Some people sent Nicholas Kristof's latest editorial to me, a seemingly feel-good story about "happy cows." Maybe it's vestiges of my old veganism, but the whole story made me uncomfortable. It brought up some things I wrote about in my recent post The Meat in Your Milk.
It describes a farmer who loves his dairy cattle "like children." Then it dances around the issue about what happens to them when their dairy production wanes:
This isn’t to say that Bob’s farm is a charity hostel. When cows age and their milk production drops, farmers slaughter them. Bob has always found that part of dairying tough, so, increasingly, he uses the older cows to suckle steers. That way the geriatric cows bring in revenue to cover their expenses and their day of reckoning can be postponed — indefinitely, in the case of his favorite cows.
So they are like his children, except he sends them to slaughter when they aren't useful, unless they are his favorites?
It's almost enough for me to want to start a startup where you purchase milk with a percentage of profits going to a cow retirement home.
And what happens to male offspring? Surely he isn't feeding them for charity. Don't get me wrong, I think this farmer has some admirable ideas, but it takes a Pollyanna view of animal production to portray that system the way that Kristof does.
And ultimately it reminds me that I have mixed feelings about dairy. When humans started dairying, it created a strangely intimate relationship between humans and the animals they utilized as food. Hunter-gatherers and foragers generally don't kill the animals they raise themselves. It reminds me of this Richard K. Nelson story about how Koyoukon hunters found it so difficult to adopt animal husbandry.
After watching the chickens grow, many couldn't bring themselves to eat the eggs, and it was even worse to think of dining on the birds or pigs. "People felt like they'd be eating their own children," a Koyukon woman told me. "A lot of them said, from now on they would only eat wild game they got by hunting. It felt a lot better that way.
I wonder how many pastoral cultures even slaughter their animals very often? The Maasai, for example, view cattle as too valuable as signs of wealth to slaughter. When meat is eaten, it is often in the context of a ceremony. Perhaps religion is not just for humans to understand their own lives and deaths, but the lives and deaths of animals as well.
Now that my family raises some cows, I reflect on what they mean to me. I do not consider them children or friends. They are essentially wild animals to me. We left their horns on and they haven't socialized with humans much. I'm not arrogant enough to think a cow that hasn't been conditioned towards being fed (usually grain or formula) by humans when they are young will have any interest in consorting to me. They aren't my children or my friends. They are part of the ecosystem. We steward their land, fix them up if they are sick, but largely we leave them alone to do what they want as long as its in the realm of our fenced pastures until their slaughter day comes.