In the U.S., more than 42 million cows suffer and die for the meat and dairy industries every year. When they are still very young, many cows are burned with hot irons (branded), their horns are cut or burned off, and male cattle have their testicles ripped out of their scrotums (castrated)—all without painkillers. Once they have grown big enough, they are sent to massive, filthy feedlots where they are exposed to the elements, to be fattened for slaughter. Many female cows are sent to dairy farms, where they will be repeatedly impregnated and separated from their calves until their bodies give out and they are sent to be killed.
Like all animals, cows form strong maternal bonds with their calves, and on dairy farms and cattle ranches, mother cows can be heard frantically crying out for their calves for several days after they have been separated.
Cows are gentle giants—large in size but sweet in nature. They are curious, clever animals who have been known to go to extraordinary lengths to escape from slaughterhouses. These very social animals prefer to spend their time together, and they form complex relationships, very much like dogs form packs.
Cattle are transported hundreds of miles in all weather extremes, typically without food or water, to the slaughterhouse. Many cows die on the way to slaughter, but those who survive are shot in the head with a captive-bolt gun, hung up by one leg, and taken onto the killing floor where their throats are cut and they are skinned and gutted. Some cows remain fully conscious throughout the entire process. In an interview with The Washington Post, one slaughterhouse worker said, “They die piece by piece.”
THE BEEF INDUSTRY
To mark cows for identification, ranchers restrain the animals and press hot fire irons into their flesh, causing third-degree burns, as the cows bellow in pain and attempt to escape. Male calves’ testicles are ripped from their scrotums, often without pain relievers, and the horns of cows raised for beef are cut or burned off.
While “on the range,” most cows receive inadequate veterinary care, and as a result, many die from infection and injury. Every winter, cattle freeze to death in states such as Montana, Nebraska, and North Dakota. And every summer, cows collapse from heatstroke in states such as Texas and Arizona.
After about a year of facing the elements, cows are shipped to an auction lot and then across hundreds of miles to massive feedlots—feces- and mud-filled holding pens where they are crammed together by the thousands. Many arrive crippled or dead from the journey.
Cattle on feedlots are fed a highly unnatural diet to fatten them up. This causes chronic digestive pain—imagine your worst case of gastritis that never goes away. The stomach becomes so full of gas (a condition called bloat) that breathing is impaired because of compression of the lungs. According to a study published in the Journal of Animal Science, this diet also causes potentially fatal liver abscesses in as many as 32 percent of cattle raised for beef. Those animals who escape this fate may still suffer from a severe increase in stomach acid, causing ulcers to form, resulting in a condition (acute acidosis) in which bloody fluid rushes into the rumen and kills the cow.
The feedlot air is saturated with ammonia, methane, and other noxious chemicals, which build up from the huge amounts of manure, and the cows are forced to inhale these gases constantly. These fumes can give the cows chronic respiratory problems, making breathing painful.
Cattle raised for food are also regularly dosed with drugs such as antibiotics to make them grow faster and keep them alive in these miserable conditions. Instead of taking sick cattle to see a veterinarian, many feedlot owners simply give the animals even higher doses of human-grade antibiotics in an attempt to keep them alive long enough to make it to the slaughterhouse.
THE DAIRY INDUSTRY
Cows produce milk for the same reason that humans do: to nourish their young. In order to force the animals to continue giving milk, factory farm operators typically impregnate them using artificial insemination every year. Calves are generally taken from their mothers within a day of being born—males are destined for veal crates or barren lots where they will be fattened for beef, and females are sentenced to the same fate as their mothers.
After their calves are taken away from them, mother cows are hooked up, several times a day, to milking machines. These cows are genetically manipulated, artificially inseminated, and often drugged to force them to produce about four and a half times as much milk as they naturally would to feed their calves.
Animals are often dosed with bovine growth hormone (BGH), which contributes to a painful inflammation of the udder known as “mastitis.” (BGH is used widely in the U.S. but has been banned in Europe and Canada because of concerns over human health and animal welfare.)According to the industry’s own figures, between 30 and 50 percent of dairy cows suffer from mastitis, an extremely painful condition.
A cow’s natural lifespan is about 25 years, but cows used by the dairy industry are killed after only four or five years. An industry study reports that by the time they are killed, nearly 40 percent of dairy cows are lame because of the intensive confinement, the filth, and the strain of being almost constantly pregnant and giving milk. Dairy cows’ bodies are turned into soup, companion animal food, or low-grade hamburger meat because their bodies are too “spent” to be used for anything else.
Male calves—”byproducts” of the dairy industry—are generally taken from their mothers when they are less than 1 day old. Many are shipped off to barren, filthy feedlots to await slaughter. Others are kept in dark, tiny crates where they are kept almost completely immobilized so that their flesh stays tender. In order to make their flesh white, the calves are fed a liquid diet that is low in iron and has little nutritive value. This heinous treatment makes the calves ill, and they frequently suffer from anemia, diarrhea, and pneumonia.
Frightened, sick, and alone, these calves are killed after only a few months of life so that their flesh can be sold as veal. All adult and baby cows, whether raised for their flesh or their milk, are eventually shipped to a slaughterhouse and killed.
Cows are as diverse as cats, dogs, and people: Some are bright; others are slow learners. Some are bold and adventurous; others are shy and timid. Some are friendly and considerate; others are bossy and devious.
According to research, cows are generally very intelligent animals who can remember things for a long time. Animal behaviorists have found that cows interact in socially complex ways, developing friendships over time and sometimes holding grudges against other cows who treat them badly.
These gentle giants mourn the deaths of and even separation from those they love, even shedding tears over their loss. The mother-calf bond is particularly strong, and there are countless reports of mother cows who continue to frantically call and search for their babies after the calves have been taken away and sold to veal or beef farms.
Research has shown that cows clearly understand cause-and-effect relationships—a sure sign of advanced cognitive abilities. For example, cows can learn how to push a lever to operate a drinking fountain when they’re thirsty or to press a button with their heads to release grain when they’re hungry. Researchers have found that not only can cows figure out problems, they also, like humans, enjoy the intellectual challenge and get excited when they find a solution.
PECKING ORDERS AREN’T JUST FOR CHICKENS
A herd of cows is very much like a pack of wolves, with alpha animals and complex social dynamics. Each cow can recognize more than 100 members of the herd, and social relationships are very important to them. Cows will consistently choose leaders for their intelligence, inquisitiveness, self-confidence, experience, and good social skills, while bullying, selfishness, size, and strength are not recognized as suitable leadership qualities.
Raising cows in unnatural conditions, such as crowded feedlots, is very stressful to them because it upsets their hierarchy. University of Saskatchewan researcher Jon Watts notes that cows who are kept in groups of more than 200 on commercial feedlots become stressed and constantly fight for dominance. (Feedlots in America hold thousands of cows at a time.)