Smarter Than You Think

Ever hear homilists who begin to preach about the Good Shepherd by ruefully commenting on how humiliating it is to be compared to sheep?

They may have to revise this gambit.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge have shown that sheep are actually quite intelligent. The study was reported on in February 2011 in the Telegraph.

Professor Jenny Morton, a neuroscientist at University of Cambridge, said sheep had been greatly undervalued for their intelligence.

She said: “They have a reputation for being extremely dim and their flock behaviour backs that up as they are very silly animals when in a group – if there is a hole they will fall into it, if there is something to knock over, then they will knock it over.

“So I didn’t expect them to be so amenable to testing and certainly didn’t expect them to be so smart. In our tests they performed at a level very similar to monkeys and humans in the initial learning tasks.

“When we then changed the rules they still performed as well as monkeys and better than rodents.

“They are quite intelligent animals – they seem to be able to recognise people and even respond when you call their name.”

When I looked up the citation for this article, I also found an earlier study praising the intelligence of sheep. Researchers found that sheep are good at remembering faces. The study was published in 2001.

So, why do we persist in thinking sheep are so dumb?

Uh… uh…


  1. “why do we persist in thinking sheep are so dumb?”

    lamb chops

    I think most people feel justified in using animals for food, labor, entertainment, and experimentation if they can maintain the belief that humans are exceptional (said me, the vegetarian 🙂 )

  2. Sed contra…

    When it was my job to feed and water the sheep after school as a boy – the rule was that I wasn’t permitted to play piano or read a book until the farm chores were done – I had to make sure I firmly wired down the hydrant handle in the sheep barn, otherwise the stupid sheep would force the handle up and flood their own space with water, getting me in big trouble. My grandpa used to say, There’s no animal dumber than sheep, they’ll eat until they can’t stand up anymore, and then lie down and eat some more. Every other farm animal knows when to stop.

    Sorry – but I have these memories in mind every year on the Fourth Sunday of Easter when the Good Shepherd readings come around.


    1. The sheep would get you in trouble? That sounds pretty intelligent to me Maybe they were playing with you. 🙂

    2. A couple of years ago my father left me in charge of his flock during lambing, I’ve never had quite the same view of the Good Shepherd since. Newborn lambs are not fluffy and white robes would not be my choice of attire for the activity!

      I have few romantic notions about sheep.

  3. I’ve noticed sheep will pay close attention to you when you’re talking to them. Are they confused, but are too polite to let you know, or do they understand, are bored stiff, and again are too polite to show it? Either way, they may have been
    seriously underestimated down through the centuries.

  4. Remember the sheep of Panurge! (of course, one could say that those sheep were admirably obedient to their leader.)


    In French, reference to Panurge occurs in the phrase mouton de Panurge, which describes an individual that will blindly follow others regardless of the consequences. This, after a story in which Panurge buys a sheep from the merchant Dindenault and then, as a revenge for being overcharged, throws the sheep into the sea. The rest of the sheep in the herd follow the first over the side of the boat, in spite of the best efforts of the shepherd.

    “Suddenly, I do not know how, it happened, I did not have time to think, Panurge, without another word, threw his sheep, crying and bleating, into the sea. All the other sheep, crying and bleating in the same intonation, started to throw themselves in the sea after it, all in a line. The herd was such that once one jumped, so jumped its companions. It was not possible to stop them, as you know, with sheep, it’s natural to always follow the first one, wherever it may go” –Francois Rabelais, Pantagruel, Book IV, chapter VIII

  5. Thanks for the mouton de panurge story, Claire!

    One of the observations in the 2001 news report (linked in the post), by behavioral scientist Keith Kendrick, was especially interesting I thought, and it’s associated with the group behavior that gets sheep into trouble. Here it is:

    “Kendrick suspects sheep got their dim-witted reputation because they live in large groups and do not appear to have much individuality and they are scared of just about everything.

    “Any animal, including humans, once they are scared, they don’t tend to show signs of intelligent behaviour,” he explained.”

    Happy Good Shepherd Sunday everyone!

  6. Rita, dearest thing: in the ecclesiastical setting, as we know, there are sheep and there are shepherds. The sheep, I’ll agree with you, aren’t generally the dumb ones.

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