What Do the Cows Think?

Over last winter, a handful of incidents involving cows escaping slaughterhouses caught my attention. The first was Hermien, a Dutch cow who escaped into the woods and eluded captors for weeks. The second is a Polish cow whose escape included breaking a man’s arm and taking refuge on an island. Both have since been relocated to sanctuaries where they will live out the rest of their days.

The similarities of these incidents inspired me to look for more examples. As someone who spends a lot of time studying and thinking about human economic exploitation, the image of cows escaping their workplace conditions is stimulating to an imagination too often choosing pragmatism in the face of a seemingly inescapable capitalist realism. Likewise, having previously witnessed the horror of ducks attempting to evade capture for slaughter, these incidences of bovine resistance helped shatter whatever repression I’d built up around accepting that relationship.

In February 2017, USA Today reported that a cow escaped an NYC slaughterhouse before being killed by police officers. Interestingly, the butcher attributed the escape to the cow being ‘spooked by a noise.’

Similarly, in 2002, a Cincinnati cow escaped from a slaughterhouse, jumping over a six foot fence in the process, and eluded capture in the woods for eleven days. After being tranquilized, she escaped a second time, but was ultimately caught again. Artist Peter Max arranged for her to be transferred to a farm animal sanctuary, where she lived six more years.

So what are cows who escape slaughterhouses thinking? Are they thinking? Or, as the NYC butcher related to the news, are they simply responding to startling sounds?


With few exceptions, I think most would agree that animals display a variety of complex emotions. A domesticated dog for instance expresses not just excitement upon receiving attention or touch, but a specific degree of excitement upon recognizing a companion human they have bonded to. The same dog may express shame when they know their behavior has disappointed this companion. Dogs express territorial loyalty, defending other animals, including humans in their family unit.

Dogs, like horses, goats, cows, cats, and others react to nonverbal cues from humans either by coming closer, recoiling, or staying away. They react to pain. They build associations. For instance, my cat knows that my retrieval of the cat carrier from the closet will be followed by my attempts to secure him within it. He seemingly knows that this is a game I am incredibly patient for, and that eventually he will have to submit. Just as a dog learns to associate its leash with going for a walk, domesticated animals seem to learn that certain human behaviors precipitate their visit to a veterinarian.

Animals build relationships with one another. They form bonded pairs and exhibit complex and arguably sexed (if not gendered) family dynamics. Mothers cry when their desired young are taken, and refuse to nurse others, especially after human contact. We are taught from a young age to be cautious with touching wild animal babies, as our human scent may cause its mother to reject it. Animals too learn to navigate our world. Dead squirrels and possums and deer teach others the danger of paved roads, which coyotes in particular have been observed to cross only at night when there is less traffic.

Some farm animals, like Pigcasso, arguably express a desire to engage in artistic expression. Injured chickens have been observed to self-administer pain medication (Danbury et. al 2000), and castrated piglets have been observed to express degree of pain by changes in vocalization (Weary et al, 1998). Cows specifically have recently been shown to experience emotional contagion.

So if animal sentience is generally accepted, if cows and other exploited animals are literally fleeing from what they arguably recognize is their slaughter, then should leftists or others concerned by injustice support them by campaigning for animal rights reforms?

Are Animal Rights a Leftist Cause?

Paul D’Amato at Socialist Worker writes in his piece Socialism and ‘Animal Rights’:

“When I hear the terms ‘animal rights’ and ‘animal liberation,’ some pretty strange scenarios run through my head. Does a mountain lion that kills a deer have a right to a trial by a jury of its peers? Should cows have freedom of assembly, speech and religion? Would my cat be liberated if I tossed him out of the house and stopped feeding him?

An animal rights activist might dismiss my attempt at humor, but there is a point to it. Non-human animals don’t possess the biological and physical attributes that would allow them to engage in the activities and behaviors we associate with ‘liberation’ and ‘rights.'”

Of course, a lion killing a deer is only in the basest sense comparable to human enslavement, breeding, torture, and slaughter of farmed animals, but this truth eludes D’Amato. He goes on to cite an example of how a ‘rescued’ animal must be roped and prodded into its new sanctuary home, which he builds into an argument that humans and animals are qualitatively different, thus unavoidably speciesist, and unable to share a baseline of communication necessary to inform a rights model.

Anecdotally, myself and I’m sure many others who have worked with animals can counter the premise that animals are incapable of expressing their will. As an example, we can consider anyone who develops a rapport with an animal they are milking. The typical constraints are unnecessary, and some animals even enthusiastically prepare to be milked by humans. D’Amato is correct however that we are playing a guessing game at times. Does the animal submit to milking because it fears consequences of not doing so? Does the animal submit to being milked because it understands this will relieve pain or pressure? Or does the animal act on some other rationale?

Marx himself argues in Wage Labour and Capital that ‘if the silk-worm’s object in spinning were to prolong its existence as a caterpillar, it would be a perfect example of a wage-worker, i.e. of an alienated labourer.’ Still, we are left without a linguistic certainty of what labor, if any, animals object to. This distance between human and non-human laborers exemplifies the way liberal democracy functions as an apparatus of capitalism. We can assert nonverbal cues as language, but in a rights model, it is a specific kind of language that matters, and we lack an ability to speak and write in a shared language as humans and non-human animals. Thus, despite all obvious observations or empathy regarding the pain and slaughter endured by animal laborers, human laborers are democratically alienated from this workforce; this democratic-linguistic trick is what D’Amato terms a ‘paternalistic lens.’ In essence, we are philosophically obstructed from solidarity because the moral rendering of our ‘paternalistic’ relationship to animals and the democratic framework of a rights model both ultimately exist to protect the capital investment of animal labor, not the sovereignty of laborers.

