We in the United States have a rather dysfunctional relationship when it comes to animals. On the one hand, many of us dote on our pets, giving them all the love we would give our own children. On the other hand, there are whole segments of the animal population that we treat with neglect, at best, or, at worst, horrors that are so bad we can’t even bear to think about them.
We could talk about pigs or lab animals or zoo animals, but right now, let’s start with the common Cow.
Cows are among the gentlest of animals. They spend all day (if they’re lucky) grazing on grass or lying in the grass. They wouldn’t hurt a fly. And yet we have labeled them “cattle” and because half of them are one day slated to be “food,” many of us have somehow lost the capacity of being kind to them.
I discovered this one day about ten years ago. I have often thought to write about this particular incident, but it was so painful to remember that instead I stuffed it in the recesses of my mind where it has continued to stew, unhealed. But the time has come to bring this memory to the light of consciousness.
I was working in hospice at the time and I was driving back to the office in Santa Fe when I noticed a commotion in the road ahead of me. As I drove slowly forward, I saw that several cows were scattered in the road. Apparently someone had neglected to safely secure the gate on the back of a flatbed truck and some of its living cargo had tragically fallen onto the road.
I quickly pulled off to the side of the road and went to see if I could help. A couple of cows had been injured and were lying or standing in the middle of the two lane road. I walked toward one of them murmuring and reaching out to offer comfort. Shortly thereafter I was ushered back to the shoulder by one of the men who, clearly, did not welcome my “interference.” I watched with horror as first one man, then another, tried to goad the poor animals back into the truck with a stick, thwacking at them as if they were stubborn children, and not injured beings.
It was clear to me that one had a broken leg—or at least something hurt so badly that weight could not be placed upon it. The men didn’t seem to care. They wanted the cows to listen and obey and just get back on the damn truck so they could be on their way.
I was absolutely horrified by what I was seeing, but it shames me to say that I lacked the courage to speak out. I was one solitary woman among a gang of men intent on their task. I have had dreams in which I’ve spoken out loudly and clearly against acts of cruelty toward animals, but in this particular waking life incident, my courage failed me. I continued to watch helplessly.
Eventually the men realized that no amount of manhandling would move the cows. They ended up calling in a truck with a pulley. They somehow slid a sling beneath the mooing cow raised her into the air, and then lowered her into the back of the truck where, presumably, they took better care in fastening the gate.*
It took me years to realize that they were probably beef cows being taken to slaughter and that’s why the men didn’t care about them. To them, the animals were for meat and profit only; they weren’t sentient beings with feelings.
A few years later as I was driving across the country, I happened to notice a large slatted tractor trailer to my right. Within that truck whizzing by me at about 60 miles an hour, I saw there were many, many pigs packed inside. My eye fell upon one who was mashed up against the side. He or she had a large gash on its shoulder, probably incurred when it was being pushed into the truck. I have never forgotten that pig.
How is it that we can train our children to be kind to “kitties” and “doggies,” but when it comes to “piggies” and cows, our commitment to kindness goes out the window? Perhaps it’s the same mentality that convinces men and women in uniform to view certain human beings as enemies that need to be killed, even though, as children, we were all taught it was wrong to kill.
Recently I moved to a new area where I have noticed many, many cows out grazing in fields. Some look like they have a wonderful environment to hang out in. But I notice that others are grazing on dry stubble and don’t have access to a single tree or structure for shade. Nor do they have access to water. And in this area in the summer, the temperatures can easily get up to 100◦ or more. If dogs were subjected to these conditions, the owners could be cited for neglect, but somehow we haven’t made laws which protect cows.
Even worse, of course, are the “factory farms.” These are huge corporate affairs where thousands of cows are packed into truly inhumane conditions. There isn’t enough grass; there isn’t enough space; and there is no way to adequately deal with all the nitrogen produced by all the excrement. Then, of course, comes the slaughter. We are shielded from the details because we don’t want to know. We can’t bear to think about all the blood; we don’t want to imagine all the fear and terror. We simply order our hamburgers from restaurants or fast food places and do our very best to not think of how that hamburger was created. Did you know that most ground beef nowadays does not come from one cow or one farm or, believe it or not, even one country? One time my sister-in-law incredulously showed me a package. One package of hamburger was sourced from several different countries! We were both horrified. Not only is this incredibly disrespectful to the cows who gave their lives, it is also unbelievably unsafe for the humans that eat them as well.
I find myself thinking of the Carpenters’ song from the 70’s: “Bless the beasts and the children, for in this world, they have no voice; they have no choice.”
So, what can we do in the face of so much suffering?
1. Contribute to or volunteer at an animal shelter. Dogs at humane shelters need walks as well as affection and attention. There are also animal centers that rescue large animals like cows, horses, and pigs, as well as dogs, cats, and others.
2. Adopt a dog or cat. Or even a pig!
3. Eat more plant-based foods. I am not here to guilt anyone into being vegetarian. That is not my intention. I know that we all have different needs, body types, health conditions, and tastes. But I am sure we can all acknowledge that we can afford to eat considerably less meat, and treat more kindly those bovine and porcine creatures who have the misfortune of being our food. Right? You don’t have to be 100% vegetarian, but perhaps you can aim to make at least half of your meals meat-free. That would be a nice start, and it would also be good for your health.
4. If you do buy beef, look for grass-fed beef, or at the very least, buy local. Factory farmed cows are fed products which are not good or natural for either the cows nor the humans who consume the cows. (For a real eye-opener, google “factory farms.”)
5. Consider either boycotting fast food places or buying only vegetarian options from them. You can be assured that the animals used in their meat products are not raised humanely. (Although Carl’s Jr. now offers a grass-fed burger.)
6. Lobby for legislation that makes cruelty to any animal a crime.
Write letters and make calls to the owners and managers of factory farms, puppy mills, makeup companies that test on animals, etc.
7. Thank those who do good work on behalf of animals.
8. Pray for animals—tame and wild, captive and free.
God bless all animals. Amen.
* I revised this document multiple times before I noticed I was referring to the cows as “she.” In all likelihood, they were steers, but subconsciously I thought of them as female because they were so gentle!