On mares, wet nurses and shared exploitations.

April 8th, 2009 10:12 pm by Kelly Garbato

Photo via ImaginaryGirl

A few weeks ago, Jennie at That Vegan Girl wrote about a little-known practice of the horse racing industry in which genetically “undesirable” mares are made into “nurses” for the offspring of “thoroughbred” mares and stallions. When “prize” mares are prevented from nursing their foals themselves, they’re of more use to breeders, as they can be impregnated sooner. More babies = more product = more money. And it’s always about maximum profit, right?

In addition to severing the mother-child bond between the “prize” mare and her foal, this practice has even graver consequences for the “nurse” mare and her child. Remember – in order to produce milk, females must first produce a baby. So what happens to the “nurse” mare’s foal, the one for whom the “nurse” mare’s milk is actually intended?

Jennie explains:

The Jockey Club, which is the official governing body of Thoroughbred racing (the kind you see in the Kentucky Derby) does not allow embryo transfer or artificial insemination of horses. In order to have a baby every year, a mare must be re-bred directly after foaling, which means that she must be shipped to the stallion for breeding directly after having her own baby. It’s a process that usually takes three to four weeks in whole, and the foal is too delicate (and valuable!) to travel with his mother. Plus, if she nurses her own foal, she’s not going to come back into heat and thus cannot conceive. Since her whole purpose is to give the breeder potentially valuable offspring, she must be rebred, and since she cannot nurse her own foal and fulfill her “purpose”, a “nurse mare” is brought in.

In order to give milk, female animals generally need to be pregnant and have given birth (the oxytocin secreted during birth allows lactation to begin). In the “nurse mare” industry, like the dairy industry, the newborn foals become the byproducts of milk production. The nurse mares are generally horses of “lower quality” who are otherwise healthy and good milk producers. They are bred to inexpensive stallions for the sole purpose of being able to provide milk to the potential racehorse foals. But wait, you ask… what about their own foals? If you’re unfamiliar with horses, you might think she, like a human wetnurse, gets to nurse both her baby and the other mare’s baby. That doesn’t seem so bad, you might think. Not bad enough to provoke yet another horse “sport” related rant at least. However, if you are familiar with horses, you know that mares rarely produce enough milk to support two foals (one reason why twins are such a problem) and that you’d have to give the mare a substantial amount more feed and that the whole process would require extra attention, extra money. Since the point is to make the “valuable” foal grow up strong and healthy, and the extra foal has no “value”, there’s no chance that the mare’s real baby will get a share of her milk anyway, so what then?

Traditionally, these foals are killed.

That’s right. Like dairy calves, these sentient “byproducts” are killed because they’re not worth keeping alive. It’s not that you couldn’t. You could (and rescues do) keep them alive on formula. However, on large farms, there tend to be a large number and these farms are concerned not with life, but with their bottom line. It is time consuming and not cheap, per say, to do. So they kill them. Why? On the off chance that the foal that their mother nurses will fetch money at auction or win on the track or become a superstar stud (25% chance he will, 75% chance he’ll go to slaughter too). Because their mothers’ are more valuable pregnant than being able to properly bond with their children.

(By the by, this is but a small part of Jennie’s post; you should go read the entire piece, because it’s excellent. Don’t worry, I’ll still be here when you get back!)

While the entire practice is appalling, I think one point bears repeating: the “nurse” mares are purposefully bred so that the can give birth, produce milk, and nurse another mare’s foal. Put another way, unwanted life is intentionally created, only to be destroyed.

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Iri, the first nurse mare foal rescued by Mountain View Rescue.

Like male calves born into the dairy industry, “inferior” and “useless” foals born into the horse racing industry are discarded early and with great cruelty. Here, the mother/child bond is severed twice: once, between the “prize” mare and her baby, and again between the “nurse” mare and her baby. Naturally, the animals deemed genetically inferior or worthless suffer the most egregious abuses under the megatheocorporatocracy – and yet, even the “valuable” property is still treated like, well, property.

In a previous post about the mother/child bond between cows and their calves, I stressed that cows carry their young for nine months, just like human women. During this time, no doubt, a great deal of communication, sharing and bonding takes place in utero.

