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Here's why you should never say, 'You're as stupid as a goat'

Goats, are you paying attention to our tone of voice? A new study tries to answer that question. It involved 27 goats, a loudspeaker and recordings of the phrase "Hey, look over here!"
Juan Barreto/AFP via Getty Images
Goats, are you paying attention to our tone of voice? A new study tries to answer that question. It involved 27 goats, a loudspeaker and recordings of the phrase "Hey, look over here!"

Ok, so let's start off by saying that goats don't have the greatest image when it comes to intelligence.

In Nigeria, for example, a common insult is: "You're as stupid as a goat."

People who raise goats and study goats know that's just not true. Alan McElligott, associate professor of animal behavior and welfare, City University of Hong Kong, has run many studies that show goats are ... well, if not the GOAT, then close to it.

His latest study was conducted in collaboration with Marianne Mason, who holds a doctorate in philosophy and researches the cognitive abilities of goat. The aim: to establish whether goats can tell the difference between a happy human voice and an angry human voice.

Anyone with a dog knows that "companion animals" (that's the category for pet pooches) can tell.

What about livestock?

The study, published today in the peer-reviewed journal Animal Behaviour, was conducted at the Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats in England, home to around 125 goats that were either given up by their owners (in one case due to divorce) or taken from owners who mistreated them.

In a small enclosure, McElligott and Mason set up a speaker, concealed behind netting, to play a recording of a human saying, "Hey, look over here!" There were two versions — a happy one and — an angry 'HEY, LOOK OVER HERE!!!!!"

The study had 27 goat participants who entered the pen one by one. The speaker would play either the positive or negative version 9 times in a row. At first the goat would respond by looking up and maybe even looking for the source of the sound. But after a few repetitions, the goats would just stop paying attention.

Then the speaker would switch and play the opposite version three times. McElligott and Mason report that 71% of those disinterested goats perked up their ears and looked up in the direction of the sound. Among those newly engaged goats, says Mason, some "started to investigate the source of the sound longer than in the initial stages of the experiment, suggesting they noticed the emotions had changed."

You know, it's like when mom and dad say 14 times "Can you make your bed" to a non-bed making offspring and nothin' happens and then they YELL IT and wow, that bed sure gets made in a hurry.

The finding offers one more piece of evidence of the intelligence of goats, say Mason and McElligott — and builds on previous studies he's done about goat intelligence. In one, he found that goats respond differently to a happy goat bleat and a frustrated bleat, based on heart rate and other physiological signs. In another study, McElligott hung two big black-and-white photos of human faces in an enclosure, one happy and one all riled up, to see what goats would do. They preferred the happy face. And they didn't try to nibble at the photo; rather they explored behind it because you know a human with a happy face might just have a snack in their pocket.

Now the two researchers are the first to admit that enlightened goat farmers already know that their critters are discriminating listeners and that they respond well to kind treatment. "They might read a report like this and say I've known this — of course they can tell the difference," McElligott says.

That's what Susan Schoenian, sheep and goat specialist emeritus at the University of Maryland Extension, said in an email to NPR. It's not, in her view, a groundbreaking study.

She wrote: "Livestock remember bad handlers and handling. They can identify faces (animal and human). They have good memories. They know the voice of their caretaker.

"Calm voices are preferable for handling livestock. Angry voices, if they are loud or high pitched, will startle livestock and make them more difficult to handle and less predictable, less calm."

So why do such a study if that's already known? The goal, says McElligott, was to dispute the "public reputation" goats have "as being a bit stupid, a bit dumb, not particularly sentient. By showing this ability in goats, we're trying to move the needle in terms of opening people's eyes to the cognitive abilities of livestock. Our overall goal is to get people to think about animals in different way, to treat them a little bit better."

McElligott recalls that as a boy in Ireland, he saw cases where "bad things" were done to livestock.

Says Mason: "If we recognize animals have emotions and can discriminate between people's emotions we'll start to understand that these are sentient beings worthy of our respect. They deserve to be nicely treated, especially as we are using them for their dairy products and meat."

And if you want further proof of how smart goats are, consider this study that McElligott did. A few years back, he put some dried penne pasta (a goat fave) in a box that could only be opened by pulling on strings attached to two levers. The goats figured it all out to get that pasta snack. Then about 5 years later, McElligott was curious to see if any of the goats from the trial could remember. A nanny named Natalie opened the box in no time flat.

So in conclusion: Perhaps there should be a new saying: "You're as smart as a goat!"

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Marc Silver
Marc Silver, who edits NPR's global health blog, has been a reporter and editor for the Baltimore Jewish Times, U.S. News & World Report and National Geographic. He is the author of Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) During Diagnosis, Treatment and Beyond and co-author, with his daughter, Maya Silver, of My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks: Real-Life Advice From Real-Life Teens. The NPR story he co-wrote with Rebecca Davis and Viola Kosome -- 'No Sex For Fish' — won a Sigma Delta Chi award for online reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists.