She was a jersey cross as I recall and would cry out to me as I approached the calf pen near the milking shed, then impatiently guzzle a bucket of milk. Keeping her steady big brown eyes on me - we had a connection. A birthday present from my father; only much later I realised ‘Beverly’, as the last calf of the season, was an extra job he could do without with the herd now all ‘calved’ and at its peak, so he and my mother were busy.
Two years later Beverly had grown, and there I was hand feeding her first calf ‘Colleen’ as Beverley entered the milking herd. A year or two on I was told I too must ‘grow up’ and accept that due to Beverly’s inadequate milk yield and failure to get pregnant, her next stop was onto ‘the truck’. If she didn’t have another calf she couldn’t produce milk, and so that meant off to slaughter. Thanks Dad!
After the tears subsided I just got on with it – the lines between our pets and the farm animals in the 1960s were often blurred. Even though all our small herd of 100 cows had names and personalities, each year their male calves also went on ‘the truck’ to be slaughtered. My mother Verna – the chief calf carer - would be careful to emerge from the house only after the ‘calf truck’ had departed.
My siblings and I knew not to get too attached to the few sheep brought home from market, the piglets born, or the chickens hatching in the poultry yards – our Dad was an adept butcher too. The farm was our livelihood, and some of its residents became the food on our table.
Farms have grown larger and corporatized in the past 50 years; ‘mixed’ family farms like the one I grew up on are all but extinct. The line between food and friend is quite distinct now; the cows, the pigs, and certainly the hens and half a billion chickens in factory farms have no names. And the consequent tragedy is that most animals cannot receive individual care and nor do they have adequate legal protection from cruelty.
Even as a farmer’s daughter it was only years later that I discovered that the powerful farming lobby had ensured cruel farming practices were exempted from the State animal protection laws in the 1980s. I do not exaggerate; hens in barren battery cages, fast growing ‘meat’ chickens kept so crowded in sheds that the floor is no longer visible, pigs being kept in tiny metal stalls, and many farm animals subjected to ‘routine’ surgical mutilations without any pain relief; all things totally illegal if you tried it on your cat or dog at home. I was shocked – I knew both companion animals and individual farm animals personally – they certainly all feel pain and suffer.
Since realising this dreadful legal injustice in the midst of our otherwise relatively civilised society, I and colleagues have worked to right it. Sadly the fear of change grips farm industries and in turn political parties who look to preserve rural seats, and as a result reforms have been miniscule.
As we enter 2013 however, change no longer need rely on the sluggish and biased political path. New communication tools, particularly ever present social media, are facilitating rapid growth in awareness amongst consumers and that inevitably sparks our natural empathy for animals. We care because we know they can suffer. Even city dwellers can now look into the eyes of a farm animal and make that connection, awakening the compassion for animals that we all have within us. Every day, we all face choices that impact on animals - what we put in our shopping trolley, what we serve up for dinner. These choices can save lives or condemn animals to the misery of factory farming. By refusing factory farmed products, or choosing not to buy any animal products we can transform the lives of farm animals for the better.
As a child I accepted the status quo; as an adult I’ve come to recognise that the choices I make matter.
Glenys Oogjes is the Executive Director of Animals
First published in the Adelaide Advertiser - 4th January, 2013