“Vegans are So Extreme” Or “What Could Possibly Be Wrong with Eggs and Dairy?” Part II.

In Part I of this post, we talked about all the not so obvious but very real reasons why eating eggs supports cruelty. The story behind dairy is much the same. If we believe the ads we see on TV, dairy cows spend their days lazily grazing in green pastures, socializing with their friends, and soaking up the sunshine. Farmers will also often tell us city folk who don’t know any better things like “dairy cows need to be milked.” (Spoiler alert: Cows wouldn’t need to be milked by humans if we didn’t steal their babies.) Most of us are so disconnected from the source of our food that we probably never think of the origins of our lattes or ice-cream cones or cheese pizzas.  But if we do, we might very well have an image not too far from the happy cows in the ads. So what could be wrong with dairy?

I’m fortunate that most people I talk to about veganism aren’t challenging my choice but are genuinely curious and a bit perplexed about what it is that vegans find objectionable about milk and milk derived products like cheese, yogurt (yes, even kefir), butter, or ice-cream. With a look of confusion, people often ask me things like, “but it doesn’t hurt to milk them, does it?” Just like it doesn’t hurt a chicken to lay an egg, but there is tremendous suffering inherent in the egg-industry due to the surrounding conditions, (see Part I of this article), so too, we must understand all of the conditions that surround the actual milking to truly grasp the enormity of suffering involved in the dairy industry.

To begin with, 99% of dairy produced in the US comes from factory farms. As many of us already know, factory farms have nothing to do with green pastures, sunshine, or happiness. The driving force behind the industrialization of farming is increased profit, which is at direct odds with animal welfare and quality of life. Factory farms, also called confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), hold the greatest number of animals in the smallest possible space in order to increase efficiency of production and maximization of profits. Dairy cows spend their lives indoors, on concrete floors, hooked up to a mechanized milking apparatus. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), between 1970 and 2006, we have managed to double the amount of milk extracted per cow from 10,000 to 20,000 pounds per year, about 10 times what she could produce naturally. The industry has done its best to turn her into a milking machine, but she is not a machine. She is a living being, and so this increased production has come at the expense of her health, including a painful udder infection called mastitis, which can be caused by bacterial infection, or by chemical, thermal, or mechanical injury (so yes, even the milking itself can hurt) to her udder. A conservative estimate is that somewhere from 30% to 50% of all dairy cows are afflicted with mastitis at any time.

Tail docking is a common practice used in an attempt to minimize infection and mastitis, despite the lack of evidence that it actually accomplishes either and the widespread scientific consensus that the procedure is unnecessary and painful.  The tail is her only protection against flies, and if you’ve ever spent time near a cow, you know she is almost constantly switching her tail to brush away bothersome flies.

Tail docking involves the amputation of half or more of a cow’s tail.  A cow may have her tail “docked” with heated scissors which cauterize the stump simultaneously with cutting, or with an emasculator (used in crushing testicles during castration of male calves) which is used to crush the tail, after which the tail may be cut off below the crushed area. In heifers and grown cattle, tail docking usually involves use of a tight rubber ring applied around the tail, which reduces oxygen to the tail, and causes the tail to die, which is then either cut off, or falls off on its own. The practice is almost always done without anesthesia. Besides the pain involved in the procedure itself, animals can suffer chronic pain due to neuroma (a tumor composed of nerve tissue that forms at the injury site). About 50% of all cows in the U.S. have undergone the painful procedure, which has been banned in the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

Knowing the all-encompassing misery of life on a factory farm, many of us try to be compassionate consumers by purchasing dairy products like milk and cheese that come from organic dairy farms.  At least, we think, organic cows must live that idyllic life pictured in the ads. The organic standards say that dairy cows must be allowed to graze for 120 days a year, and they aren’t pumped up with antibiotics like their factory farmed counterparts, so if nothing else, we might think, that must ensure that farmers keep them healthy. We are willing to pay a little more to see that these animals have a decent quality of life. Problem solved. So again, why do those crazy vegans insist we give up all dairy?

