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.

Elvis and Jon. Click image to expand.
Elvis and Jon

I had to punch my new Brown Swiss steer in the nose recently. I'm not proud of it, but he had it coming. Elvis, who weighs 1,800 pounds, had sneaked up behind me and grabbed the hood of my sweatshirt in his mouth. That I was wearing the shirt seemed of no concern to him. I felt my feet lift off the ground. He was dangling me like a Labrador enjoying a smelly sock.

So, I wriggled around and slugged him—more of a tap, really. He seemed startled, even hurt. He let go. Feeling bad, I wondered if a cow could be trained.

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He needed it. "We've never seen such a friendly cow," farmer friends kept telling me. True enough. When people enter the pasture, Elvis comes running up to greet them. The effect is rather like a building lifting off its foundations and charging down a hill: You just pray he can stop if he wants to. He sticks out his big tongue and slurps. He grabs at shirts and hats. If you sit down, he'll happily put his head in your lap. But since his landings are neither graceful nor accurate, it's not an entirely welcome gesture.

Taking snacks to the donkeys one morning, I'd learned that Elvis loved apples. He came lumbering over, snatched one out of my hand, and let out an enthusiastic bellow. Maybe I could take advantage of this. Soon, when I came to the pasture gate, held up an apple, and yelled "Elvis, come," he trotted right over. If he got too intimate or pushy, I flicked him on the nose with two fingers. When he backed up, I held up my hand and said, "Stay," in the clear, enthusiastic voice recommended by dog trainers. To the amazement of me and my neighbors, he did. ("I wonder if you could teach him to sit or lie down," one of the neighbors asked.)

People in town began showing up to see the trained steer. "Maybe nobody tried to do it before," my friend Peter Hanks, a dairy farmer and photographer, observed. "But then, he's an unusual cow."

Elvis was Peter's before he was mine. Peter has been farming for 40 years and is, to say the least, decidedly unsentimental about livestock. He's has been milking cows or sending them off to market—that is, the slaughterhouse—for most of his life. They're his livelihood: He cannot afford to get emotionally attached to them. He keeps them in big dairy barns, feeds them silage (a sour-smelling fermented mixture of corn and hay), and doesn't give them names.

So, I was surprised when he showed up at my place one day, hemming and hawing about a steer he called Brownie. He'd never seen a cow quite like him. "He follows me around like a dog," Peter reported. "He puts his head on my shoulder. He licks me." And, possibly displaying an unusual ability to figure things out, the steer had refused to get on the market truck. For the first time, Peter confessed with some embarrassment, he hesitated to send a cow to slaughter. Elvis had missed several trucks.

That must be some cow, I thought, wondering why Peter was telling me this story—until I realized that he'd come to the one guy he knew stupid or crazy enough to take in the friendly monster.

Peter was between a rock and hard place. He knew his standing as a farmer would plummet if word got around that he was keeping a marketable steer as a large pet. But he also knew that giving him away would bring even greater jeers.

"Am I guessing right?" I asked incredulously. "You want me to take in this cow that will eat tons of hay every winter—and pay you for the privilege?"