide bone.

This won't work. Cows have no front upper teeth. Actually a cow doesn't chew its cud at all; it just gums it around a bit. For years only insiders in the dairy industry have known about this. I feel the time has come for disclosure.

Luckily there could be an answer beyond rawhide bones. A friend of mine in Miyagi, Japan, tells me his cows are ``plenty contented.'' Like most of Japan's cattle they are treated with respect, offered a choice of cool beverages on hot days, and massaged regularly. Which is living pretty high on the hog for a cow.

Since I'm not ready to adopt the Japanese system, and since I can't even decide what to buy the kids, much less the cows, I'll probably ignore the findings of the scientific community and watch the response from the local community instead.

If the corner grocer starts stocking large squeeze toys shaped like bales of hay in with the rhinestone kitty collars and parakeet bells, then I'll spare no expense on behalf of my livestock associates.

But with all due respect to the scientific community, I am not counting on this to happen in time for the Christmas rush. After all, it has been a couple of years since the researchers told us that cows prefer the color pink, and I have yet to see a farmer paint his barn accordingly.

While we wait for all this research to trickle down to the grass roots, perhaps a cultural exchange could be arranged with Chicago. An exhibition of selected graffiti might be loaned to rural areas. Then cows suffering with barnyard anxiety could relieve their tensions by viewing their more contented counterparts.

This seems to be working for subway commuters. I can't say conclusively that it will work for cows.

At least not until I see the results of the latest study.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.