What you’ve just seen in the video above is the disposal of the skinned heads of dairy cow mothers. Their heads have been painted to indicate that they are Specified Risk Material, or SRM. In order to reduce the risk of “mad cow disease,” laws in the US, UK, Canada and Europe require disposal of certain parts of slaughtered cows, including the skull, brain, trigeminal nerves, eyes, tonsils, spinal cord and spinal cord nerves of cattle aged 30 months or older; and the distal ileum (portion of the small intestine) of cattle of all ages.
The dairy cows whose heads are being dumped died at a slaughterhouse that kills around 50 dairy cows a day; cows who are still quite young, as are nearly all dairy cows when they are sent to slaughter after 3 to 5 years of producing unnaturally high rates of milk that their worn out bodies can no longer sustain. Although they could live many more years, well into their twenties, dairy cows are killed as soon as their milk production slows down. In the U.S. alone, we slaughter 3 million young dairy cows every year (more than 8,000 per day), and turn some 700,000 of their male calves into veal.
As uniquely grisly as these images are, it’s important to realize that even in the best of circumstances, under the most humane labels, the dairy industry is an inherently violent and destructive industry, no matter how small, local, family-run or organic the farm. I recently spoke with an organic dairy farmer whose farm last year was recognized by the Humane Society of the United States with their “humane dairy” endorsement, and whose dairy products boast the prestigious Animal Welfare Approved label, which carries with it the most rigorous animal welfare certification standards in the country.
Yet despite all the accolades, calves born on this exemplary dairy farm are separated from their mothers at birth just as they are on nearly all dairy farms, small or large; taking calves away from their mothers (in order for humans to take their milk) is a universal dairying practice. I asked the farmer if the mothers get upset when their babies are taken. “Yes they do. Cows have a full range of emotions just like humans do. They look around, they’re agitated, get upset, cry, but most are usually okay after about a week.”
I asked what happens to calves born male on the farm. Are they sold for veal like most male dairy calves? Yes, he told me, his organic dairy farm has two primary markets for their male calves. One is the “humanely raised,” “suckled veal” market: “They graze and are not in crates, and they are killed at around 4 months of age,” the farmer said. The other market for his male dairy calves is the muslim community there, who want them for halal slaughter. I cringed, imagining calves having their throats slit while still fully conscious. He assured me no, the calves are shot point blank in the head. “They do it right here on our farm.”
This was supposed to make me feel better. It didn’t. My mental imagery shifted to the beautiful, unsuspecting faces of trusting calves, their soulful eyes, their long eyelashes, their brains blown out while the milk their mothers made to feed them (baby food for baby calves) is being churned into “ethical” Artisan Cheese for adult humans.
This isn’t humane. It’s obscene.
But let’s go back to those Specified Risk Material heads.
One of the first poems that I ever loved was a poem called Archaic Torso of Apollo. (1) In it, the poet contemplates a Greek statue, one of those chilly white headless and limbless marble sculptures, a lifeless relic — only not lifeless, says the poet, not lifeless, but full of the life it still refers to, the once living being vitally recalled in this cold fragment’s inescapable gaze.
So it is for me with the eye of this cow.
Whose eye was this?
Was it hers?
Was it hers?
Was it hers?
Was it hers?
Was it hers.
Was it hers.
After enduring forced impregnation year after year to keep them lactating at maximum yields; after enduring their babies taken from them birth after birth (9 months gestation, just like us); after nearly their entire lived existence in a state of bereft motherhood; dairy cows endure a violent, terrifying slaughter after which their skin is ripped from their bodies and turned into leather.
Their heads are designated Specified Risk Material and incinerated.
I would like to specify a Far Graver Risk.
I would like to assert the greater risk is the one posed to our integrity when we demand the products of a practice opposed to our deepest values; and the risk posed to our hearts by our needless participation in an industry based, at its core, on the exploitation and destruction of motherhood.
(1) ARCHAIC TORSO OF APOLLO
by Rainer Maria Rilke
We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.
Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.