Now consider that mares carry their babies even longer, for eleven months.

According to Wiki,

Mares carry their young, called foals for approximately 11 months from conception to birth. (Average range 320-370 days.) Usually just one young is born; twins are rare. When a domesticated mare foals, she nurses the foal for at least four to six months before it is weaned, though mares in the wild may allow a foal to nurse for up to a year.

The estrous cycle, also known as “season’ or “heat” of a mare occurs roughly every 19-22 days and occurs from early spring into autumn. As the days shorten, most mares enter an anestrus period during the winter and thus do not cycle in this period. The reproductive cycle in a mare is controlled by the photoperiod (length of the day), the cycle first triggered when the days begin to lengthen. As the days shorten, the mare returns to the anestrus period when she is not sexually receptive. Anestrus prevents the mare from conceiving in the winter months, as that would result in her foaling during the harshest part of the year, a time when it would be most difficult for the foal to survive.

However, for most competitive purposes, foals are given an official “birthday” of January 1 (August 1 in the Southern hemisphere), and many breeders want foals to be born as early in the year as possible. Therefore, many breeding farms begin to put mares “under lights” in late winter in order to bring them out of anestrus early and allow conception to occur in February or March. One exception to this general rule is the field of endurance riding, which requires horses to be 60 true calendar months old (5 years) before competing at longer distances.

Fillies are sexually mature by age two and are sometimes bred at that age, but generally should not be bred until they themselves have stopped growing, usually by age four or five.

A healthy, well-managed mare can produce a foal every year into her twenties, though not all breeders will breed a mare every year. In addition, many mares are kept for riding and so are not bred annually, as a mare in late pregnancy or nursing a foal is not able to perform at as athletic a standard as one who is neither pregnant nor lactating. In addition, some mares become anxious when separated from their foals, even temporarily, and thus are difficult to manage under saddle until their foals are weaned.

Emphasis mine, and is meant to highlight the many egregious ways in which breeders manipulate and exploit the sexual organs and reproductive systems of female horses in order to further their own ends.

Photo via Essjay is happy in NZ

Imagine, if you will, the degree of closeness between a mother horse and her child. A mare carries a fetus in her womb for eleven months, and after birth, nurses her baby for another year. That’s two years of very intimate bonding!

Furthermore, a “healthy, well-managed mare can produce a foal every year into her twenties” – in other words, a “well managed mare” can be forced into a continuous cycle of pregnancy, birth and separation from her child 15 to 18 times over the course of her life. Because a pregnancy lasts for eleven months, birth and re-breeding must occur within a matter of weeks if the mare’s to be bred annually. Thus, a mare may be forced to mate and become pregnant with yet another fetus while still grieving the very recent loss of her last child, stolen from her side and “given” to another mother. As Jennie notes, females are also forced to endure the added stressor of transport to the “stud” horse for breeding.

Reading Jennie’s story, I couldn’t help but be reminded of similar abuses suffered by human women, i.e., wet nurses.

In the simplest terms, a wet nurse is any woman who breastfeeds a baby other than her own. Wetnursing may be a spontaneous act of kindness and compassion, such as the recent case (sadly, a kerfluffle) of Salma Hayek who, while on a trip to Sierra Leone, breastfed a week-old baby whose own mother could not produce milk; an community standard, in the “it takes a village” vein; a paid employment opportunity; or coerced, forced, or involuntary, such as with slaves who are made to nurse their “owner’s” babies. These instances aren’t always mutually exclusive, as we’ll see below.

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Wiki’s entry on wet nurses provides a very brief overview of a complex historical topic. While I won’t delve into the issue of breastmilk vs. infant formula raised there, and the megatheocorporatocracy’s criminal marketing of formula to mothers in developing countries (in essence, they function like drug dealers, handing out freebie cans of formula in order to get mothers “hooked” on the stuff, and then charging impoverished women for formula once their milk dries up; Deb of Invisible Voices has more here), I would like to point out some of the similarities between human and non-human wet nurses.

