A Review of The Cow With Ear Tag #1389 by Kathryn Gillespie
Sadie was lounging in the field, lying in the tall prairie grass and enjoying the morning sun with Elsa and Howie. This is how Kathryn Gillespie’s book begins, with a scene that one is accustomed to associate to a picturesque and romanticized farm. However, the scene actually takes place at a sanctuary, a space where animals are not farmed and are given the opportunity to grow old in peace. In the first chapter, we read about Sadie’s rescue story and of her past of exploitation, traumas, and abuses, still clearly visible on her body, from her docked tail to the holes in her ears, one of the remaining signs of the agriculture industry’s marks of ownership. Her story drastically contrasts with the one of the cow who gives the title to the book: #1389. Gillespie encountered her at a cull market auction, physically drained and visibly destroyed, where she died as a number, an anonymous unit of capitalist production. No one bid to buy her. Not even for $5. We read of the moments when she collapses to the ground and becomes a so-called “downer”, a non-ambulatory cow who is not even worth being sold “per pound”. Gillespie’s powerful and heartfelt testimony of this fragment of her life assures that she will not be forgotten, and this memory becomes representative of the destiny of other innumerable cows who are still entrapped in a system of total commodification.
From the first pages of the book, we embark on a journey across Washington State and California and gain valuable insights about farms, auction yards, rendering plants, the World Dairy Expo in Wisconsin, and other spaces where the lives and bodies of cows are systematically exploited. The aim of the book is to explore how these industries operate and to reconstruct the impacts of commodification on bovine animals — the cows, bulls, and calves — who labor to produce dairy products for sale and human consumption. As the author affirms in the introductory chapter, “contrary to the way many people now understand meat production as involving harm to the animal, public perceptions maintain that the production of dairy is benign. I wanted to know the details of where milk, as a sellable good, comes from, how it is produced, and with what costs to the lives and labors of other species.” (11) To answer these relevant questions, Gillespie applies a multispecies approach to ethnography, combined with theories of animal geographies, which turns out to be a very solid methodology that generates concrete answers. She in fact compellingly debunks the myth of the bucolic landscapes and the images of “happy” cows on milk cartons that as children we are taught to believe as representing the life of dairy cows.
So what is the life of a dairy cow really like? By looking at the dairy industry through a feminist lens, the author brings to surface the troubling reality of the commodification of wombs and the intensive management and manipulation of the animals’ bodies. This is an industry that overtly —and violently— exploits and violates female reproductive capacity. As an example of this underlying logic, Gillespie explains that once a cow is considered non-reproductively viable and shows the first signs of infertility, which implies a decrease in productivity, she is sent to slaughter. As a farmer tells her in an interview, “Dairy cows end up at McDonald’s” (59), which more bluntly means that fast food is nothing but “spent” mothers’ flesh, a technical term that signals a decline in their economic value.
One of the main strengths of the book is how it spells out the links between the “meat” industry and the production of dairy, which tends to be overlooked, if not purposefully ignored. Not only in fact does Gillespie focus on the cows who are exploited for their milk but she also reconstructs the lives of the bulls who are directly involved in the functioning and maintaining of dairy production as well as on the calves who are separated from their mothers and slaughtered at approximately four to six months of age for “veal”. Gillespie really goes deep into exposing what the quest for greater efficiency and capital accumulation entails and informs her readers about how, if the calves are not slaughtered shortly after birth for veal or raised up as steers for beef, they are raised on separate facilities, intact, for breeding purposes, which involve practices of semen extraction for use in artificial insemination. The level of control and physical, sexual, psychological violence over their bodies is shocking: “the bulls are forcibly ejaculated two to three days per week and two to three times each collection day, using either an artificial vagina or an electro-ejaculator” (175).
