I’m ashamed. It’s not a shallow shame, like when you forget your spouse’s birthday. It’s a deep shame. A shame that nags at you after you realize you could’ve done more, but didn’t.

When I was in my twenties, I became aware of the plight of calves raised for veal on factory farms. Pictures of young cows confined in wooden crates, unable to lie down, sickened me. I later learned that most chickens, turkeys, pigs and cows are horribly mistreated during their short lives on factory farms before being slaughtered to satisfy somebody’s palate.

Watching Food, Inc.

Food Inc movie posterI gradually became vegetarian and proclaimed that I wouldn’t eat anything that had a face. I was doing my part, I thought, to challenge the appalling meat industry, and I slept easier for it—until I watched Food, Inc.

Who would’ve thought I’d need a box of tissues to get through a documentary about America’s corporate food system? My eyes welled up with tears as I watched merciless farm workers grab live birds by the legs and toss them like bags of trash. Hundreds of downy yellow chicks rolled on conveyor belts as if they were automobile parts. Cattle were beaten and prodded into submission. Forklift operators scooped up dairy cows that were too weak to stand, so they could be sent off to slaughter. Suddenly, not eating meat didn’t seem like enough.

Buy local and organic was one of the film’s messages. I restricted my daily yogurt regimen to organic brands and purchased milk in nostalgic glass bottles from a local dairy. I bought pricey pasture-raised eggs produced by chickens that supposedly live outside and do what chickens are meant to do: sun themselves, scratch for food and take dust baths. I felt better about myself—until I met Jenny Brown.

Meeting Jenny Brown

One day, an ad in the Sunday newspaper caught my eye. Jenny Brown, author of The Lucky Ones: My Passionate Fight for Farm Animals, was scheduled to speak at a local bookstore. I’d never heard of Jenny, but after my cry-fest during Food, Inc., the title of her book grabbed me.

Jenny, an animal rights activist and co-founder of Woodstock Farm Sanctuary in High Falls, New York, is a petite brunette with a wide smile. She talked about the childhood cancer that claimed her right leg, below the knee, when she was 10 years old. Then, she wasted no time getting to her life’s mission: farm animal welfare. “Cancer was a blip in my life compared with what I have ahead of me,” she says in her book.

Jenny had me captivated for two hours, and I could’ve easily listened to her for two more. She talked about her first cat, Boogie, who helped her realize that animals are capable of complex emotions; her discovery, in college, that animals raised for food are horrifically mistreated; and how she and her husband founded the animal sanctuary that’s now home to hundreds of rescued farm animals.

Every dollar we spend on animal foods produced in a factory farm environment sends the message that we support a system that practices abuse.

Jenny’s message throughout her talk was that we must fight for helpless, abused farm animals, primarily by reducing our consumption of animal products and educating and encouraging others so that they do the same. It’s a matter of supply and demand. Every dollar we spend on animal foods produced in a factory farm environment sends the message that we support a system that practices abuse.

Milk, cheese and eggs passed my “did it have a face” test, so I thought there was no harm in consuming them. For years, I gulped down a gallon of milk each week. Yogurt was my daily mid-morning snack, and cheese sandwiches were a mainstay in my brown-bag lunches. Who knows how many eggs I ingested in the form of baked goods? But I never made the connection.

The plight of calves

cow with calves in pastureJenny told us how newborn calves of dairy cows are taken from their mothers one to three days after birth. The farmer makes his or her money per gallon (or litre) of milk, so allowing calves to drink their mother’s milk wastes profits. Instead, calves are given a cheap powdered milk replacement that’s laden with antibiotics to keep them from getting sick because of stress. The girls, who will eventually replace their mothers in the herd, are moved to another facility. The males are sold very young, usually to veal farmers, for their meat.

Oh, my god. In all the years I’d been vegetarian, I’d never realized that male calves born to milk cows are the calves that become someone’s veal dinner. The dairy industry drives the veal industry that led me to become vegetarian. And I’d been blindly consuming dairy products all along!

How could I have been so ignorant, for so many years?! The shame engulfed me, and has been with me ever since.

As horrible as life is for animals raised for meat on factory farms, the misery of milk cows and hens used within the corporate dairy and egg industries is worse. Treated like commercial machines, pumping out milk and eggs at an unnatural rate, the animals suffer longer than their counterparts raised for meat.

According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) website, bovine growth hormones, unnatural diets and selective breeding for massive milk production force today’s dairy cows to produce 10 times more milk than cows who lived a few decades ago. Milk cows are artificially inseminated and spend most of their lives pregnant. They suffer from mastitis, a painful bacterial infection that causes a cow’s udders to swell; surgical mutilation without painkillers, such as tail docking and dehorning; and the separation of mother and baby.

Egg-laying hens

The ASPCA website also says that most egg-laying hens in the United States live in long, windowless sheds where up to 10 hens are packed together in one wire cage that’s approximately the size of a file drawer. A portion of each hen’s beak is burned or sliced off (known as debeaking), without painkillers, to lessen the fighting that erupts because the birds are forced into such tight quarters.

Sadly, even farms that promote cage-free or free-range hens keep the birds in overcrowded henhouses and practice debeaking. And most egg producers, even those that label their hens as pasture-raised, have chicks delivered from a hatchery through the mail. No food or water is provided while the chicks are in transit. Millions of baby birds are dead when they reach their destinations.

In my half-century of living, there hasn’t been much that has stirred passion in me. But Jenny’s talk roused something in me that I’d never experienced before. It was anger, pity and helplessness rolled together with the nagging feeling that I’d been contributing to something terribly wrong for a long time.

Going vegan

I walked in the door after Jenny’s talk, and announced that I’d stop supporting the dairy and egg industries. The decision was that quick.

After decades of ignorance, I’ve largely transitioned to a plant-based diet. No longer a passive vegetarian, I’m trying to educate others about the appalling level of animal cruelty within our food system.

At times, fighting such powerful mega-corporations makes me feel small and helpless. But every day, more people are joining the plant-based movement, which gives me hope that farm animal abuse can be abolished and some of the “kind” can be returned to “humankind.”

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by Barbara A. Page

image: 1. Pixabay 2. MikeCriss Blog – Food Inc via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) 3. Egg laying hens (chickens) in a factory farm battery cage by Compassion Over Killing (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia Commons