Sheep and Goats

Meet the Animals: Sheep and Goats

Read Intelligence, complexity, and individuality in sheep, a study funded by The Someone Project (Marino & Merskin, 2019), in Animal Sentience.

Sheep and Goat Behavior, Emotion, and Intelligence

  • “Sheep are able to experience emotions such as fear, anger, rage, despair, boredom, disgust, and happiness.” — Dr. Isabelle Veissier et al., Animal Welfare1
  • “Sheep can perform ‘executive’ cognitive tasks that are an important part of the primate behavioral repertoire, but which have never been shown previously to exist in any other large animal.” Professor Jenny Morton et al., Cambridge University

We could have told you that goats and sheep are social animals; at our shelters, they are almost notoriously friendly. They wag their tails like dogs, they know their names, and they form strong bonds with people (unless they come to us traumatized, as some do) and other goats and sheep.

A study published in Animal Welfare showed that sheep experience emotion in ways similar to humans. The authors concluded that “sheep are able to experience emotions such as fear, anger, rage, despair, boredom, disgust, and happiness, because they use the same checks involved in such emotions as humans. For instance, despair is triggered by situations that are evaluated as sudden, unfamiliar, unpredictable, discrepant from expectations, and uncontrollable, whereas boredom results from an overly predictable environment, and all these checks have been found to affect emotional responses in sheep.”² Obviously, this is exactly how humans experience these emotions — as Professor Dawkins and most other evolutionary biologists would have predicted (but some scientists continue to deny).

Another study from Cambridge University found that sheep — like humans and some primates — could pick up emotional cues in both humans and other sheep. Not surprisingly, they strongly preferred smiling and relaxed expressions over angry ones.³

Researchers in the United Kingdom, writing for Nature, found that sheep have the same “specialized neural mechanisms for visual recognition” that humans do, which allows them to remember the faces of at least 50 individual humans and other sheep for more than two years, “and that the specialized neural circuits involved maintain selective encoding of individual sheep and human faces even after long periods of separation.”4

Their ability to remember so many other animals for such a long period of time is impressive enough, but they can also learn how to solve puzzles, remember what they’ve learned, and adapt to changed circumstances — all much more quickly than monkeys.5 The researchers note what they call the “impressive cognitive abilities of sheep” and find that “sheep can perform ‘executive’ cognitive tasks that are an important part of the primate behavioral repertoire, but that have never been shown previously to exist in any other large animal” other than humans and some other primates.6

Meet Gabriel and Juniper
Gabriel is the baby of Marjorie, born at our New York Shelter after his mother was rescued from a horrible starvation case. Because of his mother’s health issues, Gabriel was born tiny, weak, and immuno-compromised. As he grew, he seemed only to grow weaker. After multiple diagnostics, Gabriel was determined to be lactose-intolerant. His doctor felt that the only alternative was to separate mother and child during his weaning period in order to provide him with food his system would tolerate. But, Marjorie and Gabriel were inseparable — the two wailed if we moved him away from her for even a few minutes. Marjorie even injured herself attempting to get to him when he was removed. With the help of an udder bra, Gabriel stopped nursing, and Marjorie stopped producing milk, which allowed them to remain together as Gabriel gained strength and health. Marjorie was thrilled to have Gabriel close, and mother and child slept with their necks crossed around each other at night. Occasionally, Gabriel will get out of his pen. Whenever this happens, mother Marjorie runs to the fence line and bellows to alert caregivers to the situation. The reunion is a picture of family love and joy. To this day, they sleep as they did when Gabriel was a baby — tightly together with their necks crossed.

Gabriel rescued farm animal, farm animal sanctuary


Gabriel rescued farm animal, farm animal sanctuary

Juniper’s story shows that goats like some individuals and not others, form friendships and deep bonds, and mourn — just like we do. Juniper arrived at Farm Sanctuary having lost her back feet to frostbite, so she was extremely vulnerable. Zoop arrived at the same time, also having lost a limb and requiring a prosthetic. The two bonded immediately. When Pearl, a frightened and temporarily blind goat, arrived, the trio was complete — and the three girls spent all their days together.

Juniper rescued farm animal, farm animal sanctuary

Years after their friendship began, Zoop passed away from pneumonia, and Pearl and Juniper became inseparable — so much so that if one went to the vet, the other had to go, too. Separation only led to severe despondence, so we kept them together. When Pearl passed away, Juniper was inconsolable. She went into a deep depression, lost all of her hair, stopped eating, and spent hours in a corner of the pen alone — refusing to join the other goats in any activities.

In situations like this, we try to introduce animals who have that special blend of compassion and steadfastness, hoping that they will be able to pull our mourner out of her or his depression — much like the human grieving process when someone loses a spouse. In this case, we put Gloria in with Juniper, and — after some time — they began to bond. The two of them were the best of friends — running, playing, bunting, and curling up together every night to sleep.

Juniper rescued farm animal, farm animal sanctuary

1,2Veissier, I., et al. (2009). Animals’ emotions: Studies in sheep using appraisal theories. Animal Welfare, 18, 347–354.
3Sheep like smiles say researchers. (June 11, 2004), BBC News.
4Kendrick, K., et al. (2001). Sheep don’t forget a face. Nature, 414, 165–166.
5Norris, P.F. (July 25, 2011). Sheep: Barnyard brainiacs.
6Morton, A.J., and Avanzo, L. (Jan. 31, 2011). Executive decision-making in the domestic sheep. PLoS ONE, 6(1).