vegan daemon

"A cow is so much like a woman"

In which I take the metaphor a little too seriously.

A few months ago, I wrote about how the female members of non-human animal species suffer from especially egregious and prolonged abuse at the hands of their exploiters.

With brutal precision, farmers routinely turn the reproductive systems of female animals against them, finding newer and more callous ways in which to exploit them as science and technology allow. This isn’t to suggest that males don’t suffer as well – they do. But their suffering isn’t as prolonged or extensive as that of their female counterparts; veal calves, for example, are tortured for sixteen weeks and then, “mercifully,” (relatively speaking) slaughtered. Their sisters, meanwhile, are exploited as baby and milk machines for three to four years, after which they become ground beef. First, their babies and their babies’ food is stolen from them; and, finally, their lives are snatched away as well.

By the mere fact of their sex, sows, hens, ewes, does, nannies, cows and heifers – not to mention mares, bitches, jennies, jills, etc. – are ripe for especially brutal and prolonged exploitation. Oftentimes, this involves a constant cycle of pregnancy, birth, nursing and baby-napping, culminating with the female’s own death when she’s no longer able to breed or “produce” to her “owner’s” satisfaction.

Using excerpts from Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson’s The Pig Who Sang to the Moon: The Emotional World of Farm Animals for illustration, I explained how this process unfolds in “pork” production. Under the headline “Horizontal Women” (a play on one nickname for pigs, “horizontal humans,” so earned because they are so much like us), I emphasized how female pigs’ reproductive organs are turned against them, and the mother-child bond, severed and exploited, all so that Humans can continue to enjoy cheap “bacon”:

Breed, gestate, deliver, nurse, grieve, repeat: this is a sow’s lot. The whole damn “pork” subdivision of the megatheocorporatocracy rests on the female pig’s sexual organs – in her ability to give birth to the next generation of porcine “property.”

The process is much the same with cows: in a dairy operation, mother cows (“dairy” cows) undergo a continuous cycle of forced pregnancy and birth, followed by the theft of their children and milk. Breed, gestate, deliver, nurse, grieve, repeat.

Photo via Yamanize

A “dairy” cow’s children are taken from her shortly after birth, “ideally” within 24 hours; daughters may become “dairy” cows, like their mothers, or perhaps “beef,” while sons are destined to become either “veal” or “beef.” An estimated one million “veal” calves and 35 million “beef” cattle are killed annually, in the United States alone. About 9 million cows are confined in U.S. “dairy” operations in any given year. A cow’s natural lifespan can be 25 years or more, however, “dairy” cows are milked to excess within 3 to 4 years, after which they’re “retired” into ground beef.

As with pigs, mother cows and their children suffer immensely in factory farms. Their suffering is oftentimes tied to their status as females and youngsters – a quality which transcends species boundaries.

Masson explains:

A cow is so much like a woman, [Rosamund] Young [owner of Kite’s Nest organic farm in England] told me. They carry their young for nine months, just as we do, and then they suckle them for between nine to twelve months, much like many human mothers. “Do they have a sense of death?” I asked Young. “Oh yes,” she told me, “because I have seen that they are worried by the smell of blood. Of course, they have such a developed sense of smell. They recognize one another that way, and probably also learn how another cow is feeling. Every cow will approach a new calf and sniff her, as if getting to know her.” […]

She has absolutely no doubt that cows feel all the major emotions that humans do. “Even worry?” I asked. “Especially worry,” she replied. They have so many different kinds of worry, ranging from the most mild, when a calf wanders out of sight, to the most extreme, when they think something terrible has happened to it. “How about surprise,” I asked, remembering that some philosophers claim that animals cannot feel surprise because they cannot anticipate the future. “Well,” she said, “how about this. My Welsh black cow had six black calves, and then one day she produced a pure white calf. […] She came round to our door and stared at us with a look that was easy to read: ‘Are you sure it’s mine?'” (pages 135-136)

A male calf confined to a veal crate; photo via Farm Sanctuary

Laurie Winn Carlson points out in her recent book about cattle that cows “are nature’s most protective mothers” and will attack any animal that threatens their young. […] She quotes the essayist Nancy Curtis, who write about seeing a cow disoriented for a month after losing a calf, “returning to the site of the birth, searching, calling. It tugs at me in a deep spot where the mothering instinct is never completely buried.” When a cow loses her calf or is separated from her calf, it is rarely due to any sort of natural calamity. Alas, it is almost always human-engineered. Farmers separate calves from their mothers at birth so that they will not drink the milk meant for them. We want that milk, and farmers do not want the calves to get even a drop.

On an old-fashioned family farm, such as the one he grew up on, the author Jim Mason, a fifth-generation farmboy who is one of the world’s leading authorities on farm animals, tells me that a newborn calf could stay with the cow for a couple of days – to get on its feet and to drink the colostrum, the mother’s special first milk full of energy and antibodies, but even that is no longer permitted by agrifarms.

