Happy Swiss Cows

We were a group of six friends enjoying a snack break in the middle of a successful day of climbing in a rural area of Switzerland. Not far from the wall where we were, a group of cows grazed. “Cows in Switzerland are treated better than most cows in the world, they are happy!” That was the conclusion of a close friend, a resident of the country known for its beautiful mountains, wide pastures and the pleasant ringing of bells announcing the whereabouts of its charismatic cows.

For a moment, I suspended my beliefs and tried to assimilate what he said. It seemed clear to me that my friend was right at least on one of the points: those cows were well cared for, and yes, they seemed happy when compared to most of their relatives living in other countries.

During a short trip to Switzerland in July 2020, I observed and photographed cows at every opportunity. They ate a perfectly green grass dotted with daisies, dandelions, in the company of bees (I wonder if domesticated or wild), inserted in postcard settings, sometimes framed by snowy mountains, others bathed by a warm light at the end of long summer days. But perhaps it is not the view that stands out the most, the bells soon gain prominence due to their omnipresence. If not all, most cows carry bells that make loud noises at the slightest movement of the head.

Cow with bell ate green grass and flowers
© Vitor Schietti
While they are eating or trying to get rid of swarms of flies that prowl their eyes and ears, when they walk or turn their heads in any direction, there are the bells, loud and clear, each with its own timbre. For those who are willing to try, it is possible to appreciate the sound as a song, a kind of organic orchestra… for a while. Soon the volunteer who sustains such effort will reach the conclusion that there is no harmony in this melody after all. Beauty quickly becomes discomfort, but soon this melody is advertised as pleasant with marketing techniques from those who want to sell the products of this system. So for whom are those bells pleasant to? I don’t think it’s pleasant to spend most of your days with a bell around the neck. Could that be taken as common sense? Is it not a logical conclusion?

This seemingly harmless act, that of tracking the location of each animal by the ring of the bell that it is obliged to take wherever it goes, is a true act of torture. Permanent hearing damage is added to psychological and behavioral damage, as shown in the studies conducted in 2014 mentioned in this article.

Even if cultural resistance to the already debated idea of implementing satellite trackers was overcome (an idea apparently discarded, since 6 years have passed since that study), finding more effective and less invasive ways of tracking the animal is not the solution. The improvement of conditions, although desirable as an intermediate stage, will fall short from actually being a stage into something else if not followed by further steps to achieve a profound change of paradigm.

Improving a slave’s living conditions does not make him/her free, it makes him/her a slave with more comfort. 

wooden cow shelter wall with window and cow looking out
© Vitor Schietti

It is clear that Swiss cows enjoy better living conditions than their peers who live confined in restricted spaces, in shelters that are not so well equipped, subjected to not so adequate food and higher doses of hormones and antibiotics. But as they enjoy better conditions, will they also enjoy the dignity that should be rightfully theirs? Are they being treated with the due respect that deserves beings similar to us in so many ways? Will they have the opportunity, within their animal universe that differs from the human, but not completely, to form a family and develop friendships, to have free will and to die a natural death? Can they finally experience what we call happiness?

 The cows in Switzerland remind me of the story of Plato’s cave.

If they could speak, in an imaginary dialogue they could even tell us that yes, they are happy. They do not know what real freedom is, and the limited, constructed version of freedom they live by seems not only sufficient even desirable. How unfair it would be to accuse its zealous owners of practicing exploitation, let alone torture and murder! 

These are not words that seem to match a typical Swiss farmer. But even if I’ms not here to judge the nature of each farmer, nor to condemn them as immoral or vile, is the systemic relationship that farmers have with their flock really far from these harsh conclusions? Will the esteem that farmers develop for the animals they raise be equivalent to the dignity they provide them in perpetuating the perverse logic of animal submission to utilitarianism and the objectification imposed on sentient beings? The system is cruel, I understand, but it is supported by individual choices.

Swiss cows have protection against predators (the few that still exist, in steady decline, such as wolves and bears). In exchange for comfortable shelters, abundant and natural food, and apparently healthy daily mobility, they “give” their milk for humans. Milk is, of course, the main ingredient of the wide range of dairy products and by-products (11 and 33 thousand tons of Swiss milk are exported a year). Their bodies, in turn, are the fruit of a selective process that, over millennia, has transformed them into a species farther and farther away from its wild ancestors.

