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The Strolling of the Heifers and Dissociation: Some Thoughts

The Strolling of the Heifers in Brattleboro is something I’ve wanted to write about for a long time now. Each year, though, I seem to miss the deadline, as I did this year. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m dissociating the event, so since that is the case – and since the issues involved in this obscene tourist attraction are certainly not confined to one day out of the year – I’ve decided to write about it anyway.

This annual event involves the forced march of heifers down the main street of Brattleboro while hordes of people, both tourists and Vermonters, stand on the sidelines and watch. Little baby cows get petted, there are flowers strewn about, there are booths where people can buy Real Vermont Cheese and other items made out of milk stolen from cows, and generally everyone feels really good about themselves: We are Supporting Local Vermont Farms. We are Contributing to the Local Economy. We are Helping Keep Tradition Alive. So on and so forth.

Everyone, that is, except for the cows. We simply have to imagine that the cows are having the exact opposite of the time of their lives. Imagine being snatched out of your life to be put into a trailer and taken down the road to some strange place where you’re tied to a rope and led down a city street, watched and yelled at by hundreds of the same creatures who pull at your tits every day. Does that sound like a good time to you? Of course not. But it doesn’t matter to these people, because in the end, despite all the superficial mouthing about how much they love cows, the reality is that there’s no real love here. This is about commodification – the transformation of living creatures into objects which are ours to do with as we wish.

So, the dairy farmers make money off the cows; shop owners in Brattleboro make money off the cows; cheese makers and T-shirt sellers make money off the cows. Everyone benefits except the cows. Despite the blather about respecting the bedrock of one of Vermont’s primary industries, and despite the inane lies pitched in almost hysterical fashion by “happy meat and milk” farmers, cows are nothing more than potential money-making machines to people. That’s what they’re there for, after all.

Now, none of this is news to animal rights activists, nor is it frankly news to dairy farmers and others who don’t feel compelled to gloss over the truth for the sake of wide-eyed tourists hell-bent on having a Real Vermont Experience. So why does this get under my skin to the degree that I have blanked it out for three years running? Like many activists, I read the AR news every day, read about countless instances of egregious torture that happen every day, every minute, to all sorts of species, in an almost infinite variety of ways. Every day I learn about situations involving trauma, abuse, exploitation, torture, and murder that are far worse, in my opinion, than the Strolling of the Heifers, and yet for some reason this is one of the things I keep dissociating. Why?

First, it might be useful to talk about dissociation. Or, I should say, to talk about my particular brand of dissociation, as dissociation as a broad category is a quite complex and varied mental undertaking. Put very simply, some folks, like me, tend to compartmentalize our lives. When confronted with a horrible piece of information, we tend to have flash in the pan emotional reactions that get stashed immediately thereafter in one mental box or another. Sometimes the knowledge goes into the box with the emotions, and at other times it remains behind so that we can speak quite dispassionately about said information. Therefore, it can appear that we aren’t feeling appropriate emotions around certain horrific events – or not feeling them for long-enough periods of time – but the reality is that the emotions are there. Instead of presenting themselves directly, they often bleed out around the edges of our mental boxes – they might come out skewed, or at inappropriate times, or the emotions themselves might be mismatched to the situation (anger when amusement might be better, for example) – but believe me, they’re there.

Dissociation is a defense mechanism. I’ve said before that I kind of figure most people who do animal rights work have one or more of these. Without some protection, the constant stream of horror would threaten to take us out. So, I count myself lucky (in a weird way) to have had a history of abuse that helped me cultivate my dissociation skills. Soon after exposure to a particular piece of information, I find myself protected against the worst of the emotions that accompany the knowledge about said information. They simply go away, and yet if I need access to those emotions, for the most part I can pull that off. Not always, but I think I’m all right with that. It’s a pattern I’ve had all my life, so I guess I’m used to it.

When I first Got It about animals, I was a wreck. I cried all the time, and when I wasn’t crying, I was enraged. I honestly had no idea how I would be able to stand being alive with this new knowledge. That lasted as long as it needed to shift my thoughts and behaviors in the right direction, and then it receded. Thank you, dissociation. Since then, the period of time in which I feel the feelings gets progressively less. I learn about a dove shoot (for example), I feel a surge of rage, I feel crushing hopelessness at my inability to protect the doves, I feel tremendous sadness when I see the doves falling to the ground in my mind, and then a few minutes later, it’s gone. Gone to some box in my mind.

