Applying human rights to food animal bodies: A problem of perspective?

A few weeks ago, I received this Facebook message from a good friend of mine:

“I saw a video about dairy industries, I knew [about] most things, but they are horrible… I sent it to you just if you want to talk about some of them some time… you are the person who know[s] more about dairy that I know and I am [in] shock.”

She provided a video link with the message.  I watched it.  And then I watched it again – to make sure I heard the narrator correctly in her facts and reasoning.  My second viewing confirmed my fears: Yet another aggressive, hateful, fact-flexible, anti-dairy video.  It wasn’t the first I had seen, and it wouldn’t be the last.  But this one was gaining momentum across the web and having real social consequences for less knowledgeable consumers and overly sensitive farmers viewing it.  With my personal investments in dairy cows and the farmers who care for them, I couldn’t stand by idly.

If you haven’t watched the video here is my trigger warning: it is incredibly graphic and shocking.  It is meant to produce an intense visceral reaction.  The flashing images of cows being inseminated, pushed by skid loaders, and suffering various ailments (including cancer and mastitis) are disturbing without context.  Some images are just incorrectly attributed, particularly an image of cattle with iodine on their teats to describe “blood” in milk.  The narrator places all of these images, both legitimate and incorrect, within a discourse of violence and abuse.  She is able to do this successfully by making the viewer relate to the images on a more personal level – using vocabulary like “mother and baby,” “mothers’ crying,” “sexual exploitation,” and “emotionally exhausted.”

Of course the video wouldn’t show a cow enjoying a robotic brushing… right?  Photo credit: Nicole Welk-Joerger, 2014.

This strategy of placing human emotions, desires, and behaviors on food animals is incredibly compelling.  It has been used in many movements to protect animals, and has encouraged many individuals around the world today to change their nutritional habits.  More and more people are refraining from eating meat and dairy products in response to these strategies, and this is appropriate up to a certain point.  But the ethics behind this strategy of placing human attributes onto other animals is overall murky.  It also raises some important philosophical questions.  Should animals be evaluated on human terms?  What happens when animals are granted the same attention as humans?  How does this affect human food practices, and what does it mean for the animals raised for these purposes?

These questions are by far some of the most difficult for scholars in food and science studies to tackle.  Anthropomorphism (this placing of human attributes onto non-humans) is something that has existed since the dawn of human consciousness.  Scholars have attributed the strategy to hubris, a rationale to account for certain behaviors, religion, and overall as a way for humans to conceptualize the world around them in ways that are relatable.  I actually first encountered the term in a Greek Mythology class, where it was explained that Greek gods were conceptualized as having human qualities because it made unexplainable events (in nature or otherwise) more legible.  It made more sense for lightening to be a human decision rather than to be a distant, random, alien force of nature.

Mickey is just one of many examples of anthropomorphism applied to animals – a mouse that sings, dances, and has a girlfriend.  During my fieldwork, I encountered many farmers blaming the popularization of Disney for the unrealistic expectations consumers place on farmers today.  Photo credit: Google Images.

What makes anthropomorphism murky is that the social consequences of applying human qualities to non-human entities have varied throughout history.  Religion could be considered one consequence, and certain politics another.  But what we are seeing with this anti-dairy industry video is something quite new in human history – both technologically and socially speaking.  It is a critique and condemnation of a practice that has become isolated to most people living in the world today – a moment in time that has been dubbed “post-domestic” by historian Richard Bulliet (2007).  Animal husbandry, in this context, is seen not only as antiquated but as an abomination of animal rights.  Following the life of this video in YouTube comments and blog posts since its upload in December illustrates this vividly.  One blogger responds to a “debunker” from Canada:

“In what hellscape do we live in that is perfect fine with messing around and exploiting sexual organs because it isn’t seen as ‘an act of love?’ I personally felt a sickness to my core while reading this, as it’s an argument that thrives on a culture that has normalized sexual abuse in not just nonhumans, but human women as well.”

The blogger was responding to how the debunker farmer described the technological use of artificial insemination practices in cattle.  A commenter on this blog agreed, writing “humans are not special” and that “farmers are just cows’ pimps.”

