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.

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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.