Cow Week: Angry cows vs. angry mothers

Editorial note — Cow Week is a tongue-in-cheek look at risk analysis and why we fear the things we fear. It is inspired by the Discovery Channel's Shark Week, the popularity of which is largely driven by the public's fascination with and fear of sharks. Turns out, cows kill more people every year than sharks do. Each day, I will post about a cow-related death, and add to it some information about the bigger picture.

Now that we have three entries behind us, Cow Week is starting to fulfill its intended function—a format in which to talk about what we do and don't know about why we consider some things risky and some things safe.

Today, we're going to look at the way different emotions have different effects on how we perceive risk. But first, the cow-related violence:

In 2011, a British teenager named Emma Gregory was attacked by cows. Like yesterday's victim, Gregory was crossing a cow pasture with a dog in tow. (Bear in mind here, crossing cow-occupied pastures as part of moving around your community is a more normal thing in the United Kingdom than it is in the United States.) Gregory survived and her furious mother launched a campaign to change signage around the field and generally make sure that people are familiar with the fact that cows are not always docile, friendly, and adorable.

Mrs Gregory also wonders whether or not it would be “reasonably practicable” to install temporary fencing alongside the public right of way to keep ramblers and cattle separate.

“Yes, I accept cows are extremely protective about their calves, but people need to be warned about the dangers through signs, [she said]. “There was no indication this sort of thing can happen and I know it is not unusual for cows to go after dogs, but there should be more warnings.”

This angry mom who took a chance and tried to convince her community to change its norms reminded me of a 2001 research paper by scientists at Carnegie Mellon and University of California, Berkeley. In the paper, the researchers documented four different studies that lead them to a single conclusion: Fear and anger affect our judgement, decision-making, and perception of risk in different ways. Specifically, the researchers found that people who self-reported as carrying around a lot of feelings of fear thought about the world in a more pessimistic way, and were liable to make the choices they thought would help them to avoid risk. The problem: The "safest" option wasn't always as safe as it seemed. It just looked that way to people who felt like failure, or doom, was imminent.

Meanwhile, people who told the researchers they were angry a lot of the time had responses that were more like those of happy people—they were more optimistic; and they were more liable to take risks and try something new.

The catch is that this distinction was strongest when the subjects were dealing with ambiguous events—situations where it wasn't clear whether there was actually a risk or how big the risk was, and where it wasn't clear how much control the subject had over the situation. In those circumstances, fearful people basically clammed up and tried to avoid doing anything new. In contrast, happy people and angry people didn't assume that the worst was going to happen, so they were more willing to try a different approach to solving the problem—a "risk" that, ironically, might make them more safe.

Read the rest of the story about the attack on Emma Gregory at Get Surrey

Read the study on fear, anger, and risk

Cow kills Irish pensioner
Bull gores man, follows him until certain he is dead
Welsh cattle hate dog walkers

Image: cows, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from emmett_ns_tullos's photostream


  1. They all seem to be British or Irish cows – what’s so dangerous about our cows all of a sudden? Should I be worried? Should I write a concerned letter to the Daily Mail?

    1. Nothing. It’s more the fact that we now have several generations of people who view the countryside as somewhere nice to visit rather than understanding anything at all about it.

      It’s a little like those folk who move to a rural village with a church and then complain to the council that the bells ring and spoil the peace and quiet, they never consider much beyond the end of their own noses.

      And that’s coming from someone who lives in a city.

      1.  Yes – there’s a farm in Surrey on the edge of the London suburbs where 2 or 3 times a year they are visited by the RSPCA (animal cruelty inspectors), as a well meaning member of the public has complained they’ve left their cows out in the rain.

    2. Here in Canada there is essentially no concept of a public right of way.  If I was noticed walking through a stranger’s cow pasture here, I’d be angrily confronted; the presumption would be that I was up to no good.

      As noted, walking on a public right of way that happens to cross a cow pasture is pretty common in the UK (Where my relatives live in England, it seems to be mainly sheep farming country, so when I was there I walked through a number of sheep pastures).  The proportion of Britons with no practical knowledge of cattle, who end up in unsupervised proximity with cattle, is probably higher than in a lot of the world.

      1. Yes, and now there’s a “Right to Roam” in Britain, which has opened up even more space to walking than the old rights of way. All in all a good thing, methinks, though not without its risks. (Not unlike swimming in the ocean.)

    3. For the record: I have firsthand experience of being charged by a San Diego cow. I pedaled like hell and got out of there.

  2. @dragonfrog: It’s about the same here in the U.S., except here the landowner might confront you with a gun, depending on where you are and the tendencies of the particular land owner.

    1. Exactly, as a US citizen..

      Despite hiking through some pretty rural areas, and contrary to thousands of US TV shows and movies, I’ve never been physically threatened by a human, though I have been asked to leave by landowners when I’ve inadvertently trespassed. I suspect landowner-gun-trespasser confrontations are rare events which are magnified both by gun rights activists (trying to highlight the trespasser threat) and by gun control activist (trying to highlight the armed landowner threat). But… my experience is limited to the rural areas of one or two states which are not known for having a culture of property defense, and I look physically similar to the majority group in those areas. I can’t trust my experience applies in all states.