Bulliet’s book looks into the history of animal-human relationships and how it has changed our perceptions of food.  Photo credit:

There’s obviously some room for critique about sexual abuse in our culture, but I hesitate to think that dairy cows and the dairy industry should be the analytic used to launch this discussion.  It places humans and other animals on an unrealistically even field for conversations about morals and ideals in care – ideals that are culturally contingent, human contingent.  This is a field where discussions can become dangerously distorted –  to the point where some farmers have been told by animal rights activists that farmer suicide is not a “problem,” but rather a “justice” for their “helpless creatures.”

There is a difference between denying an animal of its rights as a living creature on Earth and respecting an animal for whom/what it is.  I have seen much more of the latter in my interactions with farmers.  Farmers sweat, cry, and bleed for the health and welfare of their animals.  Healthy, cared-for animals are seen as more beneficial for farmers relying on them for their own health and prosperity, which happens to be measured in dollars nowadays.  The very definition of domestication hinges on the mutual benefit relationship shared by human and other animal – a “cooperation” that is fostered between these two organisms.  But “cooperation” does not imply “equal,” and you wouldn’t expect this if you were defining cooperation between an employer and employee, or even among family members, or more abstractly nation-states.  I thus share in a critique many farmers have in placing human and animal rights together on an incredibly flat and equal playing field: this frame does not account for the differences.  It does not account for biological difference.  It does not account for the cultural history of these differences.  And it does not account for the everyday, lived experience of these differences.  The post-domestic sphere has allowed some humans to abstract difference because they no longer regularly interact with food animals.

I want to be clear before I continue with this discussion.  I am well aware that historically some humans have justified the denial of rights to others through discourses of difference.  Sex, skin color, geographic location, and cultural practice have been used time and time again to justify inequality and violence.  This has never been right.  This history is far from fair.   And the human-animal divide has been muddy philosophically, psychologically, biologically… overall scientifically for centuries (and I have a colleague grappling with this material for her own project!)  This science has been used in the past to justify social inequality.  But I am not talking about the interactions humans have had with other humans for this post.  I’m talking about other animals we have been working with and eating for thousands of years – animals that are undeniably different; animals that rely on our care for survival.

Now biologically, we are all animals.  But seriously, how often do we interact with other animals – specifically food animals?  How often have you – sitting at your electronic device reading this post – touched, smelled, stood next to a 1500 pound bovine?   A 15 hands tall horse? A 200 pound pig?  A dozen chickens?  Have you ever cared for one of these animals?  Helped move one?  Feed one?   If you did these things every day, would your perception of these animals change?  These are some of the realistic questions that need to be asked before evaluating a situation that involves such animals, and before identifying the behavior of the humans involved with them as “abusive.”

If you have been reading my posts you may be asking yourself: but Nicole, weren’t you just writing about how impossible it can be to separate conceptual categories like “human” and “non-human.”  What gives?  This is when I urge us to return to the consequences of this discourse.

Blurring the divide between human and non-human (as a thought experiment, as a philosophical endeavor, as an ethic) in one context can be extremely important – especially when people are describing instances when humans seemingly have no impact on nature.  The consequences of this divide in this circumstance are detrimental.  The inability to place human action and environmental change in conversation with one another has arguably been the root cause of pollution, climate change, and, yes, even animal abuse.  But the problem with this video and others like it is that abuse is signified using human assumptions, and not just any assumptions: assumptions of consumers who have little interaction with the farmers or animals being addressed.  This is when the situations at hand need to be nuanced through the understanding that some animals are indeed different from other animals – and these differences emerge through different evolutionary histories, different geographic locations, different ecological circumstances, and different social interactions with humans.  Videos like “Dairy is Scary” do not help contextualize problems of animal abuse; they mobilize hatred for other humans through visual distortion and essentialist language.

For example, instead of condemning artificial insemination it would have been more helpful for the narrator to ask why cows are artificially inseminated.  The history may have surprised them – since AI was developed not only as a safer method in breeding cattle for humans (rather than moving a large bull from one pen to another), but also for the cow (who could potentially be harmed in the interaction).  There would have still been space in such a question to critique the size of dairy operations or even the diversity of dairy cow gene pools.  There would have been room to call attention to issues of animal health, and perhaps even American consumer culture.  But calling agricultural interventions like AI “bestiality” ends the conversation abruptly.  It launches a shouting match rather than a productive discussion.  And no one can benefit from this kind of criticism – let alone the animals themselves.