Do we need an animal to plainly state this is hurting me, this is painful, this is killing me, stop, before we act on their behalf?

While a linguistic contract from the animals is deemed necessary by some critics of the rights model, notably no such contract of consent can be cited for the origin of animal exploitation under capitalism. They are simply exploited to the death, despite biting, despite running away, and despite recoiling from humans (even those, who, as D’Amato cited, are transporting them to sanctuaries). The problem is not necessarily a lack of rights, but the presence of a system which necessitates them.

Sentience too, however it is demonstrated or interpreted, is not sufficient to build a case for welfare or rights. For instance, humanity recognizes its own sentience, but this is yet to stop violence, slavery, or other forms of social oppression and economic exploitation.

Rights models also routinely fail humans, so it is difficult to believe they will function successfully to protect animals or an even more abstract concept like ‘the environment.’ Moreover, campaigns for rights models and other reforms chase after an economic system which neither asks nor waits for permission.

And so as we debate the philosophy of what is entailed by humans asking for rights to be extended to animals, mass slaughter, mass worker exploitation, and mass environmental destruction continue to take place. The free market is pioneering non-stop in the realm of discretionary ethics we have not even conceptualized the rights to curtail yet. To me, this system places these struggles together. Animals, humans, and planet are exploited together. If not one, then the other. If not one way, then another. Almost always together. The individual struggles are important, the life of one rambunctious cow or one artistic pig is beautiful, but it is the stage these struggles take place on that is most of interest to me. How do we create beyond it?

Beyond Rights

In both of the original instances that drew my attention, the Dutch and Polish cows, a rights model is not what saved them from death. Rather it was the private acts of ordinary people.

These acts appeal to the syndicalist in me, because they can be read as an expression of worker solidarity. One exploited laborer (the cow) escaped the conditions of their exploitation (and, quite literally, their death), and other laborers stepped in to assure their lasting freedom. This model is obviously flawed though in the fact that progress for all the laborers remains so far unchanged. Factory farm laborers are still expected to mass produce animal products, and by extension, the vast majority of cows and other farm animal laborers remain in a system of also being exploited until death. The few may escape and engage in acts to support one another, but the lives of the majority are dictated by the capitalist system that encapsulates us.

I think the omnipresence of capitalism should cause us to question focusing on individual solutions as well. Macro-level shifts in demand would decrease the need for animals themselves as meat, but that shift cannot reasonably be accomplished when poverty, welfare parameters, disability, and the micro-management of labor and time prevent the immediate possibility of a personal shift in diet for many people. Similarly, replacing leather products with plastic products just shifts the species and prolongs the moment before animals are devastated by human consumption habits.

In Non-Human Animals Within Contemporary Capitalism: A Marxist Account of Non-Human Animal Liberation, Corinne Painter writes:

“[…] equally important is the fact that we cannot deny that even those of us who have risen to this challenge cannot avoid participating in and supporting practices and ways of life (at least passively) that we reject but are powerless to change until capitalism no longer rules our world. This serves to support the thesis that capitalism and all the speciesist structures, traditions and ideologies that necessarily accompany it, must be forcefully replaced, given that as long as they remain in place, an insufficient number of individuals will be motivated or even able to move beyond their speciesist ways, which capitalism takes pains to reinforce at every turn […].”

As a former farmsteader, these issues also intrigue me. For instance, our agriculture is dependent on the labor of bees. Healthier soil is a byproduct of well-fed worms. And whether or not we consume dairy products, my understanding is that dairy animals produce more milk than needed to feed their young now, and so suffer without the intervention of milking. Without completely replacing agriculture, eliminating human and animal labor to produce our food system seems impossible. Perhaps this is what is needed? A total overhaul of agriculture?

Still, inter-species dependency doesn’t justify capitalism’s exploitation of human and farm animal laborers alike. What could a world look like without this economic system defining our relationships? 

While veganism is an admirable individual moral choice, it alone is insufficient to counter the breadth of capitalism’s terror against humankind, animalkind, and the planet itself.

The same urban sprawl, food deserts, and loss of biodiversity impacting human health provide the same landscape animals must draw their food from as well. So simply choosing not to eat animals, like choosing not to kill humans, saves lives but does little for the conditions of the lives saved.

These conditions of life, I believe, is where leftists and others concerned by any injustice should pick up the cause of animals alongside people and the planet. More than liberating individual lives, more than appealing to the state to protect classes of lives, we must address the capitalist and industrial-scale agricultural system that preconditions these lives to horror.

Danbury, T.C., Weeks, C.A., Chambers, J.P., Waterman-Pearson, A.E., Krestin, S.C.(2000). Self-Selection of the Analgesic Drug Carprofen by Lame Broiler Chickens. The Veterinary Record, 146 (11), p. 307-311.

Weary, D.M., Braithwaite, L.A., Fraser, D. (1998). Vocal Responses to Pain in Piglets. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 56, p. 161-172.

Marx, K. (1993/1999). Wage Labour and Capital, Chapter 2. Online at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/wage-labour/ch02.htm

Painter, C. (2016). Non-Human Animals Within Contemporary Capitalism: A Marxist Account of Non-Human Animal Liberation. Capital & Class, Vol. 40 (2), p. 325-343.


Pat Mosley (LMBT #16882) is facing down the existential void with his animal friends. He works as a massage therapist and farmer, and is almost just finished earning an economics degree from a well-known business school too. He sees all these interests as deeply connected in the art of human ecology and the need for interdisciplinary action in response to climate change.