      1. My family owns a large parcel of land in a very out of the way area in California where I lived most of my life, and overall I think you are correct.  Most folks don’t mind you hiking around as long as you are sticking to established trails and roads, not littering, not making a nuisance of yourself, etc.  Beware though, it is all too easy to stumble on a pot grow (not too bad if the growers are hippies, Lethal if the growers are cartel) or a meth lab (VERY BAD).  Also, don’t be too freaked out if the landowner approaches you with a weapon in hand (or on belt), we have a very active Bear and Mountain Lion population….and have had some bad experiences with people scouting our property for illicit activities, or just to tear the hell out of  it with their off-road vehicles (last year some idiots caused thousands of dollars of damage with their quads, and it will take years for the local flora and fauna to recover in the area they trashed).  Personally, I have had a  shotgun shoved into my face after knocking on a door so I could use a phone to get assistance after a break down.  Be cautious!   Also, if you find an area you would like to hike in, the best idea would be to find the owners and ask permission….it will be appreciated and you might just make a new friend, or avoid some real trouble.

        1. I grew up where people hunt, and the neighbors were surprisingly amicable about letting my father hunt on their property. Permission is king. I would second not being freaked out when encountering armed people in rural areas, though context matters a lot. Guy walking down the side of a road carrying a shot gun while wearing cammo pants and bright orange sweatshirt, not so scary. Guy walking down the side of a road carrying a shotgun and  wearing ‘tactical’ clothes, a little more dodgy. Guy walking down a street carrying a shotgun and wearing a full business suit, creepy as heck run away run away.

  3. What are the mechanics of a cow attack? Most cows don’t have horns, right? Is it a head butt, kick, trample, or some combination? And don’t answer “Cow Fu”.

    1. Okay, I shan’t.

      “Moo Fu!”

      -abs’s tongue is quite firmly in his cheek this morning, blame the coffee

    2. Cows without horns will still instinctively do a goring kind of motion, which when horns are absent means they clobber you with their head. That’s assuming you are in front of them. They can also kick but as far as I can tell that’s mostly a rear-leg attack for dealing with things low and towards their rear, so not something you’re likely to be subjected to by a cow actively attacking you. More like something that might happen if you’re trying to milk an uncooperative cow. They can’t rear up and kick with their front legs.
      And yes of course they can trample you too once you’re down.
      In the end however I believe most deaths result from being crushed between cow and immovable barrier. That can happen quite by accident without any malice on the part of the cattle whatsoever.

      1. There is a comedian (don’t know his name) that talks about milking a cow when he was young, and ended up being bitten in the face by said cow.

        1. Funny. Obviously they have some jaw strength but I’ve never heard of one employing a bite as a deliberate attack. I could imagine a curious cow trying to sample someone’s hair but a face bite seems really unusual.

    1. To be fair, 99.99% of the time they are.

      I’m still waiting on confirmation from Maggie over whether or not I understand these articles correctly or not; but from what I gather Sharks aren’t dangerous, but cows are.  Because we spend enough time around cows for bad shit to happen, and hardly any time around sharks – or something like that; I’m not sure.

      I think it’s all a conspiracy personally.  Maybe a cow owes Maggie some money.

      1. That’s similar to the odd’s of being struck by lightning, which are relatively low. But of course, there are very few people that are actually standing around exposed during a lightning storm. The ratio of exposed people getting struck by lightning is obviously much larger than comparing the general public to lightning victims.

        1. But sharks are more dangerous than cows. We’re just at far greater risk of being injured by a cow due to our increased exposure to them.

          Is this a concept people don’t get?

          1. Nathan, this is not really about the cows. It’s about how we consider risk analysis. The thing people should be coming away with is that sharks are not out to get them, there’s not a high risk of being killed by a shark just because you’re swimming in the ocean, and that we (as humans) don’t really do a great job of assessing risk, in general. 

            This series should not be read as anti-cow. 

          1. It’s similar to when I take my city friends out camping. They feel much more comfortable walking home at 2am in the crazy city, compared to spending a peaceful night in a tent in the middle of nowhere.

            Or, why am I afraid of a ghost being in the basement, when I know ghosts don’t exist?

    2. An uncle of mine had a smallish farm in Kansas and when visiting, one of the things to do was go pet the cows, because, well there just wasn’t a heck of a lot TO do. The calves were very skittish. And the bull, of course had his own pasture. I suppose I helped out some on the farm, but I was more of a visitor. They didn’t have a dog as I recall (odd, that, now that I think about it) and the cats were all feral. So the cows were the only animals to play with. Pretty sure, tho, that I was given instruction on ‘cow etiquette’.

  4. “Cow Week … is inspired by the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week”
    Boing Boing hopes zat more people will understand ze complexity of zese majestic crea-chairs and ze vital role zey play in ze fragile ecoseestems of our oceans and our planet.

  5. I think it is time we stood up against these bovine bastards.

    Periodically bashing one on the head and eating it might be what it takes to send a message that this butting and trampling won’t be tolerated.

  6. One of the most dangerous things about cows is their Anti-Gay Agenda and their support of bigotry. 
    I researched this and found this image.  

  7. Having worked at radio sites in pastures I’ve had to deal with a few cows. Anything that heavy is a potential danger. They have no reverse gear. They turn left or right but won’t back up. Best weapon is a blast from an aerosol horn. As with horses, never surprise one from the rear. Talking as you approach helps. You need to keep distance from animals with young. Bulls? You’re on your own. Always check the plumbing.

  8. Do we really need signs warning us of the dangers of EVERything nowadays?
    FFs you can’t turn your head in UK without some sign or sticker telling you not to do something or to beware of some danger.
    When did people stop thinking for themselves, using common sense and accepting responsibility for their own damn actions?

    1.  Because pastures can be large and cows may not be in sight until you’re in the middle of one, children may not be aware of the risks, or any other number of reasons.

      Overuse of warning signs may be true, but I don’t see this as being one.

Comments are closed.