Swiss cows grazing
© Vitor Schietti

Some of the modern cows close relatives, like the Indian Bison, the Banteng, the American Bison and the Wild Yak still exist in the wild. They endure due to protection policies and for past reintroduction measures, but overall their populations decrease since they are usually killed by humans for food, game, traditional medicine and horns. When advocating for the reintroduction of modern cows into wild, a logical step following their abolition as slave animals, a common argument will be that “They will no longer know how to live like wild animals, so they would rapidly go extinct”. But that is without considering the incredible adaptability of nature in retaking lost territories, adapting, reinventing and persisting.

“They will not be able to live without the protecting and providing hand of their owners”, some will affirm. They forget to consider the incredible protective force of oxen, even domesticated ones, as they would protect to the herd, if only they were allowed to reach adult life in the same quantities as cows do.

 

Right there another rather inconveniente question may rise: where are the oxen, if there are so many more cows than their male peers grazing? They are not there because they serve other purposes for this elaborate industry. They serve meat consumption, many of them slaughtered as young as 30 days and sold under the name “veal”, a by-product of the dairy industry.

group of cows grazing
© Vitor Schietti

 This group of cows was photographed in Gastlosen in their late adolescence as they were grazing apparently unconcerned, but perhaps not for much longer.

Cows will soon be inseminated to become mothers for the first time, and while some bulls are kept for a little longer for the extraction of semen and fertilization of cows, others will become ingredients on feed for domestic animals and fertilizers for the field. Bulls born from dairy cows are not often raised primarily for the meat market since their bodies are not the better fit for that (their mothers were bred for another end). Cows will also turn into meat slices once their dead bodies are worth more than their milk, when it eventually becomes scarce, around the 5th or 6th successive gestation. So after a few years of ringing bells while grazing the beautiful green hills, male or female cows will eventually be taken to a slaughterhouse, relieving the farmer of this arduous task. This part of the process is usually kept conveniently out of the public eye, for whom, at best, animals will be respected when they receive a “humanized death”, whatever that means.

 

Only the bucolic, semi-free and apparent tranquil face of the assembled theater is visible, the compelling idea of happy cows grazing with their tuned bells.

supermarket counters with milk and cheese
©Vini Todero

In the packaging of organic cottage cheese, a cartoon cow plays a guitar. What a true artist! She seems to be happy. She must have already forgotten her missing siblings. She also lost her hearing but she has learned to live without it. Generation after generation, most of the milk that her bodies produced for the calf will be stolen by another species, which detains and explores her. She does not even pay so much attention to the human arm entering her anus while a rod enters her vagina to artificially inseminate her. She ignores the pleasure of sex, she is unskilled in mating rituals, she has never been able to learn them.

 

In that break for a snack, I kept the urge to fight that naive argument, I wanted to discuss the happiness of the cows, and talk about our power to choose whether or not to participate in this scenario. But I don’t do it, I already know how “radical” my ideas will sound. I take pictures, write this article, draw the door to the exit of this dystopia we live in and hope to inspire the entry into a utopia that awaits us on the other side. My friend will have to go through that door alone. I hope at least it won’t be long after enjoying a buttered toast seasoned with alpine herbs that, after all, we all know, didn’t really come from a happy cow

Vitor Schietti

Vitor Schietti

If not working to make this world better than what I found it, then what else for?

© Vitor Schietti

The next steps recommended by The Vegan Utopia:

As a consumer, you can:

  • Stop consuming animal milk, organic or not.
  • Stop consuming cheeses, fresh or cured, whatever. All cheese comes from milk, all milk is the product of a necessarily exploratory, unjust system, incompatible with respect for animal life in all its beauty and complexity.
  •  Find out about the protein value of plant sources, thus knowing the opposite side to what was made myth that we need milk to obtain calcium and proteins.
  •  Discover the flavor of vegan cheeses if you can’t imagine a diet without that rich flavor. There are excellent products on the market.

 

 Does it all seems a difficult decision to take? We are here to help you with the transition, which you will soon notice, is neither difficult nor unpleasant. The Veginners course is being been carefully put together by our team, presented by Vitor Schietti in several video-classes divided in four chapters.

As a farmer, you can:

  • Make the transition from livestock to agriculture, as is the case with this moving story.
  • Learn about permaculture and agroforestry and seek the possible balance within the ecosystem of your region. The presence of animals in the cycles of some permaculture practices can be advantageous for the cycle as a whole, but it can also be conducted with maximum freedom and respect for that animal life, which does not need to be milked or killed. Just be alive.
  • Take the lead in a growing market that is becoming increasingly mainstream, and optimize your market presence in a profitable, sustainable and environmentally friendly manner. 

We’re structuring a course specially dedicated to helping ranchers make the transition from the livestock business to the agriculture business. If you know any specialists on this field, we’d love to hear from you, write us an email

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