Elvis, the world's smartest cow.

Stories from the farm.
April 28 2006 6:15 AM

The World's Smartest Cow

What my steer, Elvis, has taught me.

(Continued from Page 1)

Though truthfully, I'd been thinking about a cow. They don't seem as intelligent or affectionate as donkeys, but I thought I saw something soulful and philosophical about them. I like the way they stare, with great concentration, at nothing in particular. They appear to understand patience and composure, things I need to learn.

So, Peter and I commenced the weeks of obligatory haggling involved in any major farm purchase. The cow could bring 80 cents a pound at market, he said. But we weren't sending him to market, I countered. If I did, said Peter, he wanted half of any revenues. For the first two years, I agreed. But after that, any revenue would be mine alone.

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We agreed on a bargain price: $500. Some, including my wife, Paula, saw no logic in paying for a creature that performed no useful function, consumed two to three bales of hay daily in winter, and probably never would go to market. Notions of usefulness vary, I parried. This was an unusual creature; he would fit in. I named him Elvis because he seemed like a good old boy.

On the spring day Peter backed his livestock trailer up to my rear paddock and opened the door, five or six of us were standing around, and all said the same thing at the same time: "Oh my God."

Seen apart from the rest of his herd, Elvis was enormous. Staggering. The ground shook when he moved.

A creature who'd almost never been outside a barn, he seemed mesmerized by everything he saw. He accepted our nervous pats. But he was anxious, at first, about being alone. On day two, when he saw Paula brushing the donkeys in the next pasture, he simply walked through the fence and trotted over to visit. "He's bigger than our first house," she said, calling me on the cell phone from the house.

I rushed home from a neighbor's to find Elvis alone, staring forlornly at the sheep, huddled way up at the top of the steep hill, and the donkeys, who were hiding in the pole barn, peering out at him. I had no experience in trying to get a cow to do something it didn't want to, so I tried friendly persuasion. "Elvis, let's go home!" I said hopefully, walking back toward his paddock. He trotted abashedly after me.

We put up a single-strand electrified wire that very afternoon. Once Elvis got buzzed, he never approached the fence again. Maybe he didn't want to. Everybody who saw him in the following days agreed that he seemed calm and happy to munch hay, take in the sun, and gaze at his new surroundings.

Cows, it occurs to me, haven't been allowed to be smart. They don't get the stimulation dogs do, and they haven't lived in the wild since medieval times. They don't come in the house, chase balls, or go for walks with us. We regard them as milking machines or walking steaks, if we think of them at all. Like most people, I hadn't.

But Elvis has changed my ideas about cows. He's very social, fond of me and my helper Annie and my Labrador Pearl. When I take the dogs out for their morning walk, he moos repeatedly until I bring him an apple. He's figured out how to move bales of hay into place so he can snuggle next to them (when he lies down, you can sometimes feel the vibrations all the way to the farmhouse). He especially seems to love the view, staring out at the valley much of the day.             

He is amiable, happy to hang out with the donkeys and sheep, given the chance. He coexists peaceably with the chickens—with everyone, in fact. Once or twice a week, he has a burst of cow madness and goes dancing playfully around the pasture in circles. Trees tremble.

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