Mothering Sunday is one of the traditional times we pause and celebrate the role that mothers play in our lives – but not all mothers will be celebrating. On dairy farms across Britain, mother cows suffer a short, sad life of artificial insemination, the theft of their babies and an early trip to the slaughterhouse.
People know that eating meat means cows, pigs and sheep have to suffer and die but few people are aware of how cruel and merciless the dairy industry actually is. Like many vegans, I consider dairy farms to be the very worst form of animal exploitation.
Mother cows are subjected to artificial insemination from the age of just 15 months. Dairy farmers mechanically draw semen from a bull, and then force the female cow into a narrow trap, known as a “cattle crush” or “rape rack” for the brutal experience. Far worse is to come for her.
When a mother cow gives birth, her calf will usually be snatched from her within hours, so the farmers can steal and sell you the milk that was meant for her baby. The mother cows are devastated by the separation. They will scream and howl for their baby for days. Animal experts say the bond between mother cow and calf is strong and immediate. People who live near dairy farms say the mother cows’ cries are the most harrowing thing they have ever heard.
Where has the broken-hearted mother’s baby gone? If he is male, he is no use to a dairy farmer, so he will either be killed on the spot, or sold to a veal farmer, who will kill him within months. If the calf is female, she will be prepared for her own place on the rapacious milk production line. Like her mother before her, she will be repeatedly violated and will have all her children stolen from her.
It’s a terrible life for a dairy cow. Farmers feed her potions that make her create up to 10 times her natural capacity of milk. The strain this puts on her body can make her lame and will exhaust her prematurely. From as young as five years old, she will no longer be profitable for farmers, so she will be sent to the slaughterhouse. Under natural circumstances she could have lived to 25.
Cows are not the only mothers to suffer on farms. The cycle of continual artificial insemination for a mother pig – or sow – begins when she is as young as six months old, again in a contraption widely dubbed a “rape rack”.
When she is ready to give birth, she will be moved to a farrowing crate – a metal frame or cage, only centimetres larger than her body, in which she will remain imprisoned for up to four weeks after giving birth to her piglets. Many pigs in the UK are eventually killed in gas chambers.
We like to talk about “mother hens” but we aren’t keen on thinking about what they go through on farms. Even free range sheds contain up to nine birds per square metre – that’s the equivalent of 14 adults living in a one-room flat. Some multi-tier sheds (still deemed “free range”) contain 16,000 hens. Almost all have part of their beaks burned off without anaesthetic to stop them pecking at the other hens in their claustrophobic surroundings.
Hens in the wild lay just 20 eggs per year but the lighting and high protein feed of modern farms push them to lay closer to 500 eggs annually. Their bodies are exhausted within months and they are sent to slaughter having lived less than one-tenth of their natural lifespan.
On puppy farms, mother dogs are isolated and offered only the minimum food and water needed to keep them breeding. They are given no exercise, stimulation or affection, as they are continuously bred from. The moment their shattered, abused bodies give out, they are killed.
How would you feel if your mother was treated like these animals? Sometimes it can jar when comparisons are made between humans and animals but you don’t have to consider humans and cows as equals to agree that they both have an equal moral right to not be sexually abused and killed, and to not have their babies snatched from them.
The pandemic has made a lot of us realise that what really matters on Mother’s Day is not cards or cellophane-wrapped flowers but genuine connection. We want to hug our mums, not just send them a tackily marketed gift.
There is no marketing more tacky than the meat and dairy rackets’ talk of happy hens, or its misleading illustrations of jovial milk farms, or its use of disingenuous, conscience-smoothing labels like “free range”.
The suffering of animals in farming is huge and none suffer more than the mothers. There are no Mother’s Day cards, flowers or hugs for dairy cows.
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