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Can a confined cow be happy? September 17, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
Tags: , , , ,

I toured an 8000-head cattle CAFO (for the uninitiated, Confined Animal Feeding Operation) in Illinois this Tuesday. Based on unflattering footage of such feedlots in Food Inc., PETA videos, etc. I was prepared for the worst. And I came away thinking… it really wasn’t cow hell after all. Yes, most of the cows were penned on concrete, not frolicking on sunlit pastures. Yes, cowshit covered the floors, and it stank; this offends humans, but perhaps not cows. Yes, there were a few lame cows awkwardly suspending one hoof in the air as they balanced their 1200 pounds on the other three, but the vast majority could walk around and lay down unimpeded. They had healthy-looking coats, seemed alert, could interact with each other, and had plenty of food and water. The people handling them seemed calm and reasonable folk, not electric prod-wielding sadists.

So, is a well-run CAFO where the employees don’t abuse the animals a decent place for cattle to live? Not being cows, we can’t know for certain that these animals are either happy or miserable. However, we do know that even in a well-managed, clean CAFO run by responsible people, the cows cannot engage in most of the activities they naturally would. They cannot graze, which is the defining activity of a cow if there ever was one. They cannot mate (unless they are part of a breeder operation, and then it’s often through artificial insemination) and they cannot bear or raise young. They cannot walk on grass or dirt, instead subsisting on concrete, which strains their hooves and joints. They cannot choose sun or shade. Without a lot of armchair bovine psychology, I think we can say that if there is anything that makes a cow’s life worth living, it’s these things. And even a well-run CAFO can’t provide them.

*Note that I use the term “cow” here in the layman’s sense, to cover all bovines, which really include heifers, cows, steers, and bulls.



1. Guillaume - September 21, 2009

The author of this blog pretty much concludes that we can only eat animals whose living conditions and behavioral patterns mirror the what we observe in their natural habitat. This implies that what happens in nature is inherently good for the animal and any deviation from that negatively impacts the worth of the animal’s life. But what about all the animals that have been domesticated over the years? Take dogs, supposedly man’s best friend. At some point in time, dogs were wild animals, descendents from wolves whose nature it was to freely roam around – and not to live in apartments as it commonly happens today in urban settings. When did the result of man’s ingenious breeding efforts become acceptable and not an impediment to the dog’s happiness? And what if we repeated the same feat with cows, pigs and chickens? Would be okay then to eat them?

Angelique - September 21, 2009

True, domesticated animals seem to be happy even though they are not living the natural lives their ancestors did. However, a key difference between domesticated animals and farm animals is that we observe evidence of the happiness of domesticated animals – the dog who follows his owner around, rolls over on his tummy to be rubbed, etc. I’m not aware of similar evidence for farm animals. It seems that we were able to change dogs’ natures so that they were happier with us than in the wild, and perhaps if we could do the same for farm animals they would be happy in confinement. But there’s no evidece that we’ve accomplished it yet.

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