The sun was beginning to rise, bright and clear, into the cloudless sky, as we loaded our cases into the car that morning; it was a perfect day for a road trip. My husband and I were excited to be driving from Auckland to Wellington on that spring day. Spending eight or nine hours in the car was not a problem for us; the spectacularly diverse New Zealand scenery on the state highway always made it an enjoyable trip.
We whizzed southward on the motorway, enjoying our freedom, as we watched the northbound commuter traffic crawling into Auckland city. Humming along to stereo music, we descended the Bombay Hills and entered the misty Waikato region. Through the fog we glimpsed dairy cows plodding home to their paddocks from the milking sheds. We drove on, and, as the mist lifted, the Waikato revealed to us the fresh, lush spring growth it is famous for.
Mid-morning and we paused to paddle our feet in the crisp, cool, and beautifully clear waters of Lake Taupo. The sun sparkled magically on the water, and ducks waddled up to see if we had anything for them to eat.
Our ears popped as we wound up through the bush and onto the Central Plateau. The hardy alpine plants growing in this wild landscape gave evidence of the harsh climate. Snow still sat in shady corners, despite the spring sunshine. The mountains themselves rose majestically off the plain, still cloaked with snow, like three ancient sentinels guarding the region. To marvel at their beauty, we stopped in Waiouru and munched on tasty home-made vegetarian quiche. Despite the brilliant sunshine, a chilly breeze had sprung up, which cooled our faces and hands.
Continuing on, we entered the Rangitikei region with its flattopped hills and steep ravines. Fluffy white sheep dotted the steep green hillsides, in picture-postcard fashion.
By mid-afternoon the long, straight roads of the fertile Manawatu plains stretched out ahead of us. Small towns and serene farms drifted past, and making good time, we decided to get out and stretch our legs. We pulled over, but as soon as we opened our doors, a freezing wind bit at us and convinced us to stay in the car.
Up ahead, in a roadside paddock, stood a cow. She appeared to have a wet plastic bag attached to her backside. We both looked more carefully and realised that she had just given birth, and what we could see was the afterbirth. We looked at each other. Both of us were eager to witness the first few moments of a new life and the loving bond develop between mother and calf.
My husband eased the car forward, and sure enough, we could see the beautiful newborn calf on the ground next to its mother. Its soft white coat had been licked clean, and now it was trying to stand. We smiled as we watched it struggling to gather its long spindly legs beneath it and rise. It almost managed the task then collapsed to the ground again. Its large brown eyes looked around as it rested, gathering its strength to try again. Another attempt, and it succeeded! We cheered from the car, eagerly waiting to see it take its first drink of milk from its mother.
However, we were soon startled to detect a desperate energy in the air, not the sweet loving vibe we expected. Something didn’t seem right. Then the mother cow moved abruptly, knocking her new calf to the ground. She seemed distracted, even disturbed, not looking at her tiny baby. She picked at the grass with her teeth, pretending to eat but not really able to, while her offspring again gathered its strength to stand. I felt uneasy; it really didn’t seem natural for a mother to be so inattentive to her baby.
We continued to watch as the calf wobbled to its feet again. This time its mother gave an anguished “MOO,” and walked deliberately away from it. She swung her head violently up and down, from side to side; she was obviously extremely distressed, perhaps in pain. My heart went out to her. It was odd watching the pastoral scene fade from idyllic to horrifying, as the cow’s agony increased. And her calf, abandoned several metres from its mother, appeared bewildered too. I could see there was a problem, but I could not understand what it was.
My husband was also confused by the cow’s behaviour. We got out of the car and walked to the fence, trying to figure out what the problem was. The cow swung her head toward us, the whites of her eyes showing her torment, as she seemed to plead with us, begging us to somehow relieve her of her emotional agony.
“Is she afraid of us?” I wondered aloud.
“Maybe she’s had a difficult birth and isn’t able to bond with the calf.” My husband suggested.
I contemplated the situation more carefully, realising that it was very likely the farmer would soon come and take the calf away, as is standard practice in commercial dairy farming.
What new mother would not be in anguish in such a situation? The intense emotional bond between mother and baby is natural and obvious with any living being. It is nature’s miraculous way of making sure the infant creature is cared for in its extremely vulnerable newborn state. I stood stunned for a moment as this realisation took hold.
“Perhaps she knows,” I whispered, horrified. “Perhaps she knows that her new baby will be taken from her soon and possibly killed—and she can’t let herself become attached to it.”
He nodded quietly, “It does seem a possible explanation.”
We stood there powerless, the cold wind whipping at our clothing, wishing we could somehow change this situation, or at least comfort this mother. We could do nothing—and there was no comfort for her.
Eventually we drove on, in silence. As we continued on the long straight roads, I began to consider the facts I had always known but had chosen to ignore. For a cow to give milk, she must have a calf. On all dairy farms, the calves are removed from their mothers soon after birth. This is very distressing for the cow (indeed, any mother feels extreme distress when separated from her newborn). Male calves are sent to be killed for their meat, and while some females are raised to adulthood (without their mothers), they are fed a cocktail of powdered milk, hormones, and antibiotics. As soon as they are old enough to join the herd, they are mated (for 80 percent of cows this is done by artificial insemination). They are milked heavily, which is emotionally stressful and hard on their bodies. Every year this cycle is repeated. If they fail to become pregnant, or if their milk production drops a little or they become ill, they are immediately sent to be killed for their meat. Most New Zealand cows do not live past their eighth year, a fraction of their natural life span of around twenty-five years.
What is the cause of this horrible cycle of pain and death? I had to confront myself with the obvious answer. It’s the consumer who drives this cycle—that’s me! I knew I would never be able to relish the taste of cheese or yoghurt again, after seeing the face of that mother cow. How could I enjoy the sweet creamy taste of milk or butter, knowing the torment its production causes another living being?
The lush and beautiful countryside continued to roll past, but now, appearing stained with blood, it seemed to speak a different message. I could see all around me, evidence of the human tendency to exploit. Our desires urge us to act, and we strive to fulfil them, without concern for the implications of our actions. We enjoy the taste of meat and dairy, so we buy it from the supermarket in sterile packaging. It is so easy to ignore the suffering of another living being, when it is not directly present before us. And it’s so carefully hidden by the advertising industry.
Gradually, we started to discuss what we had seen and its consequences. The conclusions crashed in on our consciousness, like the waves we watched as they pounded on the rocks of the Kapiti Coast.
“I want to DO something about this!” I said. “How can I be peaceful, being part of a cruel cycle that causes a mother to suffer like that?”
The sky began to glow with golden light as the sun sank lower over the outer suburbs of Wellington.
“I’ve heard that you can buy milk from farms where cows and their calves are loved and cared for all their natural lives,” my husband volunteered. “It’s called ahimsa milk.”
“Really! That sounds wonderful!” I replied. Then I thought, “What happens to the bull calves though?”
“According to the article I read, they are raised and trained in the traditional way to plow the land and pull carts—to do the work tractors do now. Apparently bulls enjoy the work, just as dogs enjoy herding sheep.”
“Oh I’d love to see a farm like that! The whole herd happily maintained. Let’s see if we can find a farm like that in New Zealand!” I cried, with new determination, as we finally arrived home.
Getting out of the car, we watched the sun slip fluidly below the horizon.
Here is the link to TVOne news article that was broadcast on November 29, 2015.