Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Every which way but mostly on cows, self-deception and compassion...

I love cows.

I love their big, liquid eyes, and thick eyelashes and guttural, heartfelt moos. I love them for their stillness and sweetness and gentleness. Still, once I saw a cow get angry on my behalf, outraged by a violent act that was being considered against me, and she took immediate, decisive action in my defense. She was peaceful but fierce. You have to love that in another being.

It happened the first time I ever saw a cow up close, nose to nose, when I was in my twenties. Meet Your Meat had finally and irreversibly cleaved itself into my conscience after being a vegetarian for twelve years so I was already vegan when I met these fortunate cows, Farm Sanctuary residents, while visiting a friend in California. In person, the cows were just huge to me, in a way I hadn't anticipated somehow. When I walked behind the fence to where they lived, one cow ran right up to me like an overgrown puppy and leaned into me, into my hands. I was a little apprehensive at first because of her sheer size, but she was gentle, acting as the perfect ambassador. I petted her and cooed and swooned until she wandered off to graze nearby and I pulled out my camera. There was a goat who stayed with the cows, one that had been removed from the other goats because of his aggression towards them, and he ran up to me, too. The Farm Sanctuary worker had warned me earlier that if this goat started rubbing his head against me, it was something he always did just prior to butting, and to be on the lookout for that as it would hurt. As if on cue, the goat came up to me, then slowly started rubbing his head against me. seeming to relish every terrifying second of his pre-butting ritual. Just as I looked for an escape route, the cow I'd been petting earlier, grazing nearby, charged forward suddenly and very intentionally into the goat, pushing him away from me with her head. The cow put herself right by my side, my bovine body guard, planting her big warm body between me and the goat. The goat wandered off, perhaps to plan a future, more airtight, attack and the cow stayed by my side . Ever since then, I've had a thing for cows. They've got my back and, to the limited degree I can, I've got theirs.

I don't pretend to be a rural person or very knowledgeable about animal husbandry; I'm from the North Shore of Chicago, infinitely more at home with shopping malls than grain silos. This doesn't stop me from know deep in my heart, though, that cows - or any other beings - weren't put here for us to do what we want with simply because we can do it. It is self-serving thinking that allows us to deceive ourselves like that. I can say that as someone who has argued on behalf of animals for many years, one of the first counter-arguments people will reach for is that there are just too many miseries in the world to justify caring how some cows, pigs and chickens are treated. As if compassion were finite and as if kindness wouldn't have a trickle down effect on everything. It also assumes that we can allow unimaginable and totally unnecessary violence as if it existed in a bubble, that it has no affect on anything else. Again, this is delusional, self-serving thinking.

Because of our position of privilege, non-human animals are not treated as worthy of our consideration by some; their cries and torment are interpreted as little more than brakes squeaking or a machine acting up. To others, those who actually acknowledge that these cries and attempts at escaping are rooted in the animal's honest experience of pain and fear, there are more important matters to worry about. These people are whom I refer to as the "Yeah Butters" of the world. You've surely encountered a Yeah Butter in your life. They're the people who, if you describe the routinized cruelty of how animals are treated in dairy production, will say, "Yeah, but what about the homeless?" If you try to be an example of a more compassionate way of living, they will say, for example, "Yeah, but what about inner-city violence?" Or abortion, or a recent tsunami or just whatever arbitrary thing pops into the Yeah Butter's mind. To a Yeah Butter, there is always Something Worse Somewhere and that something worse has an important function: it is a tool that is pulled out whenever the Yeah Butter's participation in or tacit approval of a cruel, unnecessary practice makes him feel a wee bit squeamish or defensive. It is illogical to me that working on behalf of one takes away from another somehow - again, this idea that our compassion and convictions are doled in only so many spoonfuls at birth - and it's also a diversionary tactic. The interesting thing about most Yeah Butters I have known is that those things that are supposedly more deserving of our attention still fail to get any from him, and that is because a Yeah Butter is actually a nihilist disguised as a pragmatist.

Mercy For Animals recently revealed undercover footage that reveals cows having their tails docked and their horns burned off without anesthesia, and this received a surprisingly balanced exposé on Nightline. The treatment of these cows is absolutely standard practice on, what?, 99 or so percent of milk production operations. We often have an idealized vision in our minds of cows peacefully chewing cud out in impossibly perfect meadows, and this image has been carefully cultivated and fostered by the dairy industry itself, of course. The rosy-cheeked milk maid in overalls will pull up her seat and patiently express the milk from the cow's udders and those few squirts in the metal bucket will miraculously result in the cheese and dairy products billions of omnivores and vegetarians consume day in and day out. (And this is not even going to touch on the fact that even if this idyllic scenario existed, it's still ridiculous to me to consume another animal's mammary secretions. ) The idea of these cows grazing in verdant fields is reassuring to us, it is part of the American mythology. Unfortunately, most consumers - and we are all consumers of one sort or another - believe that this myth is standard practice. But that single operation that MFA exposed, Willet Dairy, is responsible for 40,000 gallons of milk per day. There aren't enough overall-clad milk maids in the world to patiently procure that amount of product. And lest you think that "organic and grass-fed" is the way to go, I ask you to please consider the improbability of the math that these adorable, squeaky clean farms could produce the amount of dairy the average North American consumes. One thing the organic industry receives a big red F-for-failure from me on is their unwillingness to admit the obvious: it is a model that is completely infeasible without a seriously drastic reduction in consumption habits. Admitting this would be counter to their goal of getting more people to consume their product so they won't ever address this glaring omission. It's the blind acceptance of pat, contrived answers on the part of consumers - the tantrum-y insistence that if one wants something to be true, that alone makes it true - that gets under my skin the most.

