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What Are Farm Animals Thinking?

David Grimm

Jan 15, 2024

New research is revealing surprising complexity in the minds of goats, pigs, and other livestock.

You’d never mistake a goat for a dog, but on an unseasonably warm afternoon in early September, I almost do. I’m in a red-brick barn in northern Germany, trying to keep my sanity amid some of the most unholy noises I’ve ever heard. Sixty Nigerian dwarf goats are taking turns crashing their horns against wooden stalls while unleashing a cacophony of bleats, groans, and retching wails that make it nearly impossible to hold a conversation. Then, amid the chaos, something remarkable happens. One of the animals raises her head over her enclosure and gazes pensively at me, her widely spaced eyes and odd, rectangular pupils seeking to make contact—and perhaps even connection.

It’s a look we see in other humans, in our pets, and in our primate relatives. But not in animals raised for food. Or maybe we just haven’t been looking hard enough.

That’s the core idea here at the Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology (FBN), one of the world’s leading centers for investigating the minds of goats, pigs, and other livestock. On a campus that looks like a cross between a farm and a small research institute—with low-rise buildings nestled among pastures, stables, and the occasional dung pile—scientists are probing the mental and emotional lives of animals we’ve lived with for thousands of years, yet, from a cognitive perspective, know almost nothing about.

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David Grimm is the Online News Editor of Science. He also writes for the magazine, where he covers animal welfare, animal rights, and the science of cats and dogs. He received a bachelor of science degree in biochemistry and cell biology from the University of California, San Diego, and a Ph.D. in genetics from Yale University.

Grimm is the winner of the 2010 Animal Reporting Award from the National Press Club. In 2009, one of his stories for Science, "The Mushroom Cloud's Silver Lining," was published in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2009. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Slate, BuzzFeed, and a variety of other publications. He teaches science journalism at Johns Hopkins University.

Grimm is the author of Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs, which traces the evolution of pets from wild animals to members of the family.


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