Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Mother's Day Re-Cap & The Saddest Sound In The World

Yesterday was Mother's Day. I sent my mother - who lives over 2,000 miles away from me - a card (in which I wrote things!) and a pair of earrings that I made myself. I was really happy to do this. I am really happy that my mom appreciated it so much.

Yesterday I also handed out free carnations to passersby in my neighborhood. I work, part-time, in a children's thrift & vintage shop a few blocks from my house. Anyone who came into our shop yesterday got free Mother's Day carnations. We are a store that loves to celebrate people that bring love and joy into others' lives. Often these people are the usual suspects - you know, like moms, dads, grandparents, teachers, nurses... Or they're the people who are struggling to "make it" in this town - local artists, musicians, writers, actors, puppeteers, one-man comedy shows. The store is like a platform from which its employees say, "Hey, all you out there, doing something good for society and being all awesome. You're valued and appreciated."  I love being a part of that process! I loved handing out flowers yesterday.  

Despite my joy, however, there was also a heaviness in my heart. Yes, the two can co-exist. Although I've been vegan for a long time, Mother's Day felt a little different to me this year. I couldn't stop thinking about the mothers that suffer on this day and year-round. These mothers are not celebrated but, rather, forgotten.

I'm talking about the mother cows. And the mother pigs. And the mother goats, and the hens, and the dogs, the tigresses, the dolphins, the seals, the salmons. Yeah, I said the salmons. They give birth, too, after all. And contrary to the many a belief, they also have nervous systems, which means they can feel pain.  

More often than most of us will ever know, the most horrible, terrible, abominable things happen to these gorgeous beings. A fellow Los Angeles-based vegan advocate, Gary Smith of The Thinking Vegan, wrote a Mother's Day post about a variety of these things yesterday. In this post, I'm mostly going to focus on our mother cows.

The mother cow I am referring to here is the cow who is used for her "product" - that is, her breast milk, which can be made into cheese, butter, cream, ice cream, yogurt, or just consumed in its original liquid "milk" form.

But did you know? Every single milk product you will ever encounter will have come from a mother whose baby was taken away from her prematurely. That may come as a surprise to you at first, but think of it this way: the breast milk is what we're after, right? So in order to reap as much of that milk as possible, we must eliminate our primary competitor: her baby. The calf. On the majority of farms, that calf is taken away from his or her mother immediately after being born.

Have you ever heard the saddest sound in the world? Well, that's probably it. That is, the sound of a mother and a child being immediately ripped away from each other at birth. Animals can and do cry, moan, and scream. 

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D. writes about the emotional lives of non-human animals. In one of his books, he discusses the theory that animals with what we as humans would consider a "lower" capacity for reasoning (basically, a lower "IQ"), are the animals that actually feel the most pain. Why would animals whose brains are not as sophisticated as ours suffer more than us? Because, Dr. Bekoff says, they have less ability to develop coping strategies to deal with painful situations. Thus, they face the pain head on.

Imagine if you would've gotten that root canal without Novocaine, or couldn't reassure yourself with "This too shall pass" after passing that kidney stone, for example. What if your cheek were to be suddenly pierced with a thick, needle-y piece of metal? Or what if you were suddenly denied access to breathing for an indefinite length of time? Any of these would utterly terrify and hurt you, right? Even if you used all of your very advanced brain's coping mechanisms to deal with these events, they would still be incredibly traumatic.

Remember those salmons?

Dr. Bekoff also emphasizes that not only do animals feel physical pain, but they experience emotions as well. In fact, they lead rather rich emotional inner lives, sharing many emotions in common with humans. There are documented occurrences of animals like elephants and magpies mourning their dead kin in a ritualistic, "funeral" style. These are just a few examples of many. And as Dr. Bekoff states in The Emotional Lives of Animals, there also is evidence that animals experience emotions that humans do not.

Back to the cows. What happens after mother and baby are separated? Well, if the baby is a girl, she goes through exactly what her mom endured. Most typically, the way she is impregnated is via artificial insemination. Usually there is force involved. And a cage-like thing to restrain her. 

She will then proceed to give birth, have her baby involuntarily taken from her, and have her teats squeezed by metal clamp devices. For those who use similar devices for pleasure, note that these devices are not removed for long periods of time, even after her teats become infected. By the way, infections = the development of pus, which gets into the milk. (Yes, really.) This "milking" process occurs over the course of one year, and then, literally sucked dry, she is impregnated again so that she produces more milk. Repeat, repeat, repeat, until she is too old to physically withstand this anymore. Probably about six times. She's then loaded onto a crowded truck, sent to a factory, and killed. Her death therefore occurs about 20 years earlier than it would've naturally.

