You Fight Like a Cow

Monkey Island notwithstanding, your life might just be better if you take “you fight like a cow” as a compliment. The truth of the matter is that – whatever Tennyson and the Victorians’ moralistic viewpoints – “nature red in tooth and claw” really mostly holds true only for predatory attacks on food animals in actual nature. Even then, few predators will attack prey with a mind to getting in a fight. After all, if your food stands a good chance of thrashing you in a fight, the predators won’t be around for long. An actual fight is just too risky. It’s not like there’s emergency veterinary hospitals in nature. Even a small cut could get infected and eventually kill you. A broken bone or chipped tooth could prove fatal if it means you can’t catch meals. As an aside, this is one of the major forces shaping the evolution of venom. The geographic cone snail has some of the most outrageously potent and fast-acting venom of any creature, purely because it’s a snail that eats fish. If a fish, once bitten, had any chance to run away or fight back, cone snails would have a very rough time just catching breakfast, let alone surviving it.

Given how much animals in the wild stand to lose from fighting, most will go to a lot of effort to avoid a fight in the first place. Lots of animals have specialized equipment – horns, antlers, ossicones, tusks, gill frills, song – specifically for settling disputes with other members of their own species in a way that keeps it from getting too violent too often. There’s a whole suite of behaviors that virtually all animals have to prevent fights in the first place and settle those that do occur as fast as possible.

Let’s talk about cattle. They actually have one of my favorite conflict sequences, and you can plainly see how cow disputes progress through several stages at each of which the parties have a chance to de-escalate the conflict, or decide to proceed to the next step.

The Official Cow Fight Procedure:

  1. Rival Cow Spotted!
    • If you know this cow, and you each know where you stand with each other, you’re cool, and both can back down now. If either has any doubts, proceed to step 2.
  2. Angry mooing.
    • Let the rival know you’re not happy about this incursion. If the rival responds with more angry mooing, and you don’t want to back down either, keep up the noise and proceed to step 3. Otherwise, if you get no response, the rival agrees to back down.
  3. Pawing of dirt to signal aggressive intent. 
    • If each cow is still prepared to get in a shoving contest, they’ll proceed to step 4.
  4. Standing sideways to each other to show off size.
    • If either individual decides that the other is too big to take on, they’ll just quiet down and walk away to eat grass. Otherwise, if both are convinced that they can take the other, proceed to step 5.
  5. Prepare to lock horns.
    • Both cattle lower their heads. This is the last chance to back down, and can be very brief.
  6. Shoving contest.
    • The rivals lock horns, or rest their heads against each other (if polled or hornless), and try to shove the other until one disengages and walks away.
  7. Resolution.
    • When one of the rivals backs down, it is possible to continue angry mooing, and allow the rival to angrily moo a bit to save face. If the issue isn’t settled, the cycle might repeat (but usually doesn’t) until the cattle can predict who will win the shoving contest and accept the results. Generally, just once is enough to settle the issue. Most of the time, cow fights don’t even get to step 6 at all before one of the rivals backs down.

You can watch the whole complicated sequence below, with these two Hereford bulls.

Switzerland has a whole sport based on introducing cows to each other in the Spring. The cows spend the Winter on their individual farms, but in the Spring, they get together again for the drive to alpine pastures. Of course the cows need to settle who’s top cow, and it was only a matter of time before people started painting numbers on their sides and setting up concession stands. Yes, these are actual cows, too, not bulls. Note udders. When a cow backs down, she’s removed from the ring until only one cow remains, and is crowned Queen of the Cow Thunderdome. Sorry: “Queen of Queens” technically, as the cow fighting is called the “combat de reines” or literally the “fight of queens.” Cows are Very Serious Business in Switzerland, in case you couldn’t tell.

These cows are all members of the Herens breed of cattle, and are selectively bred for cow fighting. Meet Penelope, a Queen of Queens.

Notice that nearly all of the Official Cow Fight steps are about communicating a problem and providing plenty of chances to back down. And if the other cow does, but they make a lot of noise about it, let them. It’s all just angry mooing.

Once everything’s settled, even Herens Queens are perfectly chill with each other, and pass their Summers in idyllic alpine meadows.

Plenty of other animals have an official fight procedure, like cows do, it’s just that in cows, it’s so clear and well-defined. There are plenty of videos of Complicated Cat Space Negotiations, for example. Just remember: if there’s video of it, someone found it interesting and exciting enough to record, so for all of these videos of cow fights, there’s lots and lots of cow fights that never happened. This is an example of selection bias – if you were to study how often cows fight, cow fight videos on YouTube would be junk data to draw on, because people are way more likely to record and post interesting video of cows fighting than the many, many allegedly boring instances of cows not fighting.