Lately, I spend a lot of time listening to podcasts. One that I especially love is Shortwave, a short daily science podcast from NPR. A recurring segment that they have on the show is called “Animal Slander,” where hosts Maddie Sofia and her guests debunk common myths about animals by talking to scientists.
It also made me wonder: Do the common sayings and stereotypes about farm animals have any basis in fact, or are they pure slander?
I reached out to livestock experts around the state of Maine to find out the truth. Here’s what they had to say.
Pigs are dirty: FALSE
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If anyone ever calls your living space a “pigsty,” kindly inform them that they are maligning the good name of pigs. Pigs are among the cleanest animals on the farm. According to Donna Coffin, extension professor at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, pigs will avoid defecating anywhere near their sleeping or eating areas if they have enough space.
“They’re very clean animals,” Coffin said. “If you give them enough space, if they have one corner of their pen for poop, one place is for their feed and one place is for their water and one place is for them to sleep. They’re very tidy about that. Not all animals are.”
Colt Knight, state livestock specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension said that the false notion that pigs are dirty goes hand-in-hand with the slanderous phrase against pigs: sweat like a pig.
“Pigs have a few sweat glands, but they’re ineffective at evaporative cooling,” he said. “They go wallow or lay in a mud puddle. That’s when they get dirty. When they’re given a choice, [they prefer] to live in a clean dry environment.”
In fact, Knight cited another linguistic source for the phrase.
“That term actually comes from smelting what they used to call pig iron [and] when [blacksmiths] would sweat when they pulled out of the furnace,” Knight explained. “It doesn’t have anything to do with the animal pigs.”
Pigs eat “like pigs”: TRUE
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Sorry, pigs — the saying “eat like a pig” has some truth to it.
“They eat a lot,” said Jacki Perkins, organic dairy and livestock specialist at the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA). “One of the production challenges for pigs is to supply them with enough food to sustain their weight because they’ll just keep eating, but not get them overly fat.”
However, Knight pointed out that compared to other farm animals, pigs have a relatively efficient feed conversion ratio when compared to other meat animals on the farm — namely, cows.
“Commercial pigs will gain one pound of bodyweight for every three to four pounds of food,” Knight said. “Compare that to cattle, [with] six to eight pounds of feed per every pound of body weight.”
Plus, as Knight put it, big animals need more food, and commercially raised meat pigs have been bred to be big eaters.
“It’s kind of relative to their body weight,” Knight said. “Those commercial bloodline pigs are bred to eat a lot of food so they can put on muscle and fat quickly.”
Cows are stupid: FALSE
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“Stupid cow” is an insult used primarily against women that are considered annoying or slow. This is not only offensive, but it is not fair to cows.
“That’s animal specific like it is human specific,” Perkins said. “It comes a lot with the fact that they like to stand around and look sleepy and chew their cud. They’re slow moving animals by nature, but they’re not stupid.”
Coffin said that when she used to milk cows, they would line-up in their usual spot and stand at the door and wait until it was their time.
“They can be very clever, she said. “We used to have trouble with gates and cows letting themselves out. They have to use all sorts of things to make sure they can’t get gates up.”
Researchers at the University of Cambridge found that not only were cows capable of learning how to open a gate to get a food reward, but they also reacted to their learning. Upon successfully opening a gate, the cows displayed increased heart rates and vigorous movement, a “eureka” moment similar to human reactions to learning something new.
“I’m not collecting IQ scores on livestock, [but cows] are definitely smarter than sheep but not as smart as pigs,” Knight said. “For the most part we don’t train cattle like you would a horse or a dog [because] that’s not what cows are for. I’m sure if you spent generations upon generations of domesticating cows to do tricks, they would do pretty well, but that’s not what we do.”
Bull in a china shop: TRUE
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“Bull in a china shop” is a phrase used to refer to someone who physically breaks things around them or makes bumbling mistakes in situations that require more care. Perkins said that while you are unlikely to find a bull in china shop, cattle of both sexes would make a mess in small spaces.
“Cows run into a lot of stuff,” Perkins said. “They’re shaped like a wedge and they’ll think that they can fit through something and forget that they’re shaped like a wedge and get stuck. That’s a total stereotype that’s true.”
However, this is less of a concern for stores selling fine dinnerware than farmers planning their infrastructure.
“You have to build your barn sturdy,” she laughed.
Goats eat anything: FALSE (SORT OF)
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A famous Warner Brothers cartoon from the 1940s depicted goats mowing down on some tasty tin cans. The comical image stuck in many people’s minds as proof that goats eat just about anything.
While a goat will put just about anything in its mouth, though, it does not have a stomach made of (or capable of digesting) steel.
“That one is fairly false,” Perkins said. “Goats like to browse. They’ll nibble and taste [and] run their lips on stuff, but they won’t actually eat it. They’ll pick up your tin can and play with it, but they’re not going to chomp down and swallow it.”
When it comes to tin cans, though, Knight said there is a grain of truth to the old cartoon: goats will chew and swallow paper labels or lick off the glue on some tin cans.
Chickens are “chicken”: TRUE (SORT OF)
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The word “chicken” has become synonymous with “cowardly.”
“That comes from the fact that chickens are very reactive and alert,” Knight said. “If something scares them, they’ll run away.”
Knight said that this has to do with the fact that chickens are prey animals, so in a calculated decision of fight or flight, they are more likely to flee.
“Chickens aren’t going to be able to beat up most things so they’re going to elect to run away,” he explained. “That’s mostly just being prey animals.”
Don’t be fooled, though: while they may be easily startled, they can also be aggressive if provoked. Coffin said that roosters will even attack threatening predators
“They can be aggressive,” Coffin said. “Some of the hens that are broody can be very aggressive.”
Perkins said that despite their tendency to run away from a fight, she does not find chickens cowardly at all.
“Sure, they’ll run away, but anything that’s lower on the food chain usually does,” she said with a laugh. “Frankly, I have a really brave rooster. He fought off a hawk the other day.”