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COUNTRY LIFE IN BC • APRIL 2018 Study considers optimism and pessimism in calves Do calves pretty much


have a good take on life or do they view life through the prism of pessimism?


Research by MARGARET EVANS


According to a University of British Columbia study, dairy calves may have an optimistic personality or, conversely, they could be pessimists. Most people working with livestock generally know that each animal has its own personality. But to what extent do those animals gauge and react to their environment from their own individual perspective? “Most of the time, we only consider farm animals as a group (or a herd) and overlook the fact that groups are composed of different individuals,” says professor Marina von Keyserlingk, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) industrial research chair with UBC Animal Welfare Program. “Our overall research focus was to understand the individual’s perspective given that animals vary in how they perceive and react to their environment. For instance, even if conditions are good, on average, some animals may still face challenges and it is the individual who suffers. Work on humans tells us that people vary greatly in how


they perceive the world – simply put, some see the glass half empty (pessimistic) while others see it as half full (optimistic).” Twenty-two calves


were used in an experiment that would either provide a milk reward or nothing at all. But first, training was


required so that the calves would understand which of their choices would lead to that reward. “In the training, each calf


entered a small pen and found a wall with five holes arranged in a horizontal line, two-and-a-half feet apart,” explains von Keyserlingk. “The hole at one end contained milk from a bottle while the hole at the opposite end contained only an empty bottle and delivered a puff of air in calves’ faces. The calves learned quickly which side of the pen held the milk reward.” Once the calves were trained in which bottle delivered the milk, the researchers presented bottles in the intermediate holes. They were ambiguous locations in which the calves couldn’t be sure if those bottles held milk or not. The thought was that the optimistic calves would approach the bottle even if it was close to where an empty bottle and a puff of air was all it received earlier, and a pessimistic calf would avoid a bottle in any of the


intermediate holes no matter how close it was to the one that had delivered milk earlier.


NSERC industrial research chair Marina von Keyserlingk. UBC PHOTO The calves varied in their


responses but it was interesting that each individual calf was consistent and made similar choices three weeks apart. The researchers concluded that pessimism was a consistent individual trait and not necessarily a mood of the moment.


The study also looked at


fearfulness through standard personality tests that measured calves’ reactions to unfamiliar situations, such as the presence of a stranger or a foreign object. It seems that fearfulness and pessimism are closely related.


“The time taken by each calf to touch the nipple bottle when it was placed in the three ambiguous locations was averaged in order to get a general measure of pessimism/optimism,” says Benjamin Lecorps, a PhD student working on von Keyserlingk’s team. “So yes, animals that were defined as more pessimistic generally took longer to touch all three locations. In the personality tests, we use measures that assess the animals' willingness to explore a novel object or unfamiliar humans. Animals that do not explore or take a very long time


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before they begin to explore are defined as more fearful whereas those that explore are defined as being bold.” Many farmers, if asked,


would acknowledge that their animals all have different personalities and von Keyserlingk believes that they already modify their practices to accommodate those different individuals. She is sure that most farmers are very interested in improving management practices so that all their animals will do better. “This study is the first step


in likely what will be a series of studies looking at how to improve the lives of individual animals living in a herd or group,” says von Keyserlingk. “Most farmers are no doubt well aware that individuals within their herd are different and some are more difficult to manage than others. Ultimately, our hope is to find practical ways to identify those animals within their herds that may struggle; maybe there are ways to tweak existing management strategies that take the individual into consideration. However, the onus is back on us to come up with ways of being able to deal with these individual differences in practical ways that work for the farmer.”


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research on providing evidence that social housing is key for cognitive development in dairy calves. "The next step in our


research will be to understand what type of rearing conditions help ensure that an individual animal has a good life," says Lecorps. “For example, more pessimistic calves may require different types of housing and management than we currently provide.”


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