In the video shown on Nightline, the reporter asked the Willet Dairy operation manager about the tail docking and footage of cows getting their horns burned off without anesthesia: wasn't this inhumane? The manager, of course, disagreed: this is how things are done, this was business as usual in dairy production. (The small bit of truth I recognized from his interview.) When pressed by the reporter, the manager said that "(he) doesn't see" what the reporter sees. Meaning that he doesn't see that a sentient animal having body parts roughly removed is inhumane treatment and also that the cow desperately trying to jerk away from the source of her pain was evidence of pain. He went on to assert that employees have been fired in the past for inhumane treatment of "their" cows and that abuse wouldn't be tolerated. Well, it's good to know that the practice of forcibly impregnating, keeping the cows jammed indoors year-round and having their calves taken from them right after birth (the males going into the veal market) will no longer be tolerated, along with, of course, killing the cows to grind them into hamburger. I'm being sarcastic, of course, but, again, it's fascinating to me how we can spin lies and self-deceive. The cows serve as little more than milk or meat machines and we all know it if we're being honest.

So this is what I am hoping: that those who have been lulled into a false sense of security by the various propaganda machines at work with animal agriculture take a step back and look at things with critical minds and compassionate hearts. The dairy industry will assert that "happy cows" produce more milk and stand on that little platform they've build for themselves as though it were rock solid. It's not: these poor creatures are so drugged up, hormone blasted and, last, existing in such sheer numbers that they don't need to be "happy" in order to produce a high volume of milk. And if production slows, well, of course they are disposable but not before that last bit of money is extracted out of them in the form of cheap meat.

Well, the Yeah Butter is insisting that he still has more to say. "Yeah, but milk doesn't cause the animals to die." No, it does, and the vast, vast majority of cows suffer mightily before they do. "Yeah, but my sweet little farm produces the sort of dairy I'm comfortable with; I've seen it with my own eyes." Is the dairy necessary for your health? Do we have a fundamental right to take it? Is it natural to consume another being's mammary secretions? Does this farm sell a product only available to a relatively affluent small number of people? What happens to the cows when they are no longer producing an optimal volume of milk? What happens to her babies? On a continuum, of course it is better to consume dairy produced in a less harmful way than at a mega-dairy like Willet, but it is still part of the same model of exploitation and dominionism, it is still treating the cows as if they exist for our purposes, not their own. Why not sidestep that whole old model and create a new one, one not based on exploitation? If you can't reconcile knowing what you know and maintaining the status quo, it is time to shake things up. Despite any Yeah Butter inclinations - and we all have them from time to time - we know in our hearts that compassion is holistic and that it has an amazing ripple effect on everything. The staggering thing about compassion is that it self-generates, creating more and more where there was just a spark. Light that spark: go vegan. Many people who are already vegan struggle with compassion ourselves: for those of us who care so much, this can be a very rough place, full of brutality and ignorance. Vegans like myself need to breathe into and stoke that heart of compassion as well to make sure that we're not just running on fumes of it.

Just like that Farm Sanctuary cow who stood up for me in the best way she knew how when she saw that she needed to take action, we need to be present in this flawed world and move beyond our comfort zone on occasion. She didn't say, "Yeah, but I'm really enjoying this grass right now," or "Yeah, but I don't want to put myself out." She was brave and bold and driven by a desire to stop harm from being inflicted using the tools she had at her disposal.

Let's be like that cow. The future of the world depends on it.


  1. Wonderful essay, I hope it makes people think about compassion.

  2. Well said Marla. Thank you for taking the time to get this said.

  3. You had me at "I love cows".

    Great post... I just wish the world could see through clearer eyes and bigger hearts!

  4. Thank you, ladies. It inspires me to know that there are so many passionate and kind people out there doing this work.

  5. I was there to witness the altercation between Marla and the ornery ram where the steer came to her rescue. I'm guessing that one reason he came to her aid was because they had set up a bond earlier when she was petting him. I snapped this picture of the two of them together about ten minutes before he saved her from getting rammed.

    Here's the pic: http://johnbeske.com/Marla-steer.jpg

  6. That's excellent, Marla. Thanks for putting it out there.

  7. I had the opposite experience: pleasant goat and scary cows. I rescued a goat at a festival. It had got its rope tangled up in a couple of saplings. I took it to the animal rescue tent, en route asking for directions and hearing many people say, "So, it isn't your goat then?" I arrived at the animal rescue tent to be told that he (so, probably being kept for meat or breeding) was very thin and needed food and water.

    On a separate example, I had a bad experience of thinking cows were going to trample me. Although they didn't. Which is good.

  8. Beautiful and eloquent and oh-so-true post, Marla. (Makes me wish you'd been on Oprah the other day instead of Alicia, bless her heart. You'd have given such better responses!)

  9. Johnny, the link isn't working for some reason.

    Thanks, Gene. Farm Sanctuary has always had a special place in my heart.

    How sweet to rescue that goat, Vanilla Rose. And I should add that while my experience with goats is not vast, I think this guy was out of the ordinary for a goat. I'm so glad that you didn't get trampled. :)

    Aw, thank you, Laloofah! Now I've got to find that on YouTube or something. :)

  10. Loved the essay, Marla. You write so beautifully! :)


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