Don't even get me started on how she is killed. I'll save that for another post.  

What happens to the male calves, who are obviously not capable of producing milk? Well, that's where veal comes from. After birth, the male calf is kept in a small, dark crate in which he barely has room to lay down and turn around. Sometimes he is also tethered within the crate, to further restrict his movement. All of this is so that he does not grow or develop, which would ruin the "tender" characteristic that his flesh ("veal") has. After about four months of this, he is slaughtered.

Guys, I know some of you buy "free range" or "humane" or "organic" milk and meat, but many of the same damn things happen. With "free range," the laws and regulations are pretty loose. And most typically, the mother and babies are sent away to the same slaughtering place. Read all about this and more at http://humanemyth.org/, an entire website devoted to revealing the little-known facts of the "humane" variety of the meat and dairy industry. I especially encourage you to watch the slide shows. Please, you owe it to yourself to know the truth, and (in my opinion), you owe it to the animals to at least have an understanding of what really happens. Do not fall for marketing and advertising techniques that use the words "humane" or "free range." Business is business, and these techniques were specifically designed to increase profits, not educate you.

Now that you've read what I've written (which is awesome, by the way - and not for my benefit, but because you have hopefully learned a lot!), I have some questions about you. I hope you will consider each of them.

1.  Are you a mother?

I can claim no children myself, but I cannot imagine the agony of having my newborn literally taken away from me. The pain must be unbearable.

2.  Have you ever lost someone you loved? 

If you have ever felt the pain of loss, a loss of any kind, then you can probably relate to cruel and unfair separation of these mother cows and their calves. You don't have to have gone through the exact same experience as someone to relate to their pain. Emotions are emotions, even if we cannot fully "get" precisely what someone went through and how it felt to them.

3.  Have you ever felt physical pain?

Unless you are among the few who suffer from the rare congenital analgesia, then I know you have.

   And what about emotional pain?

Unless you are among the estimated 1% that go through life with a marked inability to feel genuine empathy, then surely you have.

4.  Are you a feminist?

If so, how do you fit this knowledge about female dairy cows into your feminist ideology? 

5.  Do you believe in equal rights for all?

If so, do you limit that equality to humans only? If yes, what are your reasons? If you believe in equal rights for all sentient beings, then how do you find this knowledge about the dairy industry?

6.  Are you one of those people who believe in the adage, "everything in moderation"?

If so, can you fit the goings-on of dairy farming into that schema? If yes, how so?

7.  Do you live with any animals that you consider "pets"? 

If so, how do you reconcile the vast differences in how you treat your pets versus how you treat cows?

8.  Do you consume dairy products and still feel that you are not contributing to the atrocious treatment of dairy cows?

If so, how do you reconcile that feeling with the knowledge that the money you pay for dairy products goes toward these practices? How do you feel about the quote, said by the late Martin Luther King, Jr., "In the end, we will not remember the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends"?

My article may have irritated you or even made you quite mad. But you can hardly complain. 'Cause you know who's probably the most pissed right now?

Those mother cows.

To become part of the solution:
Starter Guide to Becoming Vegan
Go See This Movie That's Out Now
And Rent This One
Eat At Vegan Restaurants Near You
Read Some of Marc Bekoff's Books
Help Rescued Cows (and other farm animals, too!) In The LA Area
Help Rescued Cows In Other Areas (scroll to bottom)
Want more? I'm happy to help.

C'mon, if not now, when? Really, I'm happy to help you. Send any questions my way!
Male calf ("Cowboy" is his name!) at Animal Acres. Cows can live up to 25 years. Cowboy now has a chance. (photocred.)

If you haven't yet, you should do yourself a favor and meet a cow. Trust me. Their presence is at once majestic and gentle, and they are even more beautiful than they are in photos.


  1. I loved this, Megan. My heart goes out to the mother cows, too. I saw a video of a mama cow crying out to her newborn who was just taken away and that sound will never leave my memory. I wouldn't wish that experience upon anyone.

  2. Thank you, Terri. I've seen a video like that, too. As heart-wrenching and horrifying as it was for me to watch, I don't regret doing it. I'm sure you feel the same. Seeing the footage is life changing in the sense that the first layer of a GIGANTIC problem unravels before your very eyes. And you instantly know that something has to change.