The search for paradise on Earth has a long tradition in the history of mankind, but this article won’t be about human happiness. Let’s look at the promised land from a perspective other than our own.
A few years ago, I experienced a completely unfounded fondness for cows. Unfounded, because I didn’t personally know a single cow. I didn’t live in the countryside, so I only had sporadic contact with these creatures. I tried explaining this sudden interest in various ways, for instance that my grandfather had been a vet and had looked after cows in the Podlasie region. Granted, he died when I was two years old, so didn’t have the chance to pass anything onto me himself, but perhaps there was some secret genetic force at work?
The feeling was so strong that during a trip to the Warmian countryside in north-east Poland, I told my friend who lived there about my desire to meet some cows, touch them, maybe even learn how to milk them. I didn’t have to wait long for my dream to come true. My friend sent me to collect some cheese from a farmer who owned a herd of cows and had for many years produced what would nowadays be sold as ‘artisanal’ cheese.
As I collected the cheese, I dared to ask about the cows and quickly put forward my offer to help out with the animals and learn to milk them. I didn’t even know what that meant yet.
The farmer agreed. He lived a solitary life with his herd, the daily work was almost too much for him to handle. What just a moment before had seemed like a hazy vision, suddenly became reality. I would take care of the cows, learn to milk them and help with the production of cheese. My encounter with these animals changed my life, leading it onto a different track. I’m going to introduce you to a few of these lady cows I met in the Warmian pastures. Cows that are – like every living being – exceptional.
In comparison to industrial farms, the place where I learnt about the lives of cows would certainly seem like paradise. The animals were completely free to move around, they had several pastures to roam and could decide where to sleep, rest or nibble plants. For a herd animal – which instinctively knows what is good for itself and its young – providing space and the company of animals of the same species is fundamental. Add to that a person who respects his flock and cares for it, and we’ve almost reached perfection.
Animal welfare is a watchword for animal rights defenders, environmentalists and farmers. The three might agree on certain issues, but not necessarily, because they might define this welfare in different ways. For some, welfare will only be what influences the quality of the product they obtain from rearing animals. For others, what’s good for the animal will rank above its market or productive value. One side might accuse the other of being detached from reality, citing solid market principles or production and profitability. The others will point to feelings, respect for life itself and love for all sentient beings. I try not to judge either approach, although I’m definitely closer to the second one. We live in a world of many values, some of which are mutually exclusive, but I believe most can be reconciled if there’s enough will to do so.
But what is welfare for the cow itself?
Mona the Doyenne
First of all I will describe Mona, the founder of the herd, with whom I had the pleasure of spending some time. Mona is a Jersey cow. At this point, it’s worth saying something about this breed: “There is no cow more tractable, or indeed loveable, than the little Jersey, and if you want a friend as well as a milk supply I strongly recommend her.” These are the words of John Seymour, author of The Guide to Self-Sufficiency, a bible for people who find fulfilment living in harmony with nature, for whom ecology and respect for the environment are values. I could not agree more: Jerseys are incredibly emotional and enjoy contact with humans. Our first meeting went well, Mona let me stroke her, sniffed me and licked me with her huge, coarse tongue. Her daughters and granddaughters watched me closely. The elder is getting on a bit, she produces less milk than before and of a lower quality. She walks more slowly and is much thinner than her companions. But her intelligent gaze and attachment to humans make you feel like you’re dealing with a mature and fulfilled individual.
Maruna the Gentle
Next I’ll introduce you to Mona’s daughter, Maruna. She’s a little bigger than her mother, and like her, is the colour of milky coffee. She casts a smouldering glance at you from beneath her enchanting eyelashes. It sounds odd, but if you take a close look at a Jersey you’ll see they really do have smouldering eyes. I won’t mention their fringes so I don’t sound completely out of my mind. Maruna is level-headed, calm and patient. She was the one with whom I learnt the tricky art of milking, which is perhaps why I survived my lesson injury-free. She stood there as dignified as usual and only began to display her impatience after about 15 or 20 minutes of my attempts to fully milk her.
Closeness and milking
Milking is an activity that’s getting quickly out of fashion. Nowadays, the animals are attached to a machine, the machines are plugged in and off they go. Well, not quite, because you mustn’t forget to keep all the machinery clean and that takes a bit of effort. These days, finding people in the countryside who milk by hand is almost a miracle – I know because I tried, I asked around, not just in Warmia or Masuria, but in other parts of Poland, too. Older people can still do it, young people have absolutely no interest in learning this skill.
