Farmed animals care about their babies, and include some of the most devoted mothers in the animal kingdom. In many cultures, cows symbolize a sacred maternal figure, while we call the nurturing and (sometimes overly) protective people in our lives “mother hens” for a very good reason. Yet animal agriculture is fundamentally built on the destruction of motherhood. Every year, billions of farmed animals are forcibly bred into existence for the sole purpose of being exploited and killed for their flesh and secretions. Female reproduction and mothering are constantly violated in order to produce meat, milk and eggs we have no biological need to consume. In fact, a nutritious plant-based diet is shown to be far healthier than a diet that includes animal products, and delicious plant-based versions of meat, eggs and dairy products can be purchased in stores or prepared in your own kitchen. In the sections below, learn more about farmed animal mothers and their babies, and what you can do to help them.
All animal farming exploits motherhood, but there is perhaps no more egregious violation of motherhood than dairy farming, in which females of another species are forced to become pregnant and carry their babies for nine months, only to have them ripped away at birth in order for humans to steal the milk intended for them. Cows’ milk is for baby cows. Human breast milk is for young developing humans. We have no more need to drink the breast milk of a cow than we do the breast milk of a cat. Taking mothers’ milk from other animals is not only unhealthy and unnecessary, but entails a great deal of cruelty, even on small and so-called humane dairy farms, like the one in the video below.
Profitable dairy production depends on a constant cycle of impregnating cows to keep them at peak lactation, then taking away the calves for whom the milk is intended, typically within the first few hours of birth. Researchers have found that merely five minutes of contact between a cow and her newborn calf is sufficient for the formation of a strong maternal bond. Calves who got to spend only 24 hours with their mothers continued to recognize and uniquely respond to recordings of their mothers’ calls.
“The very saddest sound in all my memory was burned into my awareness at age five on my uncle’s dairy farm in Wisconsin. A cow had given birth to a beautiful male calf. The mother was allowed to nurse her calf but for a single night. On the second day after birth, my uncle took the calf from the mother and placed him in the veal pen in the barn – only ten yards away, in plain view of the mother. The mother cow could see her infant, smell him, hear him, but could not touch him, comfort him, or nurse him. The heartrending bellows that she poured forth – minute after minute, hour after hour, for five long days – were excruciating to listen to. They are the most poignant and painful auditory memories I carry in my brain.” —Dr. Michael Klaper
Female calves spend their first six weeks to two months of life isolated in hutches with none of the maternal care or nurturing they crave. Male calves are sold to be slaughtered for veal or cheap beef. The cruel veal industry only exists as a result of the dairy industry. Learn more at our features, 10 Dairy Facts the Industry Doesn’t Want You to Know, and, The Spiked Nose Ring: A Symbol for All Dairy Cruelty.
Visit our Guide to Going Dairy Free for tips on delicious plant-based milks, cheeses and more.
At the hatcheries that supply female chicks to factory egg farms, small farms, and backyard egg enthusiasts alike, male chicks are killed shortly after birth by being ground up alive in giant macerators, gassed, electrocuted, or left to suffocate in garbage bags and dumpsters. Because male chicks will never lay eggs and are not the breed sold for meat (meat chicken breeds have been genetically manipulated to grow much more breast muscle and flesh), they are considered worthless to the egg industry, and so are disposed of as trash. Destroying male chicks is standard practice worldwide (see the 5 second graphic video below). Every year, global hatcheries combined kill approximately 6 billion newborn chicks.
Even the most rigorous humane labeling certification programs in the U.S., Certified Humane, American Humane Certified, and Animal Welfare Approved, permit the killing of male chicks at the hatcheries which supply their egg farms with laying hens. Laying hens themselves spend 2 miserable years crammed into cages so small they cannot even spread their wings, churning out an unnaturally high rate of hundreds of eggs each year without ever getting the chance to hatch or mother a single chick. Learn more at our page, Eggs: What Are You Really Eating?
In a natural environment, pregnant sows leave the social group a few days before birth to look for a safe, secluded space for building a nest. Sows are very selective about their nest sites and may travel for miles before choosing a spot. Once the site has been chosen, the sow digs a hollow in the earth and fills it with soft grass, leaves and twigs.