A similar pattern of dominance and trauma governs also the life of calves, as the words of another farmer she interviewed demonstrate:
“We need to separate them for the good of the cow and calf. The longer they bond, the harder the separation is. You know, it’s kind of sad. Even when we remove the calves so quickly, the cows’ll bellow for the calves—like they’re looking for them—for a couple of weeks a lot of the time. So yeah, it’s just better to get it over with quickly so they don’t get too bonded” (56).
Gillespie explains in great detail the economic reasons behind the common practice of early separation as well as of the calves’ segregation in hutches, the term used to describe plastic or wooden crates where they are raised in isolation.
The passages of the book that have a more investigative tone are also the ones where the politics of concealment at the foundation of the dairy industry is more blatantly unveiled, from demystifying dominant narratives to exposing the deceptive nature of advertisement strategies. In order to describe a routine day on a dairy farm, it is impossible for Gillespie to refrain from sharing how the underlying violence is systematically erased due to “structural mechanisms (like law and capitalism), by social norms (like histories, cultural practices, and dominant discourses), and by frameworks of inequality (like human exceptionalism).” (22). As readers, we therefore learn through her first-person observations and knowledgeable explanations to recognize this violence as violence.
One of the places where the capitalist logic of putting lives on sale is mostly visible is at auction yards, which Gillespie discusses in chapter 4.
In a heavily male-dominated space, under the eyes of a crowd that views the animals on display exclusively as profit makers, Gillespie describes the conditions in which the animals arrive, from physical pain to visible stress, and punctually notes how even the spaces are constructed for functionality, through the construction of pens and chutes that contain and control the animals’ movements and through the routine use, for instance, of aluminum rods and electric prods (she also includes maps of the rooms layout, which facilitates visualizing these spaces). As she stresses once again, “the routine sale of these lively and emotive creatures with deep emotional lives and close bonds with their families and social networks for food production—to be bred, milked, killed, and cooked—involves an almost incomprehensible level of controlled violence” (89).
Gillespie then takes her analysis of the dairy industry one step further and includes critical information and reflections of other peripheral practices and industries and the ways in which they are deeply intertwined with the dairy industry. For instance, she discusses the slaughtering of cows raised for dairy, mostly by providing information of the process and analyzing the spatial arrangement of slaughterhouses, and also comments on the growing use of mobile slaughter units, generally celebrated as an improvement to the welfare of animals. However, while she was volunteering at a sanctuary, she saw one of these trucks approach the grounds of the adjacent small farm and watched from a distance the killing of three pigs, which only reinforced the intrinsic flaws of so-called “humane” slaughter practices:
“The first pig had suffered—the pain of two gunshot wounds—before dying, and the other two pigs suffered the terror of watching one of their own killed, painfully, in front of them before they, too, were killed—one and then the other. In what is considered the best mode of slaughter, we witnessed the botched killing of one—one-third of the animals there. These were professional butchers. They were not rushing. This should have been an example of slaughter done flawlessly.”
Witnessing this scene in first person and looking at it from the perspective of the animals prompts important and necessary ethical questions that shift the attention from “how humans kill animals for food to whether they should raise them and kill them for food at all” (112).
We then learn about regular activities at rendering plants, a lesser-known industry that manages and utilizes globally each year billions of animal body parts considered inedible for human consumption and transformed into products such as fertilizer, pet food, soaps, paint, and many more everyday products. Hopefully, this research will inspire deeper analysis in the future and spark an interest in investigating these corollary operations more in detail.
A section that represents a particularly important addition is the one dedicated to the 4-H organization, a program of youth education whose aim is to train new generations of animal farmers. “4-H is designed to shape who a person is and how they relate ethically to humans and other animals; it is meant to instill a work ethic, an ethic of care, and an awareness of others.” (149) But what exactly is this program teaching children about cows raised for dairy? What kind of ethics does it really instill?
From Gillespie’s analyses, it soon becomes clear that it teaches children to erase their emotional response, to care for an animal up until they are sent to slaughter, and to normalize this whole traumatic process. This section, made of a combination of interviews and the author’s insightful analysis of the program, is further proof of how deeply ingrained in our culture and society is the rigid construction of the human-animal divide. It also shows that even at an educational level incredible effort is put forth to frame the public image of animal agriculture in response to capitalist interests and concerns and to conveniently promote “misconceptions about how and why milk is produced” (153).
The highly informative and comprehensive nature of the book is absolutely undeniable, and this in itself can have a potentially transformative effect on the readers. But there is much more to it than that. In fact, what gives it even further strength is the effective writing style and the author’s sensitive approach to the subject matter: when she observes we observe, when she witnesses an abuse we witness with her, when she cries we cry with her. She in fact not only creates a political space for the mourning of the animals immortalized through fragments of their lives, but also critically discusses the ethical issue of being an observer and the difficulties of watching the cruelty and violence without being able to intervene in the name of research. It is evident that she deeply values the emotional response involved not only in her work but also in the exposure to animal suffering. The result of this emotional authenticity is an extremely moving testimony. It is inevitable then for readers to also experience an emotional upheaval provoked by the stories of the animals and the detailed information regarding the functioning of the dairy industry.
Gillespie also explores the difficulties encountered to get her research approved by ethics committees, which in her words denounces “the entrenched anthropocentrism of the university as a knowledge-making institution” (31). She comments on the absence of specific protocols regulating how farmed animals are raised prior to slaughter; the absence of infrastructures set up for overseeing the research of animals on farms that would extend beyond the animals used in biomedical research; the several rejections received when she inquired about visiting dairy farms, especially industrial-scale ones, where she was denied entrance for biosecurity reasons, which is just another attempt to limit the possibility to document activities at agricultural facilities. All these obstacles not only reiterate the voluntary lack of transparency and of legal protection for farmed animals, but also demonstrate the author’s incredible perseverance and dedication to make this material available to a wide public — as well as her full commitment to clarity and honesty. Gillespie’s choice to concentrate on the experiences of the animals involved in food production does not, however, take away from her sensibility and expertise. She also thoughtfully considers, even if only in passing, the impact that the dairy industry has on marginalized human communities, on the environment and on farmworkers who are also directly involved in this capitalist system of commodification and labor. She also touches upon important interconnected issues and concepts, such as consumerism, environmental racism, the role of cows in the U.S. colonial project, which all demonstrate her ability to build convincing intersectional arguments.
In the final chapter of the book, entitled “On Knowing and Responding”, Gillespie discusses the next steps to take once one has become aware of the reality of how animals live and die in the dairy industry. She starts off by listing possible ways to respond and get involved: on a more personal level she includes adopting a vegan ethic as the embodiment of a different human-animal relationship; on a more public level, she points to the importance of implementing changes in local and federal policy and changing how we think about health and disease prevention. She also addresses the need to expose the deceiving nature of advertising narratives and to redefine social mechanisms of education. Her greatest hope is that “the stories of the individuals who are most affected by the system will prompt to respond and help us radically re-imagine human-animal relations” (219). I believe that the exposure to this exhaustive set of knowledge can definitely facilitate a shift in this direction. The ways in which Gillespie acknowledges the structural forces of capitalism, tradition, and species hierarchy, as well as how she challenges the status quo of both consumers and producers, have the potential to induce a reversal in the process of abstraction of animal bodies. This surely represents a crucial first step towards recognizing other animals as individuals and deserving of freedom and rights. However, for as much as she recognizes that it is fundamental to challenge the legal framing of animals as property, she does not offer possible innovative solutions that would concretely encourage change at a systemic level and promote strategically organized action against systems of power. Nonetheless, it is undeniable that this is an incredibly instructive book that can be illuminating for people inside and outside the academy and should be introduced in animal studies courses across disciplines. Having a book one can turn to that overtly unveils the concealed aspects of the dairy industry is an invaluable resource for all those interested in furthering the cause of animal liberation.