Have you herd? It turns out cows have feelings, too.

Why We Wrote This

Throughout the 20th century, animals were viewed as tools to be exploited. But in recent decades a shift has occurred, as people have begun to recognize cats, dogs, and even cows as sentient creatures.

Yves Herman/Reuters
Cats and goats live together at the association Les Petits Vieux, a home for dozens of older animals, including dogs, cats, pigs, and goats, in Chièvres, Belgium. Over the past quarter century, people's perceptions of animals have been shifting.

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Does a chimpanzee mother love its child? What about a cow mother? Can a chicken feel sad? And how much is cow love and chicken sadness like human love and human sadness?

A generation ago, such questions would have been dismissed as unobservable and, therefore, unscientific. But over the past quarter century, perceptions have been shifting.

“On both sides of the Atlantic, we had a mechanistic view of animals,” says Emory University primatologist Frans de Waal, author of the new bestseller “Mama’s Last Hug.” “And I think we are basically abandoning that view, and that has obvious moral implications.”

These implications are part of what motivates pattrice jones, the co-founder of the VINE Sanctuary in southern Vermont. The farm animal rescue shelter offers a sociable home to about 500 animals, including chickens, sheep, goats, alpacas, doves, and several cattle rescued from dairy farms.

“Just like us, animals like to make friends with people of other species,” says Mx. jones, who prefers gender-neutral titles and pronouns.

Moxie had cared for her son for just one day three years earlier. But she could immediately sense his presence.

The retired dairy cow had just arrived at VINE Sanctuary, a farm animal rescue mission in Springfield, Vermont, just as her son, Maddox, had. She and her son were among the hundreds of cattle, chickens, sheep, and others that had, one way or another, slipped free from an industrial apparatus and wound up at this wooded hillside sanctuary.

“When [Maddox] came in sight,” the sanctuary’s co-founder, pattrice jones, recalls, “Perhaps it was scent – she looked up and made this rumbling low moo. As soon as she made that sound, he stopped. They walked very slowly and carefully closer together, and then they touched noses.”

Were Maddox and Moxie really happy to see one another, or is it all just instinctive behavior? And if nonhuman animals can feel emotions, are those emotions anything like ours?

A generation ago, animal behaviorists would have dismissed such questions as unobservable, and therefore outside the bounds of science. Today, a shift is underway, as scientists and society alike begin to recognize a role for nonhuman animals’ inner mental states.  

A particularly “mechanistic view of animals” has prevailed throughout the West, says Emory University primatologist Frans de Waal. “And I think we are basically abandoning that view, and that has obvious moral implications.”

Professor de Waal’s bestseller published in March, “Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves,” argues directly for the existence of animal emotions, and for animals’ humane treatment.

“That’s a very old obsession in the West – and in our religion of course – that we have souls and animals don’t have souls,” says Professor de Waal. “There’s many people who accept evolutionary theory, but they always make an exception for the human mind.”

This exclusionary view, he says, is becoming increasingly untenable. For one thing, humans and mammals, in addition to sharing the same biology associated with emotions, also often share some of the same basic facial expressions.

Stories of animal minds exceeding human expectations usually attract popular attention. “I think there’s a desire from most people,” says Lori Gruen, a philosopher at Wesleyan University who specializes in animal ethics, to recognize that “there’s not such a great divide between us and them.”

‘An underground railroad of sorts’

The goats and chickens sunning themselves together in the hay at VINE Sanctuary, along with the roughly 500 other residents – including cattle, sheep, doves, parrots, geese, emus, and a few alpacas – represent the charmed few, ambassadors for a radically different way of life for domesticated animals. The animals mingle freely at the 106-acre facility, half of which is set aside as a refuge for local wildlife. Goats offer rides to chickens, alpacas lounge by the hay bales, and sheep and cows approach a strange reporter for head scratches.

