I remember their eyelashes. Big, dark, doe-eyes, encased by long, wispy, soft, curled lashes on their innocent black and white bovine faces. Newborn calves were kept in a teeny, tiny individual fenced-in pen alone. As a young child, I was fascinated by these baby creatures. I thought it was quaint that they had their own little space, their very own tiny house with a front yard.
I grew up in rural Utah and had friends who lived on idyllic “dairy farms,” you know, the kind found beaming across every carton of milk. Sure, I knew cows lived there and I knew “milk” and “cheese” came from them. However, the exact mechanics of how eluded me. As I matured, and after enough games of hide-and-go-seek among these rows of sheds housing tiny young calves, I started to piece together a more sinister cycle taking place. It was a gradual tugging on threads of understanding, an unraveling of a dark truth behind those happy cows on those happy milk cartons.
As the winter melted away and spring emerged, new baby cows could be found hobbling about the farms. Taking their first steps only moments after being born, under the guidance of their mothers. My excitement turned sour as I got older and began to notice spiked nose rings piercing through these day-old calves. Hungry for their mother’s milk, the spikes stabbed her udders, leaving them unable to feed and bond. A human-induced rift, a divide, a playing of God, separating a mother from her child. After a few days of this process, the calves were stripped from their mothers entirely. I will never forget the screams from the distressed, grieving mothers, and the cries from the terrified babies in response, now held across the farm, shackled to what I began to understand as “veal crates,” though I didn’t know yet what “veal” meant.
In my early teen years, I became a Rodeo Queen. A rural rite of passage for gritty, yet glamorous young cowgirls. Among other royal responsibilities of a newly minted Rodeo Queen, I was tasked with judging 4H cattle at the annual county fair. I watched in awe as pre-teen kids paraded their beloved animal across the arena, radiating with pride, no doubt a genuine connection between the two. They adoringly hugged their animals, naming them endearing pet names like “Daisy” or “Buddy,” only to be auctioned off later in the night, at the going rate, pound for pound of their flesh. I then watched as these same children, while loading their pets onto the slaughter truck, broke down in sobs, viscerally connecting the dots between their beloved animal and the agriculture industry. After learning of the profound bond that can come from raising and coexisting so closely with another mammal, I met the dark underbelly of animal husbandry as we now practice it in this late capitalist system. I had to ask why these cows, with their soft, brown and black fur without spots, were the “meat cows” sent for slaughter at such a tender age—while the Holsteins, the ones with the Black and White iconic spots, those found on those quaint dairy farms I spent so many hours exploring, were allowed to live and have offspring and a herd to grow and play with. I asked a nearby rancher there at the fair, and he scoffed saying, “Spots or not, they all end up at a feedlot.”
The final straw in my relationship with dairy was when I was in my later teen years, and I was helping round up some of my friends’ cattle herd at the end of the grazing season. I saw a mysterious contraption in their barn that looked like some medieval torture device—little did I realize, that is exactly what that was—known within the industry as the “rape rack.” Bold of the dairy industry to acknowledge a machine for exactly what it was. All of these moments culminated right then and there, when I, a recent survivor of sexual assault myself, found that this industry was systematically and repeatedly normalizing the raping of these innocent creatures, all in the name of profit. I thought, Please. Someone. Make this make sense.
The sexual division, male vs female Holsteins experience is upsetting, to say the least. It was always the male calves, who had no value in the dairy industry, were often kept in tiny veal crates, only to be sent to slaughter at barely a few weeks old, while the females were allowed to grow up—only to meet the same fate as their mothers: kept perpetually pregnant, in repeated distress from losing their children, only to be raped again—enduring this brutal cycle, repeatedly. I find it reminiscent of a dystopian sci-fi novel, or perhaps even The Handmaid’s Tale? But because they are animals and not humans, I was certainly being very dramatic now, wasn’t I?
The pit forming in my stomach was almost fully grown, this pit of truth, knowing that what had happened to me, was not okay—and should never happen to anyone, ever. As a woman, and a budding feminist, I was learning the urgency and vitality of bodily autonomy, and consent. I couldn’t compute that this industry wholly revolves around the commodification and exploitation of a mammal’s reproductive system. Because, lest we forget, we are merely mammals ourselves.
These vignettes in my memories are not the norm. These illustrations of Old MacDonald’s loving barnyard have been bought and sold, by Big Agriculture, since the industrial revolution. These scenes of black and white cows, leisurely grazing green pastures are a product of propaganda. And the current dairy system likens much more to a full-metal apocalyptic factory farm (industrial milking carousels). If such a place as these dairy farms still exist, they are more than likely not the source of the cow’s milk ending up in your cup. These images are tales of make-believe, and one that I fear we chose to envision to self-congratulate, or self-soothe, and absolve us of feeling the dread that factory farming imagery can bring to us—if we were only able to open our eyes.
