Cow Week: Cow kills Irish pensioner

Last winter, I found out something really fascinating: Cows kill more people than sharks. It's true. Here's Popular Mechanics on the statistics:

Between 2003 and 2008, 108 people died from cattle-induced injuries across the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That's 27 times the whopping four people killed in shark attacks in the United States during the same time period, according to the International Shark Attack File. Nearly all those cow-related fatalities were caused by blunt force trauma to the head or chest; a third of the victims were working in enclosed spaces with cattle.

Pretty impressive for an animal usually described as mellow and passive.

It also throws some sharp relief on the way we talk about sharks. (And, for that matter, on the way we think about risk.) Much like the dichotomy between not-terribly-dangerous-but-highly-feared airplane travel and highly-dangerous-but-not-terribly-feared car travel, cows sneak in under our cultural radar—they kill effectively and relatively often, while we save up all our terror for the much, much less deadly shark.

I found out yesterday that August 12 through August 16 is Shark Week on the Discovery Channel. So I thought I'd provide a nice counterbalance here. From now through August 18 I will provide you with one example of cow-related killings every day. I should note that I'm not trying to make light of the incidents I post here. These are all very real deaths. People were hurt emotionally and that's not funny. What I'd like to do, though, is use these incidents to get us all thinking about how we assign risk to certain situations, and why some things are terrifying and others aren't and why that distinction is often entirely independent of the actual risks. We kick things off with an example from Ireland. This tragic case happened only a couple of months ago:

Michael O’Dea, 74, had gone to check on a calf with his son Eddie at their farm in Co Clare on Saturday morning. The crazed cow is understood to have turned on the younger man — and Mr O’Dea intervened to protect his son. The cow then attacked the pensioner who was fatally injured. It’s understood the animal kicked the helpless pensioner several times at the farm at Clonina near Cree.

Read the full story of Michael O'Dea at The Irish Sun

Read Popular Mechanics' cow attack survival guide

Image: Cow, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from jelles's photostream


  1. We assign risk on several factors… the craziest of which is convenience.
    Its not convenient to acknowledge that cows are dangerous since so many of us have to live and work near them in order to make McDonalds and milk available to everyone cheaply.

    Its also not convenient to think about how dangerous cars are.

    We will however obsess about sharks and whatever else fox/action news tells us will kill us soon.

    1. Convenience has little to do with this case. First of all, cows are far from the most dangerous thing you’ll be dealing with on the farm. Second, it’s actually quite a small number of people who deal with cattle on a regular (or even an irregular) basis.

      What I’d like to know is the rate of fatalities per encounter. I’ll wager there are orders of magnitude more human-cow encounters per year than human-shark ones.

      1. True, that first off, the tractors, machinery or even hand tools on the farm are going to fuck you up the most and most regularly. Those are essentially you fucking yourself up, so you are the most dangerous thing on the farm even to you, let alone the cows. 

      2. I lived across the street from a dairy farm for most of high school.  The cows were happy to stay in their field, didn’t come charging at you if they smelled blood, etc.

      3. What I’d like to know is the rate of fatalities per encounter. I’ll wager there are orders of magnitude more human-cow encounters per year than human-shark ones.

        If a cow passes within 20 feet of you, the chances of you being aware of it approach 100%. With sharks, not so much.

        1. Fair enough. But the basics still stands. Its still more dangerous being next to a large shark than a cow. 

          Same as its more dangerous being in the same room as a lion than a bicycle. Or rubbing a lump of plutonium on your chest than a knife. Or Dancing with Wolves instead of Ballroom Dancing.
          This could be an episode of “When good statistics turn into bad conclusions”.

      4. Yea, I worked with cattle for 20 years and it was rare for a cow to be aggressive, the exception being when she’s just calved. I was however hospitalised by a cow who didn’t want to go to the bull…

          1. I witnessed that once. Bull was in cage near cows so us workers could see who was in heat and get them artificially inseminated. Bull understanably frustrated. I don’t know what he said to convince her, but she got her tongue through the bars of his cage. You can imagine the rest.

