Science Shows How Not To Get Killed By A Cow

Cow attacks are on the increase.
Cow attacks are on the increase.

“Murderous cattle are an understudied phenomenon, say veterinarian Angharad Fraser-Williams and other researchers at the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom.”

You bet they’re understudied. When’s the last time you cracked open Nature or Science and a read paper like “The stampede-growth hormone nexus”, “Delinquent behavior, violence, and cud chewing down on the farm”, “Grass diet and bovine psychopathology” and so on? I’ll you when: never: that’s when.

It’s no laughing matter. According to the article “How Not to Get Killed by a Cow“, spotted by the ever vigilant Ken Steele, comes this warning: “Between 1993 and 2015, cattle killed 13 people who were out for walks in the United Kingdom.” That’s over 0.5 killings per year!

What is driving these murderous cows mad? Disease?

Turns out Fraser-Williams and fellow researchers “scoured news articles and scientific literature to learn about cattle attacks over two decades.”

In the United Kingdom, the authors explain, public paths in the countryside often cross through farmland. This means people out for a stroll may find themselves face-to-face with herds of grazing cattle. To find out how often these encounters turned ugly, the researchers hunted through scientific literature for papers including the terms “cow” or “bovine” plus “attack” or “injury.”…

They also searched the Internet for British webpages about “best practice for walking among cattle.”

The article doesn’t say, but I’m betting it’s a bad idea walking up to a truculent cow and boasting how many quarter-pounders you’ve eaten in a lifetime. Getting too near a bull for a selfie must also rank high in the list.

Anyway, “Much more dangerous than simply hiking through the countryside”—and nobody but nobody saw this coming—“is working with cattle directly.” Now that’s the kind of finding that research is all about! You take an understudied field like cow murders and through sheer effort of will you discover a scientific fact previously unknown to Science.

Of course, pretty much every civilian who’s ever lived knew that trying to castrate a bull with a pair of rusty shears often leads to grief. But civilians aren’t scientists and can’t certify facts in the same way Science can.

Turns out the deadliest “year was 2009, when there were 13 attacks and 4 deaths. Injuries included ‘fractures to arms, ribs, wrist, scapula, clavicle, legs, lacerations, punctured lung, bruising, black eyes, joint dislocation, nerve damage and unconsciousness.'” Ouch.

But the question remains: why 2009?

I checked and 2009 was the hottest year ever—but only in the southern hemisphere. Still, it’s too much of a coincidence for me, so I prefer to believe global warming had something to do with it.

Maybe a better explanation is post-traumatic stress syndrome. Yes, sir. There was a mild earthquake in 2008—a year before the killing spree—in Lincolnshire. Rattled cows! It might not only be elephants which have long memories.

Here’s more science:

The scientific literature revealed some reasons cattle might attack. One is maternal behavior. Mother cows see humans as a threat to their calves, and they may take action to protect a calf if a person gets too close.

They will, too. Mother cows, and all good chefs, know the difference between veal and beef and why the former is preferred.

Since this is Science, we need a conclusion:

More research would help reveal the reasons for fatal attacks, the authors write, as well as their frequency. It would also be helpful to have a centralized database where people could report cattle attacks.

It’s not true Science unless (1) it can be measured and (2) more research is needed.


  1. Joy

    It’s as well to recognise bullocks.

    There’s not much that’s funnier than watching (from a shed roof) a herd of cows stampeding.
    They are cartoon like. “MOOOO!”
    “Oh, I was going to say that!’
    Cows are like bananas they are inherently funny.

    but seriously I’m sure a lot of those “cows” were bulls.
    Maybe someone’s got designs on “health and safety in the hedgerow and footpaths”
    or something. it’ll be illegal to walk free without wearing high vis.

  2. Anon

    I am an American, and I’ve never been to the UK, but I understand that rambling has been an activity that has enjoyed various degrees of popularity since the 1930s (and perhaps earlier?). Joy is correct in thinking that H&S could very well used as a cudgel that could be used to restrict the ‘right to roam.’