A dairy cow’s male calf […] is taken from his mother and spends the remainder of his short life confined to a “veal crate” not much larger than himself. He never tastes his mother’s milk and is deliberately made anemic by being fed a liquid diet with so little iron his meat will be white, a result much prized by consumers, often without any idea of how it is produced.

In the typical life of a cow or steer raised for beef […] calves are weaned at six to ten months of age, live three to five months on the range, spend four to five months being fattened in a feedlot, and are typically slaughtered at fifteen to twenty months. Considering that their average lifespan is nine to twelve years, these animals live for only a brief fraction of the time they were meant to live. […]

The cows used for milking are usually from a different breed. […] Generally a calf is taken very young, for she is more easily fed from a bottle if she has never nursed from her mother. At about two years old, she is ready to have her first calf. […] The calf is taken away within forty-eight hours of birth, and the milk is then used exclusively for commercial purposes. The cow is rebred about three months after she calves. As long as she is pregnant, she gives milk, intended for her baby but taken by force by us. In the worst-case scenario, cows are intensively milked, most of the day and night by automatic machines worked by computers, and are exhausted after a few years, then sold for meat in repayment for their trouble. It is not a pretty life. On the family farm, rapidly becoming more and more rare, a cow is only milked twice a day, twelve hours apart. The cow is in charge, since she can let down or hold up her milk (not an option in the automated farms) and is most likely to release her milk when she is calm and relaxed. Since she has four teats, it is possible to share the cow’s milk with two other calves; they nurse one side while the farmer milks the other. (pages 137-139)

“Mechanized milking stalls at a California dairy.”; photo via Farm Sanctuary

It’s worth noting here that the intensive milking also takes a toll on the female cow’s physical well-being. According to Mercy for Animals,

With genetic manipulation and intensive production technologies, it is common for modern dairy cows to produce 100 pounds of milk a day — ten times more than they would produce in nature. The cows’ bodies are under constant stress and they are at risk for numerous health problems.

Approximately half of the country’s dairy cows suffer from mastitis, a bacterial infection of their udders. This is such a common and costly ailment that a dairy industry group, the National Mastitis Council, was formed specifically to combat the disease. Other diseases, such as Bovine Leukemia Virus, Bovine Immunodeficiency Virus, and Johne’s disease (whose human counterpart is Crohn’s disease), are also rampant on modern dairies, but they are difficult to detect or have a long incubation period, and they commonly go unnoticed.

A cow eating a normal grass diet could not produce milk at the abnormal levels expected on modern dairies, and so today’s dairy cows must be given high energy feeds. The unnaturally rich diet causes metabolic disorders including ketosis, which can be fatal, and laminitis, which causes lameness.

Another dairy industry disease caused by intensive milk production is “Milk Fever”. This ailment is caused by calcium deficiency, and it occurs when milk secretion uses calcium faster than it can be replenished in the blood.

Although the dairy industry is familiar with the cows’ health problems and suffering associated with intensive milk production, it continues to subject cows to even worse abuses in the name of increased profit. Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH), a synthetic hormone, is now being injected into cows to get them to produce even more milk. Besides adversely affecting the cows’ health, BGH also increases birth defects in their calves.

(Hyperlinks mine.)

“Dairy cow suffering from a typical case of mastitis.”; photo via Farm Sanctuary

However, this might very well pale in comparison to the psychological suffering endured by female cows, as baby after baby is stolen from them just minutes or hours after birth. As I noted previously,

Certainly, we recognize that the theft of a mother’s child is an atrocity when the victims are human mothers and children. At the same time, we argue that non-human animals deserve no rights because they are mere brutes, “lesser” beings, ruled by instinct and instinct alone. Yet, what is the drive to reproduce and parent if not an evolutionary instinct? And if we follow the popular line of reasoning – i.e., animals are creatures of instinct – does it not stand to reason that the maternal instinct is especially powerful in non-human animals?

Non-human animals, some of whom may be unable to make sense of their suffering (clearly, this varies widely from species to species), may actually have a greater capacity for suffering than humans. When the source of this suffering is the rupture and violation of deep, evolutionary instincts – such as the drive to reproduce and parent – the pain, panic and terror may be impossible for us to comprehend.

Tellingly, big agribusiness recognizes the power of the maternal instinct (and a child’s need for her parent), as is evident in their “standard farming practices”:

The aim of most farms is to separate the calf from its dam within 24 hours of birth. Contrary to popular perception, this early separation eases the stress on cow and calf as “bonding” is prevented.

These recommendations implicitly acknowledge that the relationship between a mother cow and her calf is a profound one – which is why it must be prevented and/or severed early on, for maximum human convenience. However, ask any human mother, and she’ll most likely tell you that a great deal of bonding between her and her (potential) child took place well before birth – while the fetus was still inside her womb. Living in her, inside her very being, sharing with her nutrients, hormones, sensory and emotional experiences. Sharing life.

