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  • Paul D. Wilke

Non-human Mothers and Animal Ethics: Why the Absence of Empathy?


One of the more heartwarming images in our culture is that of the mother with her baby, selflessly giving love, affection, compassion, and empathy to her child, not to mention the very physical essence of life itself. It's hard not to feel moved when we see a mother together with her baby. It's beautiful, a pure affirmation of life unselfishly giving life to another life. The center of the universe for a mother is her baby, and for the baby the mother is a goddess. Motherhood is, to put it simply, one of the few purely wholesome physical instincts in our cruel Darwinian world.

It is disheartening, then, that the circle of empathy does not extend out to non-human mothers. Not in practice, anyway. People struggle with empathy for those things they cannot see or experience directly. Most of us have wasted countless hours watching sappy animal videos online that all seem to hit on the same theme: cute animals behaving in ways that seem relatable to people. Watching these videos, we are at least moved enough by apparently analogous animal behavior to exhibit bursts of empathy toward our non-human cousins. But then dinner comes and any budding empathy dissolves at the mouth-watering prospect of a bacon double cheeseburger.

What many people do not realize is that much of our meat production system is anchored on the suffering of mothers. Sows, cows, and hens are really just tricks of language that distance us from the brutal fact that these are mothers getting exploited to produce dairy, eggs, beef, poultry, pork - even more tricks of language to hide the fact that these were sentient creatures before they became neatly packaged products.

Cows, as everyone knows, are the main source of our milk. Slick ad campaigns have convinced the American consumer that cow milk is a necessity for good health and strong bones. It's not. In fact, that milk comes from the misery of mothers. Like human mothers, bovine moms can only produce milk after they give birth to calves. To keep the milk flowing, they are forcibly impregnated every year. This means they are kept in a state of almost permanent pregnancy and lactation, conditions that are unnatural for such long periods of time.

Creatures that normally live up to 20 years under natural circumstances only last three or four. What happens when these mothers can no longer produce? They are slaughtered to become the beef on that double cheeseburger. You see, the cow is not only a baby machine and a milk machine and a cheese machine, she also ends up a meat machine when her body is all used up. Nothing goes to waste in this Cartesian system.

And what happened to all those babies she gave birth to after those repeated pregnancies? At least she has her calf to dote on, right? Well, no. Within hours after giving birth, the calf is taken away never to see its mother again. All that milk is for us, not the calf. If the calf is male, it will lead a short life of suffering before going to the slaughterhouse. If female, the calf will likely suffer the same fate as its mother, living through a wretched cycle of forced pregnancy and lactation before finally ending up in someone's hamburger.

But cows are not the only female animals treated so atrociously. Female pigs, or sows, suffer exploitation similar to cows. Despite a reputation to the contrary, pigs are very sensitive and social creatures capable of displaying intelligent behavior much like what we see with domesticated dogs. Unfortunately, this intelligence will not get them any special consideration as long as bacon is worshipped. A mother pig is confined to a small metal box referred to as a gestation crate. Her sole job is to birth as many piglets as possible in her short lifetime. Everything about the process is geared toward achieving this end, and any issues of welfare are only entertained in the narrow context of maximizing her body's productive and reproductive value.

The tiny gestation crates are so small that the sow cannot even turn around, meaning she is forced to remain in one position day after day. Ostensibly, this is done for the safety of her babies, since the sow's bulk, combined with the cramped quarters, makes her a danger to the piglets. But any concern for the safety of the piglets centers on protecting the investment, and not any actual concerns for the welfare of the animals. Dead piglets do not grow up to make money and give us the bacon and pork we crave.

Again, like the cows described above, sows will endure short lives of forced impregnation every five or six months. She will lie on her side in her own shit and piss, crammed in a gestation crate to nurse her young before they are taken away to fatten up for slaughter. After a few short years, when this mother's body is used up birthing litter after litter of piglets, she too will be sent to the slaughterhouse, useful to the end.

While the use of gestation crates appears to be on the decline, the high demand for pork means producers will merely seek other ways to birth pigs as quickly and cheaply as possible. Efficiency. Profit. Secrecy. With those priorities, any considerations for the welfare of the sows and her babies will remain a lower priority, and any efforts to improve their lot will be minimal, just enough to calm public outrage. At the end of the day, the industry views these mothers as production units, and as such the quest for profit and industrial efficiency will take precedence over any issues of humane treatment.

And, finally, there are the hens. In the industry, they are known as "layer hens," a very literal description of their sole purpose in life: to be egg machines. Layer hens spend their short, sad lives crammed into tiny battery cages - small wire cages too small for any freedom of movement. These mothers have been genetically modified to produce up to ten times as many eggs as their natural ancestors. The average layer hen will produce up to 300 eggs a year but can only sustain this pace for only a year or two. All this biological focus on maximizing egg production comes at a high physical price to the hen. The constant production of eggs diverts calcium to egg production until the hen's bones become brittle and subject to fractures. So after pumping out a few hundred eggs, you guessed it, off they go to the slaughterhouse.

But what happens to all the eggs these mothers produce in egg hatcheries? Many eggs will go straight to market. Others will hatch to become layer hens. After all, the short production lives of layer hens mean their numbers must always be replenished. But male chicks are redundant in a hatchery and so get culled. Chick culling is a euphemistic way of saying these unwanted male chicks are killed shortly after they hatch, sometimes by gas, but other times by dumping them alive in a macerator (think of a giant, industrial-sized wood chipper). If there is any consolation here, it is that the culled chicks' lives last little more than a day or so before they are killed, and so they avoid getting exploited until they cannot produce anything anymore. Unlike their mothers.

Ok, if you're still reading, you get my point. I think most people want to do the right thing and are decent, empathetic folks trying to get by in the world. But sometimes we lack perspective. That is why I chose to juxtapose our enchanted image of motherhood with the nightmarish reality that many non-human mothers experience every second of their short, wretched lives. Our worst ethical lapses often come from a poverty of imagination, from habit, and from an inability to see evil if we cannot actually, physically, see evil. It's still there behind the curtain; the evil is still happening, even if you can't see it or imagine it or even want to. Your meat and dairy didn't magically appear on your plate; it's the end product of suffering. Think about it for a moment: you're literally consuming the fruit of suffering simply because it tastes good. At least be honest about that.

We all know in general what's going on when it comes to meat and dairy production. We just choose to go along to get along because that's the easier, tastier, least problematic way to go. When everyone decides to be ignorant, it's incredible how easy it becomes to rationalize even the most horrible practices. Sometimes...well usually...pleasure trumps ethics, and that is especially the case when it comes to our food. So much of our ethics is just unconsciously doing what everybody else does, of not standing out or taking a stand. It's our modern ethics of the easy, of the warm bed and the full belly, the 'thank you, Jesus, for this feast you've given us today!' Amen! Let's eat!


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