“Just like us, animals like to make friends with people of other species,” says Mx. jones, who identifies as non-binary and prefers the gender-neutral title Mx.

The rescue of some of the animals has made the news, such as the 90 or so chickens seized by authorities after a cockfighting ring bust in Northampton, Massachusetts, last year. Others were found abandoned, Mx. jones says, or handed over by “farmers who showed mercy.”

But overall, Mx. jones is wary of describing the networks that deliver the animals, which Mx. jones describes as “an underground railroad of sorts.”

“There have been many kinds of people who are close to the [meat and dairy] industry who will find ways to bring animals to the sanctuary,” Mx. jones says.

Mx. jones links animal liberation inextricably with feminism, noting how learning about standard dairy practices – forcibly impregnating cows and taking away offspring after one day – was all it took to go vegan.

“It was gut-wrenching to realize that I had been participating in such sexualized violence,” Mx. jones says.

A shift in thought

Scientists were not always so dismissive of animal emotions. Indeed, Charles Darwin published an entire book in 1872 detailing the continuity of emotional expressions between humans and animals.

But that changed in the 20th century, with the rise of behaviorism, an approach to psychology that eschews concepts like thoughts, feelings, and consciousness in favor of external phenomena that can be observed and measured. During that period, factory farms and vivisection labs proliferated.

“Humans thought less of animals in the 20th century than we did before the 20th century,” says Kristin Andrews, a philosopher at York University in Toronto.  

“As we industrialized more and more, we lived farther and farther away from those animals, and that allowed us to forget that they are minded and feeling beings,” she says.

“Humans were probably happy to accept behaviorism,” she says. “We were being told that [animals] don’t feel anything.”

In the study of human psychology, behaviorism began to lose its preeminence in the 1960s, with the advent of the so-called cognitive revolution, which began to systematically study phenomena like memory and attention. In animal behavior, the shift away from behaviorism began in the mid-1990s.  

“We sort of lost track of [animal emotions] for a century,” says Professor de Waal.

But since then, the shift back toward a recognition of the inner lives of animals has accompanied a shift in policy. In 1997, the European Union ratified a treaty recognizing animal sentience, and New Zealand and several European countries have banned using great apes in invasive experiments. In the United States, invasive testing on chimpanzees came to an end in 2015.

“In the early 2000s, chimps were still being used in research,” says Dr. Gruen. “And I would often talk to other philosophers and activists and those who were in the chimp world that maybe in our lifetimes we could stop it. And then it stopped,” she says. “It stopped way before I thought it would stop.”

Dr. Andrews suggests that factory farms will soon follow. “It’s too expensive for the industry to keep all these animals alive, and they’re putting a lot of money into fake meat, into lab meat and all sorts of alternative proteins,” she says. “I’m really optimistic about that piece.”

On their terms

When we compare animal emotions with our own, are we losing something? Alexandra Horowitz, a psychologist who specializes in canine cognition and behavior, cautions against anthropomorphizing animals’ inner lives.

“It seems to me presumptuous in the extreme to assume that [cows’] emotions are exactly like ours,” says Dr. Horowitz, author of several books including the 2017 bestseller “Being a Dog” and “Our Dogs, Ourselves,” scheduled for release in September 2019. “I’d rather that the cow show me, without my prejudgment, what that emotion is.”

Dr. Gruen agrees. “We tend to ignore differences,” she says. “When we try to assimilate all other animals into sort of a human framework … we’re missing out on a whole range of other things that are not just beautiful and wondrous, but valuable.”

But Dr. Horowitz also says the growing recognition of the inner lives of animals is cause for hope. “Now that we’re tending to [nonhuman animals] at all really, as opposed to seeing them as nuisances or just as functionaries for our purposes, it could change. I think it’s an act of desperation to hope for that, but that’s where I think we are.”

An earlier version of this article misidentified pattrice jones. Mx. Jones identifies as non-binary and prefers the gender-neutral title Mx.

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