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Soli/dairy/ty

As a nursing mother newly exposed to the harsh realities of milk production, Liza Monroy reconsiders the dairy cow, and questions the meaning of compassion.

Liza Monroy | Longreads | February 2020 | 15 minutes (3,637 words)

On the verge of turning 40, all my habits felt ingrained. So I was surprised when, late last February, I became vegan one morning, following an intuitive stab out of the ether. It made no sense, not yet, and Joaquin Phoenix’s viral Oscar speech was still a year into the future, but I’d promised myself to always follow my instincts after, 10 years prior, that little voice within had attempted to warn me to hide my laptop before leaving my apartment. Perplexed by the absurdity of this non-thought, I’d ignored it only to return to find the laptop submerged in the bathtub, fallen victim to a vengeful ex-boyfriend’s rage. Life had since quieted and so had the little voice, until it resurfaced whispering, be vegan for the month of March.

As a 20-year ovo-lacto vegetarian-with-a-sushi-exemption, I found the hunch puzzling. Still, the voice had spoken, so I didn’t question it, though I did start searching for reasons. As a second-time mother to an infant, then seven months old, I felt lacking in structure, focus, and goals, and veganism gave me a way to try and put some version of that back into my life. Or perhaps, like a culinary Oulipian, further constraints would spike creativity, breaking my egg-and-cheese-bagel,-salmon-nigiri routine with more colorful vegetables. What I definitely wasn’t thinking: dairy cows, other than to joke that, hooked up to my mechanical breast pump, I felt like one.

Though I couldn’t pinpoint a rationale for my non-choice, I knew what I wasn’t and would never become: one of those unpleasant extremists who espoused “radical vegan propaganda,” who harass you with pamphlets depicting horrifying conditions of factory farms.

And then I went to VegFest. The pamphlet was lying on a table with others containing recipe ideas and shopping lists. But this one, about the practices of the dairy industry, caught my nursing-mama attention in a new way: “A cow must regularly give birth to produce profitable amounts of milk,” it read. Though I was against killing animals, I’d believed dairy was only a matter of taking something that was already there. I’d operated under the assumption that milking a cow was taking a nutritionally beneficial substance that would otherwise go to waste, as if all dairy cows were overproducers like me, milk running in streams. I’d never encountered this simple information about their pregnancy. “Similar to humans,” the pamphlet continued, “a cow’s gestation period is about nine months. In that time she develops a strong desire to nurture her baby calf — a calf that will be taken from her hours or days after birth. Cows can live more than 20 years, however they’re usually slaughtered once lactation decreases at about 5 years of age.”

At first it was the babies being taken away that got me. Motherhood had instilled in me an understanding of the deep, cellular-level, biological attachment to the calf. It must not be entirely true, I insisted to myself. This pamphlet was the dreaded “militant vegan propaganda.” I went online in search of contradictory information, but even meat-industry trade publications indicated this process is but simple fact-of-the-matter, nothing to get worked up about.

An article by rancher Heather Smith Thomas in Beef Magazine states that, “There’s a complex hormone system involved in causing birth and initiating lactation.” Pregnancy and birth for a cow entails a physiological process nearly identical to humans’. The mother’s body produces oxytocin during labor, bonding her to her calf and bringing on a strong desire to nurse. Exactly like the pamphlet said. Exactly like my own experience.

Suddenly, I felt a little, well, militant in spite of myself. The timing of having recently become a small-scale milk producer again made it obvious in retrospect: milk wasn’t just there, in mammals’ mammary glands. You had to have a baby to get it there. I didn’t just happen to have milk in my udders either — I had to get pregnant and give birth before it came and turned my breasts into hot, painful footballs only my baby or a horrible breast-pump could relieve. I’d had no idea my beloved ice cream and pizza were the cause of suffering. But dairy cows with lower production rates are not economically viable. They are sent sooner to slaughter.

Sailesh Rao, a Stanford PhD and former systems engineer who founded Climate Healers, a nonprofit fighting climate change, told me: “During a visit to the Kumbalgarh Wildlife sanctuary in India I observed how the forest was being destroyed by cows eating anything new growing out of the ground while old-growth trees were being cut down. I realized it was even better to eat some beef to finish off the cows after I had exploited them for milk. I resolved to go vegan on the spot.”

Environmental reasons were obvious, but on the compassion front, for years I’d taken imagery on dairy-milk cartons literally: peaceful cows standing in fields beside gentle farmers seated on stools, red barn in the background under a vast open sky. Was that the real propaganda? In YouTube videos of the routine dairy-farm practice of taking newborn calves from their mothers, the distress cries sound chillingly like daycare drop-off, except the afternoon reunion will never come.

I grabbed a couple of magnets and affixed the pamphlet to the fridge.

