Calf Story: My Vegetarian Journey

Confession: this was terribly difficult for me to write. It brings up a lot of pain. I know there are people who will brush it off as sentimentalism or delusion. That’s okay – I don’t reasonably expect everyone to agree with my perspective. But it is my story and I will share it. It may be that it is what someone needed to read.

Next month (June 2015) will see the 20th anniversary of my becoming a vegetarian. I have wanted, for a long time, to write a little bit about the reasons why I became vegetarian, at first lacto-ovo veggie, and now sitting on the predominantly vegan side of the spectrum. I want to share a bit about what moral contextual vegetarianism is, as a part of ecofeminist philosophy and praxis. I also want to share my “vegetarian testimony,” and explore a little bit about how my faith and vegetarianism interact (especially in a context where animals and the environment are barely on the radar for most people I’ve met of the same faith perspectives).

However, as always, when I sit down to write it I get a sense of having bit off more than I can chew (figuratively speaking). For now I wanted to share this little snippet of one of many little moments I had in my vegetarian journey. It’s interesting that for many people I speak to, the fact that I have a farming background seems to validate (for them) my vegetarianism in a way my city born-and-bred plant-based friends don’t experience. Where the city vegans and veggies are assumed to be deluded or misinformed about farming practices – ironically, it would seem, they are accused of this delusion by people who also have not experienced farming first-hand – for whatever reason, the fact I have stood there in the mud and rain distributing hay to a paddock full of hungry Holsteins seems to make my testimony more valid. Personally, I disagree with the philosophy that we have to go through an experience in order to qualify as a spokesperson for it. I’d say it helps to give weight to our views, as a first-hand witness, but I don’t accept the notion that it is unreasonable that when a city-born person views one of the many horrifying documentaries about slaughterhouse practices and walks away a committed vegan. However, having said that, I still want to share my personal experiences that led me away from eating my fellow creatures. I know that the vast majority of people I know disagree or think it’s my quaint / eccentric / seemingly naïve approach to life; I have heard the criticisms, I have been thoroughly ostracised for it, but in the end it’s what I have to do to be able to live at peace with myself and with the world around me.

I often feel like I need to put a pile of disclaimers in front of my anecdotes and experiences, but in the end, it is what it is. This is just a little piece of my life, as I perceived and understood it. I am more-or-less motivated to operate according to the Dinotopian idea to “Breathe Deep, Seek Peace,” and in my life that peace is offered to the Earth and its creatures as much as to other people.

This tale is fresh in my mind, after recently recounting it to my younger sibling (who is also a vegetarian). To the best of my recollection it would have been sometime around the 1996 or 1997 calving season, when I was in my mid-late teens. It happened on my grandparents’ farm in the dairy farming region of South Gippsland, which is a cool temperate region in south-east Australia. Their farm had an excellent standard of animal welfare and the livestock were always very well treated, according to all expected regulations and practices in the agricultural industry here.

I worked on my grandparents’ farm throughout my teenage years. Usually that entailed spending most of a Saturday helping out with the chores, giving Grandma and Grandad a bit of a break from having to do all the labour themselves, especially since their youngest children had moved away. Their farm was in the steep hills of the Strzelecki Ranges, with one border of the then 250-acre property running along the popular tourist drive, the Grand Ridge Road. We’d arrive in the morning, fixing fences, feeding livestock, picking fruit, collecting eggs, and then go get the cows in for the second milking for the day. On Saturday evening we’d head back into town for mass and then I could go home and settle down in front of the fireplace, feeling that I had earned some book reading time. Some of my happiest childhood memories trace back to those days, and I wouldn’t exchange those memories for anything. I find it terribly sad that my children don’t get to have similar experiences, and try to take them visiting my hometown whenever I can make the 110km drive.

I don’t have enough space to detail all of those things that I loved about living rural for the first 24 years of my life. In the joyful experience of farming though, there was also plenty of silence and situations that demanded I have a good, hard think about life, meaning and the universe. Perhaps it was simply a quirk of being raised Catholic, to some degree, because there was a sense that God and Spirit permeated everything and that in every situation there was an ethic to be considered. My church was quite open-minded and encouraged ethical conversation, and I think I really took that on board in my day-to-day life.