As is evident in the Wiki entry, upper-class women have historically been treated like “prize” mares – like machines or walking wombs, whose sole purpose is to produce babies (in this case at least one male heir to her husband’s estate). Toward that end, they were discouraged from breastfeeding their children, an intimacy which can strengthen the mother-child bond. Instead, lesser-class working (or slave) women wetnursed their employer’s (or mistress’s) babies, perhaps to the detriment of their own children.

As I noted above, nursing another woman’s baby can be a kind and altruistic act – or it can be coerced, forced, or otherwise exploitative. The degree of “choice” involved is most clear-cut when the wet nurse is a slave, however, coercion can still be at play when wet nurses are paid for their service. For example, working-class women are most likely to be employed as wet nurses, while middle- and upper-class women are more likely to employ them. The source of coercion is simple – poverty, and perhaps a lack of other options, upward mobility and/or marketable skills. Again, the wetnurse’s own babies may suffer as a result. Granted, the babies of human wet nurses aren’t killed outright as are the babies of “nurse” mares – and yet, they may still face nutritional deficits, a decrease in the time they’re able to spend with their own mothers, etc., as their mothers’ milk and attention is turned elsewhere.

Of course, these parallels are most apparent when the wet nurse is, like a “nurse” mare, property – a slave.

In The Encyclopedia of U.S. Labor and Working-class History, the entry on “child care” offers a glimpse of wetnursing and family ties in U.S. slave-owning households:

Women’s slave labor as field workers, care workers, and child bearers demonstrates the ways in which the gendered and racialized organization of labor benefited white land owners. Given the legal status of slave children as property constituting both future workers and “commodities” that could be sold, slave women’s bearing of and caring for children enhanced the productivity and economic status of the master. If slave women were fortunate enough to keep their children, they were most often denied the opportunity to care for them. On larger plantations, slaves not capable of field work (older women and children) often assumed the work of providing collective care for slave children while their parents worked in field and house labor.

A small number of slave women worked as house servants and, while prohibited from caring for their own children, were deemed suitable to care for the children of their white masters. Slave women provided child care and served as wet nurses for the children of their masters while the white mistress managed the household. […] This gendered and racialized organization of labor presages the status hierarchies further developed in the industrial economy – in the provision of paid and unpaid child care, as well as in other forms of labor.

Jean O’Malley Halley, writing in Boundaries of Touch, says

[T]here were fundamental divisions of race and class between elite families and their wet nurses. In the northern United States, wet nurses were usually poor or working-class immigrants. In the South, they were African American slaves. Given these divisions, wealthy families worries about the “fitness” of the wet nurses they hired. African American women were seen as “naturally” nurturant simultaneous to often being denied their own mother-child bonds. Enslaved women routinely had their children taken from them to be sold.

(Indeed, these stereotypes are one source of the “mammy” caricature.)

Here, the parallels become clear. Just as with “nurse” mares, slave women were forced to care for their “owners'” babies and children (or their “owners'” favored foals), all while being denied contact with their own children. The reproductive systems of women of all species are exploited: “prize” mares are forced to breed annually in order to produce more “prize” or “thoroughbred” horses (“merchandise”); “nurse” mares are forced to breed annually and produce more unwanted foals (“byproducts”) so that they’ll continue to produce milk; and slave women were valued in part for their fertility and the children (“commodities” and “laborers”) they might produce for their “owners.”

Yet, the similarities persist even when the wet nurses do so “willingly.”

For example, recent food safety concerns in China have prompted a resurgence of wetnursing:

Most Chinese parents have in recent years been feeding their babies bottled milk, promoted as more nutritious and better for the mothers’ figures. But the panic over the safety of China’s dairy products, after four babies died and 53,000 were taken to hospital as a result of consuming milk contaminated by melamine, has changed attitudes overnight.

Yanhong Wheeler, a best-selling Chinese author on raising children, under the name Xiao Wu, said: “There are more than 400 nutrients in breast milk that no milk powder can imitate. But no melamine.”

Paying a wet nurse enables well-paid mothers to continue working more easily, as well as meeting the need for reliable milk for their children.

Mr Ai said that wet nurses’ pay had more than tripled following the milk disaster.