  3. Nice idea on the “motherly protection”, but cows are, put bluntly, stupid domestic animals that don’t protect their young very well at all. That’s why people have to take care of the cattle. Sheep are worse. Only wild animals protect their young. On the other hand, assuming the farmer is using actual copulation and not insemination to get calves, the bull in heat might gore any competitors he perceives.
    I volunteer to do the study for a mere $50,000. I will have to use American cattle on the range, but that’s close enough for most science. It shouldn’t take long and I’ll let them know where to send my check.
    While I’m studying why cattle attack people, I could throw in why moose attack (little know fact: Moose hate cameras and will run a tourist down and stomp on both camera and tourist) and bison attacks (hint: Buffalo hate everything and should never be approached. It’s one reason why ranchers may have to pull calves from cows but buffalo are on their own when giving birth!)

    Anon’s use of the word rambling for some reason reminded me of “cow tipping”, an urban legand, but if it were real, it could explain the nasty disposition of the cattle.

  4. berserker

    – Very disappointing. At a minimum, I was expecting a poisson regression or some such thing with some nice p-values.
    – One of my all time favorites: Male Organ and Economic Growth: Does Size Matter?
    – I keep telling myself that the paper is making fun of the economic growth literature which is filled with junk regressions (but I am not so sure). Here is someone who did 4 million of them:

  5. gareth


    100% incorrect, at least as far as UK is concerned.

    Most of the attacks in UK are folks walking with dogs through fields with cows + calves.

    (Info from cattle keeping farmer neighbour)

  6. Ye Olde Statistician

    reminded me of “cow tipping”, an urban legand

    Considering that cows are major steakholders, it would seem churlish not to tip them for their services.

  7. Brilliant. Cow attacks is one of my favourite topics. The Pamplona bull run is like Xmas and birthday all at once.

  8. areth: Interesting. In the US open range ranchers use dogs to move cows, so cattle are not inclined to attack people or dogs. In fact, going after dogs gets them nipped repeatedly. I was not referring to people plus dogs in my original comment, just to people alone.

    From the CDC: Cattle deaths in four states
    “A total of 21 deaths met the case definition for 2003–2008 (Table 1). Four fatalities occurred in 2003, two in 2004, six in 2005, and three each year during 2006–2008. During these years, eight of the fatalities occurred in Iowa, two in Kansas, seven in Missouri, and four in Nebraska. The 21 decedents ranged in age from 8 to 86 years, with a median age of 65 years (mean age: 61 years) (Table 2). Only one of the victims was female. One of the victims was a boy aged 8 years who was helping castrate cattle when he was crushed against a squeeze chute. One third of the deaths occurred in March and April.
    The victims’ most common activities at the time of death were working with and treating cattle in enclosed spaces such as pens and chutes (n = 7) and moving or sorting cattle toward pens, barns, or pastures (n = 5). Incidents also occurred while loading cattle into trucks or trailers (n = 3), feeding (n = 3), or working in an open pasture (n = 3).
    Ten of the 21 fatalities involved attacks by individual bulls, six involved attacks by individual cows, and five involved multiple cattle. In seven attacks (whether witnessed or not), the bull or cow was known to have exhibited aggressive behavior in the past. In 16 of the cases, the animal was deemed to have purposefully struck the victim; five other deaths were caused by being crushed against a stationary object or struck by a gate (secondary to the action of cattle). All but one death resulted from blunt force trauma to the chest and/or head; one resulted from inadvertent injection of the antibiotic Micotil 300 (tilmicosin phosphate) from a syringe in the victim’s pocket when he was knocked down by a cow.”
    So I am guessing cattle in England are not the same as cattle in the USA or hikers are not the same as hikers in the USA or both.

    The only time I’ve been “threatened” by cattle is when driving a truck and the herd thinks I have food for them. Otherwise, the only time they are dangerous is if you don’t move out of their way—or hit them laying on the road and they don’t move.

