Whenever I talk to someone about becoming a vegetarian, I have to be very conscious of the argument I present. I usually start by letting people ask me questions about my own lifestyle, rather than come off as an agenda pusher. But where we go from there is another matter. We can talk about environmental impact, moral rights, human health problems, or even if said person approves of the food system we have. I do not think, however, that I have ever had a productive conversation with someone unacquainted with animal rights about the emotional injustice of factory farms, and that is unfortunate.
Emotions are tricky, even restricted to humans. We find it difficult at times to emphasize with our friends during trying periods, let alone with millions of other humans continents away, whose plights make most of our troubles trivial. Perhaps it is no wonder that many people cannot understand the emotions of farmed animals. An inability to understand these emotions, however, is no excuse not to try, or more egregiously, to dismiss them as nonexistent.
Earlier this month, I was able to travel to Brazil as part of the Comparative Environmental Law class here at Pace Law School. The class is team-taught taught by Professor Cassuto at Pace and via teleconference with Professor Romulo Sampaio (Pace LLM ’06, SJD expected ’09) of the Getulio Vargas Foundation School of Law in Rio de Janeiro. We spent the first three months of the semester learning about water law and other environmental concerns shared by, and unique to both countries.
During the trip, we spent time in the Pantanal, the world’s largest wetland. While I was there, I had the opportunity to see Brazilian cattle in several settings. Brazilian cows, with their marked humps, looked a bit alien to me on first impression. I met a few while in Campo Grande, at a rodeo. Walking around the fair grounds, I came across a pavilion where about a dozen cows were standing, some sitting, and some lying down. Some mothers even had their calves with them. I come from a rural New Jersey county, so seeing cows up close is nothing new. Still, it was refreshing to see an animal that many Americans never meet, save for meat. True, these cows were to be sold, and most of them would face a similar fate as their American cousins, but at least these cows had breathed in air that was not contaminated with their own waste and the smell of disease. They were standing in hay, some with their children, and though some backed away from me when I approached, others were inclined to give my hair an authentic “cow-lick”.
I hesitate to say these cows were happy. They certainly looked more content than the tragic faces I have seen in factory farm documentaries. Still, I am not an animal behaviorist, and I do not know if what I observe is true. I recently finished Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson’s The Pig Who Sang to the Moon: The Emotional World of Farm Animals. While I enjoyed the various stories about animal behavior, Masson reaches too many conclusions about animal personalities that are over-romanticized and unsupported, and I do not want to come across in the same manner. That is the danger of the emotional argument. Many of us who empathize with animals and experience spontaneous discomfort with, and moral outrage towards factory farms have difficultly marshalling those impressions into an effective argument for someone who does not. Moral rights and atrocious conditions arguments can be explained, but saying that a cow should be let outside because she will be happier will not convince doubters, either to the veracity or the relevance of the position.
While we were out in the heart of the Pantanal, I took a morning to explore several of the fields surrounding our lodgings. I say “fields,” but this being the Pantanal, there were not just wide grasslands, but also thick groves of trees, marshes, and terrain of unparalleled beauty. In one field, I came upon a herd of cows grazing along the road. They also saw me, and immediately, without a sound save for their hooves, the formed a line across my path several meters ahead of me. The calves peaked out between the adults’ legs, while they all stared at me. I took a circuitous path around them; cows in numbers, no matter how benign, are intimidating. As I rounded them, they shifted almost imperceptivity so the herd remained facing me. On my way back through the field, the same proceeding unfolded. Feeling bolder, this time I took a step towards the herd. Several dozen eyes watched me. I took another step, and then as one, they all bolted in a hasty retreat until they were a hundred yards away. I’m not sure what I expected them to do, but I didn’t want to give chase, and I walked on. Looking back, I saw a bull I had not noticed before come out of the trees. He watched me walk, and when I had gone down the path, he bellowed towards the herd, which then casually made its way back to where I had been, and resumed grazing. Relating this experience back to Prof. Sampaio, he stated simply, “Oh yes. The cows here are very curious.”
I do believe that animals have emotions, and I think they are more similar to humans’ than they are foreign. Curiosity, enjoyment of what one is doing, and fear are all emotions we understand, and all of these were expressed in those animal’s faces. I believe that the cows I saw in the Pantanal and in Campo Grande were happier and lived a fuller life than the cows in American CAFOs, enough so that when I saw the meat served to my classmates at lunch in Rio, it seemed a little less like a badge of societal excess. This is not to say that Brazil isn’t in danger of going the way of the United States; I am writing a paper on that very issue. Yet no matter how I address animal protection laws and meat export rates, there is very little room in a sustainability argument for an appreciation of happy cows. Thus I leave my musings here, in a less structured format, where I am free to believe that the Pantanal’s roaming cattle are content; if nothing else, they made me smile.
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