***

What is human responsibility to other species? In his seminal essay “Consider the Lobster,” David Foster Wallace tackles the question of animal pain and the ethics of boiling a sentient creature alive. Of gourmet foodies, Wallace asks, “What makes it feel okay to dismiss the whole issue out of hand? …is it just that they don’t want to think about it? Do they ever think about their reluctance to think about it? … Or is all the gourmet’s extra attention and sensibility just supposed to be aesthetic?” Wallace admits that his line of questioning, “while sincere, obviously involves much larger and more abstract questions about the connections (if any) between aesthetics and morality, and these questions lead straightaway into such deep and treacherous waters that it’s probably best to stop public discussion right here. There are limits to even what interested persons can ask of each other.”

I was surprised when, late last February, I became vegan one morning, following an intuitive stab out of the ether.

I’m not sure Wallace meant the concluding line literally. It’s a rhetorical move on which to end the essay so the conversation might continue off the page, with “interested persons” transcending perceived limits and having those conversations. Wallace leaves it to readers to weigh what he’s shown and make up their own minds.

My new project, I would have spent a few weeks telling you, was to write the “Consider the Lobster” equivalent for dairy cows. But my mental wiring changed after I became a mother. I operate on instinct. I feel everything more intensely. I get worked up. Is that not palatable, though? Writing a “Consider the Lobster” of dairy cows was impossible, I realized, because it would be as if, rather than landing a magazine assignment about a lobster-eating festival, Wallace awoke one morning in a Gregor Samsa-esque horror to discover he’d been turned into a lobster himself, his own body at risk of comprehending firsthand the feeling of being boiled alive. As a lactating mammal, I was too close to my subject to risk attempting objectivity. Even the word “mammal” has its roots in Late Latin, “of the breast.”

***

My sweet, patient husband was left questioning whether his marriage vows extended to living with a lactating mom gone vegan who was channeling the souls of dairy cows. But when I forced him to watch five minutes of footage of a moments-old calf learning to latch and nurse in extreme close-up — along with every top-rated plant-based documentary, titles like Vegucated, The Shame of Point Reyes, Vegan Everyday Stories, and Cowspiracy — , he offhandedly observed: “That’s just like Aleshandra.” Our baby.


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Not only could I see it, I could identify. The newborn’s rooting and searching, failed attempts before the first successful latch, the satisfaction in the result, the baby guzzling and gulping the milk her mother’s body had created to sustain her. I had a chilling vision of a dystopian future where aliens colonize Earth and decide that human milk is the ultimate delicacy.

“Can you imagine,” I said to my husband, “if, right after birth, someone took Aleshandra away, hooked me up to an industrial breast pump, and I never saw her again?”

“You’re anthropomorphizing cows,” he replied. “Animals don’t experience loss or pain the same way.”

I was unsure. Our two pets, a pug and a potbelly pig, Señor Bacon (subsequently renamed Señor Vegan), are practically human to me. When I mention them, people think it’s normal to have a dog but are astounded to find we have a pig living in our backyard. Why was the dog normal but the pig strange? When one of them had a shoulder injury, our vet said not to presume it wasn’t painful because they don’t vocalize pain the way humans do.

Research has shown that cows aren’t “dumb beasts.” They develop strong friendships, communicate, invent games, babysit, and self-medicate. If they don’t care to be forced into childbirth, again, a process nearly identical to humans’, they can’t express that either.

“It’s not even about cows,” I said to my husband, “They may not perceive it. But I feel it. I know.”

Given that my identification with dairy cows was overflowing more than my own milk ducts when I skipped a feed, it followed that I wanted to meet with one.

***

Vegan chef and dairyless-cheese innovator Miyoko Schinner co-founded a farmed animal rescue sanctuary, Rancho Compasión, on her home’s land in Marin County. On a sunny Saturday morning, my husband and I made the two-hour drive from Santa Cruz to Rancho Compasión to visit rescued former dairy cow Angel. I wasn’t sure what I was hoping for. It wasn’t as if I’d be able to interview her. Angel couldn’t tell me anything about what she’d been through. Still, spending some time with her, I hoped, would be what gave me some ammo to write the “Consider the Lobster” equivalent for dairy cows after all: I would go up to her, look into her eyes, pet her, and have a moment that would allow me to form, at last, a central thesis for my essay.

Upon arriving at Rancho and glimpsing Angel, I awaited the stab of connection, of identification, I’d been certain would come. It didn’t. Angel was accompanied everywhere by her best friend, a goose, and when I tried to approach the cow, her goose charged me. It brought to mind the ways differing species have complex relationships between themselves, too; it’s not just humans and their pets. The relationship between Angel and her goose reiterated the intelligence of animals — and how we don’t fully understand that intelligence. Defensive goose aside, I was also a little bit nervous. Angel was massive. I got distracted from my quest by adorable frolicking pigs, like Oliver, who was saved from being roasted for a luau, and numerous friendly goats. Finally, I stared down Angel from a distance, ready for transcendence. Then she lifted her tail and peed a proverbial river. The gushing stream brought to mind Rao’s environmental argument for veganism. Every minute, 7 million pounds of excrement are produced by animals raised for food in the U.S. When Angel finished her contribution, I finally approached.

