Ellen’s life sheds light on horrors of dairy industry

Aside from the species we typically see as companions (e.g. dogs and cats), most of us haven’t had the opportunity to really get to know individuals of other species. I have spent the past two summers as an educational intern at animal sanctuaries and I will be continually sharing the stories of these non-human animals I have met during my time at the animal sanctuary..

With so many individual animals in animal-based industries producing many of the goods people enjoy, it is hard to understand these animals as more than an anonymous mass. Hopefully here I can help put a face to just some of them, introducing them to you as I have known them.

American consumers have increasingly demanded milk from goats. Goat milk, goat cheese, goat yogurt, goat ice cream. It’s even snuck into toiletries. The Vassar Food Co-op, a generally wonderful effort to support local farms, even offers a community supported agriculture (CSA) share comprised entirely of cheese made from goats’ milk. Yet, as goat dairies expand and modernize to keep up with increased demand, industry and consumers generally ignore the realities of the lives of individual goats.

I met Ellen in June at Animal Place, the sanctuary at which I interned this past summer. Ellen immediately caught my eye because of the intensity of her gaze. Black with white stripes and tiny ears, she had large, yellow eyes that seemed to take in everything in her surroundings. Some people were slightly unnerved by her gaze, but I found her mix of curiosity and fear intriguing.

Ellen had been a “dairy goat” before finding refuge at Animal Place. Female-bodied, fertile, of a breed bred for dairy, her fate was sealed at birth. Yet, like any other female-bodied mammal, Ellen wouldn’t simply wake up one morning and magically produce milk. She would need to be repeatedly impregnated and subsequently give birth.

Once a year she would either be paired with a male-bodied goat specifically “hired” to impregnate her or she would endure the more recently adopted contemporary practice of artificial insemination, already standard operating practice at cow dairies. Each year, Ellen would experience five months of pregnancy, with her kids slowly growing inside her—heads and hooves and hearts—the maternal instincts nature intended taking hold.

But nature would be denied. Ellen would never get to bathe her young, to experience their suckling, to watch them grow. They would be taken from her immediately after birth. Mother and kid would bleat for each other. But there would be no nurturing intimacy. Instead, Ellen would endure the foreign touch of human hands or machines pumping milk from her. This is because the economic reality defies nature—if her young drank the milk she produced for them, there would be less milk for humans to sell for profit. The economic reality is harsh: Ellen’s babies would either be immediately killed or sold at auction for later slaughter.

Ellen became sick. After five years of the constant cycle of impregnation, separation from her babies, and milking, she had lost her endurance. It was cheaper to sell her and get a healthy, younger replacement than to attempt to restore her health. The people who kept Ellen felt no sense of attachment to her, so Ellen’s fate was sealed yet again.

She was transported in an unfamiliar vehicle. She likely experienced the sounds, smells, shoves, and fear of the auction process. Ultimately, Ellen will be purchased by a backyard slaughterhouse.

When people think about the “locavore movement” and its “humane” slaughter, this experience would likely be what they refer to. What is more local than giving the people who will buy the meat the choice of which individuals they want slaughtered?

What is a quicker, more humane killing method than a bullet to the head? Who Ellen was—her history, her feelings, all she had endured, her will to live—would be totally ignored. She was simply a product “ready to be harvested.” Someone would buy and eat her body, never knowing anything about the life she had lived..

In a twist of fate, seconds away from being shot, Animal Control stepped in. How or why is a mystery to me. But, in another irony, because she was so emaciated, neither the slaughterhouse nor Animal Control knew she was pregnant.

Ellen was brought to sanctuary at Animal Place. There, for the first time, she found companionship in another sick goat, Star, with her own dark story. Ellen gave birth to twin kids, Noah and Cornelius. For the first time, she had the chance to actually know her babies as nature intended.

Ellen was a protective and devoted mother. Understandably afraid of humans, she would go near them only if her social sons did. Still weak and sick, she would let her sons nurse and nurse, staring down at her children with her large, poignant, watchful eyes.

It would be nice if Ellen’s story could end here. But the truth is Ellen was still sick, and too sick for medicine to be effective. A year after her liberation—a year of parenting, a year of companionship—she slowly stopped eating. She had Johne’s Disease, an infection found in large numbers of ruminants (animals like goats and cows) and within about 22 percent of U.S. dairies according to a report published in 1996 by the United States Department of Agriculture.

Healthy goats—ones given a good amount of care—can live well into their late teens. Ellen was sadly euthanized when she was just six years old.

I have known other people who also have endured great suffering in their lives. There’s an intangible but unmistakable quality to them. Getting to know individuals of other species, I have come to see they are no different. If one pays attention, one can recognize their sorrow. It hovers in the air around them. It envelops them.

Sometimes one can see a lifelessness in their eyes as if a part of them has been stolen. Sometimes one can feel from them just an overwhelming grief. Ellen is not the first former breeder—or “dairy girl”—I have known, and because of human demand for their milk, she will not be the last. It’s important that people understand that many dairy products, whether they are from goats or cows or any other species, are produced at the expense of individuals like Ellen.

As individuals, we can choose to put an end to this suffering. We have the ability to make that choice.


—Rockwell Schwartz ’15 is a science, technology, and society major. She is Secretary of the Vassar Animal Rights Coalition.

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