Originally published at stuff.co.nz
Travelling through Morrinsville last week, the heart of dairy country in the Waikato, I took a renewed interest in the cow street art.
Forty two life size statues of cows, whose bodies are painted with various images and text, stood out eerily in the fading light. Soon a giant 6.5 metre mega cow is going to join the herd of cows street art, mounted on a concrete plinth on the main street.
It is as if the cow is some kind of sacred deity – a sacred cow if you will. And I must admit that I have found discussion around dairying in New Zealand to be shrouded in a protective, almost mystic mist (or fog if you are from the Waikato).
To speak out against any aspect of dairying (as I do regularly as an animal rights anti-dairy campaigner) gets you immediately relegated to the status of a traitor, involved in espionage or economic treason.
You are, in effect, a disbeliever. I have not only received death threats but also been called a disgrace to “this gracious country”.
I do get it. The cow is symbolic to New Zealand, as much a part of being kiwi as mince pie and tomato sauce. Rural New Zealand is inscribed in our cultural consciousness, and this was represented on many of the cow’s bodies. One cow called “Herd a Kiwi?” was decorated with various kiwi colloquialisms including “she’ll be right”, ‘yeah, nah bro” and even “freezing works” on its side.
Real flesh and blood cows are less of a novelty. Reaching a total of 6.6 million, there are 1.5 cows for every New Zealander. It occurred to me that for many New Zealanders, the cow is cloaked in invisibility. They are just cows in paddocks.
We don’t really worship cows in New Zealand, only their concrete statues and what they symbolise.
Yet familiarity need not breed contempt. Cows are beautiful creatures with a long history on this planet. They move with a rhythm and grace that makes time stand still.
I saw one today, standing resolutely still amidst the blood-orange sunset. At her hoof, neck arched gracefully upward, was a calf. He was suckling as the birds bid their noisy goodnights in the still chilly winter air. It took my breath away.
Tomorrow his breath will freeze. The farmer’s quad bike will arrive, tyres crunching on the frost, and he will be taken from his mother. In four days he may be dead.
Despite this, in New Zealand there is a refusal to acknowledge the cow and her calf as anything more than an object of consumption and a cultural symbol – just like the statue.
I am a New Zealander, but I am bucking the system. I choose the alfalfa sprout over the mince pie and cream pavlova because I think our treatment of cows is somewhat disturbing.
According to mainstream ethics it is not cruel to slaughter a cow for meat and take her calf away as long as it is done “humanely”. This idea is so routinely accepted and promulgated in the animal industrial complex that we come to accept it without addressing the possible reality for the animals concerned.
And yet is this “humane” argument, when applied to dairying, a case of the emperor with no clothes? Are we all afraid to state the obvious? Dairying is based on routine practices that are cruel. Calves are being born and taken away from their mothers, usually within 24 hours of birth. It simply cannot be done humanely, as cows are extremely maternal.
Bobby calves are deemed superfluous to requirements and so are sent to slaughter at between four and 10 days old. Legally calves can go up to 24 hours without milk, 12 hours of which may include being transported.
The transport and lack of milk must be a harrowing experience for these baby animals. And it happens in huge numbers. In New Zealand more than two million bobby calves are slaughtered annually.
I don’t think you have to be an urban wimp or a so-called animal rights extremist to see that this is morally repugnant. While the dairy industry may be motivated by the goals of profit and productivity, we can choose another moral framework. We need to treat the cow as more than a feelingless statue. Dairying needs to be phased out and replaced with plant-based agriculture.