Given the opportunity, what would you say to a couple hundred high school students about animal exploitation? In 30 minutes? I had that chance as a speaker at a local Missoula high school back in April. Having taught there several years ago, I already knew that kids at this school are generally awesome and take pride in their open-minded, “alternative” image. Still, I was clued in by a few that the animal rights viewpoint isn’t any more warmly embraced there than it is in the rest of society. Go figure.
Earth Day was the occasion, so I chose factory farming for my topic–its gross cruelty to animals, its devastating impacts on the environment and humans. I set about creating a PowerPoint to engage teenagers, saying what I had to say in 50 minutes, then painfully, laboriously cutting out 20 of those minutes. First and foremost, I wanted to convey the position of normalcy that animal exploitation occupies in the status quo and, consequently, in our lives–to let kids off the hook, in a sense, for not knowing or not noticing (a defensive audience being much less likely to hear the message). There was no reference to vegetarian (except for Paul McCartney’s “glass walls” quote) or vegan, no pressure or proselytizing. I started with a question:
Why are we so thoroughly unaware of the animal exploitation that surrounds and supports our lives?
We are kept ignorant by design, I suggested. Industrial animal production is intentionally hidden from view (“If slaughterhouses had glass walls…”). Then, too, it’s an integral part of our economy what with its taxpayer subsidies, powerful lobbies, beneficial laws, and lax regulation. Want more? The end product is cheap and heavily marketed (here, familiar fast food logos crowd onto the screen, one after another–Do you remember a time when you didn’t recognize these?!?). Finally, it’s embedded in our most enduring traditions and family memories. Here the Easter ham appears, supplanted by the Fourth of July hotdog and the Thanksgiving turkey. Last image up: a plate of cookies, a tall glass of milk, and Santa’s red-gloved hand poised for the dunk. Yes, the jolly elf himself’s got milk.
Then the images seldom seen: debeaked egg-laying chicks, “broiler” chickens collapsing under their abnormal weight, shackled birds on vast conveyer belts hurtling toward the throat-slashing blade. A pile of piglet tails and testicles, male dairy calves discarded to diarrhea and death in veal production, a restrained bovine awaiting the bolt to the brain. Toxic waste lagoons overflowing into rivers, dead fish, deforestation mile after square mile. Human rights abuses in slaughterhouses; human health impacts in the industry, in the neighborhood, in the consumer market. It was a grim accounting.
Did anything connect? Perhaps. Students were attentive, often engrossed, sometimes stunned (remember the first time you learned about debeaking?). The images, while not the worst portrayals of abuse and suffering, were enough to convey the reality of which we’re so blissfully ignorant when we casually order up McBuckets of wings and whoppers. Whether any students changed their lunch plans that day, I don’t know. But I choose to trust that something–one image, one idea–pierced someone’s armor, and their transformation–whenever it comes–will have a ripple effect.
Milk Mustache Scholarship: Embellishing the facade
But oh how difficult to breech armor forged over generations of reinforcement that exploiting certain animals for food is normal…is good for us. Even when it’s not. No one ever famously warned us–or our parents–to guard against the influence of the animal industrial complex, a “partially opaque network of relations between governments, public and private science, and the corporate agricultural sector” that “naturalizes the human as a consumer of other animals.”
So when I read that a local high school high-achiever was awarded a “SAMMY” (Scholar Athlete Milk Mustache of the Year) scholarship, I wasn’t so much surprised that such a thing exists as I was overcome with despair–yet again–at the enormity of the animal industrial complex, its long reach into our lives, and how well it has done its job normalizing brutality toward the animals whose very existence is forgotten.
Milk. Here’s a product whose benefits to humans are touted by the industry with slick, appealing ads and celebrity endorsements; questioned by some (Harvard); claimed to be downright harmful by others (SaveOurBones and NotMilk). And more recently:
HSUS-provided AP photo-downer dairy cow
But no matter what one chooses to believe about milk’s benefits or damages, there’s no getting around this: Milk is high in saturated misery. Factory farmed dairy cows are constantly lactating and/or pregnant, severely confined, and fed an abnormal grain diet. They suffer painful physical ailments, and are emotionally traumatized when robbed of their newborns. Nothing more than a production unit, they are worn out in four to five years (as opposed to 20-plus for a normal lifespan) and sent to slaughter. Downer cows–those too infirm to walk to their own death–sometimes incite even greater abuse, as revealed in this undercover video (text available if you choose not to view). Male calves are typically killed or put into veal production. Milk is not benign: “Metaphorically,” said Dr. Steven Gross, “there is a hunk of veal in every glass of milk.”