Learning to milk a cow was not the most pleasant experience; it takes dexterity, endurance, good reflexes and resilience faced with ubiquitous flies and other winged insects. Dexterity helps with mastering the technical side of milking. Reflexes – for grabbing a falling bucket or shielding yourself from a kick or a swipe of the tail. The swarms of hovering insects then fade into the background. You can get used to anything, to be sure, but it takes a lot of perseverance. Nonetheless, time spent milking cows is a moment of true closeness. After milking comes the stroking, thanking them for the milk they have shared. The cows I milked roam freely and aren’t herded anywhere inside at night – they can sleep outside if they want to. They also aren’t driven into a barn for milking – it’s done in the field. Sometimes they come up to the house, so at least then you don’t have to lug the buckets of milk from far-away meadows. The cows come when they feel they have too much milk and want to be milked – they know it will make them more comfortable.
I understood later what kind of tie had formed between us, when I visited the herd after a long time away. First, the cows recognized me – so they’d remembered me. Second, when they saw me, the ones I’d milked walked over joyfully and wanted to be stroked. The others looked on for a moment but generally accepted my presence with sympathetic indifference.
Animals as healers
For years, animals have comforted humans in supportive therapies known under the general term of zootherapy. We’ve used the healing powers of horses and dogs for years. But that’s not all – there’s onotherapy, which donkeys have provided us since the 1960s, and there are therapy pigs, too.
Felinotherapy, in which the therapeutic role is played by cats, gives noticeable benefits, such as: improved mood, reduced levels of fear, reduced feelings of loneliness, motivation to act, increased release of endorphins, stimulation of the immune system, lower blood pressure. The same could be true for cows. At Mountain Horse farm in the United States, as well as sessions with horses you can treat yourself to a session with a cow. It’s been shown that spending time with this animal, touching and stroking it, lowers blood pressure.
‘Ageladotherapy’ is the term I have coined for the purposes of this article, echoing the Greek origins of the term hippotherapy. It’s a domain in which you can become a pioneer – at least in Poland. And I guarantee there is nothing more calming or soothing than hugging a cow’s hairy coat with its aroma of meadows or hay. That big herbivorous milk factory with four compartments in its stomach that have wonderfully imaginative names: the paunch (rumen), the honeycomb (reticulum), the bible or fardel (omasum) and the maw (abomasum) – that is, the true stomach.
Since observing animals in their natural environment reduces levels of stress, perhaps it’ll soon be prescribed by doctors, like walks in the forest are in some countries. Watching the zen masters of the pastures – because it’s hard not to grant them that title when they keep their cool when crowned by a garland of nagging flies, which they deal with on a daily basis in summer – can also be good for people. Summer passes, the stubborn horde of insects disappears, and our heroines happily welcome the windy and rainy days.
Marina – strength and character
Mona’s granddaughter – still young but already an adult. She’s darker than the rest of the herd, with beige legs and belly, her back chocolate-brown. She stands out amid her fairer companions in the meadow. I never milked Marina because not long after I arrived, she gave birth to her daughter Melinda. Her child wasn’t taken away, as happens in most farms (not only industrial ones). Her calf was with her. She was milked, but only so much as to ensure she still had enough for her offspring. Milking a cow that’s also feeding a calf takes expertise – it was a job for the farmer. After the birth, Marina and Melinda spent a lot of time away from the herd; it was only when the calf grew a bit that they joined the others. Her aunts, grandmas and great-grandmas were kind to her, but she didn’t have any peers to play with, being the only calf in the group, and you could see she had an unfulfilled desire for frolicking.
Melinda, born out of wedlock
Melinda – Mona’s great-granddaughter, Marina’s daughter – had the misfortune to be a child born out of wedlock. No, I haven’t gone mad – let me explain. If there is no bull in a herd, the farmer calls in an inseminator. The deal was that he’d inseminate Marina with the sperm of a bull of the same breed, but something went wrong. It’s hard to establish if it was done on purpose or if it was an oversight and Melinda wasn’t a pure Jersey cow by accident. When she was born, she looked like a Jersey calf, but as she grew, it became more apparent that she stood out from the others. She was much bigger and heavier, darker in colour, with a longer coat. The farmer wasn’t happy with her. He felt she didn’t fit in the herd. I asked about her later on and I knew he didn’t want to keep her. If I could have bought her from him, I would have done it at the drop of a hat, but I didn’t have anywhere to keep her. Her fate seemed sealed – she was destined to become meat. I feverishly racked my brains for a way to help her. I remembered about a friend who lived in a neighbouring village and owned two cows. Free cows. Perhaps Melinda could join them?
