As the feral cows that were run over in Lantau in June lay dead or dying by the road, it was reported that two other, uninjured, cows in the vicinity were visibly distressed. One was even photographed shedding tears and licking the limp body of a calf. Do cows have emotions? If they do, are theirs of a lower order than those of dogs? Is that why we eat beef – and for that matter, pork, lamb and chicken – but, in most places, not dog meat?
We do know that cows exhibit a herd instinct – and it was this knowledge that famously helped Yu Zhongwen (AD545-613) settle a dispute. As the magistrate of a county in Yizhou (modern-day Sichuan province), Yu was known throughout the region as a wise and thoughtful man.
An unresolved dispute had been taken all the way up to the county governor and Yu was asked to try the case. The Ren and Du families had both lost a cow; but soon afterwards, a stray cow was found and both claimed ownership of it. On hearing the details of the case, Yu ordered the families to bring their herds before him. He then set the disputed cow free and allowed it to wander among the two groups. It quickly headed towards the Ren family’s herd, where a great deal of mooing, rubbing, licking and other bovine greetings ensued. The Du family realised the game was up and begged Yu for leniency.