I knew what I wasn’t and would never become: one of those unpleasant extremists who espoused ‘radical vegan propaganda,’ who harass you with pamphlets depicting horrifying conditions of factory farms.

Running my hands over the her soft coat led to no deeper insight, no flash of revelation, no central thesis for my essay, but as we drove away from the ranch a couple of hours later, Angel, her bull friend, and the goose — this interspecies family — stood together in the field, watching us go. Something shifted. Post-Compasión, veganism didn’t feel so radical anymore. Spending time with the animals even somehow inspired my husband to no longer purchase meat or dairy products.

“Being there and seeing it reminded me of the environmental cause I’d fallen off the wagon about,” he said. “During the tour they mentioned that factory farming is not only cruel but a huge pollutant, and it reminded me. The diary and cattle industry is the biggest offender so I’m not going to eat meat or drink milk — you forget the milk industry is the same thing. Meat is cruel and dairy must be cruel too.”

I was so surprised by the words coming from his mouth I wrote them down for the record. Even more surprising: the next time we went to our favorite local café, he ordered his cappuccino with oat-milk. It wasn’t a major change but it felt like one.

***

In her talk “The Hidden Cost of Patriarchy,” self-proclaimed “feminist killjoy” Jennai Bundock states that “understanding that animal agriculture is an exploitation of female animals’ bodies” made her vegan. “It’s breeding programs that make meat,” she says. “Eggs and dairy are both feminized proteins. They’re exploiting the reproductive systems of female animals exclusively… across species. I don’t know why we don’t call that out, because this is a feminist issue. As soon as I made that connection, there was no way I could un-connect it.”

I couldn’t, either. While a bull gets “collected,” a dairy cow is artificially inseminated, impregnated, goes through the labor process, and endures hormones that bond her to the calf, only to have the calf taken in the moments after the birth while she’s hooked up to the industrial breast pump. I didn’t mind nursing but I hated pumping. I was consumed by a new question: can you be a feminist if you consume dairy? Is milk a product of violence against female bodies?

For the bull, “collectors” use a so-called “teaser animal” to prepare him to mount. Then they use a fake vagina with 66-degree water and KY Jelly. One collector told Vice magazine of the bulls, “The majority of them know what they’re coming out to do.” They also know when they’re headed to slaughter. In the Guardian article “Cows Are Intelligent, Loving, And Kind — So Should We Still Eat Them?”, farmer Rosamund Young, author of The Secret Life of Cows, says, “The young animals that go to be killed, I would guess most of them don’t know what’s going to happen. Most. The older cows know more. Some of them think, ‘This isn’t right, why am I not at home? That smells funny.’ There are levels of intelligence and therefore levels of stress and suffering.” Though dairy cows are also slaughtered, their lives are shorter and more brutal than their male counterparts’.

***

When I first wrote the phrase “babies being taken away” at the outset of this essay, my mind instinctively flashed to migrant children and the Trump administration and I cringed. I feared making that comparison, of entering that into discussion here. Are you comparing cows to people? In an age when the government puts human babies in cages? In conversation with a friend, speaking of social justice and how there are “more important things” in the human world — income inequality, poverty, racial and gender injustice — why should we even be talking about cows? But we were putting up a false binary, as if caring about animals could detract from caring about humans. If anything, it can only increase our compassion: animals are sentient, yet it’s easy to “other” them; they are literal others. How can we stop treating people like cattle until we stop treating cattle like cattle?

Schinner, la dueña of Compasión, is something of an expert in this. Writing in the Point Reyes Light, she says, “While we strive to overcome racism and sexism, another social-justice issue challenges our times: speciesism. A rancher in West Marin once said, ‘I’ve given them a good life. Now I get to end it.’ Had he been talking about dogs instead of cows, we would have cried abuse. But why do we feel okay — even that it is necessary — to do as we want with cows, pigs, chickens, sheep and other farmed species? Why do our rules differ based on species? Ultimately, what we call ‘animal rights’ is about us — humans. It is about our own humanity and the choices we make to shape the future.”

They’re exploiting the reproductive systems of female animals exclusively… across species. I don’t know why we don’t call that out, because this is a feminist issue.