But on factory farms, breeding sows are confined and immobilized for most of their lives. After being artificially inseminated, they spend the entire four months of their pregnancy in “gestation crates,” metal stalls so narrow the sows can literally never turn around, and can’t lie down without portions of their body protruding outside the bars. Sows lie and stand in these maddening conditions night and day for 16 weeks. These intelligent, playful animals, whom animal behaviorists rank as more intelligent than 3 year old children, frequently become so depressed that they grow unresponsive and lie unmoving with vacant stares. Others go insane, biting the bars of their crates and obsessively banging their heads against the metal doors.
When they are ready to give birth, mother pigs are transferred to “farrowing crates” that are equally restrictive. Once again they cannot turn around, and must lie or stand on slatted metal flooring covered with their own urine and excrement. This is highly stressful for sows, who are extremely fastidious animals and, when permitted, always establish separate toilet areas far from their nests. Piglets can reach their mothers to nurse, but sows can perform none of the maternal behaviors that come to them naturally. Baby pigs are taken from their mothers at 2 to 3 weeks of age. After 2 to 4 years of repeated artificial insemination and pregnancy, breeding sows are brutally slaughtered and replaced. The video below is from a slaughterhouse that turns breeding sows into sausage.
While life is better for pigs on some small and so-called humane farms, even on these farms mother pigs are helpless to protect their newborn piglets from practices so cruel they would be illegal if done to dogs or cats. See our feature, Bacon: A Day in the Life to learn more.
4. Chickens for Meat
In a natural environment, chicks would spend much of their first weeks peeping out from under their mother’s wings, or exploring by her side, feeling nurtured and protected. Check out this clip for a beautiful reminder of where we got the term “mother hen”:
But chicks raised for meat never know their mother’s warmth or experience the sense of security and belonging they instinctively seek. Instead they are hatched by the hundreds of thousands in massive industrial incubator drawers stacked ceiling to floor. Life from the moment of birth is a mechanized horror show in which newborn chicks are treated like cogs in a machine: thrown, dropped, sucked through chutes, and, if they are sickly or too small, ground up alive.
Learn more at our feature: 17 Chicken Facts the Industry Doesn’t Want You to Know.
5. Cows for Beef
Researchers who have studied cow-calf relationships in semi-wild herds and in domestic beef cattle observe the same pattern: the strongest and most lasting social bonds among cows are between mothers and their offspring, and these relationships persist long after the calves have matured. In both domestic and semi-wild herds, cows consistently prefer their daughters and sons as grazing companions for many years. “The birth of a second, third, or even fourth calf failed to disrupt the close association between the cow and her older offspring.”
Although calves raised for beef get to stay with their mothers much longer than calves born to dairy cows, they are still separated far earlier than would ever naturally occur, at only 6 or 7 months of age. Because they have bonded so closely, this separation is devastating for both mother and calf. In fact the process is so traumatic that calves frequently become sick and many die; complications from weaning are the second greatest cause of death in beef calves. The cruel spiked nose ring was originally invented as a way to minimize loss of beef calves by allowing them to stay with their mothers while forcibly preventing them from nursing. Watch what happens on the day these calves are permanently separated from their moms.
On one farm blog, a farmer’s wife writes of the weaning period: “The other day I made the mistake of opening the curtains at the kitchen sink and spotted the calves lined up at the corral fence and their mommas lined up on the other side. Nose to nose, they were positioned like prisoners during visitation!”
The very first thing baby turkeys do when they have hatched from their shells is look and call for their mothers. Turkeys are very family oriented. In natural conditions, turkey hens are devoted mothers who care diligently for their babies. Young turkeys, known as poults, learn crucial survival information from their mother, including what to eat, how to avoid predators, the layout of the home range, and important social behaviors. But on commercial farms, turkeys are hatched in incubators and crammed into warehouses with thousands of other motherless poults. It is confusing and hard on young turkeys to never know a mother figure. Check out this amazing clip of a hatching newborn turkey immediately searching for, and bonding with, his adoptive mother—who just so happens to be a man.
In addition to never getting a chance to mother their babies, turkeys on breeding farms are horribly abused. Modern day turkeys have been bred to grow so grotesquely large that they can’t even mate naturally. Commercial turkeys are “artificially inseminated”: the industry euphemism for roughly restraining female turkeys, turning them upside down, and violently shoving syringes of semen into their vaginas.
