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Governor Cuomo: Meet the Disturbing Reality of Dairy Farms

Posted: 08/27/2012 1:39 pm

Really, Governor Cuomo? You launched a "Yogurt Summit," i.e., a push for more yogurt production in New York? Sure, your press release is loaded with buzz phrases designed to please constituents, like "local communities" and "small farms" and "positive effect on businesses," but here's a few more: "shocking cruelty," "environmental destruction," "public health nightmare."

As a director of the Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary, I've witnessed firsthand the disturbing reality of small farms, no matter how we romanticize them these days. Whether a dairy farm keeps fifty cows or five thousand, as long as animals are commodities, problems abound.

And if Cuomo took a few minutes to do his homework, he'd find a wealth of information about dairy's ills: What it does to our bodies, causing problems from heart disease to diabetes to osteoporosis; how it degrades our water and wastes our grain, land, water, and fossil fuels; how it contributes to global warming; how inherently, deeply unsound it is ethically.

To put a face on this, I'd like to introduce the governor to just one of the victims of a "small, local" dairy farm who now lives at our sanctuary. Here's an excerpt about a calf named Dylan from my new memoir, The Lucky Ones:

Running a sanctuary involves first after first -- the first barn-building day, say, and then the first pig's first mouthful of grain in that barn. Little Dylan was a first, too: our first newborn. He was an anxious calf all of five days old, a sweet Holstein boy with spindly legs, huge brown eyes, and a tongue that could wrap itself around your whole hand with one lick.

Dylan, who we'd named after the musical god himself -- we were in Woodstock, after all -- had spent the first four of those five days tied to a tree on a small dairy farm in Troy, NY. Newborn calves like Dylan are taken from their mothers quickly, usually within one to three days. The farmer makes his money per gallon of milk, so allowing the calves to drink it (never mind that it was intended for them) is a waste of profits. Instead, farmers give the calves a cheap powdered milk replacer that's laden with antibiotics to keep them from getting sick from stress. The girls are moved to another facility away from the mothers who they will eventually replace in the herd, and the males are sold off very young for meat, usually to veal farmers. Dylan was unwillingly waiting for just such a farmer as he stood tied to that tree. He was lucky, though. A caring couple saw him there, managed to strike a deal with the farmer, and took him home to save his life. But the next day, feeling overwhelmed, they called our fledgling sanctuary and asked if we could take him in.

I looked at Dylan and thought about how lucky he was to escape his fate. If he'd been trucked over to the veal farm he was intended for, he would have been shoved into a stall slightly bigger than his body and chained by the neck. He would have lain there day after day and would not have stepped out until the day he was slaughtered. In the six months leading up to that day, he would be fed an iron-poor, drug-laced liquid diet in order to create the pale, anemic flesh that typifies veal. Such confinement and isolation is misery for any animal, but on top of that he would be suffering from painful diarrhea caused by stress, bacteria, and anemia. This is the grim fate of the veal calf, a by-product of the dairy industry.

Dylan stood on his spindles and looked up at me. When I reached a hand forward to pet him, he immediately tried to suckle my fingers. The poor little guy: At that age, the most natural thing in the world would have been for him to be with his mother night and day, nursing whenever he wanted to, nuzzling and being nuzzled. Instead, he'd been torn from her and left alone and confused.

I fantasized about going to the farmer and pleading for Dylan's mother, but I knew the farmer would never have given her up: To him, she was a moneymaking milk machine, and eventually she would be sold and slaughtered for hamburger. Ground beef often comes from the worn-out, battered bodies of dairy cows who are sent to the slaughterhouse around four years of age when milk production declines. Those commodities are too precious to give up to some romantic notion of mother-son love. The farmer wouldn't even recognize that love, wouldn't permit it in his mind; that way, he feels no guilt for his work. In any case, we don't believe in buying animals to save them. Putting money in those pockets means we become part of the problem. He'd just turn around and use our funds to buy two or three scared little girl calves, themselves torn away from their own mothers, to start the cycle over again. Still, I know animals saved from a horrifying death could care less how the rescue happened. I know I would want to be bought if it would save my life. Their lives are as precious to them as ours are to us.

I readied a two-liter bottle of milk replacer and stood beside him in his pen, hopeful that the suckling would calm him. But what I thought would be a sweet, gentle, memorable moment turned out to be me holding on for dear life as his powerful sucking action almost ripped the bottle out of my hands. It took all I had to hold the bottle still. Talk about excitement! His tail spun around like a lopsided propeller as he pushed and sucked with all his might. Just like that, the milk was gone.

Looking for more, he rooted and pushed against my belly, my hip, and then my butt, smearing my clothes with milky drool. When he realized there wasn't any more, he started frolicking, skinny legs tangling up. I rolled a big red rubber ball over to him, a horse toy the pigs loved to play with. He wobbled over to snuffle it, cocking his head with curiosity, and in so doing he accidentally moved it forward. Whoa -- the game was on! He ran after the ball, stumbling over it with his top-heavy body, kicking his back legs in the air. As soon as that moment came, it was gone again, just like it would be with a child. He lost interest completely. Realizing that his belly was full and his eyes now heavy, he knelt down, front knees then back, and curled his legs underneath him. He squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed his face in the deep grass, then passed out.

I can't think of anything that makes me happier than seeing an animal's contentment, witnessing a creature allowed to be who he wants to be in the world -- and at peace.

Excerpted from THE LUCKY ONES by Jenny Brown with Gretchen Primack. Copyright (c) 2012 by Jenny Brown with Gretchen Primack. Reprinted by arrangement with Avery, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.

 
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