The book was originally published by a small agricultural press before word of mouth—not least from the beloved English playwright Alan Bennett, who wrote the introduction—paved the way to a wider audience. Young describes her own work as simply a string of anecdotes and observations grouped around certain themes but the musings reveal things far more profound … Rosamund Young’s The Secret Life of Cows deserves its sudden reputation as a first-hand account of unutterable charm.
Young fleshes out observations like these with oddly practical points designed to undermine modern assumptions many people have about the alleged efficiency of “intensive” farming. The simplest truth she relates is one known to farmers for thousands of years: the happier animals are, the healthier they are … But the main thrust of The Secret Life of Cows is that there aren't any secrets, only obvious truths that are deeply uncomfortable for humans who've grown comfortable in the flow of the modern meat-production industry. ‘Bovine needs are in many respects the same as human ones: freedom from stress, adequate shelter, pure food and water, liberty to exercise, to wander about, to go for a walk or just to stand and stare…remove the qualifiers, and the truth remains unchanged: these animals are people, not commodities’.
The book meanders and explores at a bovine pace, and by the end Young carries her point ... She is so persuasive, in fact, that I finished the book wondering whether she, or anyone, should be in the business of raising livestock ... Young writes as if she’s the omniscient narrator of a pasture-based novel ... This passage walks a fine line between touching and laughable. It requires the reader to trust that Young enjoys special access to the mind of the cow, a talent that verges on the occult ... The Secret Life of Cows is deeply felt but not profound.
The Secret Life of Cows succeeds in showing that cows are thoughtful beings with individual personalities. At times Young's approach is whimsical, perhaps overly so, as when she translates what she takes to be bovine thoughts directly into human language ... This book will charm people who either didn't know...that farmed animals think and feel, or who want to lap up more evidence that they do.
Despite the seeming naivety of her narrative voice, Young is well aware of what she is up to. The anthropomorphism she takes to extremes is there to convert sceptics and provoke behaviourists ... She writes about them as though they were characters in a novel ... Her evidence for the qualities she finds in cows (empathy, guile, altruism, happiness, eccentricity) is anecdotal rather than scientific. But some of the stories are certainly compelling ... by writing about them as human, she’s calling for greater humanity in the way they are treated. Whatever else, no one who has read her book will look at cows in the same light again.
...very sensible but also somewhat dreamy and a bit obsessive ... In a way, it’s like a book for children. Every animal has a name – Araminta, Black Hat, Dorothy – not to mention parents, brothers and sisters. Most have adventures, albeit not massively exciting ones ... After a while, though, you get used to all this, and as a consequence the world does indeed tilt. Or bits of it, at least. This book will change forever the way you see a field of ayrshires or friesians ... Young’s style, careful and straightforward, is extremely soothing; her book should be prescribed for anxiety. But it doesn’t, it must be said, answer all one’s cow questions.
Young combines humour and enthusiasm to convince us that if animals are not brought up in constricted conditions but are allowed to roam freely, they reveal their true characters ... Her book is a powerful tract against the restricted lives endured by so many farmed animals.
Her prose is contemplative and idyllic ... Although the book’s loose-knit structure can cause it to read more like a series of journal entries than a polished text, Young’s assertion that 'all animals are individuals' is certainly supported by these entertaining and tender stories.