According to the USDA, more than nine out of ten dairy farms practice dehorning, whether organic or not. Dehorning is an excruciating procedure where farmers cut or burn the horns off of cows. Generally, no anesthesia is given. Undercover videos of the procedure show cows bellowing and trying to escape while the torturous procedure is being performed. Temple Grandin, the unapologetic meat-eater known for her support of animal agriculture and her research into minimizing the stress on animals used in agriculture says “[w]e should be giving them a lot of anesthetics. The research is clear. The dehorning is the single most painful thing we do.”

Despite the pain, the procedure is considered a “standard industry practice” and is thus permitted by law in every state. Animals used for “food production” are specifically excluded from the federal Animal Welfare Act, and no matter how painful or cruel a procedure is, if it is done to a farmed animal, and is considered “standard industry practice,” it is legal in the U.S.

While welfare reforms could one day do away with the cruel practices of confinement and mutilation, the cruelest aspect of the industry is also one that is absolutely inextricable, and upon which the whole industry, organic or other, is built. This is the fact that no mammal produces milk without being pregnant. Just like humans, cows only lactate when they are pregnant, so in order to keep a dairy cow lactating, the dairy industry has to keep her pregnant pretty much all the time.

Cows are artificially inseminated by a machine the industry often refers to as a “rape rack.”  A cow’s gestation period is the same as a human’s, nine months. Almost as soon as she gives birth, she is re-impregnated, so that she gives birth once a year and never stops producing milk, keeping her under constant physical stress. Though a cow’s natural lifespan is about 20-25 years, dairy cows’ bodies are so spent after only two-five years, they are sent to slaughter, where even at that very young age their already crippled bodies can only be turned into cheap meat for our fast-food hamburgers or our pets’ food. About 75% of “downed cows,” those arriving at the slaughterhouse too weak or injured to walk to slaughter on their own, are dairy cows.

And what happens to her baby? The baby for whom her body is producing milk? In nature, a calf will nurse for about a year, and the bond and close relationship between a calf and mother will last a lifetime. But we don’t raise cows so that they can give milk to their own babies. What would be the point in that? We raise dairy cows so that humans can have the milk nature intended for her calf.  Therefore, calves are separated from their mothers immediately after birth. The writer James McWilliams describes his experience witnessing this forced separation like this:

“I became a vegan the day I watched a video of a calf being born on a factory farm. The baby was dragged away from his mother before he hit the ground. The helpless calf strained its head backwards to find his mother. The mother bolted after her son and exploded into a rage when the rancher slammed the gate on her. She wailed the saddest noise I’d ever heard an animal make, and then thrashed and dug into the ground, burying her face in the muddy placenta. I had no idea what was happening respecting brain chemistry, animal instinct, or whatever. I just knew that this was deeply wrong. I just knew that such suffering could never be worth the taste of milk and veal. I empathized with the cow and the calf and, in so doing, my life changed.”

If the newborn calf is a female, she will go into the same cycle of constant, forced impregnation, having her calves stolen from her one after another until her body stops producing at maximal levels and then she too will be sent to slaughter. Just like different species of chickens are used for eggs and meat, different species of cows are used for dairy and meat. Thus, male calves born to dairy cows are considered a useless byproduct of the industry, and just like the 260 million male chicks born into the egg industry who are killed upon hatching (http://freefromharm.org/eggs-what-are-you-really-eating/), approximately one million male calves are either slaughtered or left to die in the US each year.  According to the enthusiastically pro-farming website www.thisisdairyfarming.com,  “[w]here no other viable options exist, very regrettably, farmers have no choice but to cull their bull calves.”

When I was first considering the ethics of eating, veal was the first animal product I gave up. Veal are male dairy calves up to three to four months of age who have been taken from their mothers at birth, and rather than being killed immediately, they are kept confined, all alone, in darkened pens so small they can barely move. They are fed an iron-deficient diet with the sole and intentional purpose of keeping them anemic and preventing muscle development because consumers prefer their meat to be pale and tender. While they are still just babies, they are crowded onto trucks and taken to slaughter. Once I learned what veal was, I was horrified and saddened and had no trouble never touching it again. But I ate dairy for almost another 20 years without realizing that veal is simply a byproduct of the dairy industry. As long as there is a dairy industry, there will be a veal industry. As long as we purchase dairy, we keep the veal industry in business.