Industrial animal agriculture is a corrupt, abusive, exploitative system that wastes all lives, human, animal, and planet alike. Now, as an intersectional feminist, I can’t help but ask why not extend the tenets of reproductive justice across all spectrums of race, class, ethnicity, gender, ability, religion, creed, and dare I say, species. As a woman, I cannot ignore the inextricable ties to reproductive labor that is inherent in the dairy industry. And what angers me the most? Is that people continue to romanticize and idealize this relationship we have with “dairy cows.” Dairy is often the last dietary frontier. Dairy products are often a person’s last culinary holdout, but this is simply people fooling themselves into thinking that we have this gentle, reciprocal, loving “animal husbandry” relationship with the animals that are forced to produce the raw product—this misguided idea that cows naturally and endlessly lactate, continuously producing this magic “essential” fluid just for us, and all they need is for humans to tease that milk out of their udders, or else they may explode. Wrong! All mammals lactate for the same reason, for their offspring, not for anyone else.
I fully acknowledge the damaging comparisons that have been made in earlier vegan feminist discourse, that likens these systems and structures to the abuse and disempowerment that is enacted upon female bodies. Mainstream feminism often centers and uplifts cis-gender white women and those with reproductive potential. I hope that we are collectively moving toward feminism that centers and celebrates equality for every woman. I dream of a world where mainstream feminist discourse does not exclude non-human animals. I am not at all attempting to compare the experience of women, Trans or femmes, to that of farmed animals—but what I am saying is all beings deserve respect and dignity. And these sacred bonds of fertility, conception, birthing, and lactation are what make us incredible beings, human or otherwise. I hope we can identify and celebrate these parallels across species, the immaculate ability to produce life. The most basic of bonds we create with our newborn infants are no different than a mother cow and her calf. The desire to protect, feed, and sacrifice, for our young and family ties. Expanding feminism to include non-human animals isn’t degrading our feminist movement, rather, I argue, it’s what’s required for the sake of compassion, empathy, and a more just future, for all.
The ditch dairy argument is a tough concept to swallow, I should know. I held on, eating cheese and yogurt for years before finally ditching dairy. I too was heard saying, “I just cannot live without cheese.” To my defense, cheese sets off the same dopamine receptors as cocaine in human brains. Alas, we are but addicted lab rats (in a capitalist maze, one designed not to make us healthier, but the exact opposite). But, what I wish people would learn to recognize is that dairy is the reason so many of us are getting sick—we have sky-high rates of lactose intolerance, not to mention that dairy has been linked to many forms of cancer, and hormonal imbalances (human female youth are beginning puberty at younger and younger ages due to the increased levels of estrogen found in mammal breast milk being consumed daily).
I read something once, in a distant theory class, that humans are superior to animals because our anatomy allows us to look up, skyward—and that these “beasts of burden” are lowly, conversely keeping their sights to the earth. I wondered if we had that all wrong, and should recognize that the creatures who center the earth, in all that they do, might just be the ones we might learn from instead.
I share this story in the hopes of expanding our circle of compassion. This is an urgent plea I ask you to consider. This is not meant to shame anyone, merely a telling of my story of why I made the choice to stop consuming dairy. These industrial food systems are decimating our planet, disrupting indigenous and natural symbiotic communion with our earth, and to put it bluntly, this is food apartheid.
It is time to seriously consider weaning ourselves off of the teats of the dairy industry. Divest our diet and dollars away from antiquated systems of torture and destruction. If you have the privilege and access to choose what you eat, I hope you choose to reduce suffering, with every meal. I am only interested in a future of expansive and inclusive feminism, one that centers on all beings and celebrates autonomous reproductive capacity and sovereign motherhood. To this day, I can still remember their eyelashes.
Natalie (she/they pronouns), MS is an activist and Sociology Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Utah, in Salt Lake City. They work, research, and teach within the veins of social, environmental, and reproductive justice. Natalie understands our world-society to be built upon the backs of oppressed and marginalized communities and actively seeks to advocate, educate, and rabble-rouse to overturn that norm. In their past life, Natalie has been a rodeo queen, turned full-time animal rights activist, worked for multiple farmed animal sanctuaries, and as a community educator for Planned Parenthood. Now, at the university level, they teach undergraduate Sociology of Gender and Sexuality and Environmental Sociology. Their dissertation is at the nexus of Environmental and Reproductive Justice in the Intermountain West Region of the United States.