Do goats rival dogs on social smarts?

A curious goat I photographed at FBN

A curious goat I photographed at FBN

When I write about cognition and domestication, I’m almost always writing about cats and dogs. But this year I had a unique opportunity to write about farm animals. In the fall, I visited the  Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology (FBN) in Dummerstorf, Germany–one of the world’s leading centers for investigating the minds of cows, pigs, and other livestock.

On my second day there, I had a remarkable encounter with a goat. As I write in my new feature for Science:

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.

That goat (pictured above) really did remind me of a dog. And it’s not just me. Over the past few years, scientists at FBN and elsewhere have shown that goats rival dogs in many tests of social smarts. They can distinguish between pictures of happy and angry people, suggesting they are tuned into our emotional states; they can locate food behind an obstacle more quickly if they watched humans move the food there first, a rare example of cross-species learning; and, in a stunning finding, goats seem to understand what we mean when we point at something, a complex reading of our social cues that eludes even chimpanzees.

It’s not just goats. I saw piglets that seem to show empathy when their comrades were trapped in a box. Cows that make friends–and enemies. (They can also be potty trained, as I’ve written about before). And other goats that showed signs of altruism.

Together, the work is challenging long-held stereotypes that farm animals are dumb, not just among scientists but also the general public. And that in turn could change how we house and treat these creatures. As Jan Langbein, an applied ethologist at FBN told me, “If we don’t understand how these animals think, then we won’t understand what they need. And if we don’t understand what they need, we can’t design better environments for them.

P.S. This story also got me my first cover for Science, after nearly 20 years at the publication! You can see it here.

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