  2. I think a lot about how risky cars are, especially when I’m driving.  I’m still in an age group for which the most likely cause of death is, by a fairly wide margin, motor vehicle accidents.  It’s actually really hard for me to ignore, and I suspect it makes me completely obnoxious to drive with

    1. I’m still in an age group for which the most likely cause of death is, by a fairly wide margin, motor vehicle accidents.

      That’s not because cars are so deadly; it’s because you’re unlikely to die from other causes.

  3. Yep, people suck at certain kinds of risk estimation: low-probability, high-impact events. Also, voluntary risks where you are obstensibly in control (smoking, driving) are considered less risky than unexpected or uncontrolled events.

    If there was one thing about human psychology I could hack, it would be this… give people the ability to better assess risks that don’t involve sabretooth tigers.

    1.  It’s true, but if we were continually aware of the risks we’re taking, we’d be paralyzed by fear.

  4. And how does slipping in the bath stack up against driving? Just trying to get a handle on my exposure here.

  5. It doesn’t really work though, does it?

    We farm/raise cows and so put more humans into contact with cows professionally (that reads wrong) so it seems likely that with such close proximity there is more chance of an accident occurring.

    For the comparison to work we’d either need to know how many wild cows have killed humans…

    …or farmed sharks. 

    1. Yeah, exactly. Statistics are a wonderful thing but I reckon my chances much higher in a surprise encounter with a cow than a shark.

      1. I used to think so too, but then I saw a 4H livestock show. Cows are large and stupid and easily spooked, and in the little show I saw there were a few cows that turned on the kids that were showing them. Their dads jumped in, punched the cow in the jaw, and the show went on. Just another day on the farm!

        In a field you could probably outrun them but if you get crushed against a fence or kicked, it’s pretty serious. Then there’s the bulls.

        1.  I was kayaking one time on a creek and came around a gentle corner to find a heard of cows standing in the water. From that vantage point, they appeared quite dangerous and sinister. But they kindly let me pass and then even ran up the bank to another downstream area where they watched me pass again.

          1. Which, incidentally, is pretty bad land management. Herds can cause bank erosion right darned quick.

        2. That would have to be stressful to them. First they are raised in a culture where punching them is considered acceptable behavior. Then they are jostled around in a dark trailer on the way to a chaotic, noisy, unfamiliar place. You can’t really blame them for acting out.

    2. Well how about deer? They kill over 100 people every year. Of course, we are killing them too, so …

        1. Remember … deer have a bunch of these sharp, pointy sticks on their heads. And big clublike things on their feet. Oh … they also can weigh a couple hundred pounds, so there’s that.

    3. I was getting ready to make that point myself.  The flying to driving comparison makes sense–equal time spent flying and driving and you’re more at risk for dying while driving.  But the sharks to cows thing is just nonsense.  A little fear is rational.  It’s when you can’t function that it’s a problem.

  6. This has been the message promoted by noted safety expert Bartholomew Simpson for the last 25 years. Sadly, the public has disregarded his prophetic warning, “Don’t have a cow, man” as a mere comedic catch phrase. 
    On a more serious note, I had an uncle in Minnesota who had dairy cattle and he was lucky to get out of the business with his life. Dairy bulls are especially dangerous. He had a bull turn on him in a barn and the only exit was a window that was about six feet off the ground. He doesn’t remember how he got out the window, but when came around he was on the ground outside with a hole through his knee where the bull had gored him. He was lucky not to lose his lower leg or his life.

    1. The bull probably threw him up as it gored him, which might help explain the 6ft jump.

      On a related note, try pigs. They won’t just kill you; they’ll eat the remains, too.

      Curious fact: During the filming of Neverwhere, the Beast of London had to be switched to a bull. Why? Because no farmer they could find was stupid enough to keep a non-detusked boar.

