Breaking the Mother-Calf Bond: The Untold Story of Milk

I grew up, like almost everyone else I know, never questioning what my parents and friends’ parents fed us. And when I eventually went off on my own to college, it still never occurred to me to question the glaring ethical implications of a diet heavy in dairy products. And even after I became a vegetarian in my 30s which I attributed to my deepening connection with yoga, I still never thought to question or connect the lives of countless dairy cows and their young with my food choices.

Not until my mid-40s did I finally wake up to the many appalling facts behind dairy farming, most notably, the inherently cruel and forceful separation of a mother cow and her newborn — an unavoidable consequence of dairy farming in countries across the world. It is no wonder to me now why society hid and continues to hide this ugly truth behind caricatures of happy cows designed to protect children and even mature adults from the truth. This vortex of denial is not only a tragedy for the animals involved; it exposes a cognitive dissonance, an unhealthy disconnect from our most fundamental values of kindness, respect, justice and equal consideration that we hold very dear.

The first step in breaking the power of this denial is to witness the truth from the animal’s point of view. This French video clip (an excerpt form a new documentary by French filmmaker Beatrice Limare called “Adieu, veau, vache, cochon, couvée“) depicts that breaking of the bond between a dairy cow and her newborn calf. There is no physical violence, blood or gore here. Just something perhaps far worse: the psychological anguish of the deepest bond imaginable in the mammalian world: the bond of a mother and child.

The studies I came across recently in Psychology Today from bioethicist and writer Jessica Pierce, Ph.D indicate that humans and non human animals choose physical pain over psychological pain when forced to choose, suggesting that emotional pain is far more difficult to deal with. But what some learn from scientific study, we can just as easily observe for ourselves by watching this 2-minute video. The facial expressions; the mother cow running after the truck carrying her stolen baby; the confused and frightened calf, peering out the truck window at his mother. These all clearly confirm the scientific findings that measure chemicals in the brain. Did we ever really believe that maternal affection was unique to human mothers? Probably not, but the propaganda was powerful while the reality was stifled.

And yet the most important question for me is what we do with this knowledge once we have it. Do we go back and hide in that closet of denial or do we act on the new knowledge?

When we think of dairy products, the most poignant symbol behind them should be this breaking of a family bond. We’ll know that we’ve moved beyond our collective denial when this truth is present in our minds and replaces the shallow experience of our taste buds. The latter is that infantile, caricature-like side of our brain talking, the one scripted by a lifetime of marketing, manipulating us into believing the lie that cows are happy and their milk makes us strong.

And ultimately the higher faculties of our brain that foster our respect for that bond will conquer the mundane and mechanical cravings that imprison our taste buds. The moral reasoning that makes us uniquely human is our call to action to protect those more vulnerable than us and leave them unharmed. The process begins by looking closely at how we fill our plates.


Check out our Guide to Going Dairy Free for tips, recipes and some remarkable plant-based dairy alternatives (milks, cheeses, yogurts and more) that will make your transition to dairy-free easier, happier, and more delicious.

Learn more about the cruelty inherent in all dairy production, even on small and so-called humane farms.

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About Robert Grillo

Robert Grillo is the director of Free from Harm which he founded in 2009 to expose the food industry’s exploitation of animals and foster greater empathy for farmed animals. As an activist, author and speaker, Grillo focuses awareness on the animal’s experience and point of view, drawing on insights from sociology, psychology, popular culture, ethics and social justice to bridge the gap between humans and other animals. As a marketing communications professional for over 20 years, Grillo has worked on large food industry accounts where he acquired a behind-the-scenes perspective on food branding and marketing. His new book, Farm to Fable: The Fictions of Our Animal Consuming Culture, reveals how popular culture uses a variety of fictions that condition us to consume animal products and perpetuate fasle perceptions of animals that make us feel better about exploiting them


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  17. As an Indian, I had this romantic notion of cows being treated well, with milk taken from them only after the calf has finished drinking as prescribed in the Vedas. But this is not what happens, even in the remote villages of India. The poor calf gets nothing – all the milk is extracted for human consumption. While the calf is not separated from his mother, the calf only gets to start the lactation process before he is pulled away forcibly and tied in front of the mother so that she can lick him while she is milked by a human. After the human has extracted the last drop of milk, the calf is untied and allowed to suckle so that it sends a message to the mother that she is not producing enough milk.

    I watched this scene unfold in a village in Rajasthan and I found it outrageous and truly disgusting and I quit drinking milk soon after.

  18. Ces sales crétins qui ont leur compte en banque pour dieu n’ont pas plus d’âme humaine envers leurs vaches que les chasseurs espagnols envers leurs chiens.

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