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.