      1. That’s because the only way to keep a non-detusked boar is skewered over an open fire pit. Those things don’t play, and TBH I wouldn’t tolerate the presence of a de-tusked boar either. Vicious is vicious and they are.

      2. On a related note, try pigs. They won’t just kill you; they’ll eat the remains, too.

        Try cats. They’ll infect you with a brain parasite to make you subservient, then trip you until you break your neck, then eat your face.

        1. My cat has long hair and often has poo stuck to him (the brain parasite transport mechanism).

          He also climbs all over me in bed and if I don’t get up fast enough to feed him when he wants, he starts “play” biting me. He also likes to lay on my chest and knead my throat while smelling my hair; probably a ruse to make sure all that poop is near my face so I get infected.

          He then walks right in front of me every time I’m walking toward where his food bowl is. He stops every two feet or so and sits down to make sure I’m following him, preventing me from moving (especially in one particularly narrow part), so since I’m no longer following him, he waits until I continue. I trip over him often. 

          I always just thought he was weird, but, now I know what his real plans are I guess.

          1. My cat has long hair and often has poo stuck to him

            I feel your pain.  The late Mister Fluffy Cheeks, who was fine in SF, immediately developed loose stool when he arrived in Palm Springs.

    2. The addition of a small amount of shorts to one’s diet has a remarkable protective effect against obesity.  

    3.  Why any farmer would have a bull with horns is a real mystery. No dairy here would even consider keeping a bull with horns. ( They take them off when the bull or cow is a calf)

  7. People not familiar with cattle wonder why a large-bore revolver in a hip holster is commonly considered a part of the standard work uniform for ranchers and hands.  There are good reasons.

    1.  I work with cows and with people who work with cows. I have never seen anyone packing a pistol.

    2. Or it could be that these are people who just like having their security blanket pistol along with them and will go for any available excuse.

      All I can tell you is, I’ve yet to see a dairy farmer in my corner of the South-East US packing heat in the field.

  8. Don’t cows already have a dangerouse reputation? How many times have you seen movies where the main character is casually walking around a field only to be confronted with a bull, and our hero is wearing red (eventhough cows are color blind) cue “oh shit, run!!!” moment.

    We even turned cows atacking humans into a sport: Rodeo.

    1. We even turned cows atacking humans into a sport: Rodeo.

      Don’t bullfighting and Minoan bull jumping precede the rodeo?

  9. “People were hurt emotionally and that’s not funny.”
    No, you see, it wasn’t funny until you said that. Now it’s funny.

  10. Just a thought, Maggie, but Shark Week is usually about more than stories where sharks kill people — you could include other stories about cows, like about how much methane farm cows put out, or about their crazy multi-stomach, or about cud chewing, or if there are different species of cow that are used for milk, or about cows and religious rites … there’s all kinds of stuff.

    What’s more, the counterpoint you’re making in regard to Shark Week stands out even stronger. Safety risks are only one valence of the larger thesis that says when we look for valuable science, weird facts, or surprising wonderments, we can find them not only in exotica or outlier cases (ie shark) but in very everyday things (you know, cows).

  11. I was surprised to learn that being a garbage man is far more dangerous than being a police man.   Being a farmer is pretty dangerous, too.  Jobs where workers are around heavy equipment are quite dangerous.

    1. The equipment, yes, but garbage transport workers also face a higher degree of injury from lifting something the wrong way, under estimating weight, both in the course of activity that even if done perfectly every time would eventually provide some degree of repetitive stress injury. 

      Cop work is comparatively low physicality but in sharp, short, sometimes adrenaline charged bursts that if engaged in with the frequency that the garbage worker does the dangerous parts of their job, would definitely put cops on the injured list more often.

  12. Thanks for shining a spotlight on our screwed up sense of risk.  It’s a big issue for me, especially as a parent.  Love your science writing Maggie!

  13. It seems to me you’re setting up a very misleading comparison. People spend a lot of time around cows, some people (farmers) almost all day, every day. Not so much sharks. So it’s no surprise that more deaths pile up statistically, and it certainly doesn’t support anything close to the conclusion that cows are more dangerous than sharks.

