The Mistreatment of Female "Food Cows" Includes Sexual Abuse

Have you ever stopped to consider how female cows are objectified and exploited?

Posted Jul 24, 2019

Guest post by Priya Sawhney.1 

When I was 17, I woke up to find a man on top of me. I was in my bed laying on my stomach, so I couldn’t even see who was touching me, but as I struggled to get up, this stranger pinned me down. My only hope at that moment was that someone would open the door, come in and help me. Nobody did. 

RyanMcGuire, Pixabay free download
Source: RyanMcGuire, Pixabay free download

I was taken back to this moment last October, when I visited a dairy farm in Stanislaus County, California. The farm is called RayMar Ranches, a supplier of In-N-Out Burger and Costco. I was one of nearly 100 individuals in attendance for a peaceful vigil to bear witness to the thousands of baby cows confined on this farm, in hutches barely bigger than their own bodies. Investigators with Direct Action Everywhere, the nonprofit animal-rights organization where I am a volunteer, had previously documented horrific conditions on the farm, including a mass graveyard of dead cows festering with maggots.

From the road, you could already see row after row of baby calves and hear them crying out for their mothers, but I knew that further in, there was worse to be seen. Still, I couldn’t have imagined what we ended up finding. Where the grave zone had previously been documented, there was now only one dead cow, likely soon to be piled above with more of the dead. The three of us who found her walked closer to her body, and as we neared her, she made the tiniest movement, just enough to reveal that she was still alive. She had been thrown out like garbage, left to suffer alone as she died. 

Any feeling person who saw her there in the scorching heat would have felt pity for her, but I felt the kind of empathy that comes from knowing all too well the desperation and the hopelessness that she must have felt.

With this calf, in her most vulnerable moment, we had come just in time. We opened a water bottle and poured water into her mouth. My friends lifted her up in their arms and carried her toward the road as I got out my phone and called for help. This baby was dying; the farm saw no more value in her life, but we could save her. And I was so full of hope in that frenzied moment that when I saw the police approaching us with their arms outstretched, I felt relief. The police were going to help. This baby would be okay. 

But when we got to them, the police used their hands to stop us. They forced the cow out of our arms and threw her back to the ground. They handcuffed us and sat us down where we could only watch as the calf got closer and closer to dying. We couldn’t provide her any comfort in those final moments. Instead, we were arrested and brought to jail on charges of felony grand theft — for trying to save a dying baby cow. It was surreal sitting in jail for doing something so intrinsic to our nature, for helping an animal in need. 

The rough arrest had led my skirt to rise up and my shirt to expose more of my body, and I couldn’t cover myself because my hands were cuffed.2One officer said, “That’s not an outfit for jail, honey.” They laughed at me while I was sitting exposed, like an object for their amusement, and at that moment, I understood how I could be in jail for doing the right thing: When society sees you as an object, they can do anything to you. I was just an object of pleasure to the person who violated me when I was 17, and this calf, whom we named Angel, was just an object to the people who violated her rights.

I was born in India, which has been called “the most dangerous country to be a woman.” This is one of the reasons why my parents and I migrated to the United States when I was just 11 years old, hoping to escape the violence. But when I came here, I saw violence against women happening everywhere. Sexual assault exists in our schools, our workplaces, and our homes. But it doesn’t stop there: Sexual assault is also present all around us in our food system. I came to the U.S. to escape a country that is overwhelmed with cases of violent rape but found myself the victim of exactly what I wanted to escape. 

We cannot escape this violence if we aren’t willing to acknowledge all of its victims, including nonhuman animals. The dairy industry is based on sexual violence, which we already know is unacceptable. We all deserve the right to our bodies, and to our lives. Yet, every year in the United States, more than 9 million female cows are sexually violated so that they can be robbed of the milk they produce for their babies. And the vast majority are robbed of their babies as well. With the rising public awareness of sexual violence and harassment, I hope society will soon make the connection to other species whose systemic exploitation is a feminist issue—and whose liberation is intrinsically connected to our own.

Notes and references

1 Priya Sawhney is an organizer and investigator with Direct Action Everywhere. Follow her on Twitter @priyadxe27. This original essay was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute. It raises many topics about which numerous people remain unaware and about about which I've previously written, including essays on cow sentience, their cognitive and emotional lives, and how they're objectified and treated as unfeeling objects and breeding machines.3 Sawhney's essay also reminded me of an interview I did with Dr. Aysha Akhtar, author of Our Symphony with Animals. (See "'Our Symphony with Animals' Emphasizes Shared Destinies.") 

2 Being arrested can be very traumatic. Professor William (Bill) Crain's stories about his being arrested for protesting bear hunting in New Jersey ring true for me, based on many years of teaching a course on animal behavior, behavioral ecology, and compassionate conservation at the Boulder (Colorado) County Jail. (See "Art Behind Bars: Animals, Compassion, Freedom, and Hope," "Back to Jail," "15 days in jail for college professor arrested at bear hunt protest," and "Bear hunt protester Bill Crain begins 20-day jail sentence.")

3 What Would a Mother "Food" Cow Tell Us About Her Children?The Scary Facts of Dairy Violate the Five FreedomsCows: Science Shows They're Bright and Emotional IndividualsIs an Unnamed Cow Less Sentient Than a Named Cow?The Cow's Nose Shows How They're Feeling About LifeDo Cows Moo "Get me the Hell out of Here" on Factory Farms?, and The Emotional Lives of Cows: Ears Tell Us They're Feeling OK. Also see Kathryn Gillespie's The Cow with Ear Tag #1389.

An essay by Amanda Houdeschell called "The Case for Seeing Animals As Rape Victims" lays out the reasons why nonhumans aren't recognized as rape victims—why they can't be sexually abused or assaulted—and systematically debunks them all. In "Bestiality: Hidden Facts About the Sexual Abuse of Nonhumans," I provide a shocking summary about what is known about humans having sex with non-consenting nonhumans who, for the most part, are not part of the food production industry, and Jessica Pierce writes more about this in Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets. Numerous essays by Piers Beirne, an expert on the broad topic of bestiality and interspecies sexual assault, can be found here.

It's also the case that many people who breed dogs also force males and females to breed with one another to produce individuals who meet various breed standards. Because of human-centered interests, some of these dogs perpetuate physiological and anatomical traits that do not serve them well. (See "'Why in the World Do People Make These Types of Dogs?'")