As an animal lover, I have been a vegetarian for many years. The only animal products that I would eat were milk and honey. I followed a typical Indian diet that was high in fruits, dairy, rice and dal. In Hinduism, cows are a special animal, so many Indian dishes are made with dairy-especially desserts. However, when I was in my 20s, and my menstrual cramps started to become unbearable, I cut milk out of my diet.
It was a difficult transition to make, but I felt like I had no choice. Instantly, the cramps were gone. During the months I refrained from drinking milk, I had mild periods. When I would "slip," the extreme pain would return. Once, it was so painful that I was paralyzed in bed all morning.
I started to look into what's in our milk. Canadian dairy cows can legally be fed steroids, antibiotics, and even food containing animal parts. In fact, the Ontario government recommends feeding dairy cattle up to half a kilogram of tallow per day. Tallow is a common source of fat for dairy cows. Milk can also contain trace amounts of pesticides. This is all information I gathered freely from Canadian government websites.
Then I read Mad Cowboy, an exposé written by former American cattle rancher Howard F. Lyman, which was all the more shocking than anything on any government site. He reveals that although cattle are no longer fed other cattle due to FDA regulations, they regularly munch on ground horse, chickens, and the blood and fecal matter of their own species. Inedible parts of slaughtered animals, along with road kill and euthanized pets, are dumped into giant grinders , cooked (so that the fat rises to the top and can be skimmed for use in cosmetics), dried, and pulverized into powdered "concentrate" for livestock feed. A quarter of this concentrate is composed of fecal matter. There is no animal too diseased, cancerous, or putrid to be ground.
I wasn't able to find any information related to this matter on any Canadian government website, but since just last February we had our 19th case of mad cow, something wasn't right. Government sites were adamant about not using bovine growth hormones for dairy cows, and when someone on albertamilk.com asked about why calves were handled so roughly, the response was met with out-and-out denial. But was it true? Were Canadian dairy standards really so top-notch, given the short, five-year life expectancy of a Canadian dairy cow?
In fact, the Alberta dairy site even went so far as to claim that dairy, veal, and beef cows were all treated with the utmost respect and concern for their wellbeing. While the Albertan site stated that most male calves never become veal (although they are still separated from their mothers at young ages for "safety" reasons, and can even legally be shot if they get sick), an Ontario dairy site stated that most male calves were in fact raised for veal. A Quebec study exposed inhumane handling of calves as commonplace. Unless there is a substantial market difference between each Canadian province (which the government actively claims there isn't), someone is lying.
In Melanie Joy's book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism, she mentioned that economists warn about what can happen when any industry has a concentration ratio upwards of 4 companies controlling over 40% of the market (known as "CR4"): competitiveness declines and consumer protection weakens as public service intertwines with private interests. Conglomerates are able to set prices and determine food quality. There are 450 milk processors in Canada. Three of them process approximately 80% of the nation's milk-far exceeding the CR4 threshold.
When I stopped eating dairy products, this essentially made me a dietary vegan. Although I was following a plant-based diet, I didn't agree with the vegan philosophy that drinking milk was unnatural and that momma cow's milk should be only for her babies, regardless of how well the cows are treated. According to Vedic (ancient Indian) tradition, there are seven mothers: our birth mother, our guru's wife, the wife of any priest, any nurse, the queen, Mother Earth, and Mother Cow. There have been instances of cows giving their milk to not only humans, but monkeys and cats. No one who has ever owned a dairy cow would say that cows don't like to be milked. Cows are loving, motherly animals and hold a special place in Indian culture. When loved and treated well, they will happily give their excess milk to humans after their calves have had their fill. Dairy products are commonly used in Hindu rituals, as a sacred food produced by a sacred animal. I just could not get behind the vegan argument that drinking milk was fundamentally wrong.
I voiced these feelings to a vegan associate one day, and was met with this response:
"I don't think it's right that we use our culture as an excuse to do harm unto animals and our planet. To me it is not right that these cows are exploited and are treated as property. They deserve a free life. Vegetarian isn't enough."
He compared the Indian culture of loving, respecting, and even worshipping cows with the Western culture of slaughtering cows to eat meat. He then told me about all of the cruelties that dairy cows face in the West: being artificially inseminated (raped), being separated from their babies so the babies can be sold for veal, and being chained to milking machines and/or cooped up in crowded barns. Then, when they have nothing left to give, being sent to a slaughterhouse. These were all realities that I had read about when I conducted my research, but I didn't see any of these things as necessities in the dairy farming industry. Surely, things could change. What if there was a place where things were already being done differently?
If I ever doubted whether or not a vegetarian diet was sufficient, all of my doubts flew out of the window last month when I went on a pilgrimage to Vrindavan, India. Vrindavan is the holy land of Lord Krishna, the cowherd boy, who used to play in the forest with cows, calves, and other boys.
Today, cows still roam freely in Vrindavan, a city full of goshalas (cow sanctuaries). Milk products (also called ahimsa milk products, which translates to nonviolent or harm-free milk products) are obtained from these goshala cows, also known as "protected cows." These cows are loved, cherished, never separated from their calves, and never slaughtered. Because they are free to wander the streets during the day, when I was in India, I made sure I pet at least one cow a day. Interaction with cows was a regular part of my life. I photographed and took video footage of dozens of them. There were so many beautiful varieties of cows. They were both free and protected in the holy city, where they were lovingly treated as pets.
Because I had the opportunity to spend a limited amount of time in this radical place, where cows were actually treated as living beings, I was free to eat whatever I wanted without the guilt or harm to my health.
Any time I got a chance to eat at Govinda's restaurant (Govinda is another name of Lord Krishna, which translates to "one who gives pleasure to cows"), I would always order something with lots of dairy: pizza, cheese cake, or just a glass of hot milk. The milk tasted phenomenally different from anything I've ever had in Canada, where this goshala institution is not only unheard of, but illegal.
After I had a taste of milk at Govinda's, "the best and highest quality" Canadian milk suddenly seemed bland and watery. It felt like I was drinking milk for the first time. It was so rich and full of flavour.
When I returned to Canada, and my time of the month arrived, it was just as mild as it had been when I had completely refrained from milk.
Vegetarian is enough. We just need to start treating cows right.
Note: This post also appears on my personal blogs, and will be featured in the Care for Cows newsletter.