The rewards are attracting young women to become career wet nurses. The Shenzhen Daily spoke with a woman who was a department store sales person in Sichuan province, before she quit in order to give birth last month. Now she is already planning a new job as a wet nurse: “I have plenty of breast milk. Why not? It’s a very good offer, as I only made 2000 yuan before” – about $350 per month, a typical wage. Now she can afford to buy expensive imported milk powder for her own baby.

Zhongjia Housework Agency manager Zhang Guixui said that parents were focused on the wet nurse’s health, so her agency insisted on “a strict physical check on everything from HIV to skin diseases”. She knew a case where a wet nurse was required by the parents to drink only fresh chicken soup, made from birds air-freighted from overseas.

(Emphasis mine.)

Here, there are three issues at play. Due to high demand, wages for wet nurses have increased – resulting in an offer that many mothers simply can’t refuse. And yet, the young woman quoted above plans to spend some of her pay on “expensive imported milk powder” for her own baby, even though breast milk is by all accounts superior to formula. As Homepaddock’s blogger notes, “And what does is say about the desperate circumstances of a woman that she will breast feed someone else’s child yet put her own on forumula?”

Finally, some families are quite fussy when it comes to the “fitness” of their wetnurses. While one might argue that the generous salaries they’re willing to pay entitles them to intrude on the lives of their employees, where do you draw the line? The couple described above dictated “their” wet nurse’s diet, requiring her to “drink only fresh chicken soup, made from birds air-freighted from overseas.” If this doesn’t cross the line, what does? Are a wet nurse’s physical activity and sex life fair bounds as well?

Remember that employers generally occupy a position of power in the employer/employee relationship; to add to the power imbalance, the families hiring wet nurses tend to come from higher social classes and have greater wealth than the women they employ. Regulating such personal decisions as what goes into their employee’s bodies seems to me to be an abuse of their power – a form of exploitation, similar to what non-human animals face (i.e., farmers, breeders, etc. often feed their animals the cheapest feedstuffs that will have the maximum impact, whether that’s fast growth, optimal fetal development, etc.; this cost-to-benefit analysis can prove quite complex).

Photo via if winter ends

While the similarities vary with the degree of choice involved, the exploitations suffered by wet nurses are often shared across species boundaries.

Before I go, a note on the photo I chose to highlight in the middle of this post: it’s a well-known United Colors of Benetton ad, cropped by me to be safe for work (you can view the whole thing here). While I think I understand what the company was trying to do – i.e., “unite the colors” – depicting a woman of color breastfeeding a white baby probably simply recreates – rather than challenges – existing race/class/gender hierarchies. Major FAIL.

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4 Responses to “On mares, wet nurses and shared exploitations.”

  1. Jennie Says:

    That was a really, really good post – Alex is going to love it, I can’t wait for him to get home so I can share. I think most people in the western world are disgusted and disturbed by the act of human wet nursing when not necessary (i.e. when both mothers are alive and healthy), and thus we’ve blocked its occurrence completely from our minds.

    Since I wrote the original post on the “nurse mare industry”, I’ve spoken to some people who say that breeders are now developing a practice of injecting the “nurse” mares with enough quantities of synthetic hormones that they lactate without pregnancy. While this does away with the immense problem of murdering the foals, the effects of this on the mare’s emotional and mental state must be phenomenal, and not in a good way.

  2. Kelly G. Says:

    Thanks, Jennie, I’m glad you enjoyed it! I had no idea about practice of making mares into wet nurses until I read your piece – but I guess it makes a sick, perverted kind of sense when you think about it.

    I wonder whether the whole flap about Salma Hayek wasn’t due in part to the “interracial” aspect of the breastfeeding. I remember a few years back, after an earthquake in China, a policewoman breastfed an orphaned (?) baby. The news reports in the US were kind of “awww, isn’t that weird but sweet!,” whereas Hayek was more “ewwww, isn’t that weird and gross.” Of course, there’s also the general ambivalence about breastfeeding, too. (i.e., “good” moms breastfeed, but never in public).

    And I guess the lactation-inducing injections are a tiny step up – for the foals at least – but still. The problem isn’t “byproduct” foals, it’s that we treat sentient beings like property.

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