It doesn’t work exactly this way every time, but that’s the general template. Only extremely rarely do I carry these images through my day; no longer do these things keep me awake at night. It’s not a skill I have – I don’t try to make this happen – it was a survival mechanism I developed as a kid to stay sane while enduring insane things, and like most such survival mechanisms, it stuck around into my adult life. Frankly, in some pretty significant ways, it’s a hindrance to my life, but in this particular way, it’s quite helpful. It keeps me sane. I know how hard it is for people who don’t dissociate in this fashion, or have other defense mechanisms. I have a very dear friend who has very few (or perhaps none) psychic guards in place to protect her against the things she learns about animals. She continues to do AR work as her full-time job, and she continues to read and learn about all things AR, but wow, with that 24/7 stream of empathy and no convenient dissociation there to catch the overflow, times are often quite hard for her.

So, why do I dissociate the Strolling of the Heifers? I think it has something to do with the banality of evil, the smiling faces of duplicity, the willful ignorance of the masses. The people lining the streets are Mister and Missus Human Race, the overwhelming majority of us who are still eating animals and their products, clinging desperately to their belief system – the system that tells them humans are supreme on the planet, that we are entitled to do what we like with everyone else, and that to be compassionate, one need only pet the head while cutting the throat. This is about people smiling smiles of righteousness while they look benevolently over the real animals who – except for a few hours every year – are being tormented so they can eat their little cheeses. It’s the hypocrisy, the veneer of kindness laid over the reality of torment – the cognitive dissonance this creates – that jars my head to the point that something inside feels the need to dissociate.

In any case, it’s over now. The cows have been returned to their stalls (leading me to reconsider whether or not the forced march in Brattleboro is indeed the worst time of their lives) and the humans are all off doing other things like buying crap or driving back to Connecticut. I’ll go back to forgetting this debacle even exists until next year around this time when I see an advertisement for it, or someone tells me about it. But I will tell you one thing I won’t forget: I won’t forget the cows. I know exactly where they are, and what is being done to them. While I might have certain unconscious talents with dissociation, that is most certainly not one of them.


9 comments to The Strolling of the Heifers and Dissociation: Some Thoughts

  • veganelder
    The lying smiles and smug righteousness…the certainty of those who support and benefit from the horrors that they are “good” people…”kind” people. The reality of what they do versus what they think they do is extremely difficult to be in the presence of…it is…in some measure “crazy making”. It’s like having tea and cookies with Ted Bundy. There’s a real disconnect with reality…and such disconnects are painful and harmful to be around.
  • CQ
    Your writing always makes me feel like I’m standing right there beside you, imagining everything you imagine, feeling everything you feel. I can picture, lining the parade route, hundreds of smiling children and their indulgent parents, who carefully monitor to make sure there’s no animal abuse on their watch: “Yes, Ernest, you can touch the cow’s nose, but don’t pull on the calf’s ear.”

    And then on the stroll back to their car they stop at the local diner for a Bessie Burger and a cold glass of Mastitis Milk, followed by ice cream that’s as frozen as a dairy cow whose dried-up udders stick to the trailer slats on the sub-zero day she is transported to her death.

    What makes this scene so pitiful is that the gap between their basic goodness and the great evil they are demanding be done to the innocent animals they claim to love is unbridgeable. If only they could see the delusional quality of their joyful day on the streets of Brattleboro. Surely they would renounce the pleasure of a mocha cone to avoid the pain endured by mother-and-child being forcefully separated at birth?

    As for your dissociation, it reminds me of just what “they” do every time they sit down to a meal. Only your disconnect saves your sanity, while theirs assuages their conscience.

  • bravebird
    FIRST OF ALL — I need to clarify something. I wrote about the helplessness I feel when learning about dove shoots (as an example), and just realized that this could be interpreted to mean that the situation is intrinsically unsolvable. I do not believe that — I believe it is worth fighting that battle, and indeed ALL AR battles — what I meant was a very personal feeling of helplessness. One only has so many hours and so much ability to fight, and that is a battle in which I do not have the ability to truly engage — that’s what I meant. Like saving elephants in Africa — that sort of thing.

    SECOND OF ALL — CQ, thank you for pointing out that the dissociation goes lots of ways. And thank you as well for “mastitis milk” and “bessie burger” — PERFECT.

  • bravebird
    Yes, crazy making for sure — you are 100% right, Veganelder. Having tea and cookies with Ted Bundy — that’s an excellent description because you know, I am sure he too believed he was not a bad person — I am really doing lots of thinking about this “good person” thing. In any case, Aram posted this on his Facebook page, and a friend of his commented on the interesting twist on the Running of the Bulls (Strolling of the Heifers). And that leads me to another thing I neglected to mention, which is that this name was chosen ON PURPOSE by the sick assholes who created the event in the first place — this is right from their website:

    The name of the event and the organization was inspired by the famous annual Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain, but features heifers (young female cows) being led through the streets by children—followed by farmers, future farmers, cows, bulls, horses, goats, poultry, floats, tractors, bands, clowns, and much more.

    Some inspiration.