Bombona and Butla, or freedom and a dignified retirement
Butla is a pensioner, her daughter Bombona is approaching her 10th birthday, and the expression ‘free cows’ describes them to a T. They were lucky enough to end up with a farmer who also happens to be an environmentalist, vegetarian, poet and a very sensitive person. They certainly are fortune’s favourites, looking at things from a cow’s point of view.
For a while they produced milk, but that didn’t define their existence. They weren’t seen as farm animals that had to be useful and provide a living. They were and still are, despite their advanced age, above all living beings. The person they found themselves with was able and willing to give them a dignified life until the very end. Where did Butla come from? She came from her mother Alicja, whose story is also uplifting. As a young heifer, Alicja was bought from a herd of animals intended for slaughter. She found a good home. Alicja always trod her own paths, she wouldn’t let herself be impregnated by human intervention, she just disappeared from the meadow one day and when she came back it turned out she was going to have a baby. That baby was Butla, and although Alicja’s owner couldn’t keep her, luck was on her side from the start and she was passed into the best hands.
In her childhood and youth, Butla spent her time on the field next to the road, watching passers-by and passing cars. She spent her time with dogs and over time began to behave like them, too. She was very friendly. Some boys had a football pitch on the meadow, and on more than one occasion she refused to leave her strategic spot and so stood in goal for the local matches.
But the time came for her to provide milk and her owner summoned the inseminator. Just like her mother, Butla decided to find her partner herself – the repeated attempts at insemination all ended in fiasco. In the end she ran away, leaving the field, and only then returned with an offspring in her belly. Bombona’s birth came to light when the farmer realized Butla was delivering her placenta – meaning that the calf was already born but nobody knew where it was. Combing the nearby fields didn’t turn up anything; there was no newborn. After a few hours, the farmer stumbled upon the small cow next to his house, and it wasn’t a gentle greeting. Bombona met him with a kick, which established her future relations with people in general – there’s no hope of making friends with her. Ever since, she’s kept her distance and everything has to be on her terms. It’s not that she completely avoids contact – she’ll let you scratch her forehead or muzzle, but only when she feels like it. I ask Butla and Bombona’s owner if keeping cows that bring him no profit in the form of milk or cheese is a burden. He says very honestly that it isn’t an enormous expense. His cows have a meadow, for which the European Union gives subsidies, and they trim that meadow. Of course, in winter he feeds them extra bales of hay, but he usually prepares them himself; if he has to buy them, they’re not very expensive either. He stresses that cows used for milk production can require a bit more expenditure. The idea of Melinda joining them seems a good and feasible one.
Free means happy
Free cows – this was a concept that appeared in the Polish press and headlines of online news sites with the story of a free-roaming herd in the Lubuskie region (which narrowly avoided slaughter thanks to a public campaign to save them). In that case, it was about a herd that had started to live outside human control. As I hear more stories, I start to daydream about a Cow Liberation Front. Dominated and forced to serve human goals, they’re cruelly deprived of their offspring. It seems like man has imposed their meek behaviour on them. To a great extent this is of course true, but as I drive around villages I hear stories of defiant members of the species. The stories don’t end well, most often in abattoirs. Individual cases like that of Bombona, who was allowed to step out of the submissive paradigm, are exceptions.
In the case of cows who do have an owner, being free means being able to do what is best for them at a given time. Of course, animals know about plants, they can pick the ones that are good for them; they know which ones have beneficial effects. It’s knowledge that’s been encoded for generations. If they aren’t allowed outside and don’t have contact with nature, but stand squeezed into a room and fed silage, it’s hard to imagine them being healthy, let alone happy.
We don’t yet know how Melinda’s story ends. While there’s readiness to adopt her into the two-strong herd of Butla and Bombona – though just how those ladies would react to a newcomer is an interesting point – her owner hasn’t been persuaded. That’s the cow’s plight: it’s man who determines the scope of freedom and life for them. Melinda still grazes in the company of her mother, aunts, grandmother and great-grandmother. I hope that’s how it’ll be for as long as possible, but it’s so difficult to plan anything these days.
Translated from the Polish by Zosia Krasodomska-Jones
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