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The Cows Did What?

When we think of curiosity in the animal kingdom, chimpanzees, along with elephants and dolphins, may leap to mind first — the species most widely understood to be clever. Intelligence and curiosity go together, after all.

But curiosity expressed by clever cows?

Yes, definitely.

For a new book I am just starting to write, I'm researching ways in which scientists study the cognition and emotion of animals ranging from octopuses to goats — and cows. Mostly, I read scientific journals and talk to people with years of experience observing and/or caring for these animals.

But there is a supplemental source of material is fun to dip into: video clips! They can offer hints about animal thinking, feeling and, in the two cases I'll present here (with thanks to friends who posted them on Facebook), cow curiosity. Neither clip is new, but both are new to me.

In the first case, a six-month-old boxer dog out walking with her human companion in England encounters a herd of cows. The cows react with keen interest (and the dog gets points for remaining calm while subjected to a startling quantity of cow breath).

In the second case, an American jazz band makes a spontaneous roadside stop in France to play for some cows. Again we see bovine curiosity, this time at the sound of music or at the sight of instrument-toting musicians, or both.

Cows, as we know all too well by now, suffer badly — both physically and emotionally — in factory farms (documented by Farm Sanctuary and the Humane Society of the United States, among others).

It's fabulous to see them out in the fresh air, exploring and experiencing what the world has to offer.

Barbara's most recent book on animals was released in paperback in April. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

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Barbara J. King is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. With a long-standing research interest in primate behavior and human evolution, King has studied baboon foraging in Kenya and gorilla and bonobo communication at captive facilities in the United States.