By now, you’ve likely heard about or seen an ‘undercover’ video that shows terrible abuse of dairy cows on a farm in British Columbia. In the disturbing video, cows are kicked, caned or beaten up simply because they were weaker than the young workers. After that video release, dairy farmers across the country did something that doesn’t happen very often — they agreed with an organization that would rather there not be any dairy farms at all. They agreed that animal abuse like that seen in the video was a crime and can’t be tolerated. Of course, that’s as far as the agreement extends between Mercy for Animals Canada and dairy farmers.
Mercy for Animals Canada is telling consumers that dairy farmers can’t be trusted and therefore it’s time to switch their beverage to something else. Cconut drink, a rice beverage or apple juice is the better choice to feed your kids, they say, just quit the milk. Dairy farmers on the other hand, believe that more education, inspection and enforcement on farms is a way to ensure this happens as little as possible.
In the weeks following that release I’ve spoken to people across the country, hearing concerns, having important conversations about the future of animal care, and trying to figure out the issue of how to balance consumer perception, consumer demand and real world scenarios.
One question though, sticks out more than any other — “How can I be assured that the milk I purchase is cruelty free?” The emailed question to me goes on to note that while the author understands some farms may be exemplary, “how do I know that the products I currently use are not from a farm that mistreats their animals?”
That is a big question.
It sounds very similar to a quote seen on CTV in B.C. from a spokesperson with Mercy for Animals Canada who says, “We have no way of knowing if this animal cruelty is running rampant at other factory farms, which means that consumers have no way of knowing if they’re drinking a little bit of cruelty in every glass of milk.”
A little bit of cruelty in every glass? It’s like it was written for dramatic effect. I suppose it likely was.
The happy answer is not to worry. That we as farmers, whether it be pig, sheep or cattle farmers work hard to assure it will never happen again. But the realistic answer is we will do our best to deter or stop it, but we, as farmers and individuals, can’t make a guarantee it will never, ever happen. Abuse is never OK and it should be stopped, but unfortunately humans are humans; we are each responsible for our actions and there are terrible people in this world.
As more videos, photos and stories surface, animal agriculture goes on the defensive as consumers realize that animals get abused by some people. But does that mean you should switch to coconut drink and go vegan? You can if you feel that there is no cruelty there. Or, can you be sure that every coconut came from a farm where workers were given every right they should be? Vacation, good pay, sick days, no verbal or physical abuse? I guess we can hope if we’d like our blinders on, but what are the real chances that is the case?
OK, so there is a chance coconut drink isn’t cruelty-free. What else could we switch to? How about an almond or a rice drink? Well we could, but we might run into the same problem. I’m not sure we can guarantee a perfectly cruel-free substitute. The cruelty might not be against animals, but if you’d prefer against humans than by all means, choose one of these beverages.
Does that seem too cynical? The point is, yes, we should have standards of care for livestock — and we do — and there should be checks and balances in place to ensure they are being followed. But an entire industry cannot be judged by a few disgusting individuals. Should all pet owners be judged by the actions by abusers? Should every dog breeder be assumed as bad as the backyard puppy mill operator? Those parallels aren’t fair, and neither is it fair to damn an entire industry over isolated incidents of abuse.
This dilemma puts us in a real bind. And it’s an issue that is hard to face. Cruelty exists all around us. People abuse children and seniors, or their spouses whom they vowed to love and cherish through marriage. People abuse. People can be cruel.
No, abuse should not be ignored, nor tolerated, but we need to focus on how to deal with that abuse. When someone abuses the environment by dumping a toxic product into a stream, the law works to prosecute them. When an aunt locks up her young nephew for two years, we don’t stop leaving our children with our sister. Instead we do our best to lock offenders away. We do the same for those that beat their dogs, stop feeding their horses, hit their wife and touch a teen. Why is the question in the case of meat, dairy and egg production not how we deal with the offenders, but instead how we turn our back on a problem and assume that by not purchasing it we can sleep better at night?
As farmers we have a greater role to play. Animal abuse needs to be treated like bullying. For years, bullying was ignored, especially in schools as kids just being kids. Not anymore. Ignoring animal abuse if you see it cannot be tolerated. If you think animal abuse is taking place it needs to be reported. In Ontario and Alberta there are special hotlines for farm specialists or vets to inspect a possible abuse case. All provinces have an animal welfare group that can investigate. Silence and ignorance aren’t acceptable.
For consumers, if there are real concerns with how an animal is treated, question a farmer. Their animals are their livelihood. Strong animal care results in a strong farm business.
In the meantime, watch for more animal abuse videos. The method by Mercy for Animals Canada is proving to be so successful, that activists are working on all kinds of farms across the country, recording everything they see. And while one group may want to make a dramatic one minute of video after recording for months at a time and then watch the donation wagon roll in, the vast majority of farmers are going to work together to make all of animal agriculture better.