To me, a green, rolling field of contented looking dairy cows is about the most iconic image of rural America I can imagine, and one that makes me feel pretty darn content as well. I’m guessing the dairy cows quite possibly know how well they have it too, because new studies reveal that cows are highly intelligent animals, with feelings, friends, and the ability to communicate in more than their trademarked monosyllables. So maybe it’s a good time to ask: What is the secret of their contentment? What are they talking about as they stand placidly chewing their cud? And what exactly do they think about humans trying to tip them over? One cow, on a promise of anonymity, has come out of the barn to talk with this writer in an effort to set the record straight.
The cow repeatedly checked over her shoulder as she approached. She was big – big head, big body, big udders. She looked, well, she looked like a cow. I guess after 8,000 years of selective breeding for uniformity, there’s not much else she could look like.
“Listen man,” she said, “let’s make this quick. If the farmer’s wife finds out I’m not at my milking stall, I’m dead meat.”
“You’re a milk cow,” I scoffed. “That’s like a cash cow, only with even more liquidity. What’s she gonna do? Scold you? Take away some hay? You’re living the life.”
The cow glared at me unblinking, and chewed its cud even slower, like it was trying to decide if I had been selectively bred for cluelessness. “If I don’t make my quota, the next time anyone sees me I’ll be inside a bun instead of a barn. Like, we give you milk, butter, and cheese, and instead of saying thank you, now go enjoy some fresh air and fresh grass, you EAT us! How is THAT supposed to make us want to cooperate?”
This cow didn’t seem so contented. How was I going to get to the bottom of this if she wasn’t going to reveal her secrets? For some reason, I imagined my boss eating me instead of editing me if I turned in something substandard. My horror must have showed.
“Mooo,” the cow bellowed. “Hey, like, don’t have a cow, man.”
“Moo yourself,” I replied. “Sorry, I don’t speak cow.”
“Yeah, who wants their food talking back to them, right? What I meant was – don’t have a cow. Literally. You haven’t seen angry till you’ve seen a cow after giving birth. They keep us pregnant, then take our babies away from us right away so we’ll keep making milk our whole short, miserable lives. Five years we get to live. Out of our natural twenty. That’s cow milk, man! For cow babies! You people need to get with the plan. Calves need their mamas. We need a break. And humans need to wake up and smell the cowpies. Maybe eat a few.”
This was worse than I thought. If I was hearing this cow right, she had never even had a milk shake, ice cream, or milk chocolate before, the only keys to contentment that I knew. So where did their legendary contentment come from? I needed to dig deeper.
“I read that cows are very social animals that form strong friendships. Do you have any special friends you like to chill with?”
“Only chill friends I have are hanging in the meat locker. The stress got to Ruth so she became infertile – an instant death sentence. Tanya couldn’t stand anymore – foot rot and lack of exercise. Jill had one too many infections from standing in her own waste. And poor Elsie – they just went and condensed her. Said she’d be perfect for canned milk.”
The cow grinned at me. I took this as a sign she was relaxing, feeling more comfortable with me. It was good to have friends and talk about them. True, it was a peculiar sort of grin. I pressed on.
“So what do you gals talk about all day?”
“Oh, you know, this and that,” the cow said, big eyes boring in on me uncomfortably. “How to hook humans up to milking machines. How to castrate their young boys like they do ours. How to give their young girls growth hormones so they can get pregnant at half the age they should. How to turn unwanted children into veal.”
Again with the weird grin, this time showing me her big bottom teeth as well, teeth that seemed to never stop chewing. It was unnerving, but I felt we were finally getting somewhere. I hadn’t realized how practical cows were, standing in those lush green meadows trading how-to suggestions, always trying to make their lives better. That seemed like a recipe for contentment.
“Perfect,” I said, putting my notepad away. “I guess we’re done here. Thank you for your time. So, how do you and the farmer get along?”
The cow’s grin got even bigger, the chewing more forceful. It made me think of her four stomachs and the constant regurgitation. It seemed like such a long, tedious process just to eat.
As if on cue, the cow spit out a farmer’s cap. “Oh, I guess you could say he’s an acquired taste,” she said, chewing more contently now. “But he’ll be with me for a while yet.”
I left thinking there was more to this story than a contented cow. But I was hungry, and nothing was gonna get in my way of a burger and a shake.