    YOS: That would make a good YouTube video—oh, wait, there’s probably one already out there! 🙂

  9. Larry Geiger

    It appears that the simple edict, Do. Not. Cross. The. Fence. does not work in some areas.

    It appears that handling livestock as part of your job can sometimes be dangerous.

    Sometimes I just cannot believe the pictures of people in Yellowstone who are near the buffalo. I have seen buffalo in Kansas that weren’t quite as large as an elephant but were nevertheless, HUGE. And SCARY!!

    Eat more chikin…

  10. Paul W

    I’ve worked cattle a few times. Been kicked, stomped, butted. Most of the genetics now are selecting for docile bulls so there’s less problems. The bulls that cause problems don’t remain bulls for long. When farmers are around the cattle often the cattle don’t care much about people. When farmers turn them loose in a field and only come back once or twice a year the cattle can be pretty wild. Most of time when I go hunting or fishing and walk through a field and they started moving toward me they’re just seeing if I have some corn or hay. The most dangerous situations weren’t usually bulls. It was a cow separated from its calf. Keep your head on a swivel in that situation.

    These are my observations and I’ll keep thinking that until Science! proves me wrong.

  11. Gary in Erko

    “c” is the 2nd letter of the alphabet. “o” is 14th, & “w” is 22nd. Added together 2+14+22=38. Then 3+8 = 11. Next, calculate the numerological value of the year 2009; 2+0+0+9 = 11. That’s the reason. Using numbers means it’s scientific.

  12. Bert Walker

    Sheri writes “…cows are, put bluntly, stupid domestic animals…”
    Yet they are obviously smart enough to kill one half a person every year.
    Too bad the research didn’t specify which half it was. Perhaps that is what they need more funds to study. ( ?° ?? ?°)?

  13. Ye Olde Statistician

    A one-time colleague of mine was a Spaniard and he told me once in a restaurant in Vienna (iirc) that running with the bulls was “very stupid!” He added that he had only done it twice himself.

  14. Ye Olde Statistician

    In what alphabet is C the 2nd letter?

  15. max

    YOS, the same alphabet that has ‘w’ as the 22nd letter. This causes the science in the post to be correct for the English alphabet as well as the one used by Gary, even more proof of how scientific the post was because it results in the same answer in two alphabets.

  16. Joy

    Sheri rambling really happens. It’s a serious business!
    Farms are very different in the US.
    As for cows being stupid, it’s not always so:
    There was once a cow near Albany. She leant over the gate with the herd behind her, several hundred, each one a yellow tag in their ear. She seemed different.
    I commented to the farmer about her and he knew her number. (I’d have given her a name.) She had a habit until they discovered who done it, of letting herself and therefore all the cows out of the barn by undoing the bolt (she was caught), The light was on but that might have happened as they brushed past. I tell you she wasn’t stupid. Her antics were in her report book. The farm was only “minding”, ”cow sitting” the cows for the next farm in the process.
    I know of knew a pig and a horse double act who let themselves out of a gate which had a top and bottom bolt. They lived in a London garden wise guys townie gang.
    applied maths is often a trap.

  17. Joy: Okay, you can cite one smart cow, one pig and one horse. There are millions of cows, pigs and horses and most cows are stupid (pigs are smart, horses more so than cows). Same for people actually. Yet if I say any general statement someone always feels it necessary to provide anecdotal evidence of one the few exceptions. There will be statements that at least one person has an IQ’s of 200+ so people are not stupid. If I say people can hold their breath under water for about one minute, someone will pull up an example of a person who went 5 minutes. Does this imply I can hold someone underwater 5 minutes because someone has done this and it was okay? Does it say anything about the general population?
    This is how great conspiracy and progressive websites work. It would be nice if it didn’t always occur on a math/science site on a math/science subject. All it shows is people love the exception and anecdotes and do not care about actual overall populations. (Note that is in line with many progressive ideas where the tiny minority is to be representative of the population. It’s not science. It’s motivational speaking, con games, and politics.)

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