Sunday, April 5, 2020 -
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Separation anxiety, for calves, from ice cream

I never really formally sat down to watch the Oscar awards before. Years ago, one of my roommates hosted an Oscars viewing party and I saw parts of it as I came in and out of the living room. This year two friends and I decided to watch them together.

I was going to order pizza, but then the others said no, they’ll have both eaten dinner by then. Instead I put out other snacks, among them, Haagen Dazs ice cream cups.

As the night progressed with my friends’ hilarious peanut gallery commentary — I mean the pretentiousness, shallowness and disconnect of Hollywood is astounding!

One of my friends who has been a devotee of Oscars viewing quipped, “Oscar became a grouch,” as the night of awards wore on.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate a really well done story told through the medium of a movie just as much as the next person. Often, a truly good film is a rare thing, though.

This year I had seen the film adaptation of the beloved “Little Women,” the movie about Mr. Rogers, “A Beautiful Day in The Neighborhood” and still plan on seeing the movie “1917.” I am grateful for them.

But as the brief acceptance speeches wore on — here and there was an authentically humble and inspiring one — overall seeing actors use this platform with rushed political commentary, as if because they are talented at repeating someone else’s smart lines they are entitled to suddenly turn into influential political analysts, is ridiculous and annoying.

If all these actors have ever done is act, with no other professional life experience, then stick to the topic of acting and gratitude for the award.

Then came the “craziest” acceptance speech of all.

It was from Joaquin Phoenix. He seemed to try to squish into his limited time up on stage with a captive audience of millions so many injustices he felt important to address. Suddenly he starts talking about dairy farming and cows and calves, criticizing the industry, specifically the separation of mama cows from their newborn baby calves, all to maximize the cow’s milk production to satisfy human consumption.

As my friends were groaning and rolling in laughter as well as rolling their eyes, I was like, hey actually, he might be a kook but on this he has a point.

Years ago when I was teaching a science unit devoted to agriculture I decided to make it fun and titled a unit devoted to learning and understanding the workings of a dairy farm and the process of milk production “Making Ice Cream.” It worked. Every single student was super-motivated and it didn’t hurt that we had an ice cream making party as a culminating project.

But as I researched the unit more and more, for the first time I read about how newborn baby calves are separated from their mothers within mere hours, and sometimes even minutes, of their birth. Goaded by this very upsetting information about the breaking of a bond between a mother and baby in the natural world, I read more. I read about the cries of anguish of the mother cows and the baby cows and about how the milk we are consuming is essentially the milk that was intended for the baby calves, but instead gets mass produced for our human consumption.

I told my friends about this and how it had caused me to stop using milk or cream in my coffee, and milk in general; instead I switched to a plant based milk (which is anyway healthier).

Then we all just paused and broke into laughter. I mean, I had planned to order in pizza and was literally holding a spoon deep in a Haagen Dazs cup as I stated this.

Haagen Dazs is ice cream, not milk, was my quick and joking reply — as we all burst into another round of laughter.

While Joaquin Phoenix may have had a point in raising awareness about the plight of these baby calves, it was executed in an uninformed and simplistic manner.

Randomly knocking dairy farmers without explaining the complexity of dairy farming is misleading. Often, these baby calves are separated from their mothers for their own protection, so they do not become exposed to or contaminated by disease that is potentially present on a farm and that the babies’ immune systems would not be strong enough to fight.

Breeding cows for milk consumption has been done for thousands of years. If done right, with consideration to the Torah’s mandate of “tza’ar ba’alei chaim” — not to cause animals pain — it is perfectly fine. The problem is that the mass production in the dairy industry has grown to levels where at times it can be challenging to produce milk with compassion for the animals.

We are not talking about a little farm where the farmer personally sits bent over a pail and milks a cow with his or her bare hands, and the milk is somehow on the supermarket shelf for us to drink.

That said, who more than farmers work so hard, day in and day out, at the mercy of the elements? Who better than farmers know and care for the land, work the land, and are actually connected to nature and animals?

There is something of a disconnect to hear a privileged actor—someone who at best can play a farmer, simplistically and dismissively painting the entire dairy industry so negatively.

As this was on my mind, within the following day or two, an article serendipitously came to my attention about the Israeli Dairy, Yotvata, which will be the first dairy to launch a pilot project that will not separate female calves from their mothers right after birth.

It’s not clear to me why the pain of baby male calves is not considered. Nor the pain of their mothers. It seems a difficult scenario to picture mama cows in a shed together, but those who birthed females have their babies by their side, and those who birthed males, will still be experiencing the primal pain of separation, and now perhaps also the added pain of seeing some of their fellow birth mothers with their young.

Perhaps I am reading too much into it. Perhaps too, Yotvata has thought of this, and will separate cows who get to keep their young from those who don’t.

I assume it has to do with caring for cows who will be future milk producers, and since male calves will be bulls and not milk producers their farm placement is different. Clearly, there is still much work to be done in this aspect of dairy farming.

Nonetheless, I was so proud to see Israel as the first to take a step in the right direction of producing milk humanely.

Now I have my work cut out for me too: limiting my ice cream consumption, ending my cognitive dissonance between milk and ice cream.

I got more from the Oscars than I bargained for. If I watch them again next year, I will have to serve crudites.

Copyright © 2020 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Tehilla R. Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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