DSCN2893 (2)
From an American Breeders Service (ABS) Newsletter, 1954.  Photo Credit: Nicole Welk-Joerger, 2015.

There are some images in this video that are obviously images of abuse – but condemning an entire group of hard-working people for the actions of a few also does not solve problems.  It creates distrust.  Distrust is the last thing we need between food producers and their consumers in a world where the majority of humans have no idea how to grow and store vegetables, rear and care for animals, or organize and manage a farming operation.   If we do not find new ways to talk across agendas, we can say good bye to any iteration of a pastoral ideal, and hello to more of these “post-domestic” nightmares.

**Elsie The Cow comics were developed by Borden Dairy Products in the 1940s – the comic featured in this post was published in 1949.  Photo credit:


Budiansky, Stephen. The Covenant of the Wild: Why Animals Choose Domestication. 1st edition. New York: William Morrow & Co, 1992.
Bulliet, Richard. Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers: The Past and Future of Human-Animal Relationships. New York; Chichester: Columbia University Press, 2007.

4 thoughts on “Applying human rights to food animal bodies: A problem of perspective?

  1. Your criticism of the video in question is not without merit, for as you point out it is essentially propaganda, unlikely to bring meaningful change nor support productive discussion. However, to my mind your own response is just as unproductive, and tellingly, internally conflicted.

    You speak of the inappropriateness of anthropomorphizing animals, while making a nod to ourselves as animals. Lament the habit of presenting an “equal playing field” between species, and offer an employee/employer analogy as a case for expected inequality. While certain historical cases may be exempted, I doubt many employees today would consider their hierarchical superiors are possessed of greater moral consideration or right to life than themselves. If we look at the fact that many humans who through mental impairment are plainly inferior to some other normally functioning species on a measurable level but yet are treated with far greater consideration, we can only call this – and your own apparent view – specieisim.

    There is always drawn a line where some being – be they human or non – is deemed worthy of consideration. As you acknowledge, various arbitrary characteristics have been used to draw this line and have direct ties to humans’ treatment of other species. There is and has long been argument over even the most basic of lines. Can non-human animals feel pain? Still some deny that they can, but then until the last century many medical doctors contended that human infants did not feel “pain” either, as we perceive it. If, however, one can acknowledge that other species are capable of suffering, then we should assure that we do all we can to mitigate that suffering. Too many people are content to remain blind to the production of the meat on their table and are in fact determined to remain wilfully ignorant lest it inconvenience their conscious. If videos like the one in question shock some of them into looking more deeply into what is going on (who knows, they might even end up here) then I say all the better.

    “But seriously, how often do we interact with other animals – specifically food animals?  How often have you – sitting at your electronic device reading this post – touched, smelled, stood next to a 1500 pound bovine?   A 15 hands tall horse? A 200 pound pig?  A dozen chickens?  Have you ever cared for one of these animals?  Helped move one?  Feed one?   If you did these things every day, would your perception of these animals change?” 

    I must address this directly, as it comes across as a bit presumptive, both in that the reader is assumed to have not done these things (admittedly likely correct in many cases), but also if they have, that their view would become more pragmatic and supportive of the utilization of non-humans. To be clear, I have personally done all of the above, as well as slaughter, butcher, and consume some of those species and many others. It did change my perception, to a more pragmatic conclusion that regardless of their species, these are individuals who experience pain, fear, and cry out over loss and death. Inducing these things needlessly, to satisfy an ever burgeoning appetite for flesh in a society where it is now consumed more than ever, is morally reprehensible.


