Of Monkeys and Meat: The Dairy and Meat Industry’s Grand Experiment in Maternal Deprivation

06/02/2017 02:26 pm ET Updated Jun 02, 2017
A mother cow with her calf.
The Humane Society of the United States
A mother cow with her calf.

As our moral psychology evolves to include consideration of animals beyond just our own species, it can be helpful to reflect on what future generations may think about the ways we once thought of, and still today treat, our fellow creatures.

Take Harry Harlow, for example. Harlow is one of the most cited psychologists of the 20th century. Made infamous for his maternal deprivation experiments on baby monkeys, Harlow’s name is now synonymous with controversy, and with good reason.

In his work, Harlow would separate infant monkeys from their mothers, having them “raised” by cold, wire “mothers” to see what effects it had on their mental development. In other experiments, he left baby monkeys without even a surrogate mother, forcing them to spend their first 1-2 years of life in what he termed the “pit of despair” – a dark chamber where the monkeys remained totally isolated and alone.

Unsurprisingly, the monkeys subjected to such conditions developed severe psychological problems, including chronic depression, which was largely the point. When criticized for the extreme levels of suffering he was inflicting on his subjects, Harlow responded, “The only thing I care about is whether a monkey will turn out a property I can publish. I don't have any love for them. Never have. I don't really like animals. I despise cats. I hate dogs. How could you like monkeys?”

Harlow died in 1981, and since then his work has been shunned by many in the psychological community as unethical for obvious reasons. Nearly anyone who reads about Harlow’s maternal deprivation experiments today recoils with revulsion and feels a sense that some moral lines simply ought not be crossed, and breaking the bond between mother and infant is among them.

But today some are committing strikingly similar acts to Harlow’s 50 years ago—only the victims are farm animals. As historian and author of the runaway best-selling 2017 book Homo Deus, Yuval Harari, puts it: “What Harry Harlow did to a few hundred monkeys, the meat and dairy industries are doing to billions of animals every year.”

In our food supply, maternal deprivation is often the norm, not the exception. For example, cows produce milk for the same reason all mammals, humans included, do: for their babies. Yet in the dairy industry, we want the mother’s milk for ourselves, so it’s a standard practice to remove calves from their mothers literally on their first day of lives.

The mental anguish of the mother when her calf is taken from her can be intense. As animal behaviorist Temple Grandin remarks, “That’s one sad, unhappy, upset cow. She wants her baby. Bellowing for it, hunting for it…It’s like grieving, mourning.”

And life after the separation doesn’t get much easier for the calf either, especially if she’s female. In natural settings calves generally aren’t weaned from their mothers for more than a year. But in the dairy industry, the standard practice is not dissimilar to Harlow’s monkeys; calves are isolated both from their mothers and from other calves, too. They’re usually kept in solitary confinement in plastic igloos for the first several months of their lives, given barely enough space even to turn around.

Typically playful and social animals, calves born into the industry generally grow up in isolation, unable to touch other animals or even exercise. As a result, dairy calves endure the same type of psychological abnormalities that Harlow’s monkeys did. Studies find that calves raised in such isolation exhibit greater fear than those raised in groups with other calves, and have generally lower levels of cognition.

The plight of chickens is similar. Whereas in nature birds sit on their eggs and raise their babies for weeks after hatching, in the chicken industry, eggs are incubated in large factories far from the mothers who laid them, and the chicks never get a chance to meet their mothers. Instead, they’re raised totally motherless, confined inside factory farms with thousands of other confused chicks chirping away as they call for mothers who’ll never hear them.

It’s been many years since Harry Harlow separated baby monkeys from their mothers and raised them in barren, deprived environments. Sadly, those same conditions now so widely perceived as ethically dubious in the scientific community are still standard practice in the dairy and meat industries today.

Will we one day look back with great regret at the way we so commonly abused farm animals, much in the same way we do today with Harlow’s notorious experiments? It doesn’t seem that far-fetched that in hindsight, our present mistreatment of most farm animals will end up appearing in the same category as Harlow: a category of cruelty that few people will want to defend.

Paul Shapiro is vice president of policy engagement at The Humane Society of the United States. You can follow him at https://twitter.com/PaulHShapiro.

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