To some of my family’s despair, that thinking eventually led me to rampant vegetarianism, environmentalism and, eventually, to getting the heck out of that insular rural community to get a uni degree in ecofeminist sociology. It was taken as a personal insult to them – that I somehow spit on my family’s great farming heritage, but that was never the motivation. I loved farming, I loved working with my hands, outdoors, with the animals. I loved the silence, the space and the landscape. I loved the subtle shifts of the seasons. I loved the mud and cold and rain, and the hot sun baking the grass in summer. I loved the home grown and home cooked meals. I loved the incomparably beautiful sunsets. I loved that, on the clearest days, we could see the sparkle of the ocean in the distance, and at night the faint glimmer of Aurora Australis sometimes made an appearance on the southernmost horizon. I especially loved the cattle, those funny, massive animals with personalities as unique as any of my pets at home, and I loved working with them every Saturday. Farming was life, and that life was good, and even now I miss it terribly. Having married into a middle class suburban family where the great joys are in big tvs, big cars, big houses, big meals, and it requires sensory overload just to get someone’s attention, I simply can’t relate to the way they think. To me the great joys were in sitting in a hillside paddock, listening to the frogs croaking in the dam, watching the way the wind caused the long grass to move like waves, the wind whistling through the tree tops, and the cattle and old retired horses grazing nearby. I loved seeing my grandparents, too, and am so grateful I spent so many years getting to know them well. I can’t believe it’s been almost eight years since Grandad passed away, but I know that he had a profound influence on who I am now and I often tell my children about what a funny, intelligent, compassionate, interesting man he was. Grandma is still alive and well, thank God, and I am glad my children know her.

We lived in the nearest town, taking half an hour to drive 20 kms along the narrow, precarious, corrugated dirt roads. To this day driving along that route makes me terribly car sick – especially in the parts where, looking out the window, there is nothing but a sheer drop from the road down into one of the many gullies where farmers waged an ongoing war against ragwort. However, despite the car sickness it was an incredibly picturesque drive. I loved seeing the various farms, and knew most of the farmers along the way. Many of them attended mass at the same Catholic parish church as us. Most of them were dairy farmers, some beef, some sheep, and a few tried branching out into pigs, ostriches, goats and alpacas. But dairy farming was the pride of the region, with enormous herds of Holstein-Friesians, Jerseys and Guernseys grazing the rolling green hills. Once upon a time this whole region was a eucalyptus and tree fern rainforest. The rains still came in those days and during winters the depth of the mud had to be seen to be believed.

It was a typical night at the farm. Milking was finishing up, but there was still a little sunshine – it must’ve been springtime. Some of the cows had calved and their anguished bellows as they searched for their calves echoed across the gully. It often surprises me to find out that people don’t realise that cows must be repeatedly impregnated and give birth in order to produce milk. The calves are taken away within the first day or so, so that the milk can be mechanically extracted for human consumption. The cows and calves alike can become very distressed at the forced separation. The male calves are usually killed within the first week for veal. Very, very few of them are raised for breeding. As a rural-raised farm kid where nearly every family member had worked in the dairy industry, I was more-or-less numb to this reality. It was normal. The cows would get upset but they would soon fall back into the routine of being milked, fed and sent back to the paddocks twice a day. They were otherwise well-treated, as far as it goes, and led the idyllic life of a relatively-small herd grazing on a large, well-pastured farm. The calves that were kept on the farm were likewise well-treated, and often became quite friendly and comfortable around humans. It did not feel cruel, or seem wrong. Any time I suggested that it didn’t feel particularly kind to the cattle to forcibly remove their babies I was quickly silenced, told that was just the way it has to be so that people can have milk, that this was the natural order of things – or told outright lies about the eventual destination of the calves by well-meaning family members who preferred to avoid cold, harsh reality. They made up stories about how the calves were really just going to another farm somewhere else. I never did believe them but they insisted. At the same time I was studying agriculture at my high school, too – my school was built on a 50-acre farm and many of us took agriculture studies, with the intention of becoming farmers. Many of my classmates did. I enjoyed agriculture classes, and hoped to one day go into some aspect of farming.

I had heard there was a male calf out in the covered calf pen and that he was starving himself to death. He would’ve only been a day old. I offered to go feed him, and in that patronising way the family often took with me, they agreed – more for their own benefit, I think, so they wouldn’t have to spend the night trying to tolerate my excessively compassionate self being upset over the fate of a baby bull. I think they considered it a useless exercise to try to save the life of what was really just a dairy farm by-product. I took a calf bottle out to the pen, needing to crouch down just to fit in the dark, hay-filled box, and found a little calf curled up in the corner. He was in a state of depression; there is no other way to describe it. He had recently entered the world only to be immediately removed from his mother, who was probably one of the cows bellowing out in the paddocks. She would likely be looking for him for some time, possibly for days, but in vain. This calf would be killed within the week for veal.

