Birth, Death, and Money On a Livestock Farm

I am typing at the moment because the sight out the window of the last few remaining ewes on the farm sparked a memory. It was a few years ago, likely in May, I would think. It was warm and the window in the living room where I sit at my desk to write was open. It was a little past dawn and I had just sat down to work on a piece that had been percolating. But, then I heard something through the window. A ewe was murmuring and quietly gurgling her hellos and welcomes to her newborn lambs. It was the sound of the birth of life coming from the nearby lambing pasture.

Ordinarily, on hearing the gentle cooing, I would go outside to make sure that everything was okay because a ewe will murmur to a weak or dead lamb just as actively as she will a vigorous and live one, but that morning I could actually see the ewe and her two new lambs right through the window. The two lambs were stumbling around the ewe looking for her teats as the ewe instinctively licked first one and then the next. At any moment they would find the teats and start sucking. The ewe's warm colostrum, the antibody and nutrient-rich first milk, would flow into the lambs' bellies, warming and fortifying them, giving them both the energy and warmth needed for life, and, literally, a natural antibiotic force field that would shield the lambs from disease. It was clear that all was well, so I started writing.

After writing for a few minutes, I glanced up from the screen and looked out the window. There were too many lambs surrounding the ewe. I grabbed my binoculars to get a closer look, and two colostrum thieves, who are opportunistic older lambs from other ewes, were pestering the ewe, darting in between her legs to steal some of the rich colostrum as she attended to her lambs. Overwhelmed by hormones that trigger a ewe's instincts to care for and nurture her lambs, ewes are often momentarily tricked by colostrum thieves. The sucking sensation was exactly one of the things the ewe was "waiting" for. Instinctively, she cocked her hips, which tipped her udder and teats into a better position for access and let the thieves suck. However, just as instinctively the ewe turned her head and sniffed and licked the back ends of the lambs that were sucking, and suddenly she bucked her hind legs off the ground and spun around, facing the thieves as olfactory alarms rang in her head, "Not your lamb! Not your lamb!" The thieves made a move to dive back between her legs. The ewe sidestepped, dropped her head, and butted one of the offending lambs, sending it flying. Remembering her own lambs, she spun back around to make sure they were alright. The thieves returned. The ewe threw her head at them, missing them both. The thieves persisted. The ewe hopped and spun, keeping her udder away from them. She swung her head at them and nailed one of the thieves hard, pressing it against the ground momentarily with her forehead, which is as hard and solid as an anvil. And then, just as suddenly as they had appeared, the thieves disappeared, having decided, perhaps, that the little colostrum they were getting for their trouble wasn't worth it.

Unmolested, the ewe returned to attending to her own lambs, who had continued to stumble around her in their foggy newborn stupor while she fought off the thieves. As I watched, I could tell that the newborns were close. Both had figured out that the hind end of the ewe was where they should concentrate their attention. It would be only a matter of minutes, or even seconds, before they found the teats and latched on, securing their lives, for me as much as for them.

You see, those lambs were living to death for me on the farm. Their survival to death was essential to the farm economy. The instinctive theater being played outside my window was merely the first, and most important, act in the drama of the lives of not only those two newborn lambs, but all of the lambs and all of the ewes living on the farm. As a livestock farmer, I make use and take advantage of -- nefariously, I believe now -- all of the sheep's instincts: to eat copious amounts of grass, to drink water, to lick salt and minerals, to flock together, to breed, to give birth to and attend to newborn lambs, to fight off thieves, to stumble around relentlessly to satisfy an irresistible first thirst.

Through various manipulative interventions, I hold captive and encourage those instincts so that "I" can "produce" meat on the farm for people to eat. I encourage and urge the ewes to give birth to lambs, and I encourage and urge the lambs to live.

Livestock farmers sow seeds of life, propagating sentient beings. We nurture those sentient beings, making them thrive, only to snuff them out when it suits us, when we have deemed that they are nice and plump, richly fat, their flesh ripe for the eating. Unlike most business people who produce things from widgets to cabbages in order to make their living, livestock farmers produce death to make ours. In the United States each year, ten billion animals -- each with complex interests and intricate social lives, and each of whom, if we could only ask them in a way that they comprehended, would choose to live rather than die -- are killed each year, practically every single one of them in the horrors of the industrial, factory system, so that people like myself can profit.

Livestock farmers, no matter what kind -- from the largest, most cynical, and inhumane factory farmers to the smallest, seemingly most ethical pasture-based farmers -- traffic in death. It is death that is our aim, our purpose. Death is the end. Life is the means. Money the reward.

Birth. Death. Money. That is the cycle of life on a livestock farm.

As a people, we once trafficked in human beings (and many continue to do so). We shattered families, prying children from their parents' arms, stealing husbands from wives. We branded them. We kept them in cages. We manhandled them -- with whips, with pistol butts, with clubs, with fists and feet. We mutilated them. We bought and sold them. We put them to work. We made money. We even built a nation.

The lambs outside the window that morning? They figured it out and began happily suckling, wagging their tails madly as the ewe sniffed and licked them, her nose and tongue saying to her head, "Mine, my lambs. Drink. Live," while I said much the same: "Live. Live to death for me on the farm so that I might prosper."

Before praising the hard work of livestock farmers, think about how you feel about human chattel, on how you feel about work, death, money -- the cycle of life of human bondage. You might find that you don't have to think too long or too hard to make the leap, to see that beings are beings. What is wrong to do to one is wrong to do to another.


Photo by Zach Phillips