    I agree that sensationalizing shark attacks may not be productive, but people are basically correct to be more afraid of sharks than cows. They’re predators. On any given day, if you’re swimming next to a Great White, you’re more likely to die than if you’re standing next to a cow.

    It’s a bit like the statistic here in NYC that says most accidents involving pedestrians struck by cars occur in crosswalks. All that tells you is that pedestrians are usually in a crosswalk if they’re crossing the street. It doesn’t mean that it would be safer to avoid crosswalks and run across the middle of the street.

    1. but people are basically correct to be more afraid of sharks than cows. They’re predators.

      People should be even more afraid of dogs. They’re predators too, most people live very close to them, and they kill more often than cows do (30-35 a year in the US).

      But you’re far more likely to be killed by yourself, by a factor of about 1000. Cheer up!

      1. Well, no.. I think you’ve sort of missed the point. People shouldn’t be more afraid of dogs, because people spend tons of time around dogs, and the majority of those interactions are perfectly pleasant.  People don’t have many interactions with sharks, but a high proportion of those interactions are unpleasant as compared to interactions with dogs. You have to combine an aggregate statistic like number of deaths per year with a sense of how common the cause of death is in our lives in order for it to provide any remotely useful information about what we should be more afraid of.

        And yes, of course we ourselves are always the most inescapable threat.

        Anyway, all of these “you’re most likely to die by…” statistics are completely silly because none of them can apply universally. I’m not likely to get killed by a cow because I almost never find myself on a farm. If you don’t go to the beach, it’s darn near impossible for you to be killed by a shark. Aside from things like lightning and bathtubs, which are basically ubiquitous, it all depends on what you do in your life.

        1. People don’t have many interactions with sharks, but a high proportion of those interactions are unpleasant as compared to interactions with dogs.

          And yet, I rarely find shark shit on my lawn.

          1. Antinous, we’re discovering hidden depths in your education and experience! Any tips on telling apart dog shit from shark shit at a glance?

  14. Cows don’t look at people and think “I’m gonna eat that”. With cows most fatalities are accident related, farmer Joe was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    1. Very few sharks look at people and think “I’m gonna eat that.”  The vast majority of sharks are tiny little fish.  There’s only a few species that have been known to attack people, largely because there’s only a few species big enough to consider human beings edible.  Of those, only tiger sharks seem to go out of their way to eat humans.  Even great whites usually just take a bite, realize how little muscle and how many bones we have, and move on.

  15. Or, for example, a lot more people die of the Flu globally than Ebola each year. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be more worried if you get Ebola – it’s insanely deadly, whereas most healthy people get over the Flu. It just means Ebola’s rarer.

    Your point about perceptions of risk is well-taken, but you need a better, more even statistical comparison to illustrate it.

    Here’s one example – People are terrified of nuclear power due to the very unlikely, but very catastrophic possibility of a meltdown, but are all but unaware of the emissions from, say, coal power plants that are quietly, slowly, giving people asthma and lung disease every day. That goes to the same principle as your point about transportation – people are afraid of the big, traumatic events (plane crashes) but grow to accept the smaller ones (car crashes) even though in the aggregate the smaller ones may be deadlier.

    1. Awareness varies according to geography. If you live in Chicago, you’re much more aware of the problems of particulates. “And the steel mills of Gary are always upwind of Chicago” – Leslie Fish

  16. I’m guessing humans spend several orders of magnitude more time around cattle than they do sharks.  If we milked sharks on an industrial scale every day I bet the number of shark injuries would be much much higher.

  17. I’ll take this with a pinch of salt until I’ve seen a vet put his arm up a shark’s backside and live to wash his hands afterwards.

  18. When I was a kid growing up on a cattle farm, I witnessed a lot of near misses, although most were bull-related. Hopping up into a pickup=survival skill. My great-uncle had to enter a nursing home after sustaining a head injury when he fell while being charged by a cow.

