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The Verge Review of Animals: the cow

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Our reward and our punishment for meddling with nature

Nicolas Vigier / Flickr

This column is part of a series where Verge staffers post highly subjective reviews of animals. Up until now, we've written about animals without telling you whether they suck or rule. We are now rectifying this oversight.

When we review animals here on The Verge, some of the conceptual fun comes from treating things that have been shaped by the callous hand of evolution like they’re high-tech gadgets. But cows — or more formally, members of the species Bos taurus — actually are as carefully designed as the iPhone, except that Jony Ive didn't need to capture and tame a herd of wild BlackBerrys to make one. The cow is an invaluable invention and a terrible animal, and we have only ourselves to blame.

Cow Flickr

(Chris Marchant / Flickr)

Unlike, say, the lovable parasites that are dogs, the benefits of domesticated cattle are immediately obvious. (Technically, "cow" refers to female cattle that have given birth, starting their milk production. Female cattle that haven’t calved are heifers, castrated male cattle are steers, and uncastrated ones are bulls.) While Americans eat far less red meat now than they did in the 1970s, it still makes up a sizable portion of our meals — on average, we consumed about 57 pounds per person in 2011, and it was only recently overtaken by chicken as the most popular meat. (Worldwide, it loses out to both pork and poultry.)

Milk and dairy products, too, are a dietary staple. That's especially true for the 35 percent of the world’s population that can process lactose, thanks to a mutation whose cause we still don’t fully understand. As with meat, Americans are getting less fond of milk; we now drink under a cup a day, compared to a cup and a half in 1970, and overall dairy consumption has declined along with it. But we love cheese, yogurt, and sour cream more than ever. And that’s not even scratching the surface of how we use cattle, including the leather and gelatin products made from their hides.

Domesticating cows is the kind of dangerous feat we take for granted

The process of domesticating cattle was far from inevitable — it’s the kind of dangerous feat that we just take for granted from humans. Scientists have theorized that dogs (and cats, too) started hanging around humans of their own volition, with dogs potentially starting as far back as 40,000 years ago. Cows are a more deliberate creation. A 2012 study in Molecular Biology and Evolution determined that humans in the modern-day Middle East first started domesticating wild aurochs, the ancestors of cows, in very small numbers about 10,500 years ago. The authors speculated that aurochs were just too "large, aggressive, and territorial" for mobile human populations to handle. Their more docile offspring would eventually be bred into most of the cattle types we know today, although it’s believed there were other domestication events after that, including one that gave us the humped zebu cattle of South Asia.

The last aurochs went extinct in the 1600s, but they’re one of several animals that scientists are trying to bring back through de-extinction, alongside the Galapagos tortoise and the passenger pigeon. We’re still a long ways from the Jurassic Park version of this process, but a more practical method involves essentially reverse-engineering domestication: instead of pairing wild animals with traits that would make them more amenable to living with humans, breeders would look at what we know about the original aurochs’ genetic makeup, find cattle with similar traits, and intensify them over several generations. No one has actually done this — although a Nazi-backed attempt in Germany produced the rare and aggressive Heck cattle, they’re considered only superficially similar. But if someone succeeded, they’d end up with an animal that’s larger overall, longer-horned, and generally scarier than most modern breeds.

Flickr Aurochs

Sorry, this is the closest you can get to a real aurochs. (vic15 / Flickr)

Present-day bulls are, of course, still culturally recognized as dangerous. Indeed, all cattle are fairly capable of killing you, if they put their mind to it. But there’s a fascinating contrast between wild, shaggy aurochs and the industrial commodity that is, say, the Jersey or Holstein — to name two of the most popular breeds of dairy cow. While I cannot tell you the pixel density or average battery life of a Jersey, it is in fact an animal that comes with a detailed spec sheet, informing potential buyers of its "smaller, more efficient" nature and its ability to "withstand the rigors of commercial dairy production."

As the quotes above indicate, cattle are not consumer-focused animals, except insofar as they are literally consumed. They are large, meaty cogs in the often extraordinarily inhumane American farming apparatus. And they sport a design that seems uniquely positioned to make you feel absolutely awful about every aspect of interacting with them. With their big eyes and exaggerated facial features, they’re expressive enough that it’s easy to anthropomorphize them, in a way that other meat animals like chickens and pigs don’t invite. Even if you overlook the environmental impact of large-scale cattle farming, even if you choose meat from animals that have been raised humanely, they confront us with the fact that we spent thousands of years creating a species that finally trusted us, and look where it got them.

We spent thousands of years getting cows to trust us, and look where it got them

On top of everything else, there’s the fact that if you end up actually dealing with cows, you may feel bad about how quickly these charitable feelings can evaporate. It’s hard to maintain sympathy for a half-ton creature that seems determined to thwart your every movement, even if you understand that this is quite reasonable from its point of view. It’s not a dairy cow’s fault that it was bred to produce a nigh-ungodly amount of milk (the Holstein Association promises approximately nine gallons a day) that needs to be drained twice a day, but this will be cold comfort if it gets annoyed during milking and kicks your head in. Forget world-ending viruses and Frankenstein’s monster. The cow is both our reward and our punishment for meddling in the affairs of nature.

The Cow

Verge Score: 3.7

3.7

Verge Score

Good Stuff

  • Part of human cultural heritage

  • Handy de-extinction feature

  • A testament to man's mastery over nature

Bad Stuff

  • Subject to egregious cruelty

  • Extremely capable of killing you

  • A testament to man's mastery over nature