For an animal that can potentially live around fifteen years, this little guy was just one of the hundreds of thousands of Australian calves that will not see out one full week on this Earth. That plate of veal will briefly satiate the tastes of a human who will likely not stop to consider that their tastebuds were given a moment of enjoyment at the expense of a life. A fast food hamburger scoffed down in the moment, not so much as giving its consumer any kind of benefit in regards to health or quality of life, cost at least one animal’s life. That bottle of milk could only be produced because somewhere a cow – with all the strong maternal instincts given to her by nature – had her calf taken away.

It used to quietly trouble me but I would regurgitate the words of wisdom given to me by my farming family. Humans need the milk to live, they’d say. We’re evolved to eat it, or, God made the animals for us (depending on who was speaking). It seemed abhorrently cruel that God would create these creatures with the ability to suffer pain and experience emotions if He merely intended them as food factories for human benefit. This is the way it has to be, I was assured. Calves couldn’t drink the milk, anyway, I was told, as it’s too rich for them because it’s been purpose bred for human consumption.

I crouched down next to the shivering calf. It was growing dark outside but still I patted him on the head, talked to him gently, and eventually pulled him onto my lap. He knew what the bottle was for but head butted it away. He didn’t want it. He wanted his mother. I knew that all too well. I wished I could sneak him back out there, in the darkness, to reunite them – but there was no way I’d get away with that. He eventually relaxed in my arms and I found myself pleading with him to take a drink. He was dying, dehydrated, and needed to drink. I must’ve sat there in the growing darkness for a full hour before he gave into my insistence and started to drink. Even then he was terribly weak. I was not sure he’d make it through the night. Would anything be done for him? No, the vet was only really called out for the adult milkers, when it would be economically problematic to lose one of them.

I rarely cry but in that dark calf pen, with a starving calf essentially dying out of his distress at losing his mother, I found myself with tears rolling down landing on his little body. It was a hopeless moment. If I fed him and he survived, he’d be killed for meat within the next few days. If I didn’t feed him, he’d die, anyway.

When he finished the bottle I left him, with one last glance at the little shadowy form on a pile of hay. He was a bit more content now that he’d eaten and known a gentle touch, but what he really needed was his mother. I knew I’d never see him again. Whether he died in his sleep, or died in the terror and blood and noise of a slaughterhouse, I never wanted to know. All I know is that for a moment all I could do was offer him a pair of safe arms and tears shed for the complete and utter waste of a life that was never really lived.

Even now when I write this I am shocked at how raw, how brutal my emotions still are, when I think of that helpless little calf who just wanted his mother. I know my farming friends would see my sentimentality as a terrible weakness. Plenty of them have informed me, in clear terms, that this is the case. I’m a bit of an anomaly with the way I view animals, in comparison to the community that raised me.

Somehow the explanations and justifications for using animal lives worked for them; for me, and my sibling, it just didn’t stick. We were often told our kindness to animals was odd, or strange. But I’ve also seen that as we’ve become adults, that compassion we first learned on the farm is something we’ve both expanded to the extent that we are deeply concerned with seeking peace among humans, too. I know some people begin from a standpoint where they extend their human social justice activism to the animal kingdom. For me, it went the other way. It started for us, my sibling and I, with moments like this, when we beheld the despair, sadness and pointlessness of the way humans treat their fellow creatures; and when we encountered the reality that this is also how humans treat their fellow humans, we were ready to speak out for the voiceless – whether voiceless because they’re not human, or voiceless because they’re marginalised.

I’ll leave it there for now. I don’t want to forget that little calf, that’s why I share his story here – though, no doubt, the person that ate his little body has long forgotten that meal, and probably has no capacity to imagine that only a few days earlier, this piece of flesh on their plate was a living breathing calf, dying in the absence of his mother, while held in the arms of a young woman whose tears fell on his little body. I was so deeply grieved by the futility and injustice of it all. A life taken to satisfy a moment. Is it worth it? I decided it’s not. I couldn’t live at peace with myself so long as I voluntarily contributed to the cycle of birth and violence against our fellow creatures.