Before visiting Norway for the first time, I had never had the opportunity to look into the eyes of milk's face. Growing up in Southern California, I had always experienced cows as black and white blurs on the side of the freeway. But in the countryside of Norway, where the number of cows is about equal to the number of people, interacting with a cow seemed quite appealing.
While walking out on the peninsula close to the house, my boyfriend and I spied four small calves eyeing us. I was intrigued by the small toddlers and wanted to get close to them, but knew that if I came at them they would run away. So, I sat myself down and waited for them to come to me. Slowly and cautiously they approached me. They seemed so curious about me! They began sniffing me from head to toe and I delighted in being so close to an animal that until this point was almost completely foreign to me, despite the fact that I drank milk from its kind every day. I decided to try and make them feel even more comfortable by lying on the ground. This made my boyfriend extremely nervous, but I felt pretty calm. These delightful creatures seemed to emanate peacefulness and curiosity and it seemed that hurting me was far from their minds.
As I lay on the ground they grew even bolder and came closer to inspect (sniff) me. One of the calves seemed to claim me and pushed the others back with her head when they tried to come closer. She wanted to be the only one to get really close. This wonderful sniffing fest came to an abrupt end when the lead calf started to vigorously sniff my crotch. My boyfriend and I let out huge belly laughs that sent the shy calves backing up in high gear!
After this we decided to explore the peninsula and walked up a steep rocky path. Unbelievably the calves followed! I always imagined cows to be quite clumsy and dumb creatures, but these calves ran up the rocky slope like graceful deer! For the rest of the afternoon they followed us wherever we went, except for the places that were too treacherous for them to pass, and in those cases they waited loyally until we returned.
This experience altered my ideas about calves and cows. No longer could I think of cows as mindless black and white masses on the side of the road any more. What I experienced was a creature with a peacefulness and easiness that seemed to reflect the grassy meadows on which it frolicked, a creature with an active mind that was interested in exploring mammals as intimidating as human beings, and a creature that galloped through the fresh air with a sense of joy.
Unfortunately, when I returned to the Norwegian coast in the winter, I got to see the sights and sounds that altered my ideas about milk. After having such a wonderful time with my small friends in the summer, I was anxious to see them again. The dairy farmer to whom they belonged lived right next door, so I had only to ask his permission, and I was on my way over to see the cows.
On first entering the barn I was struck with an overpowering smell, like raw sewage and strong chemicals mixed together. This was disconcerting, but I ignored the stench in favor of seeing the cows.
As we entered the main part of the barn where the cows were kept I was unprepared for the upsetting scene that met my eyes. These were not my summer friends, but shadows of the creatures I played with in the summer. Every cow was chained to a steel pole that ran parallel to the floor. They had enough leeway to sway from side to side, but not enough slack to take a step, to turn around, or nuzzle their neighbor. Because of this they had to stand in their own feces. Their back sides, from the base of their tails to the bottoms of their hooves, were covered in their own waste.
As my mind began to grasp the details of the scene, I realized that I was surrounded by the most terrible sounding wails. All of the cows were making a noise that cannot be described as mooing. It was a terrible crying out. I wanted to go close to these beloved creatures and say some kind words to soften this nightmare, but every time I moved towards them, they became extremely agitated. Finally, my disappointed heart acknowledged that I could not comfort these beautiful animals; I would only upset them more and add to their agony.
As I turned around to walk out of the barn I noticed a very small calf sitting in a crate in the corner of the barn. As small as a medium sized dog, the calf could not have been more than a week old. It was all alone in a crate that was about as big as a playpen. As soon as I saw the baby calf, my reaction was to walk towards it and comfort the frightened baby, but as I took a step forward, the calf tried frantically to jump out of the "playpen". Again I realized that there was much too much fear and pain in this barn for me to calm. I turned around again and stepped out of the barn and into the cold, crisp air of Norwegian winter.
Later I replayed this terrible scene over and over in my mind. As I was thinking about what I had seen, it struck me that the mother of that calf must have also been in that barn, helpless to snuggle with her newborn and helpless to comfort and protect her. Even a human like me, with dulled senses and numb instincts, had an internal drive that pushed me over to calm and nurture a baby experiencing its first days of life on this planet. I wonder how the mother of this obviously frightened calf kept from going mad as she watched her baby from across the barn.
The next thing that struck me was the realization that these cows were inside because it was too cold and harsh for them outside. Well, in the northern part of Norway, the weather is harsh and cold 9 months out of the year. These cows lived in the barn, chained to a metal pole, for 9 months out of the year. My heart sank very low as I tried to imagine what a life like this would be like.
And finally, I realized that this was a small farm in Norway. The conditions appalled me. If the conditions at a small dairy farm in Norway were this disheartening, what are the conditions like at the huge factory farms in the US? I will let you answer this question for yourself.
This experience altered my notions about milk profoundly. No longer do I imagine milky white purity encased in a cardboard carton. And no longer do I believe in "happy cows" generously providing me milk. I remember the milk slaves that I saw chained so tightly that they couldn't even take a step in any direction. I remember the hard concrete on which hooves that were made for soft green Earth were forced to stand. The face of milk has sensitive and curious eyes, a gentle muzzle, and a chain around the neck. How can I demand so much suffering from such an innocent creature just so I can wash down my cookies? How can I drink milk that was meant for a small baby just so I can satisfy the whims of my pallet? The scream of the answer is deafening.