Thinking cattle

While I was in the middle of my field research on anti-predator behaviours in Australian cattle I was also doing surveys and interviews. With the help of Local Land Services in Grafton, NSW, I sent out about 150 surveys to farmers who had registered to use poison baits to control dingoes. The surveys were a little unusual compared to the usual wildlife-conflict, farmer surveys which ask things like ‘How many animals have you lost?’ and ‘What is the total value of livestock losses for the past year?’ After eliciting some general demographic and geographic information, the questions set about uncovering what farmers thought about what animals were thinking. I’d been reading a lot about Theory of Mind – the ability that most humans have to imagine what others are thinking – and I wondered how it played into farmers’ relations with livestock and predators. During my time in Ethiopia I found that people constantly deployed theory of mind in terms of the way they imagined the worlds of other animals. Not only did they construct ideas about what predators such as hyenas were thinking but they did likewise with the livestock animals with whom they shared their houses. This stood as a marked contrast to the predominant Western view of animals as mindless grass munchers or implacable predators. Considering that rural people in Ethiopia share their lives intimately with other animals, I wondered whether the western view was a consequence of living at a distance from animals. After all, most farmers in Australia do not share their houses with their livestock and certainly don’t know every animal by name, as do Ethiopian farmers. But then maybe the Western view of animals was widespread only in academic circles. Maybe Australian farmers saw the world differently. So the surveys I sent out included questions aimed at testing this. Such questions as ‘Do your animals know when dingoes are present?’ tested whether farmers ascribed thoughts to their livestock animals. The surveys also included an option to have a face-to-face, follow-up interview and over a dozen farmers took me up on that. So I made some trips around the New South Wales tablelands to do interviews with farmers where I asked some pretty odd-ball questions about what they thought that cows, sheep, and dingoes were thinking. What I found was surprising. The Australian farmers I spoke to were little different to Ethiopian farmers in thinking and talking about what animals were thinking. Even a cattle farmer from the New England Tablelands with hundreds of acres, and thousands of animals – who had a farm manager to do the hands-on work with the animals, talked about the mental lives of his cattle.

I ended up writing a book chapter about this. After discussing the ways in which Oromo farmers deployed theory of mind as a practical means to control their livestock animals I suggested that, because of fencing as a means of control in animals, Australian farmers didn’t really need to. But my findings that Australian farmers did deploy theory of mind suggest that humans can’t help but ascribe mindedness to other animals. In fact humans compulsively ascribe mental states to all manner of things, from cars to weather phenomena. And this is borne out by the results of experiments in which subjects are asked to describe sequences of animated shapes. What these experiments show is that with the exception of some people on the autism spectrum, humans readily attribute mental states to animated objects even if those objects are basic shapes such as triangles and circles. But while theory of mind may have contributed to the initial processes of domestication, I argue that it wasn’t crucial. Proof of this comes from individuals with autism who struggle to deploy theory of mind but are very adept at understanding and managing livestock animals. Temple Grandin being a case in point.

Meanwhile the data came in from the camera traps. It wasn’t promising. There were thousands of images of cattle, a handful of birds, a cat, a wallaby and only three images of a wild canid. Worse still was that one of the dates on which the canid was photographed happened to be one where I wasn’t on-site collecting data on livestock. So my spatial analysis fell apart due to lack of data on predator movements. But I consoled myself with the results from my surveys and interviews. I figured these would give me something on which to base comparisons when I got to Ethiopia. It was around this time that an Ethiopian shit-storm blew up on the horizon.

Camera Trap

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