The FieldPosted by Paula Mullen, ALDF's Executive Assistant on February 5, 2009
I am lucky enough to live in the Sonoma County, California countryside. There aren’t many farms in the area where I live, because the land is divided up into smaller parcels that, while much bigger than a city lot, aren’t large enough to support a real working farm. There is, however, one parcel of land that is relatively huge. It’s a few miles away from my house and on my way to work, so I see it every day. This field is home to several dairy calves.
When I first moved here, the calves were bigger and older, almost adult-size. They all had access to each other and plenty of room. They would either lie down, sunning themselves, or graze, spread out over the field. I couldn’t help but look upon them sadly every time I drove by, as I knew they had a difficult life of near-constant pregnancy and milk production ahead of them. But in general, they were currently living in better conditions than most factory farmed animals, so I tried to put it out of my head, and instead focused on the struggle to help the ones who suffer a much crueler fate.
One day, as my car approached the field on that lone country road, I glanced over and noticed that something was very different. Then I slowed my car to a stop and stared. In the field, all of the older calves I had grown accustomed to seeing over the past several months were gone. Instead, in their place, were several very tiny new ones. All were huddled closely together, some shaking, others hiding their eyes in the fur of the calf next to them. The ones who were looking up were wide-eyed, staring around at the large empty field and huge expanse of sky. They were absolutely terrified, and I tried to imagine when they were born and how long ago they had been taken from their mothers. Weeks? Days? Could they even eat yet?
Eventually, another car approached from behind, and I needed to get out of the way. Heartsick, I forced my eyes away from the field and started heading down the road toward home. That night, I had a difficult time sleeping, imagining them out there in the dark, motherless and scared. As I tossed and turned, I wondered if they cried out for their mothers, and if they were able to sleep. The next day, I considered taking an alternate way to work to avoid seeing them. But I ended up driving by the field that day, and the next, and the next. Something pulled me to that spot, and something pulled my eyes from the road and onto the field every time I drove by.
As the weeks and months passed, the calves grew bigger, and seemed to slowly adapt. It became a little easier to drive by them, since they didn’t seem as distraught and fearful. Then one day, when the calves were about as big as the previous ones, they were suddenly gone. And soon after, yet another group of tiny, frightened calves took their place. I should have seen it coming.
This cycle has happened over and over again, for the past 3 ½ years. I now know not to get too comfortable with the growing size of the calves and their eventual acclimation. I know that new ones will be born, ripped away from their mothers at a premature, tender age, and eventually thrown together in this big lonely field. Wave after wave of orphans will come here, pressed against each other in fear. And where do they go, when they are older and leave that farm? I don’t know for sure, but I imagine this “family” farm is paid by a bigger factory farm to house the babies until they’re older and ready to start their lives as milk producers. Even if an organic, so-called “humane” dairy ends up with them, they will still suffer the fate of their mothers and grandmothers: the intense, repetitive cycle of pregnancy, recurrent separation from their babies, and premature slaughter after their bodies just can’t produce anymore.
We all cringe and can hardly stand to think about it when a human child is orphaned because of some catastrophe, illness or criminal act. “The poor kid,” we say, shaking our heads with pity, “Such a shame. Now she’ll grow up without a mother.” But many of those children have an extended family of adults who will at least be there to offer guidance, if not become surrogate parents. Possibly, they’ll even have a concerned community to support them, if the story makes the news and inspires a sympathetic public to action. And maybe they’ll even have some counseling thrown in to help them emotionally adapt to life without a mother and father.
And what do dairy calves have for support, these baby animals who are also so vulnerable, who have no way of understanding what is happening to them? And what cruel anguish do their mothers experience, having their babies torn away from them, over and over and over again? When I see the field, I’m not even directly seeing that part of the equation, or the part where those calves unfortunate enough to be born male suffer an even worse fate – forced into the lonely, tortured life of a confined veal calf. It’s terribly ironic that this cruelty happens every single day in a culture that claims to have such reverence for the mother/child bond.
Whenever I have someone ask me, “How could you ever give up cheese? I would die!”, my scared, orphaned calves immediately come to mind. I say “my” calves because they are mine, and they’re yours too. The responsibility to alleviate their suffering, and the intense suffering of their mothers and brothers, falls to each of us.
I wish that everyone who claims to think baby animals are cute, or who are devoted mothers themselves, or who feel understandable compassion for orphaned human children, or who think they could never give up a certain type of food, could see what I see repeated in that one little Californian field, week after week, month after month, year after year.