Much like a woman, a cow carries her baby for nine months. Nine long months, during which mother and child are bonded together, literally and figuratively. By the time a cow’s calf is birthed, they’ve already developed a bond. That’s FAIL #9,286,092 for Big Agribiz.

“A mother cow refuses to leave the side of her dead calf at a California dairy.”; photo via Farm Sanctuary

Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson again:

Even Temple Grandin, the academic expert on killing cows “more humanely,” has looked at a cow and admitted, “that’s one sad, unhappy, upset cow. She wants her baby. Bellowing for it, hunting for it. It’s like grieving, mourning – not much written about it. People don’t like to allow them thoughts or feelings.”

This recognition of the feelings a cow has for her calf has affected some farmers deeply. Peter Roberts, the founder of Compassion in World Farming, was once a dairy farmer, and ever dairy farmer eventually has to remove a calf from her mother. In this instance, he saw that “the motherhood bond was so strong, that it had to be broken with violence. It keeps you awake at night.” […] This is not an unusual experience. Stephen Clark […] was visitng Suffolk in 1972 with his wife. […] They were sleeping next door to a farm and were kept up at night by the complaints of the calves. The next day they found out that the calves were newly separated from their mothers. They said to one another, “We cannot go one financing this by eating meat and drinking milk,” and both stopped doing so then and there.

All calves are separated from their mothers on all factory farms. John Avizienius […] tells me that he remembers one particular cow who appeared to be deeply affected by the separation from her calf for a period of at least six weeks. When the calf was first removed, she was in acute grief; she stood outside the pen where she had last seen her calf and bellowed for her offspring for hours. She would only move when forced to do so. Even after six weeks, the mother would gaze at the pen where she last saw her calf and sometimes wait momentarily outside of the pen. It was almost as if her spirit had been broken and all she could do was to make token gestures to see if her calf would still be there. (pages 139-140)

“Bellowing” is exactly the right word to describe a mother cow crying for her calf (and a calf, for her mother); it’s the most pitiable and heart-wrenching sound you can imagine.

Due to a mix of coincidence and love of solitude, the husband and I have lived adjacent to an “animal farm” of some sort since we first moved in together almost eight years ago. In New York, our back yard butted up against a smallish (relatively speaking) farm which, because of suburban sprawl, was surrounded by subdivisions. There were a few “dairy” cows, who spent most of their time confined to a building, as well as some sheep and birds. Our first summer there, a cow gave birth just a few hundred yards from my office window.

When we moved to Kansas, we managed to find a house for rent on 80 acres of land; our landlord inherited the place when her father died, rusty farm equipment, horses, cows and all. She lived just down the street, so she and her husband decided to fix the house up, rent it out, and keep the “beef cattle” operation going. When you think of a small, family farm, probably you imagine a farm similar to this place.

The acreage was divided into three large grazing pastures, as well as a smaller “holding pen” which shared a fenceline with our fenced-in backyard. After the calves were birthed, the mothers and their young were separated from the rest of the herd, confined to that smaller pen, supposedly so the males wouldn’t attack the youngsters, I guess. I used to spend hours playing with the dogs in the backyard, watching the mama cows nurse their babies. Many of the cows were accustomed to human interaction, so they’d usually watch me back. (The newborns, of course, were understandably skittish.) Some of the older cows took an interest in the dogs, and would come over and sniff at them as they ran (or, in Ralphie’s case, dug) along the fenceline. To say that they enjoyed playing together wouldn’t be a product of my silly, sentimental wimmin’s imagination.

Other times, when cows were sold (whether to other farmers or slaughter operations, I know not – I was afraid to ask), the unlucky “merchandise” was placed in the pen a day or two beforehand. Many times, the calves were the ones slated to be sold off; it wasn’t uncommon to see a dozen youngish calves sequestered in the pen together, all of them wailing for their mothers. Meanwhile, a dozen females might be gathered along the perimeter of the nearest pasture, bellowing right back at their babies, trying in vain to lure them back into their protective custody. This would go on for hours on end, with few breaks – even during the night. The scene dragged on – slowly, sadly – until the calves were ferried away; usually, you could still hear a few plaintive bellows days or weeks later.

And I was only an observer of the abuse, not a victim. I can only begin to imagine the depths of the grief suffered by the mothers and babies alike. It’s heart-wrenching. To this day, I can still recall – quite vividly, mind you – the sad, sorrowful bellowing.

We live in Missouri, now, and a cattle farmer rents the pasture on one side of our house. I don’t have the pleasure of watching the mothers with their children anymore; this herd is more wary of humans, and rightfully so. But I can tell when he’s separated the mothers from their children – during these days and weeks, the long, low, mournful, melancholy bellows echo up the valley and through the treeline.

If I weren’t already a vegan, these cries of despair surely would persuade me.


See also:

Horizontal Women

Horizontal Women, Redux

“Useless Eaters”

“…even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings…”

Book Review: The Pig Who Sang to the Moon by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson (2003)



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