Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

BooksFebruary 7, 2018

Let us now praise cows, but kill them and eat them

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Rachel Stewart reviews the bovine love letter, The Secret Life of Cows.

Even though I’m likely New Zealand’s harshest critic of modern dairy farming, I’ve always enjoyed the company of cows. I’ve worked with them for years. And played with them. And frolicked in the grass with them. And slept with them. As a kid on the farm, I’d sneak out on cold nights and lie down in the paddock with the entire milking herd of 99, and, in particular, with one special girl I liked. I would nestle on her full, warm, veiny, velvety udder and fall blissfully and deeply asleep.

Occasionally, she’d fart or snort waking me up briefly. Her visible breath would hang in the air like a localised fog in the chilly night air. When the dogs started up before dawn, I’d stealthily retrace sleepy steps back to the house and to my cold, empty bed.

And so I’m all good with Rosamund Young’s argument in her slim little book The Secret Life of Cows that cows are sentient beings. But her anthropomorphism goes overboard. She even has an extensively hand-drawn cow family tree inside the front cover. Names of the animals include Bonnet, Little Bonnet, Gold Bonnet. This level of twee-ness makes my teeth grate, but I get the overarching logic behind it. Which is? Please love cows as much as I do, and treat them well. Amen to that.

Young’s family has been in the cattle business since 1953, and are an excellent example of an organic farming operation that takes responsibility for the animal’s entire life – including its demise when the time comes to eat it. There’s no reference whatsoever to the slaughter aspect, or the ins and outs of mating time, but it’s obvious that Young is focusing on the more bucolic and mythological aspects of rural life. Not cow shit. Or bull semen. Messy business, all that. She won’t get the townies on side by talking about such things.

But there’s no doubt that Young’s farming practices are streets ahead of modern farming’s factory mentality. The latter generally doesn’t provide shade, gentleness, or any room for individualism. Not a skerrick. It’s all about the pingers.

And like the iconic Temple Grandin, designer of better abattoir killing methods for cattle, Young’s approach to farming is, despite the overtly written love fest, decidedly pragmatic. One must make a living.

“I love my animals and I don’t want them to go to be killed,” explains Young. “But if I didn’t kill any I couldn’t afford to keep them. I have to be practical. I need to eat and I believe eating meat is part of a balanced diet.” Can’t say it clearer than that.

All of which leaves those of us who believe humanity is doomed, unless the heaving masses (me included) give up animal farming entirely and embrace plant-based substitutes, feeling less than jolly. Until that day arrives, though, it’s nice to know there are good sticks out there like Young who give a good goddam about the animals in her care.

The author has deep faith in cows having individual personalities and quirky traits; that they hold grudges, get jealous, are sociable or introverted, display loyalty and love. It’s endearing but tends to get slightly annoying by the book’s end.

And it’s not that I don’t believe her. I do. It’s more that if one can talk to the animals, maybe it behoves one to keep their secrets safe. I realise that silence does not a good book make, but it feels more respectful somehow. Like more of a bond between beast and…..beast.

Quite apart from my own animal-whispering conceit, this is a respectful, readable, charming little book that will look at home on any bookshelf. The title itself is compelling.

It will speak to urbanites in a way that it couldn’t speak to me. What would be optimal, however, is if it managed to speak to today’s BigAg operators. Sadly, I suspect they wouldn’t be able to hear Young’s crystal clear voice above the clink of the cash register, and the cries of the cows wanting to be free.


The Secret Life of Cows by Rosamund Young (Faber, $23) is available at Unity Books.

The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books, recently named 2020 International Book Store of the Year, London Book Fair, and Creative New Zealand. Visit Unity Books Wellington or Unity Books Auckland online stores today. 

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