This weekend, the Strolling of the Heifers is taking place in Brattleboro, VT. In fact, today was the actual stroll. Beginning at 10 AM this morning, creameries, 4-H kids, and dairy farms led almost 85 heifers down Main Street. Bedecked with ribbons and led by halters, the very young cows were made to march down the street under the eyes of thousands of people — tourists with young children numbering at least half of them — who were yelling, reaching out to them, and otherwise standing there solely to ogle and scrutinize them as they passed.
This event is billed as the female version of the Running of the Bulls. It is said to honor the cows and the farmers who “work” the cows. It is described as good family fun, a way to support local agriculture, and an event that extolls the virtues of “slow living” (another locavore-style buzzword).
What is not said, of course, is that behind these 85 heifers are at least 85 dead male calves. Unnecessary to the dairy industry but mandatory to biology, male calves are born at a rate of 50%-ish of all cow babies — just like humans. Both female and male calves are taken away days to months after birth so that farmers can take the milk from the mothers in an agonizing separation that scars cows for life; but while female calves are kept alive to further the cycle of milk production, male calves are either sent to veal farms or else killed outright. They have no other purpose to the farmers.
What is also not said is that all of these heifers are destined to live lives completely at the whims of the farmers who control them. They will breed or not breed as the farmers wish; have their children taken from them; have their milk stolen from them; and, when they stop producing milk, live or (more likely die) — again, as the farmers wish. Never once will either their bodies or their wills be their own.
VINE, believing that the true way to honor and love someone means, at the very least, refraining from exploiting and hurting them, made a presence this year at the Strolling of the Heifers.
On Saturday, when the parade started, brave VINE workers roamed through the crowds and passed out almost 800 pale-pink flyers entitled “Vermont’s Beautiful Cows.”
Designed by VINE, these flyers include fun facts about cows (including that they are curious, smart, family-oriented, and loving) and sad facts about dairy (including the facts that milk comes from grieving mothers, that the dairy industry contributes to global climate change, and that male calves are tossed aside like rubbish). On the backs of the flyers, we include ways that people could help cows, first and foremost by not eating them or their milk. We also note that people can get plenty of calcium and protein from sources like kale, quinoa and navy beans, and can help increase a market for locally-grown fruits and vegetables as a way to encourage local farmers to transition from animal agriculture to a more sustainable, non-exploitative, plant-based agriculture.
One of the workers who passed out flyers was yelled at several times by people who wanted her to know that they love cows. She responded by saying that she simply chose not to eat them. Another — also female — was physically assaulted by an older man who wanted to know why she was ruining his event. She tried to get away, but he grabbed her again; luckily, she was assisted by another man from the crowd.
It is typical for people to become angry when they encounter truths that are distasteful to them. Our cognitive ruts run deep, and the rut that insists that cow’s milk is healthy for humans to consume, that cows live in happy places where they’re treated really well (which means, in part, that we forget about the babies whose milk we are consuming), and that using animals is some sort of equitable compact that was made, consensually, between us and them — well, that rut runs WAY deep. So, it makes sense that folks were angry.
But what we hope is that at least some of the people who received a flyer (and others who read about the event in the local paper that will be covering our presence) will think about what they have learned. We hope that these people will take the time to do their own research, and do their best to approach what they find with an open mind. We hope as well that they will open their hearts to the cows who are exploited and/or killed by the dairy industry just so that businesses (i.e. dairy farms) can make money by selling us a product that is terrible for our own physical health. Finally, we hope that this is the beginning of a fruitful discussion about the many ways that Vermont can make another farming-related transition: the one from animal agriculture to a truly sustainable, cruelty-free plant-based one.