    1. I really appreciate this comment, and it confirms a lot of the realities/philosophies I am “internally struggling with,” as you say. I’m super aware of this. I am still trying to better articulate my thoughts, and I appreciate you bringing up analogies that did not work – namely my attempt to demonstrate that nuances exist (within species and between species) and how these videos can cause this nuance to flatten. This could have a very positive consequence, as you say. You write that it could encourage more consumers of dairy/meat to look into the industry and decide for themselves (nutritionally, otherwise) what to do with this information. This is great! I’m all for this as well. I guess what I was mainly responding to were the hateful messages targeted at *all* farmers, assuming all farmers are abusive, and all farm activities can be reduced to abuse. This has created some extremely hateful messages targeted at undeserving people – including messages to farmers to “kill themselves” because the cows will be better off anyway. This is a problem.

      This led me to my initial reaction/question to the video: is AI abuse? I want to say no – I can’t see AI as “sexual exploitation” or “sexual abuse” or “bestiality.” I also don’t think it’s the right question to ask – as I write in the conclusion. This goes to your “mitigating suffering” comment, and I think about suffering and writers on suffering a bit in my work (Haraway, Lynch, Scarry, etc.). I’m not sure just yet how to address suffering and AI. This was an attempt – not a fully engaged one though. Thank you for the suggestion.

      Finally – I am also one of those who has worked with animals at every step (worked often with mothers/babies, regularly feeding/caring/cleaning, but only helped slaughter and butcher once). I have also seen animals feel pain and show fear – but I hesitate to say it is the same as human, experienced in the same way as humans, or if these specific beings need to be treated “the same” as some activists propose (IE: release the cows, they’ll take care of themselves). I think this can get out of hand, particularly because cows can’t take care of themselves. That’s why I love that one tweet about “comfort” I posted in between paragraphs. Perhaps I am “speciesist,” but more because I feel the categories are helpful in understanding different bodies, bodily experience, and issues in food production (and yes, they are humanly defined and this assumes human superiority, no?). I think realistically they are different and need to be. Just *how* different remains in the air.


      1. Well, it’s refreshing to find discussion rather than defensiveness, as I know many recoil at the implications both of us make as abhorrent and unacceptable.

        It all comes back to the line of consideration being drawn, and this is why it is so difficult to rationalize or discuss, because that line is often arbitrary. The anti-abortionist, for example, claims belief in the sanctity of life, and therefore equates terminating a fetus with murder, while typically having no problem with the slaughter of other species (so plainly then, believing merely in the sanctity of human life.)

        Interestingly the situation exist in reverse, where many of those who insist that the killing of non-human animals is murder, yet will support the right to a woman’s choice in the case of abortion. Now, one can rationalize that of course a fetus is “different” from an adult human in many ways, but it can also be described as similar and even clearly “inferior” in many aspects to the newborns of other non humans. So we can agree there is a difference, but does that make where we draw that line of consideration for their right to life anything more than an arbitrary decision based on our own prejudices? It doesn’t seem so. At that point, if humans are no different, why should eating them be such taboo? Meat is meat, right?

        As something of an absolute, I think once one has come to the belief that killing is wrong, the invariable words that follow – “except when…”, begin to sound increasingly hypocritical. It is wrong to kill, except when they are terrorists. It is wrong to kill, except when in self defense. It is wrong to kill, except when they’re not human. And of course we can’t ignore that throughout history enemies in war have been likened to animals or otherwise objectified in exactly the same manner to justify not only their murder but

        As to your points… Yes, painting with broad strokes is an unfortunate habit of any movement, and I think most people who agree with the video need to understand that even if you take the most dispassionate stance, one should accept that economically, if not emotionally, it is in the farmer’s best interest to have cows who are well cared for, happy, and productive, making the shown examples of abuse outliers. Is AI “abuse” or “sexual exploitation”? You make the case that it needn’t necessarily be either, and while it is “unnatural” (and therefore often viewed as inherently negative), the entire system whereby cattle are today kept industrially is unnatural. So it is merely a small part of that landslide at the edge of perception – where does it end? Freeing all the cattle to roam as they please? If one agrees that war is bad, do you continue to support the military-industrial complex? At what level and why?

        It is tradition to mock the vegetarian for not recognizing our obvious evolutionary predisposition as omnivores. As humans, we are plainly different from other animals, but among those differences is that the killing of other animal species in order to survive is a choice, and has been for thousands of years. The normalcy whereby that killing is justified as requisite is a social, economic, and religious (indeed, as vegetarianism sometimes can be) institution, not a necessarily “human” one.


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