All dairy cows, male or female, will be slaughtered just as certainly and systematically as those cows who are bred and raised for beef. The males of the dairy industry will go to slaughter much earlier, most of them while they are still babies. Perhaps they are the lucky ones, as the females will endure years of often unrelenting physical pain and emotional trauma every time another baby is stolen.

I remember when I first discovered the cruel realities of the dairy industry, I held out one last flicker of hope that maybe somehow goat cheese was the answer that could allow me to keep eating the cheese I craved without supporting the cruelty I abhorred.  But the nature of a dairy, no matter what the species, is that females must become pregnant to produce milk, and half those babies will be males who are useless to the dairy and way too expensive to just keep around as pets. Moreover, because the demand for goat meat is so low in our culture, goat farmers often have a hard time selling the baby males at all, even for meat, so most are killed only moments after birth and thrown away in the trash pile.

As we process all of this information, it’s helpful to keep in mind that despite the propaganda of the dairy industry manipulating us into believing we need dairy to be healthy, there is absolutely no reason a human being needs to consume dairy products after infancy and certainly not from another species.  In fact, the science shows we will be a lot healthier if we don’t.  Here are just a few highlights of why dairy is so bad for our own health:

  • the antibiotics, hormones, and steroids we ingest when we consume dairy products,
  • the measurable pus and blood found in all milk products,
  • the casein and other animal proteins modern nutrition science tells us increases our risk of cancer and other Diseases of Affluence,
  • the saturated fat and cholesterol designed by nature to fatten up a baby calf but which only cause obesity, premature puberty, clogged arteries, and other major health problems for humans.

As is true of the egg industry, the extreme cruelty inherent in the dairy industry is not always apparent on its face. When we walk into an ice-cream store with our children or pour a little organic milk onto our cereal in the morning, we can easily miss the fact that we’re directly supporting animal cruelty and tremendous suffering of deeply emotional and gentle animals.  Vegans will often say that the only regret they have is not having gone vegan sooner. I’m one of them. I’m sorry to admit that it took me years to process the disconnect between the world I wanted to live in, one where cows and goats lived happy lives grazing on green pastures and frolicking in the sun, and I got to innocently share ice-cream cones with my dad, and the world we actually live in, where babies are routinely stolen from their mothers, where mothers aren’t able to protect their babies, where literally billions of animals are slaughtered, most of them in their own childhood and many so brutalized by the time they arrive at the slaughterhouse that they have to be dragged mercilessly to the killing floor, where the screams of sentient beings are ignored or disregarded in every moment, in this very moment, even now, as I am writing this, and you are reading this.

A constant optimist, because the animals need us to be, I believe the day is not too far away when mass violence against our non-human brethren will be what is considered extreme rather than the compassionate people who choose to live in a way that does them the least harm. And we, each one of us, have the power to create that world with our educated and compassionate choices.

Photo of Mikey, a rescued dairy calf, now living peacefully at Poplar Spring Sanctuary in Poolesville, MD. Photo courtesy of Deb Durant.  Deb, who volunteers at Poplar, tells us that “Mikey was taken from his mother as soon as he was born, as they are, and was then purchased by a broker who rented him to a nursery where he was used as part of a petting zoo. (The places that do seasonal “farm” things, with tours in the fall, etc.) At the end of the season he was going to be sold for slaughter, but a woman who worked there convinced the nursery to allow him to be rescued. Mike Stura, in NJ, has facilitated many rescues over the years, and he drove Mikey many hours to bring him to PSAS Mikey is named in his honor. (And Mike Stura and his wife recently started a sanctuary of their own, called Skylands Animal Sanctuary and Rescue.)

Correction: Please note this article originally contained a massive under representation of the number of male chicks killed by the egg industry. The most accurate current count is that 260 million male chicks are killed every year in the US alone, and that change has now been made to the article. 

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