The Secret Lives Of Cows: Jumping For Joy

March 3, 2014

Ah, cows. They’re big, lumbering, earthbound beasts, right? But sometimes, Bessie and pals just have to get airborne.

That gif of dairy cows “jumping for joy” is from a video that’s been making the rounds on the Internet. We spotted it last week when food journalist Michael Pollan tweeted it out:

Turns out, the cows pictured hadn’t just been “freed from a dairy farm,” as the title of the video suggests. Still, they had quite a history. With their milking days behind them, these dairy cows had been headed to the slaughterhouse, according to the video’s subtitles (it’s in German). But an animal welfare group called Kuhrettung Rhein-Berg stepped in to offer the cows a retirement home. In this video from the group, we see the animals relishing their release from their winter housing into the great outdoors.

It’s a moving scene, given the cows’ backstory. But is it “literally jumping for joy,” as the title puts it?

“We can certainly interpret it as positive excitement,” says Anne Marie de Passille, a Canadian researcher who studies the play behavior of cows. “Can it be joy? Who knows how to identify joy in cows? We have a hard time identifying it in humans,” she jokes.

What we do know, she says, is that cows love a change of scenery. And a switch from the concrete floors of the indoors to a soft green pasture would surely help break a bovine’s winter blues, she says.

In fact, cows are suckers for novelty, adds de Passille’s colleague, Jeffrey Rushen. They get an extra spring or leap in their step “whenever something new or unexpected happens,” he says – say, changing their bedding or letting them out or back in. “We think it’s a sign that things are well with them.”

And happy cows can really catch some air – a young cow can easily clear a five-foot fence, he says. This one in Britain jumped six feet to land on the roof of a house.

In some places, including Germany and Finland, it seems, cow jumping competitions – a la equestrian show-jumping – are an official thing. (Don’t worry: As long as they’re landing on soft surfaces, the cows are probably enjoying the ride, says de Passille.)

Now, cows don’t spend their whole days channeling their inner Kriss Kross — maybe just 5 or 10 minutes a day, Rushen says. And dusk, adds de Pasille, is when they really like to party.

“They often do it right before sunset, and then they can really jump,” she says. “It’s quite the rodeo. It’s really a party.”

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