Schools: We don’t need no education; Kids: we don’t need no thought control
America’s school kids have been hijacked by the corporate dairy industry, the government (USDA, in particular), and schools–an animal industrial complex troika of immense influence. That dairy industry scholarship, for example? It’s “supported by four education partners: the American Association of School Administrators, the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, the American School Counselor Association and the National School Public Relations Association.” How’s that for product placement?!?
The Dairy Council of California offers–as just one example of a state dairy council’s stealthy reach into kids’ lives–a K-12 nutrition education curriculum free to state educators along with free professional development modules allowing teachers to become certified dairy council educators. Online learning tools for kids include “Dairy Farm.” Don’t miss the short “Cow Care” video. Do kids ever wonder what happens to all those calves taken from their moms (they don’t show that part) only to be bottle-fed? Why doesn’t “Life Stages of a Dairy Cow” include the trip to the slaughterhouse at age four? Just sayin’.
Because there’s nothing funner than wading into dense blocks of text written by bureaucrats, check out the Code of Federal Regulations, Title 7, Chapter 11 (1-1-11 edition), Subchapter A–Child Nutrition Programs, Part 210–National School Lunch Program (NSLP). I learned some startling information there. In fact, the NSLP (which reimburses schools for meals that meet guidelines) “is declared to be the policy of Congress, as a measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s children and to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities and other food…” (210.1). Yes, it’s a matter of national security that school kids eat the products of industrial animal production. Who knew.
You vill drink zee milk, or else.
Milk is specifically singled out–“fluid milk as a beverage” must be offered for reimbursable lunches (pg. 26); substitutions can be made when a disability affects a child’s diet–and requires a doctor’s signature. Mom or dad’s word alone isn’t good enough for the Troika.
What about the child who doesn’t like milk, or the vegan student who wants an alternative to misery milk? Can he or she breeze through the lunch line and request almond milk? Not without parental request and clearance from Above:
Dairy milk is heavily subsidized by the government, other milks are not. It’s in schools’ own interest to push misery milk exclusively, since any cost overage for alternatives is on their dime. Even those schools, daycares, and qualifying camps that don’t participate in federal nutrition meal service programs can offer misery milk for reimbursement through the Special Milk Program. It’s everywhere, like a stalker of American kids. If the idea of an animal industrial complex seemed a bit outlandish–maybe even a little paranoid–to anyone a few paragraphs back, perhaps now?…not so much.
Much knowledge has been discovered about human physiology and nutrition and animal sentience since the advent of the National School Lunch Program in 1946. Industrial animal production has grown exponentially in suffering for animals and unsustainability for the planet. Bird flu, swine flu, mad cow disease, and other dangerously-mutating pathogens are the legacies (not to mention our possible fate) of the ravenous industrial monster in our midst.
I’ve taught school in enough poverty-stricken places to know the importance of school lunches; feeding hungry children isn’t the issue. What they are fed–and perhaps even more important, why they are fed what they’re fed–is. Though sentient cows themselves are nothing more than production units to be exploited and discarded, their milk has achieved sacred cow status, deserving or not. The vast, powerful animal industrial complex determines what kids eat because we’ve failed to “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence,” to borrow from Pres. Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex warning. “The total influence–economic, political, even spiritual” is felt everywhere, he said, and it involves “the very structure of our society.” The parallels are sobering.
But let’s end on a happy note. With an increasing selection of healthy, cruelty-free plant-based milks available, cow’s milk for human consumption is obsolete. And apparently we’ve put a dent in Misery Milk’s facade–look who’s on the defensive with a pathetic attempt to malign plant-based milks as “imitation” products of science. If you know anyone who’s still “gobbling down that dairy milk like a parched heifer,” turn them on to the Power Milkman. He’ll set them straight. He’s got some serious nuts, too.
This post first appeared at animal law blog Animal Blawg, where comments are accepted.