“CARRYING A BRUSH so that you are always ready to groom a cow can have huge benefits,” Rosamund Young advises in The Secret Life of Cows. I tried this for a week but realized few benefits, perhaps because I encountered no cows.
Lack of livestock never poses a problem for Young, who for the past three decades has raised cattle, pigs, hens, and sheep at Kite’s Nest Farm, in Worcestershire, England. “We decided that the animals themselves are by far the most qualified individuals to make decisions about their own welfare,” Young writes, and that, more or less, is the guiding philosophy of the farm. She condemns industrial livestock farming as “iniquitous criminality” and embraces a more old-fashioned husbandry. Whereas most calves are forcibly weaned, those at Kite’s Nest suckle as long as they wish. Rather than gorging on grains, cattle eat only what grows in the pastures. Gates between fields are left open, allowing cows the freedom to wander at will, graze where they like, and socialize with their preferred companions. Human interaction is neither required nor withheld: the cows have “the freedom to communicate with or dissociate themselves from us as they choose,” which, really, is all any of us could ask from life.
The Secret Life of Cows is a collection of anecdotes dedicated to the proposition that cows are individuals and should be treated as such. The book meanders and explores at a bovine pace, and by the end Young carries her point. Much of my own barnyard time has been spent in the company of swine — curious, eager, delightful creatures — and I had long dismissed cattle as dull and stolid. Young has persuaded me that I was wrong. She is so persuasive, in fact, that I finished the book wondering whether she, or anyone, should be in the business of raising livestock.
Cows have personalities. Alice, on her way to be milked, likes to play hide-and-seek: “She would do her best to hide behind a walnut tree but of course she was too big and as soon as she realised I had seen her she would gallop off again and hide behind the next one,” Young writes. A cow named Print repeatedly plucks the cap from one farmworker’s head and tosses it the ground: “She never tired of the game. He resolutely refused to change his hat; she never removed anyone else’s.” Fat Hat is admirably bitchy toward humans: “She preferred men to women and she did not like men much.” A bull named Jake liked to get high by “sniffing the carbon monoxide fumes from the Land Rover exhaust pipe.” After a hard night, cattle sleep it off by collapsing to the ground, flopped about in positions that make them “look anything from idyllically comfortable to dead.” Even when a cow appears dead asleep, however, “a telltale, radar-dish ear will appear and rotate slightly, monitoring and analysing every footstep, creak and groan.”
The Kite’s Nest cows are portrayed as actors in a pastoral reality show, alternately affectionate and cruel. Lounging on the grass, they “use their friends as headrests” as they gossip. A cow named Alice “flew over to her friend Toria and told her where she was going and why.” Inevitably, feelings are wounded. After giving birth, Olivia refused to allow her own mother to assist in caring for the calf. “Hurt and amazed, she turned tail,” Young writes of grandmother. Olivia and her mother “never spoke to each other again.”
Young writes as if she’s the omniscient narrator of a pasture-based novel. A cow named Wizzie, after giving birth, “told her daughter she was the best and the calf believed her.” We are not told how Young understood either the content of this communication or its reception, and this is unfortunate: as a parent I would like to hear Wizzie’s advice on instilling confidence in one’s children. If the characteristic expression of cows is the vacant stare, then Young is here to tell you that the stare is not vacant. Cattle “communicate a number of different questions with different types of stares,” and Young reads them fluently. Some of those stares are fruit-related — “her eyes would ask us if we had an apple or even a pear” — while others carry considerable emotional weight. Fat Hat II, dying just after she gives birth, makes a request of Young’s mother: “Before she died she had, with determined and intense eyes, made my mother promise to look after her new calf. This my mother did and Fat Hat II understood.”
This passage walks a fine line between touching and laughable. It requires the reader to trust that Young enjoys special access to the mind of the cow, a talent that verges on the occult.