  19. There seems to be a lot of confusion between the terms “cow” and “cattle” both in this discussion and in the original article. Do we know what percentage of those deaths were actually caused by bulls? I don’t think many residents of, say, Spain would argue that they have a reputation for being especially “mellow and passive.”

    1. When I was in India, I saw Brahma bulls everywhere. They just go wherever they want – streets, parks, sometimes inside buildings – and you just ignore them because they’re completely mellow. Then one night in Jaipur, I was out in a very crowded street when a toro came down the street. The locals all ignored him, but the few Westerners were flattened against the walls.

  20. Cows are stupid and they outweigh me by hundreds of pounds.  It’s a dangerous combination.  The fact that I scare THEM doesn’t really help much.

    Lots of farmers set a big vertical wooden post in the work area, and it’s there just to jump behind if a cow suddenly gets angry.

  21. Quote, Maggie:
    ‘Last winter, I found out something really fascinating: Cows kill more people than sharks. It’s true. Here’s Popular Mechanics on the statistics…”

    Find out, the average number of humans minding their own business in ocean waters at any given time.
    (Swimming or whatever.)
    Find out, the average number of humans minding their own business on land at any given time.

    Then check how many people died from cows in the ocean.
    Then, check how many people, (hiking?) died from sharks.
    Then do the obvious.


    1. I see what you did there, cow apologist.

      Actually, the second figure should be “average number of humans minding their own business in a barn at any given time.”

      1. I see what you did there, cow apologist.

        Soon enough, Cowicide will show up and it’ll be hooves over udders.

  22. The key words here are cow AND calf.
    The majority of such deaths, not to mention the thousands of people paralysed or disabled, occur when the farmer is either vaccinating or tagging the calf.
    Both of these actions cause the calf to cry out and bingo Raging Cow The Movie.
    Here in France it is usually when tagging the calves as they now have to have a tag on both ears.
    Hurt a calf once and if the mother knows you and trusts you you might get away with it. Do it twice you’re gone

  23. Same way Deer are the deadliest animal in NA, more so that bears, or big cats, wolves, etc…

    Because the toss themselves in front of cars the suicidal bastards! I would think cows are likely the same sort of thing.

    Other than of course killing through heart attacks due to red meat etc…

  24. The most dangerous creatures on the planet are humans!! Maybe we should have human week so we can all sit down and have a daily example of human related killing!! We are the only animal on the planet that murders for no other reason then pleasure. The way I look at it is if humans kill countless sharks to make shark fin soup and also if we are stupid enough to swim in their territories then they are entitled to kill humans. As far as the cows go – humans kill on average 34.4 million of them in the U.S. every year so I think they are most definitely entitled to take down a few of the humans who wish them harm!!

  25. A shark is still scarier. If you are near a cow, there is assumed risk, you know you could spook the cow. Cows do not sneak up on you, from below, where you don’t even see them coming. This concept is why for me not being able to see it makes it scarier. Same for a plane crash as well. You hear it falling, but you don’t see the ground coming (usually) unless you’re with the pilot. (I am less afraid of travel via helicopter)

    A car accident, there’s a good chance you’ll hear the brakes, though part of what terrifies me about driving is someone running a red light and just hitting me. Though I feel somewhat saver as I have a decent field of vision in my car.

  26. I have always found it interesting that we kill about 40,000 people every year on our highways.  Another 40,000 die each year, in the U.S., as the result of flu.  Even more shocking, about 400,000 die as a results of smoking, yet we get all worked up about sharks that kill only about 4 people each year in the U.S. 

    Perhaps if we got as worked up about smoking and automobile deaths as we do about shark related deaths, we wouldn’t have nearly so many deaths in those categories. 

  27. Just remember, Billy. If a cow ever got the chance, he’d kill you and everyone you care about.

  28. My great grandfather was killed by a dairy cow. Technically, I guess it was peritonitis that got him. I suspect cattle were far more dangerous in the pre antibiotic days.

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