Writing about Gigi

Producing an animal history is a tricky endeavor.  It is sometimes very difficult to find animals in historical archives – and if they are there they are often left anonymous and passive.  Animals only make the archive when they are written about by humans, and as someone interested in producing a history of animals I often find myself in a difficult narrative trap.  I end up talking more about people talking about animals rather than about the animals themselves.

Often when I find animals in the archive, their achievements belong to someone or something else.  In the case of Frosty, she represented the first successful birth in the U.S. of a calf conceived from frozen spermatozoa.  The credit belonged to the American Breeders Service (ABS).  Photo credit: American Philosophical Society, ABS Folder, 1954.

Can anyone ever write a history about someone (human, animal, or otherwise) that is not under the mediation of someone else?  This is largely a methodological problem, but also a problem of what constitutes knowledge-production – what constitutes a “legitimate” written record, and whose voice is considered “valid” in the understanding of one subject or another.  For example, we can learn a great deal about certain time periods and certain groups of people by looking at written representations in public media.  Articles from a newspaper can be considered factual reports or idealized lenses, and I’m left navigating these two spaces when I read reports about animals who make the news.  These animals are usually ones that are considered exceptional enough to make human newspapers; they are usually given names and written about as if they were humans.  Perhaps we could call them “honorary humans” in how they are represented in these mass media spaces.

For the sake of this think-piece, and to give you a sense of this struggle I feel as I try and write about animals seriously, I want to share some writing I’ve been working through about Gigi.  You may be asking, who is Gigi?  Or, perhaps you are wondering if we should be calling Gigi a “who” at all?  Well, Gigi has certainly gained her “who” status in these last few months, and she will be remembered as the world’s highest milk producing cow (as of this year).  But what I know about Gigi is largely from what her owners and other sources have written about her.  Giving Gigi her agency is extremely difficult to do, but necessary when thinking about how this cow has recently “shaken-up” discussions about the American dairy industry, particularly discussions of animal welfare.  Here’s my go at it:

A professional photograph of Bur-Wall Buckeye Gigi.  Photo credit: Harvest Public Media, 2016.

Gigi’s full name is Bur-Wall Buckeye Gigi.  She resides in Brooklyn, Wisconsin and is a part of the Bur-Wall Holsteins farm – where she contributes her many gallons of milk.  As of this January, Gigi is logged to have produced 74,650 pounds of milk in one year, equating to about 24 gallons of milk a day.  This would sound like Gigi works really hard for a cow of her age (nine years old), but really Gigi is the queen of her homestead.  She is given her own box stall among her fellow bovines in a 60-cow tie stall barn.  Gigi has also been groomed and trained to take part in fairs and cattle shows since she was a young calf.  Her owners, Bob and Denise Behnke, note that compared to other cows Gigi has a distinctive personality.  Not only is Gigi “sassy” and a “diva,” but she is also “smart and driven.”  In addition to her accolades in the show ring, she has been awarded “escape artist” status at Bur-Wall – finding ways to unlatch the gate to her box stall, often in search of more food.  Her insatiable appetite has certainly contributed to her world record producer status, and she is known to eat everything put in front of her: from dense grasses to grain.

Gigi is a big, beautiful, black Holstein who was classified as an EX-94 cow.  This score was awarded using a national grading system, and is calculated by an outside “classifier” who visits pedigreed farms like Bur-Wall.  To give you a sense of how remarkable this score is, the highest score that have been achieved by a Holstein cow is EX-97 (around 30 American cows in history have achieved this score).   Hoard’s Dairyman, a magazine that promotes the grading and classifying of animals – particularly with its yearly judging contest, used Gigi as an exemplar to describe the connection between type-cows and milk production.  Their argument was that overall type (thinking about these scores, cattle showing, and pedigreed animals) correlates with extreme milk production – an encouragement for farmers dedicated to show culture and type-breeding animals to continue what they are doing.

In contrast, NPR published an article on Gigi to address animal welfare concerns.   Luke Runyon, who also wrote a very positive exposé on Gigi for Harvest Public Media, noted the concerns of the famous Temple Grandin alongside those of Doug Ford, a veterinarian from Colorado.  While Grandin is incredibly critical of type-cow breeding according to the article, noting that larger cows are milk producers for shorter spans of time and risk injury in ways smaller cows do not, Ford emphasizes that exceptional milk producers like Gigi only exist through exceptional care on the part of their human owners.  It is unclear on which side Runyon stands on the issue given its neutral stance, but for him to provide equal attention to both sides proved controversial in the comments section.  There, an entirely different conversation on welfare emerged: a questioning of Gigi’s “natural” status with suggestions that her world record holding status was achieved through bovine growth hormone.  The comments even accuse NPR of being “pro-Monsanto” in their article, though this is untrue outright given the drug’s current ownership by Eli Lily.

gigi 2
Gigi held by her owner, Bob Behnke, in a 2013 spread about Bur-Wall Holsteins.  Photo credit: Holstein Association USA.

While farmers read Hoard’s with delight and consumers read NPR’s news site with concern, Gigi is probably laying in her box stall, chewing her cud while periodically licking at her nostrils.  She will enjoy the nuzzle of Bob Behnke’s hand as he passes her stall with the feed wagon.  Clean sawdust, regular baths and brushings, air tunnel ventilation in the summer, and heaters in the winter are in Gigi’s future as she (perhaps) dries up after a job well done.  It is unlikely Gigi was able to accomplish all she has with growth hormones, particularly with her pedigree and slow and steady climb up the production charts.  These are signs of a very “natural” milk production record.   But Gigi’s world record breaking status certainly disrupts the very notions of “natural” and “right” within the dairy industry – with visions of mechanization and enhancement dancing in readers’ heads.  Runyon even uses mechanized language to describe Gigi’s efforts: she was “built” to produce.

The reality is Gigi is a cow.  She moos, she eats, she sleeps, and she makes trouble from time to time escaping from her pen.  She makes a lot of milk, and this is partially due to genetics, part due to feed management, and part overall care over time.  Gigi is not an animal that has been “built” or even “engineered” to make the milk she does, but saying she has been reflects much about the time we live in today.

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