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Rethinking Farm Animal Intelligence: A guide for teachers

If you ask any dog or cat owner if their pet is smart, you will likely get a resounding, ‘Yes!’ We are keenly aware of how clever our companion animals are – and most young people believe pets have their own minds with thoughts and feelings.However, when it comes to farm animals, we are less generous with our willingness to assign intelligence. Yet, recent research is bridging this gap, showing that the cognitive abilities of pets and farm animals are more similar than we might think.

A recent Science article, “What are Farm Animals Thinking?,” discusses the growing field of research into the cognitive abilities and emotions of farm animals, challenging the traditional perception that they are unintelligent and unworthy of scientific inquiry or the same types of care that we provide our pets. Scientists at the Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology, and elsewhere, have conducted studies demonstrating signs of empathy in pigs, social intelligence in goats comparable to dogs, and even the ability to potty train cows. The findings aim to understand the mental lives of farm animals, improve their welfare, and provide insights into the evolution of cognition. The article emphasizes the importance of understanding the cognitive and emotional needs of farm animals to design better environments for them.

Whether it be having a pet, riding a horse, eating cheese, or even taking medications that have been tested on mice, most people have direct or indirect interactions with animals on a regular basis. Understanding that animals have a mind, capable of thought and emotion, influences the way we view and treat them. Exploring the cognitive abilities and emotions of farm animals contributes to a more comprehensive understanding of the animal kingdom and our place within it. 

How teachers can use this information:

Agriculture is an important industry in Alberta; in fact, there are more cattle than people in this province.3 Learning about the research challenges and breakthroughs in studying farm animals can inspire students to consider diverse career fields. It may encourage an interest in animal behaviour, cognitive science, or agriculture.

Articles that examine animal cognition and behaviour can
help teachers bring humane education concepts into the classroom. Exploring the
cognitive abilities of animals can foster empathy and compassion towards all
living beings. Understanding that animals have emotions and social bonds can
encourage students to think more deeply about how we care for animals,
including our responsibility to ensure we are meeting their needs.

Finally, including information about animal intelligence and behaviour can help challenge assumptions and contribute to the development of more empathetic, informed, and scientifically curious students.

After reading the Science article, have students discuss the
following:

  1. Did anything surprise you in this article? What did you learn?
  2. What does it mean to be intelligent? How can we measure or observe intelligence in animals?
  3. Do you think farm animals experience emotions similar to pets or even people? Why or why not? What evidence supports your opinion?
  4. In the article, Dr. Langbein says, “If we don’t understand how these animals
    think, then we won’t understand what they need.” What does this mean? Can
    you think of some examples?
  5. Has learning about the cognitive abilities and emotions of farm animals
    changed your perspective on them? Explain.

Sources:  

  1. Hawkins, R. D., & Williams, J. M. (2016). Children’s beliefs about animal minds (child-BAM): Associations with
    positive and negative child–animal interactions. Anthrozoos, 29(3), 503–519. https://doi.org/10.1080/08927936.2016.1189749
  2. Grimm D. (2023) What are Farm Animals Thinking. Science, December 7.
    Available at: https://www.science.org/content/article/not-dumb-creatures-livestock-surprise-scientists-their-complex-emotional-minds
  3. Arnason, R. (2023). Cattle numbers slide in Canada. The Western Producer,
    February 28. Available at: https://www.producer.com/news/cattle-numbers-slide-in-canada/

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