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Choosing Life

By       Message Chris Hedges     Permalink
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Reprinted from Truthdig


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MINISINK, N.Y. -- The affable, soft-spoken dairy farmer stood outside his 70-stall milking barn on his 230-acre family farm. When his father started farming in 1950 there were about 800 dairy farms in New York state's Orange County. Only 39 survive. Small, traditional farms have been driven out of business by rising real estate prices, genetic manipulation of cows, industrial-scale hormone use that greatly increases milk production, wildly fluctuating milk prices and competition from huge operations that have herds numbering in the thousands.

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I grew up in the dairy farm town of Schoharie in upstate New York. The farmers would let me pick through the rocks in their stone walls as I searched for fossils of Crinoid stems, Trilobites, Eurypterids and Brachiopods. I was in numerous cow barns and pastures as a boy. I have a deep respect for the hard life of small dairy farmers. They are up at 5 or 6 in the morning for the first milking, work all day and milk the cows again in the late afternoon. This goes on seven days a week. They rarely take vacations. And their finances are precarious.

When I was in Minisink recently it was the first time I had been on a dairy farm as a vegan. I do not eat meat. I do not eat eggs. I do not consume dairy products. I no longer accept that cows must be repeatedly impregnated to give us milk, must be separated immediately from their newborns and ultimately must be slaughtered long before the end of their natural lives to produce low-grade hamburger, leather, glue, gelatin and pet food. I can no longer accept calves being raised in horrific conditions before they are killed for the veal industry, developed to profit from the many "useless" males born because dairy farms regularly impregnate cows to ensure continuous milk production.

Once the right of the powerful to exploit the powerless -- whether that exploitation is of animals by humans, other nations by an imperial power, other races by the white race, or women by men -- once that right is removed from our belief system, blinders are lifted. On my visit to rural New York state I saw dairy farming in a new way -- as a business that depends on the enslavement of the female reproductive systems of animals, animals that feel pain, suffer and love their young.

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"As long as they keep breeding back they [the cows] can stay here," the farmer said to me as he stood in mud-splattered rubber boots. "That is three to four lactations. We get a few that get up to eight or nine lactations. They don't calve until they are 2-year-olds. You add about four lactations to that and it is about seven years. We try to breed for better production. The biggest reason for cows leaving the herd is not breeding back. Then we send them to a livestock market and they are sold for beef."

The normal life span of a cow is 20 to 25 years. The life span of a cow on a dairy farm, one whose reproductive system is often speeded up through administering hormones such as estrogen and prostaglandin, is five to seven years. At points during the final four or five years of their lives, ovulating cows are restrained in a "rape rack" and inseminated with a sperm gun that is thrust deep into their vaginas. Once their milk productivity decreases, usually after a few pregnancies, they are killed.

As I talked with the farmer he lifted a bag of powdered milk inside the barn. He explained that if a cow gives birth while other cows are in the milking stalls the mother is separated immediately from the baby and is milked. If a cow gives birth at night it is milked the following morning.

"When you separate the calf from the mother, isn't it difficult for the mother?" I asked.

"The animal rights people think so," the farmer said. "I don't really notice."

He conceded that the calves cry when they are taken from their mothers but said it was "because they are hungry."

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Removing the calf "is the way it has to be done," he said. "If the cow gets dirty and the calf suckles the cow, it can ingest manure and mud. There are different types of diseases it can get. There is one, Johne's disease, that is really bad."

I have been on enough dairy farms to know that at least some mothers bellow, cry, refuse to eat and exhibit anxiety when their newborns are taken away. And I know that newborn calves cry when they are separated from their mothers. I can't blame the farmer for not acknowledging this suffering. I myself did not acknowledge it before I became a vegan. I too witnessed, but overlooked, the suffering of cows on dairy farms. I reasoned it "had to be done."

Farmers often display genuine affection for the animals they abuse and send to slaughter. They do this by normalizing the abuse, believing that it is a practical and unquestioned necessity, and by refusing to emotionally confront the suffering and fate of the animals. This willful numbness, this loss of empathy and compassion for other living beings, was something I encountered frequently in the wars I covered as a reporter. Prisoners could be treated affectionately, much like pets -- the vast disparity of power meant there was never a real relationship -- and then killed without remorse.

A culture that kills, including for food, must create a belief system that inures people to suffering. This is the only way the slaughter of other sentient beings is possible. This numbness allows us to dehumanize Muslims in the Middle East and our own poor, unemployed, underpaid and mentally ill, as well as the more than 9 billion land animals killed for food each year in the United States and the 70 billion land animals killed for food each year across the world. If we added fish, the numbers would be in the trillions.

Gitta Sereny in "Into That Darkness," her book based on interviews with the commandant of the Nazis' Treblinka death camp in Poland, Franz Stangl, who was apprehended in Brazil in 1967 and sentenced to life in prison, describes how Stangl fondly recalled certain individual Jewish prisoners who worked in the camp before they were exterminated. When she asked him what happened to those Jews, "the answer was precisely the same, in the same tone of detachment, with the same politely aloof expression in his face. 'I don't know.'"

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Chris Hedges spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years.

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