One worker describes his brief stint at a turkey hen breeding facility in Missouri: “The birds were terrified, and beat their wings and struggled in panic…Having been through this week after week, the birds feared the chute and bulked and huddled up. The drivers literally kicked them into the chute…I have never done such hard, dirty, disgusting work in my life: 10 hours of pushing birds, grabbing birds, wrestling birds, jerking them upside down, pushing open their vents, dodging their panic-blown excrement and breathing the dust stirred up by terrified birds.”
Learn more at our official turkey page: 12 Reasons You May Never Want to Eat Turkey Again.
Goat’s milk, cheese and other goat’s milk products involve the same cruelty as dairy farming of cows. Kid goats are taken from their mothers, males are killed for meat, and both males and females are subjected to excruciating mutilations without pain killer or anesthesia. These include castration, disbudding or dehorning, and ear notching. The video above shows standard hot iron disbudding (removal of sensitive tissue that would grow into horns) on a small dairy goat farm.
“Stella would have been dead by Christmas. In late December, a slaughterhouse owner bought her and several other “spent” dairy goats at a stockyard. Like all female goats in dairy production, they had lived their short lives in a cycle of impregnation, birth and lactation. Their babies were taken from them immediately after birth, the girls to be raised as replacements, the boys to be auctioned for meat or disposed of by some other fatal means. After a few years of this, the dairy goats’ bodies were worn out, and their milk production declined. It was then their turn to face the auction and the kill floor. It was a normal day at the slaughterhouse until Stella went into labor.
Unaware that one of his purchases was pregnant, the facility owner was taken by surprise. And then he was taken by another emotion. Seeing the tender devotion between the mother and her newborn kid, he decided to let them live. Stella and her newborn baby were spared. The slaughterhouse owner reached out to a relative who had worked at Cornell University Hospital for Animals, and she knew exactly where the goats could go to be safe. She contacted our New York Shelter, and we were quickly on our way. When we arrived to rescue the goats, we found another mother goat who had recently given birth as well. We then asked, and the slaughterhouse owner agreed, to let them live too.” –read the full story of Farm Sanctuary’s rescue of Stella the goat and her baby, Abigail.
What It Means to Exploit Motherhood
People sometimes defend the exploitation of farmed animal motherhood by saying things like, “Some pigs are careless mothers and will crush and even kill their piglets without gestation crates. We’re protecting the piglets.” Or, “The maternal instinct has been bred out of dairy cows. Some will not feed their babies properly or will even ignore them entirely. We’re protecting the calves by taking them away from their mothers.” These arguments are not only disingenuous, they’re illogical. If we follow their logic to its natural conclusion, then we would be forced to note that many human mothers are careless mothers, neglectful mothers, abusive mothers — and many human mothers even kill their babies. (1)
If the existence of instances of poor parenting or the killing of babies by some farmed animals is an excuse to enslave, confine, and exploit billions of farmed animal mothers (and to eat their babies), then, since so many human mothers neglect and kill their babies, are we also justified in exploiting all human mothers and taking their babies away to harm them? If not, then this line of reasoning doesn’t bear up. Farmed animals care about their babies and are good mothers despite the fact that some pigs accidentally crush their babies, just as most human mothers are good mothers despite the fact that many mothers intentionally kill their own babies. It is wrong to exploit the motherhood of any creature.
You can reject the violent exploitation of motherhood and of all animals by living vegan. Leading public health organizations all over the world are now catching up with science in acknowledging that a vegan diet is healthy and appropriate for individuals at all stages of life. Learn more about vegan nutrition at our page, Vegan Diets: Sorting Through the Nutritional Myths. Find out more about the many things you can do to help farmed animals at our action and advocacy page: What You Can Do.
(1) Infanticide, and more specifically filicide (the killing of a child by a parent), is a phenomenon that has been practiced in every culture in human history, and is one that continues to be practiced on a horrifying scale. It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of female babies are the victims of filicide every year in cultures where the birth of girls is devalued. And in the U.S., nearly 3,000 children are killed by a parent every year, according to a new study in Forensic Science International. Of those, nearly 75% are under the age of 6, and 1/3 are infants.