  • Sheryl
    “Strolling of the Heifers” feels especially duplicitous to me. “Strolling” is as connected to bloody slaughter as every other aspect of animal use. Yet this event’s veneer is sweetness, quaintness, pastoral innocence, and community spirit.

    Because “Strolling” occurs downtown in an environment built entirely by and for humans, it lets people pretend that the bovines whose bodies and babies they steal live happily among us, clean and serene, and never know what hit them when the final blow comes. “Strolling” seems like ritualized group dissociation to increase human animals’ positive feelings about their continued use of nonhuman animals.

  • bravebird

    I love how you word that — ritualized group dissociation — indeed, that’s what it is for sure. I also think the term “pastoral innocence” bears more thought (and writing), as pastoralism is the root of the evils of domestication — in another article, I referred to it as the (other) evil twin of patriarchy — one subjugates women, one subjugates non-human animals, both benefit men of power. Of course the boundaries have bled over time, so that plenty of women benefit from both, and plenty of men are victimized by both, but interestingly, after all these many thousands of years, still the basic patterns are in place: women are oppressed and non-human animals are oppressed.

  • Hi bravebird – The way you described your emotional state when you Got It about the animals is exactly what happened to me too! I flipped! Cried endlessly only stopped to experience the worst anger I ever thought I was capable of. Miserable at having lost respect for “humanity” and enraged over having been deceived. Well… You know the route as you passed through it and on to give it all purpose and meaning. You gave it “a place”.

    I understand the “box” you created – I have one too. As you say, all of us who have had to heal make our efforts to contain, cope and protect these emotions. But I can see how this facade of dairy pleasantries would force a “bleed out” too – It’s the masquerades that are the worst to tolerate…

    For me as well, I can deal with the direct “cruelty” – The obvious slaughterhouse butchery or other things that might disturb non A/R folks… But it’s the lies that get me most. It’s the fake niceities that are hardest to ignore. They’re also the worst to try to convey to others the extreme evil in what appears to be so joyfully La-La happy! Impossible to explain to carnists without sounding like a total basket case. So along with the anger – There’s total frustration… Boy do I know!

    I’m glad you found a (sort-of) coping mechanism. I’m glad you have the skill, time and desire to post what you feel and why. It really helps us all – Or at least I know it does me… After years I’ve learned that June is dairy-cruelty month… With the other 11 a mixed assortment of “festivities” – All had at the expense of other species of used and usable creatures. Ugh! It’s a calender of commodities so to speak. :(

    I understand. I agree. I’m with you. <3

  • bravebird
    Bea, thank you for your words and sorry for the belated reply. I am actually glad I have this skill too, although it wasn’t something I cultivated — it’s one of those abuse-related things that was a survival skill when young and detrimental when older, and still does get in the way of my living my life in some regards, but in this aspect it is so helpful.

    I agree with you completely that the fake niceties are the hardest to disrupt — they are clung to with such ferocity by folks who not only want to keep their traditions, but also believe so strongly in the rightness of those traditions — and such things are not willingly (or often ever) given up by people — they don’t want to work that hard, they can’t tolerate the cognitive dissonance, etc. I say quite often that I believe, psychologically speaking, it would be easier to change the heart and mind of a chicken farmer on the Delmarva Peninsula than it would be to change the heart and mind of a happy meat farmer in Vermont. The former has commodified the lives of non-human animals in an effort to make a profit, and so if you can persuade him/her to SEE the chickens as real, alive, sentient creatures, that can lead to change. The happy meat farmer, on the other hand, ALREADY SEES chickens (and others) as sentient creatures, and STILL does what s/he does to them, believing it is right, just, and even (stunningly) kind to do so. Now THAT kind of change is HARDER — you are not just challenging how someone makes a living, but you are telling them that their morality is skewed. No one want to admit they have fucked up to that extent. So yeah, it’s hard.

  • CQ
    Bravebird, your words “you are not just challenging how someone makes a living, but you are telling them that their morality is skewed” cut to the heart of the matter. Ego rebels, pride wells up, feelings are hurt. And, oh yes, that innate goodness which you so love to hear about is completely eclipsed! :-) :-) :-) (You ARE chuckling, not clucking, right?)

    For some reason, when I read your response to Bea, it reminded me of “The Pig Farmer” story by John Robbins:

    After much reflection, this man realized he was miserable because he had strayed so far from his childhood friendship with a beloved pig, who his father forced him to kill by threatening to disown him if he didn’t. This farmer knew in his heart — and his nostrils — that the factory-farm conditions of the barn in which he housed his pigs was wretched, because it was the polar opposite of the life his boyhood pig friend had had. I think if he were conscientiously raising pigs in “humane” ways, he would still be defending his livelihood — vociferously — to this day. Just as you say.

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