Fresh from claiming this year’s Academy Award for Best Actor, Joaquin Phoenix shared the intensity of his media attention with the most anonymous of creatures—a newborn calf and her mother, whom he rescued from a Los Angeles slaughterhouse. The heavily pregnant mother, named Liberty by her rescuers, had given birth shortly after arriving at Manning Beef. The slaughterhouse’s CEO Anthony Di Maria told the rescuers, “I refuse to take the mother away from its baby; I won’t do it.” Liberty’s rescue was immortalized on video by filmmaker Shaun Monson, creator of the well-known animal rights documentary film Earthlings. As Liberty’s calf, later named Indigo, was carried to safety in the arms of the movie star, the world witnessed Liberty and Indigo’s touching story. What the rescue video does not convey, though, is how common these slaughterhouse births really are.
In rural Oregon, a young calf takes her first breath with the help of a butcher’s knife. She is delivered by emergency C-section moments after her mother is slaughtered for meat. She—like Indigo—is one of many neonatal animals whose lives begin on the kill floor. Later named Charlotte, this calf is extraordinarily lucky because she survives; she is one of the precious few who are rescued. The lives of most calves born in slaughterhouses end as soon as they begin.
Charlotte is now a curious two-year-old whose best friend is a goose named Coco. She charms visitors at Wildwood Farm Sanctuary, where I volunteer. She’s our rambunctious redhead, with both the innocent curiosity of a toddler and enough strength to smash a barn door. It’s easy to forget that this happy, gentle creature gasped her first breaths among industrial carnage.
Charlotte arrived at the sanctuary on a cold, muddy, January day. Volunteers witnessed a mobile slaughter truck entering our gravel driveway and at first wanted to tell the driver that he’d come to the last place on earth where he’s needed. But the driver had come with a plea. He wanted us to keep the tiny calf he’d just rescued. He explained that he had been called to a nearby farm to slaughter all the cattle. He has a personal rule against slaughtering pregnant animals, but he’d killed a large cow before realizing that she was heavily pregnant. Recognizing his mistake, he instantly went to work cutting the living calf from her dead mother’s body. He helped the newborn to take her first breath. The farmer would have killed the calf or allowed her to die slowly, but the butcher took it upon himself to save her. He wrapped her in blankets and fed her from a bottle while searching for a sanctuary to be her “forever home.” His unusual choice gave Charlotte the extremely rare chance to live a natural life in comfort and safety. The rescue also educated the staff of our sanctuary about this little-known aspect of animal agriculture. Prior to meeting Charlotte, my colleagues and I were not aware of how many newborn animals die in slaughterhouses every day.
Mothers and newborns are common in slaughterhouses, even though some butchers harbor ethical qualms about transporting and slaughtering pregnant cows. Investigators regularly capture videos and stories from around the world of cows giving birth shortly before slaughter and fetal calves being cut from their mothers’ still-warm bodies. The newborn calves, considered worthless, are typically left to die. A 2019 study, based on observation of a Danish abattoir in 2017, finds that approximately 23 percent of cows entering slaughterhouses are pregnant. Similarly, studies conducted in the U.S. and U.K. dating back to the 1950s reported that 26-30 percent of cows were pregnant when slaughtered. While the sheer numbers may be alarming, the finer details of these animals’ conditions tell an even more gruesome story.
Among the pregnant cows entering the kill lines, many are heavily pregnant and nearing full-term. While there have been efforts in Germany to ban the late-term slaughter of pregnant cows because of concerns over the fetal calves’ abilities to suffer, the practice remains fully legal and common in most jurisdictions. When cows enter slaughterhouses during late pregnancy, the only possible outcomes are that they will give birth shortly before dying or will be slaughtered with healthy calves inside of them. Given that an estimated 300 million cattle are killed for food worldwide each year, if about 25 percent of the females are pregnant at the time of slaughter, then roughly 35-40 million calves annually breathe their first and final breaths on a killing room floor.
Pregnant animals sent to slaughter, and their young, usually die unseen and anonymously. Only a miraculous few, like Charlotte, are enjoying life in sanctuaries, where people can visit them and learn their stories. Activists with LA Animal Save have rescued at least five other mother-and-newborn pairs from the same slaughterhouse from which Liberty and Indigo were rescued. Few rescue stories, like Indigo’s, manage to capture the world’s attention. Such rescues shed much-needed light on how frequently newborn farmed animals die alongside their mothers.
While the ethical concerns of some farmers and butchers seem to do little to prevent pregnant cows from being slaughtered, it is those same qualms that allow the rare few to survive. As insignificant as their numbers are overall, these survivors, like Charlotte, Liberty, and Indigo, are alive because people inside the industry—people who end animals’ lives every day—draw an ethical line at killing newborns.
Now peacefully enjoying their lives in sanctuaries, rescued animals are living reminders of the countless farmed animals who die every year. In a world in which humans’ appetites for beef result in the annual slaughter of hundreds of millions of creatures, tens of millions of heavily pregnant cows and their calves are caught up in the carnage. And even the rare fairy tale endings have a dark side: Charlotte, despite her heroic and unlikely rescue, was orphaned. While being tucked gently into a cozy stall, wrapped in warm blankets, and fed with a bottle, the mother she’d never know was being cut apart, packaged, and sold as meat. As we at the sanctuary celebrated Charlotte’s rescue and competed for chances to bottle-feed our new, adorable baby, one of my fellow volunteers voiced what we all felt: “I’m so in love with this sweet creature, but I can’t stop grieving her mother.” Even two years later, we all remember Charlotte’s mother.
Michelle is Vice President at Wildwood Farm Sanctuary. She also works full-time to protect mountain lions and their habitats in the American West.