Cows prefer to be treated as individuals

My animal rights arguments have always been weak (in fact mostly expressed as inarticulate menu choices). Friends still feel comfortable looking at my Guardian supplement on the ill-treatment of pigs and remarking that the bacon on the front looks appetising. I had a bit of what Matt calls a sense of humour failure at that point because I find that nearly as difficult to swallow as I would the thin slivers of pig corpse many people like to eat.

I’d love to review animal sentience and look for an ethos of vegetarianism which takes on board nutritional concerns and doesn’t seek to stigmatise people who eat meat or other animal yields. For now I resort to the fall-back position of publishing stories about animals from the news.

There’s no shortage. In The Sun there is at least one animal story every day. There’s been Ass Hole, the immortal Chav Finch and the hub-cap donating bear. More problematically (“respect for life should start with a ship’s cat” – really, start with the ship’s cat?) Kilo, the murdered HMS Belfast cat and the swans eaten by clearly breadline Polish Olympics construction workers forced to camp out in winter. In The Sun, animals are mascots, curiosities, clowns, or bit-parts in a bigger story. This would be OK if that weren’t all they were.

When the Boeing Airbus which ended up in the Hudson ploughed into the flock of canada geese which sent it down, nobody (Update: see comments) seemed to notice that there had in fact been fatalities. In fact, it appeared for a while as if plans are being made to carry out a cull so that humans who catch planes near where geese live can fly at even lower risk.

Today BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme had a piece on the work of Newcastle University researcher Dr Catherine Bertenshaw (who has since become Catherine Douglas). She had published a paper in Anthrozoos on individualised relationships between farmers and cows, and how it improves milk yield. She had to stick up for her findings in conversation with a skeptic and I see from a scan of the web that he is not alone (so that’s scientific blogging is it?)  I can’t say for sure because I can’t get to the study, but people seem determined to misinterpret her findings.  I looked at the abstract and the only reference to names is in the context of a correlation, not a cause. I think got the impression she used names as a marker of individualisation of the human-animal relationship.

“A human’s attitude towards animals influences their behavior around animals, thus affecting the quality of the human-animal relationship (HAR). Many scientific studies have demonstrated that cattle’s fear-response to humans affects their productivity, behavior, and welfare. In the scientific literature thus far it is believed that fear of humans is the predominant relationship on dairy farms. Via a postal questionnaire, we gathered subjective information from 516 stock managers on reported indicators of the HAR and their opinions of the HAR on UK dairy farms. We found that only 21% of farmers believed that dairy cattle were fearful of humans. Respondents accepted that humans can have an impact on cattle temperament, as 48% of respondents attributed a cow’s docility to previous human contact and reasons given for poor milking temperament included previous negative experiences with humans (9%). Ninety percent of respondents thought cows had feelings, and 78% thought cows were intelligent. Higher heifer milk yields (≥ 200 liters) were found in herds where the stock manager thought it important to know every individual animal, although this was only a trend (p = 0.14). On farms where cows were called by name, milk yield was 258 liters higher than on farms where this was not the case (p < 0.001). As a person’s attitude is a good predictor of their behavior, these subjective reports suggest UK dairy farmers have a good quality of human-animal relationship with their animals. The pattern for improved milk yield and behavior based on increased human attention to the individual animal requires validation, but it is an encouraging finding based on reported opinions analyzed against objective production data in a survey of commercial farms.”

On Today she also mentioned a relationship between cortisol (a fear hormone – the abstract says that fear is predominant in the relationship cows have with farmers) and lower milk yield. She sounded like a woman who had rapidly got used to being taken the piss out of. Good luck to her – she’ll need it. Even though her conclusions accept the established exploitation of cows by humans – they’re about productivity being linked to welfare – still it’s in many business’ interest to discredit her work, because it opens the animal sentience can of worms a little more. We know that the animals we farm are sentient individuals – each has their own likes and dislikes, experiences curiosity, boredom, fear.

And then there are the people like Jay Rayner who you get the impression would be happy if the animal welfare gains to date were revoked. He only started talking about nutrition when HFW etc started talking about welfare. He never appeared to worry much about protein before. Animal rights gains are retarded by people like him – I think like many he is uncomfortable with the cognitive dissonance inherent ingranting some animal rights on the basis of capacity for suffering while ourselves retaining the right to have them killed for no good reason except a sense of entitlement over their bodies, and to breed, farm, kill, take and eat needlessly. There’s a big hole in that position.

Of course I can rant and rail against this all I want here but it’s entirely unconvincing – you have to do a lot of work to be able to make this case convincingly. As Catherine Douglas knows.

Meanwhile 10 billion individual lives were taken in the US last year – and that’s less than the number consumed.

More from the RSPCA.

Alex Renton is somebody who’s seen the hell and responds – “…stop eating pork. I couldn’t do that” – by buying a free range piglet and paying for it during the course of its life.

Lastly, because it occurs to me, I was talking with a vegan friend not long ago and she introduced me to the concept of vegansexual. She is single at the moment and looking, and she was telling me that she didn’t think that she could kiss somebody whose lips had been in contact with dead flesh, and who were themselves composed of dead flesh. I’d never thought of it that way, but when she put it like that… And I’d just finished reading Eternal Treblinka.

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2 thoughts on “Cows prefer to be treated as individuals

  1. “When the Boeing which ended up in the Hudson ploughed into the flock of canada geese which sent it down, nobody seemed to notice that there had in fact been fatalities.”

    Sorry to be the one who points it out, but with due respect, you’ve made at least two mistakes in one sentence:

    1. It was an Airbus. Definitely not a Boeing.

    2. People noticed, two examples: one – Olly’s Onions with his “Jewish birds warned in advance to avoid LaGuardia” and this:

    http://bighollywood.breitbart.com/alevy/2009/01/15/if-i-wrote-for-the-huffington-post-give-geese-a-chance/

  2. Could have sworn it was a Boeing. I learn that “A-320s are slugs when it comes to climb rate. A Boeing 737-800 would have been way above the geese by the time it reached them.”

    Geese smashed to pieces by a plane. Not the end of the world. Not funny either, Andy Levy.

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