There are alternatives to the occult, and one of them is called science. Animal psychologists and others have studied the minds of cows and reported the results in peer-reviewed journals. Cows, for example, avoid handlers who treat them roughly and cozy up to those who are gentle. When unfamiliar vehicles approach, cows move in front of their calves to protect them. Cows can look at photographs of the faces of other cows and recognize the individuals they know from real life. Young, I’m certain, knows as much about the minds of cows as the behavioral psychologists, but it’s puzzling to ignore the science — which, after all, supports her case that cows are intelligent creatures.
The Secret Life of Cows is deeply felt but not profound. Do not open its pages seeking the bovine equivalent of James Rebanks’s A Shepherd’s Life, an absorbing insider’s account of the beautiful, brutal realities of making a living off the bodies of sheep in England’s Lake District. Nor is Young’s book an English version of Forrest Pritchard’s Gaining Ground, a coming-of-age story of a Virginia farmer coming to comprehend both his cattle and the fickle tastes of farmers’ market shoppers.
Young offers no history of the landscape or farming traditions of her part of Worcestershire. We learn little about the Sustainable Land Trust, the pioneering organization run by Young’s brother Richard. The nature of the relationships between the farm’s owners — the author, Richard, and their partner, Gareth Williams — remains unexplored. We don’t learn how they turn a profit, whether they argue with their neighbors, who will inherit the farm, or what they eat or drink (other than glasses of milk from a bottle labeled with the name of the cow from whose udder it was stripped). People are of interest only as foils for cows.
And, in one regard, even the cattle get short shrift. Young’s story is strangely bloodless, and I mean that literally: we hear of no animals being slaughtered for food. Kite’s Nest ended its commercial dairy operation decades ago, which means that all of the charming cows we meet give birth to calves who are fattened, killed, and eaten. The secret life of cows ends at the slaughterhouse.
Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that. I eat meat myself, as long as it comes from animals raised on farms much like Kite’s Nest. I feel better knowing that these cattle have a chance to express natural behaviors before being butchered. But the meat on my plate still tweaks my conscience, and I wonder whether Young feels the same. She loves her cows, she treats them well, she understands their quirks, she speaks their language — and then she eats them. If, as she writes, cows enjoy lives “as full and varied as our own,” if they are “the most qualified individuals to make decisions about their own welfare,” then shouldn’t they get to decide whether they live or die? That is a question not only for philosophers but also for farmers, a profession whose members have produced some of the most nuanced opinions about the ethics of eating meat. Young offers no views on the matter.
She presents herself as a sort of cow whisperer, a profession with few historical precedents. Horses are a different matter. The Irishman James Sullivan — the first to earn the name “horse whisperer” — tamed difficult animals at the start of the 19th century, and dozens of imitators followed, most famously the American John Solomon Rarey, who performed before Queen Victoria. Horses are independent-minded creatures who are expected to submit to bit and rein and saddle. In an era when recreation, transportation, and a large chunk of the economy depended on literal horsepower, people who could persuade unruly horses to cooperate never lacked for work.
There has never been much call for cow whispering. Cattle generally have been tractable enough to do what was required of them — that is, to shamble from pasture to feedlot to slaughterhouse — with no whispering required.
Now, however, in this age of anxious meat eating, we demand communication with our future meals. As industrial agriculture has grown more brutal, our knowledge of the intelligence and emotions of livestock has grown deeper. Rather than giving up meat, some of us make a point of buying beef from farms where cows live good lives. The cow whisperer talks to these cattle and brings us reassurance. We want the cows to tell us that they have everything they need, food and water and friendship and room to run and play. We want to know that they are truly happy. And as we lead them toward the abattoir, as we scratch their ears and bid them farewell, we want the cows to whisper absolution in our ears.
Mark Essig is the author of Lesser Beasts: A Snout-to-Tail History of the Humble Pig (Basic Books) and Edison & the Electric Chair(Walker & Co). He has also written for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle.