As human mothers across the country celebrated their special day this month, many animal advocates hit the streets to educate people about the suffering dairy cow mothers endure. Cattle are very social animals, and become visibly upset when separated from their loved ones. The emotional bond between mother cow and baby calf is particularly powerful, and yet it is standard dairy industry practice to take calves away from their mothers within 24 hours of birth so their milk can be collected and sold. Male calves never again even see their mothers, who will bellow and call for their children in grief for days afterwards, and mourn even longer.
Our Orland shelter, located in the middle of California dairy country, has a long history of rescuing and caring for fragile, motherless calves who have been traumatized by emotional loss. Since 1993, our west coast shelter has taken in nearly 100 cattle, 73 of them under one year of age. Whether abandoned at stockyards or found on rendering trucks or dead piles, most of these animals required round-the-clock monitoring when they arrived and a period of physical rehabilitation, as well as loving attention from people and connections with other animals. The differences I’ve seen between how orphaned calves and those rescued with their mothers behave are like night and day.
Cupid (now a 16-month-old steer) was destined to be slaughtered for low-grade veal when he reportedly fell from a transport truck and was given refuge at our California Shelter. As a tiny orphan, he relied on us to feed him his bottles, as well as play with and groom him. While he was young, we were his only family, but as he grew older and his playful head butting and bucking (which was adorable when he was small) became more dangerous for us during play sessions, we knew it was time for him to be introduced to the other cattle. But because he had been torn away from his mother at birth, he was unable to learn from her and, at first, was very awkward around the cattle. Cupid was fearful when they sniffed him or wanted to play, and he ran to any human who came into the pasture like a child to his mother. Luckily, after observing and interacting with the cattle, he eventually began to learn herd etiquette and found his niche, though he still acts a little unsure of the other bovines at times and tends to stick close to his best friends.
In great contrast to Cupid is Harrison, a calf who was left to die on a beef farm. He was rescued along with his mother Loretta when veterinarians determined that his life depended on his ability to nurse from her. Loretta provided Harrison with nourishment, comfort and guidance – all the things that Cupid depended on us for early in life – and he grew up the way that all cattle should. As Harrison matured, his strong, independent personality really started to shine through and when he was introduced to the resident cattle, he adjusted to herd life much easier than Cupid did. In fact, Harrison happily went up to everyone to introduce himself right away and quickly became an integral part of the herd with his mother by his side for confidence and support.
The difference between the way Cupid and Harrison adjusted to life in the herd makes it clear how important a mother’s guidance can be in the emotional development of a calf. Watching all of our animal mothers – regardless of species – with their children there is no denying what a strong bond these animals have and how traumatic it is for them when these bonds are broken. Though the factory farming industry denies their sentience, these animals’ emotional worlds couldn’t be in plainer view from where I stand.