Kate Fowler believes that veganism is a feminist issue. She looks at the systematic abuse that female farm animals suffer
According to Veganuary, most people who try veganism do so out of concern for animals but later discover that it is better for their health, the environment and feeding the world’s hungry, too. This is exactly how it was for me. Animals first: everything I learned later affirmed that I had made a great decision. After many years, I thought I was well versed in all these arguments, and so when I heard someone say they were vegan because they were a feminist, my attention was hooked. This was something new to me.
Women the world over have long fought for the right to control their own bodies and reproductive systems, and those rights, where they exist, have been hard won. It wasn’t until 1991, for example, that rape within marriage was banned in this country, and for women elsewhere – not least in the midst of wars – rape and forced pregnancy remain a terrible norm. In the UK, there is no systematic abuse, no normalisation of rape, and no theft of young. Unless you are a cow.
Most dairy cows are forcibly impregnated via artificial insemination. This benign phrase disguises the invasiveness of the reality: one hand is inserted into the cow’s rectum to manipulate her cervix into place while the other introduces semen into her vagina. DIY courses offer farmers the opportunity to learn to do this themselves.
On pig farms, the device used to hold pigs down while they are inseminated is known by some as a ‘rape rack’. Semen is introduced via a catheter, which if inserted at the wrong angle can enter the bladder. The British Pig Association has a special offer for farmers breeding pedigree pigs: ‘You will receive three bottles of semen and three disposable insemination catheters. The cost is £20 plus postage and packing.’ It reassures those who may be worrying about causing harm to the sows. ‘What if I have never used AI before? The insemination technique is not hard to learn and we have prepared a leaflet explaining the procedures.’
Similarly, sheep farmers cannot leave animals to breed naturally. If they did, lambs would be born throughout spring, but farmers want plump ‘spring lamb’ already on the supermarket shelves by then, and for their own convenience they want them all birthing at the same time. And so sheep are ‘fitted’ with hormone-rich vaginal sponges to bring them into oestrous early and together. So what if forcing sheep to give birth in the dead of winter means thousands of lambs perish in the frozen conditions? The benefits outweigh the costs for the farmer, although clearly not for the ewes or their young.
As for turkeys, they have been bred to have such huge breasts – as that is the preferred meat for many people – that they cannot mate naturally, even if they wanted to. All turkeys are therefore forcibly impregnated. And yes, it is someone’s job to ‘milk’ male turkeys for use in inseminating females. So much for meat being natural!
Looking out of my window as I write, I can see a male pigeon strutting and cooing, and trying to impress his lady friend. She, in turn, couldn’t appear less interested. In fact, I’d go as far as to say she was thoroughly bored by his presence and wouldn’t choose him if he was the last pigeon on earth. Animals, like people, prefer to choose their own mate but no farmed animal – whether they breed ‘naturally’ or are forcibly impregnated – gets that choice.
But perhaps the greatest tragedy of all – or should that be the greatest outrage? – is that mothers never get to know or keep their babies, and they grieve their loss as any human mother would grieve. The phrase ‘mother hen’ describes someone who is fastidious over the care of their young, as chickens notoriously are, but hens in commercial farms never even get to hatch their own eggs.
Dairy cows may get to spend a few precious hours with their newly born male calves before they are shot. Males, you see, are of no use to the dairy industry. Female calves will in all likelihood end up in the same pitiful cycle of insemination, birth and separation as their mothers. And all because people want that essence of motherhood – breast milk – to put in their tea.
Some years ago I moved to Somerset and found myself living next door to a sheep farm. One morning, the bleating of the sheep was deafening, and it continued all that day, and all the next. While walking my dog, I bumped into the farmer who told me the reason. ‘They always do that when we take the lambs’, she said. They were calling for them, desperately hoping that the lambs would hear them and come home. The sadness suddenly overwhelmed me. ‘They must miss them terribly,’ I said. She looked at me with amusement and simply replied, ‘how funny’. But I don’t think I can conceive of anything less funny than mothers calling in vain for their stolen young.
The production of meat, milk and eggs is absolutely predicated on the exploitation of female animals’ reproductive systems, and I can see clear links with women’s fight to be free of such degradation, control and abuse. This feminist perspective is, perhaps, just an angle on the wider animal rights arguments – the males used for breeding or born into the egg or dairy industries show that it is not just females who suffer as a result of their reproductive capabilities or gender – but it has certainly given me food for thought.
When human animals are systematically treated this way, it is a war crime, the United Nations steps in, and the entire world rightly condemns the abuse. When non-human animals endure such treatment – and endure it repeatedly until their bodies collapse – can we say it is a just, humane and natural way to feed ourselves? For me, a vegan and a feminist, the answer is a categorical no.