I read the saddest thing today. Researchers once played the sound of a now deceased elephant to her family in the wild. The others immediately went looking for her – and her daughter pitifully called for her for days afterwards. The researchers never repeated the experiment.
The excerpt was from a new book by Carl Safina called ‘Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel’. I haven’t read the whole text yet, so maybe he does cover them – but farmed animals were notable in their absence in this beautiful and moving study of grief in the animal kingdom. So, the question is do farmed animals grieve in the same way as wild animals? The growing scientific consensus shows us that they do. It is an uncomfortable question for those who eat animal products, but one that needs exploring.
Whilst all farmed animals – be they raised for meat, dairy or eggs – end up in the brutal terror of the slaughterhouse, few parent animals will see their young die. However, the grief of enforced separation and loss must be devastating nonetheless. They will also, in their short lives, see the deaths from disease or neglect of fellow farmed animals and witness the removal of those deemed no longer profitable.
Chickens form close friendships with each other and can recognise individuals. They can also mourn. In his seminal book The Pig Who Sang to the Moon: The Emotional World of Farm Animals, Jeffrey Masson recounts the tale of Aggie, an elderly blind hen, who was protected – and became inseparable from – a bantam chicken. When Aggie died the bantam went into a deep depression and also died within the week.
Mother chickens never get the chance to hatch their young. Their eggs are removed and taken to commercial hatcheries. Nevertheless, the nesting instinct of a hen never leaves her and she will continue to follow her instincts and lay in a futile attempt to form a proper brood.
We cram 30,000 chickens into each factory farmed shed and kill them at just six weeks old for their meat. For their eggs we confine hens to so-called enriched cages where there is no sunshine and no escape or turn a blind eye to the free-range con. Their emotional suffering must be immense. [For more on chicken intelligence and empathy read ‘Bird Brain’ by Viva!’s founder and director Juliet Gellatley]
Cows have best friends. But those friendships will always be broken on dairy farms
It is well documented how dairy cows call for the calves taken away from them. A friend once told me how she couldn’t bear any longer staying at a B&B in the countryside; hearing the pitiful bellows of a dairy cow calling for her baby. The other people staying there couldn’t understand the noise, but she knew and told them why. People nearby a farm in Massachusetts called the police after hearing “inhuman sounds” of sorrow, to discover it was the cries of mothers calling for their missing calves. Viva! filmed a young bull calf – just separated from his mother because he was the wrong sex to produce milk – shot in the head (like 100,000 others in Britain each year). It is almost certain that his mother – and all the other dairy cows on that farm – hear the shot ring out every time a bull calf is deemed surplus to requirements. Mother and baby are separated so that people can drink the milk that would otherwise nourish her offspring. The dairy industry simply cannot exist without this trauma.
Most British sows are confined to farrowing crates when they give birth and are denied meaningful contact with their piglets
Pigs are ranked as the fourth most intelligent creature on earth. It should come as no surprise that these sensitive animals respond badly to the confinement of factory farms. So much so that mental collapse and unnatural behaviours, such as bar chewing and tail biting, can be commonplace. As for the abattoir, who can forget the sight of the adult pig who threw herself from a moving truck rather than face that horrible fate?
On Britain’s farms, millions of piglets will be removed from their mothers with undue haste. Most of Britain’s sows suffer a special cruelty in the farrowing crate (not to be confused with the sow stall), where the majority of her natural instincts are frustrated and she is unable to turn around for five weeks at a time. Sows are good mothers, but cannot fully nurture their young apart from to exist as little more than a milking machine. She will watch or hear her piglets being painfully mutilated – as is the norm on British farms – and then they will be taken away from her. The younger the piglet the more traumatic it is. We shouldn’t kid ourselves that this separation is anything but devastating for mother and babies and that she mourns this loss dreadfully. Even worse this is repeated year in year out until she is worn out and sent to slaughter herself. The sow is on a conveyor belt of pregnancy and loss for the rest of her short life – as all female farmed animals used for breeding are.
Sheep have been unfairly maligned as being ‘stupid’. They are, of course, nothing of the sort. They can recognise the faces of around 10 people and 50 other sheep for at least two years – which is pretty impressive! It has also been shown that they mourn individuals – which, naturally, raises the question of how painful forced yearly separation of ewe and lamb must be.
Sheep will mourn the loss of others from a flock
The massive meat, dairy and egg machine can only continue with the influx of new blood. Baby after baby after baby born with the express purpose of keeping supermarkets shelves stocked. To do this requires an endless procession of forced pregnancy, separation and slaughter. For those of us who eat meat or eggs or drink milk, do we really think that farmed animals are willing participants? Do we really believe that they gladly give their children to us to be exploited and then killed?
Intelligence, of course, is but one reason why we should care about what happens to farmed animals. However, every day we understand more about the complex emotional lives of animals. We understand more about how they suffer and how they experience fear and pain – and joy and friendship when they are able.
Few of us would intentionally harm any animal yet we pay someone indirectly to do just that to eat meat, eggs and dairy. It is a sobering thought that a percentage of the price you pay goes to pay the wages of the factory farm worker, of the person who drives the lorries that takes them to the slaughterhouse and, ultimately, of the person who slits their throats. Do farmed animals weep? We may not see their tears, but yes they do.
We can repeat to ourselves that mantra that Britain has the best farmed animal welfare in the world (it’s simply not true as our undercover investigators have found out time and time again). We can tell ourselves that we care about animals whilst we eat them, but do we really believe it anymore?
Ending these animals’ suffering is simple. And it has never been easier.