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.