Early September. A field in Norfolk. A morning walk with partner, friend and small dog. The people are taking in the views while the tied-up terrier, used to the pavements and parks of London, gets lost in the irresistible smells of the eastern English countryside. In the distance a large group of cows is hanging out. As we get closer we spot one lingering on the edges of the crowd. She seems to be eyeing us, sizing us up. Not moving, but probably ready to if needed. We note some calves among the herd. And no fence between us and them. Best to turn back.
The cow who had us in her sights may have been staring into space. Or we may have had a narrow escape. Between May and September this year two walkers have been killed by charging cows in England. When we heard this news in the days after our uneventful meander in the meadow, my partner ventured: “Maybe the cows have had their consciousness raised.”
In 2015 cows were named the most dangerous large animals in Britain (big wild animals, including wolves and bears, were made extinct on the British islands centuries ago). The deaths this summer bring the total number of people killed by cows in Britain in the first two decades of this this millennium to 100. The majority of these people worked with the cows, reminding us that farms can be dangerous places for human as well as animal workers. Lone walkers with dogs are the second largest at-risk group (for people dogs may be cute and friendly company; for cows they are predators).
There are almost ten million cows in Britain. And although grazing cows are such a common sight they may seem a natural part of the rural landscape, there is nothing timeless about their existence. As Erica Fudge writes in her microhistory of milking cows in the English county of Essex in the seventeenth century, “ changes to cattle over the past 400 years have been enormous.” Cows raised to produce milk and other dairy products have been altered over generations through a combination of changing diet and breeding techniques, both designed by people to make the animals more productive and profitable. Cows raised to be slaughtered for their meat have increased notably in size over the past centuries, again making individual cows more lucrative.
Then there are the enormous changes in farming techniques, especially since the advent of industrial farming in the postwar era. The contrast between the bucolic image of cows in the countryside and the realities of contemporary animal agriculture are increasingly well publicised. But the popularity of documentaries such as Cowspiracy are not enough to prevent a widespread and naïve nostalgia about farming: at a party in London a couple years ago someone reacted to the fact that I don’t eat animal products by asking, “But if no one ate animals, what would the English countryside look like?” As if cows existed not only to feed humans but also for our viewing pleasure.
More and more people are fed up with the commodification of cows and other farm animals. But are the cows themselves part of this rebellion? Mad enough to go on the rampage?
In his introduction to Jason Hribal’s book The Fear of the Animal Planet, Jeffrey St. Claire recounts a number of cases from medieval and early modern Europe in which animals — including domesticated species such as pigs and cows — not only killed human beings, but were also tried and even executed for such crimes. As St. Claire notes, the attribution of guilt to nonhuman animals in cases of murder and theft evidences a very different understanding of animal subjectivity among people in the past. The shift to modernity was marked by a change in attitude. During the European Enlightenment the French philosopher René Déscartes infamously declared that animals could neither think nor feel; they were, in effect, no more than machines.
Since Déscarte’s day in the late eighteenth century, animal advocates have challenged this this view of nonhuman animals as devoid of reason and sentience. Today even the heartiest meat eater is hard pressed to claim that the steak on her plate was cut from a cow who walked willing to the slaughterhouse, or that the milk that makes its way into almost all our processed food was not extracted from a creature who had felt the loss of the calves taken from her soon after birth. Cows feel pain, they suffer and they mourn.
But do they kill people because they know we are the cause of their suffering?
To attribute premeditation and revenge to animals is perhaps a tad medieval, or a bit too anthropomorphic. Afterall, as contemporary human-animal studies remind us, while animals do think and feel, they do not think and feel in the same way that people do.
In Fear of the Animal Planet Hribal brings to light numerous contemporary examples of captive animals — in zoos, circuses and theme parks — fighting back against their imprisonment and cruel treatment by refusing to eat, trying to escape or injuring and even killing their captors and trainers. For Hirbal these cases are evidence that animals, far from being passive creatures, are active agents both in their own liberation and in the making of history. This is human-animal history at its most dramatic. Fudge’s research uncovers numerous more subtle ways in which cows reacted to their treatment at the hands of humans: from restlessness to kicking. Kathryn Gillespie’s twenty-first century research on dairy cows at auction in the United States records the failure of some to perform on command, whether by leaping out of their pens or lying still instead of standing or walking.
I know we humans are the ones who need to raise our collective consciousness and change our ways. But I confess an attraction to the idea of the charging, man-trampling cow as a freedom fighter. Frankly, it’s no more fanciful than the idealistic image of peaceful cows grazing in a timeless English countryside, or the notion that people, cows and dogs can live happily side by side given just the right kind of fencing and a bit of education and common sense. That particular fantasy is based on an all-too-human capacity to forget: that the cow has her own history, that she is a beast with feelings and a mind of her own, and that there is nothing inevitable about the fate that awaits her after we stroll mindlessly by.
Originally published at https://veganismsexandpolitics.com on September 30, 2020.