I had the cows where I wanted them, but when I turned to shut the gate, I heard the clop, clop, clop of hooves behind me. Adriana, a smart, older Highlander cow, had been watching me, and as soon as I looked away, she made her move, rushing by me enticed by a fresh, new pasture before I could close the gate.
Cows are observant creatures and often see things that humans miss. Temple Grandin, consultant to the livestock industry on animal behavior, believes that cows view the world in a sensory-based format – as pictures, sounds or tactile sensations – just like a person with autism might; and that humans and cows observe the same scene differently. For instance, a person sees merely a herd of cattle in a field. A bovine will see her best buddies, calves, the lead cow (who is to be avoided), a group of trees, the fence-line and, of course – an open gate. Photographers are the same way. The average person just sees dear, old Grandma; the photographer sees highlights, shadows, shapes, colors, textures, lines, and angles, plus the potted fern in the background that seems to be growing out of Grandma's head. Photographers see literally.
Since cows are not blinded by assumption and context, they rarely miss details. Once I left my jacket hanging from a fence post. To the cattle, my drab little jacket was as conspicuous as a Loch Ness monster! Every cow in the pasture visited that jacket, sniffing it to identify this new object as friend or foe. Cows see and remember specifics; if a change is detected, it must be investigated.
Part of my ongoing effort to decipher the bovine mind is “the lie-down test.” When I lie on my back in the field, the cows don't just think: “Oh, that's the boss lying there.” The horizontal posture makes me something new and mysterious. The cows will circle around to investigate this new “object.” Even the most timid cow will walk up to sniff my boots, nuzzle my cargo pants or inspect my hair. (Although most cows will not step on a prostrate human, I keep a stick handy when trying this stunt.)
Cows are observant, and I'm forgetful about gates. It's a bad combination. Like that time I didn't latch the pasture gate when I brought Maya and her newborn to the barn. The herd discovered the open gate and ambled down the road behind us. Fortunately, I had a head start, and Mom and baby were locked up before the others arrived. My smart husband, Bruce, saved the day by opening up another gate and redirecting the herd back into their proper pasture. For purposes of pasture management, careful breeding, and general safety, it's vital to keep cattle where they're supposed to be.
That open gate had been my mistake, but other times, communication is at fault. Each of the farm's eight fields has a name. When moving cows, I try to recite the game-plan with Bruce. Even so, when the cows end up in the wrong place, Bruce will say, “But I opened the Omega gate, just like you said,” when the Equitation field was where the cows should be. Did I misspeak or did he mis-hear?
No matter the reason, cows observe and know when a gate is ajar. Never underestimate the bovine sensory super-powers. There are times I wish I had their skills. Maybe then I'd see that open gate before they do.