Kristie Middleton never thought she’d spend Thanksgiving cuddling a turkey. “I just never thought of turkeys as wanting human attention or wanting human interaction,” she says. But then again, she’d never met Kona. Several years ago, Middleton was visiting Harvest Home Animal Sanctuary in French Camp, California, for its Thanksgiving celebration. There she found Kona strutting his stuff, trying to entice visitors to pet him. “He even preferred having human attention over whatever food treats were being offered to him,” says Middleton, who ended up snuggling with the flirty bird for more than an hour.
Middleton, who is the senior director of food policy for the HSUS, has since spent lots of time with farm animals and says they are remarkably similar to the dogs and cats we live with. They have likes and dislikes, preferences and relationships—“they just show it differently,” she says.
“Researchers have found that there is more thought and feeling in animals than humans have ever imagined,” says Jonathan Balcombe, director of animal sentience for the HSUS. Balcombe, who has published five books and more than 50 articles on animal behavior, says that recent scientific studies have given us an even greater understanding of the emotional and intellectual lives of farm animals. What researchers have learned will likely surprise you.
For example, did you know…
1. Chickens learn from watching Mom
It was once thought that chicks’ behavior was primarily instinctual. However, research has shown that chicks actually learn from watching other chickens or from being directed by their mothers. Chickens steer their offspring away from unhealthy food and teach them how to avoid predators and other dangers. Chicks also learn to avoid bad-tasting food by watching others’ negative reactions to it.
2. Cows share child-care duties
Cows are sensitive animals who withdraw from humans or other animals who have treated them negatively. They groom one another to help decrease tension and increase bonding. Cows also work together in groups to care for calves, with one or two cows left to watch over a group of youngsters while the other cows in the herd graze, rest or take a dip in the water.
3. Goats love groups
Goats are very curious and will investigate anything new in their environment, or outside it, and are clever at hatching escape plans. They have been known to hop on the backs of their taller animal friends, such as donkeys, to leap over fences. Goats are also very social—they play, cuddle, fight and yes, make up.
4. Pigs are gamers
Not only are pigs cuddly and loving (most prefer to sleep snuggled up or snout-to-snout with one another), they’re also highly intelligent. Similar to dogs, pigs can learn their own names quickly, respond to simple voice commands and even play video games. Researchers are able to teach pigs to use a joystick to direct a cursor to hit targets on a screen—a highly complex process for a non-human.
5. Pigs are family-oriented
When allowed, piglets will stay close to their mother and siblings until they mature enough to be on their own. If they are forced to separate from their mothers early, the piglets and their mother will utter distressed calls to one another. Piglets weaned abruptly will often eat less, lose weight and become more aggressive and reckless.
6. Sheep remember one another
Sheep are able to recognize the faces of at least 50 other sheep and remember them for several years. Studies indicate that sheep use neural networks similar to humans’ for these tasks. Sheep are also excellent problem-solvers. On one farm in England that had installed hoof-proof metal grids to keep them from grazing in local gardens, the sheep figured out how to lie down and roll over the grids.
7. Chickens chat
In addition to having a complex social structure (that’s where the term “pecking order” comes from), chickens have extensive communication skills. Before they hatch, chicks start peeping to their mothers, who respond with soothing sounds. When given space to forage, roosters keep watch over chickens and have different calls to let their ladies know where the best food is, alert them when danger is present or tell them it’s time to return to the coop.
8. Cows bond
Cows develop strong bonds with their offspring. When separated, mother cows and calves will cry out for one another. There are many reports of mother cows escaping their confines and walking miles to locate their calves, calling out to them along the way. In one case, a mother cow managed to hide her calf when the other male calves were being loaded into a transport truck. The pair was discovered after the truck departed.
9. Turkeys purr
Kona isn’t the only turkey who loves hanging out with humans. How do we know? In addition to nuzzling and snuggling their favorite folks, turkeys produce a purring sound when they are content, just like cats do. Also, turkeys have mood snoods. Their snoods—the flaps of skin that hang down over their foreheads—will change colors from white, to red, to blue depending on how they feel. The color change is common among males strutting their stuff during courtship dances.
10. Goats can be optimists
A study compared the behavior of sanctuary goats who had been mistreated before being rescued with goats who had never been abused. Goats from both groups were then introduced to a rewarded location (bucket with food treats) and a non-rewarded location (empty bucket). Once the goats had learned these spots, the scientists presented new buckets. The researchers found that female goats from the group that had previously been mistreated were more willing to approach the ambiguous buckets. The researchers reasoned that the animals recognized their once-stressful living situation had improved, rendering them more optimistic.