Why had I wanted that pamphlet to be “militant vegan propaganda” so I could dismiss it? It would have been easier to go on not having seen it, to continue accepting the placid images those milk cartons would have me believe. And why was I familiar with that phrase, but not “animal-agriculture propaganda”? Certain things are cultural norms, and to disturb that frankly disturbs the very fabric of our by nature fabricated realities. As with the Trump administration separating migrant children, if we don’t see it — even if we can see it — in the news or online, there’s still an element of unreality: Can that really be happening? And could it really be as bad as it appears? Though we know the answer, as with bad slaughterhouse footage, it’s tempting, after the momentary horror, to revert to doing whatever we’re doing. But what if you try to really know it? Internalize it? What if we awoke in a new way to what William S. Burroughs famously termed the “naked lunch,” that frozen moment when everyone sees what is really on the end of every fork?

Angela Davis asks how we can develop compassionate relations with other creatures with whom we share this planet. “That would mean challenging the whole capitalist industrial form of food production,” she states. Davis points out the “lack of critical engagement” with the food we eat. “The commodity form has become the primary way we see the world. We don’t go further than the exchange value of that object, whether it’s food, clothes, iPads…” Davis suggests developing “a habit of imagining the human relations and nonhuman relations behind all the objects that constitute our environment.”

It’s difficult terrain. There are certain paths on which it becomes a little scary to tread, lest one end up living in a yurt off the grid on a permanent silent retreat, naked and living on beans.

As it is, the refrigerator in my small household is completely plant-based, yet stocked as ever. We aren’t at a want for anything and our budget isn’t crazy impacted. My husband, who claimed he wouldn’t like the plant-based products because the taste would pale, has trouble telling the tofu veggie cream cheese from the regular, the pizza cheese from vegan replacements. On two occasions he has been wrong — twice not able to tell the difference.

“Isn’t it interesting?” I said. “It’s not taste; it’s mental conditioning.”

Small children aren’t yet wired with these social norms. When my 4-year-old, Olivia, and I talk about the reasons why mommy is vegan, she latches to the mothers-and-babies part. The other morning at the breakfast table, over cherry cashew yogurt, she asked for the thousandth time, “Why do the babies get taken?”

“You mean the cows?” I asked.

She nodded.

“It’s the way mommy’s body makes teeny [aka breastmilk] for Aleshandra. A mommy cow’s body makes teeny for her baby, too, but they take the baby away and put the mommy on the ‘pumpers’ so people can drink it instead.”

“And where’s the baby?”

“They put the baby in its own separate little hutch.”

“By self?”

I nodded. Olivia got quiet.

“How do you feel?” I asked.

“Really sad,” she said.

“Yeah,” I replied. “It is.”

I remember, as a child, being presented with a glass of milk and instinctively reacting with repulsion, but feeling something was wrong with me. Wasn’t I supposed to like this stuff, at least if it had chocolate in it? Didn’t my body need it for healthy bones? (Propaganda!)

My early 20s saw barely the dawn of soy milk at Starbucks. Eighteen years later, almond, oat, macadamia, and hemp are café menu staples and cashew-based cheeses are a far cry from rubbery replacements of the not-so-distant past. While some dairy proponents counter that almond milk is an unsustainable option because of land and water use, all of the plant-based milk options ultimately use less land and water than what it takes to keep dairy cows fed and watered over their lifetimes — they eat and drink so much more than humans. And while almond is the worst as far as environmental impact, oat-milk is a sustainable option, according to a recent University of Oxford study.

My tastebuds are awakened in a new way by the deliciousness of plant-based foods: creamy, coconut-milk ice-cream, cashew-cheese pizza, and the simple variety of plain old vegetables. I wonder if, by attempting to raise two vegans in this era of awareness and better substitutions, the domino effect can spread to the point where future generations will look back on an uncivilized past society of bull masturbators and planet-damage just so people could engage in the bizarre custom of drinking another mammal’s milk and think, Why did they ever do that when we get a similar-enough substance from nuts not attached to sentient beings? A mother can hope.

Maybe I get so worked up because, after birth and during breastfeeding, my social mores got stripped away. I dwell in a primal mammalian state. The calf is everything. Is the calf crying? Is the calf hungry? Does the calf need a diaper change? And, if momentarily out of sight, Where is the calf? Is the calf attempting to climb the spiral staircase or stick a fork into an electrical outlet? Relief arrives when holding the calf, nursing the calf, staring intently into the calf’s eyes and experiencing this connective, beautiful light. The urge to nurture the calf. I can’t know what new motherhood feels like to a cow, but this is how it was for me — simply animal instinct.

* * *

Liza Monroy  is the author of the essay collection Seeing As Your Shoes Are Soon To Be On Fire, the memoir The Marriage Act, and Mexican High, a novel. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, O, the Magazine, and Marie Claireamong other publications. She lives in Santa Cruz, CA.

Editor: Sari Botton