This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in March 2015.
For most farm animals, the future is already decided before they are even born. I'm not a vegetarian, but still often think of the animals behind my meals. Sometimes I'll drive past a truck and see a pig snout or tail protrude from the bars. I'll quietly hope that one of the pigs manages to make a heroic escape—not because I watched Babe too much as a child, but because I sincerely want one to have the freedom to live to a ripe old age.
I couldn't imagine that some farmers never develop a bond with their animals, so I searched for an alternative to the slaughterhouse. It turns out that some cows, horses, and pigs in the Netherlands also have the opportunity to retire—and their retirement homes appear to be a lot better than ours.
A Dutch dairy cow produces more than 8,000 liters of milk per year. Physiologically speaking, her daily output requires about as much energy as it would take for a human to walk eight hours per day. To keep up milk production, cows have to give birth every year. (Pregnancy usually happens artificially, so there's zero passion in the cowshed.) After an average of 5.3 years of this routine, the cow stops producing milk and is then brought to the slaughterhouse.
On the Dutch livestock forum VeeteeltForum, dairy farmers often talk about the sometimes difficult task of saying goodbye. Though a cow can actually live to be 15 to 25 years old, most dairy farmers would probably agree that "an old cow is nice to have, but one is enough," as one farmer notes there.
But there are cows for whom the future is less grim—for example, those who end up at the Foundation Leemweg, the bovine nursing home of Bert Hollander.
Hollander grew up on a dairy farm, but as a boy he hated when a cow was brought to the slaughterhouse. He's refused to eat meat, he tells me, fearing that his favorite cow would end up on his plate. Later on, when he got the chance to take over the farm from his parents, he wanted to convert it into a music studio—until he saw two old cows grazing on the pasture and decided that animals are just as entitled to a good retirement as humans. Now, farmers contact him if they want to save one of their cows from the slaughterhouse.
Hollander gives his cows a lot of love. "The psychology of a cow is basically the same as that of a man," he tells me. "You can get very close with a cow. They are smarter than cats or dogs. They listen to their name and to stand or sit on command."
The cows' accommodations on the farm are more expensive than a typical stall. Cows continue to grow until they are eight years old, so they need extra-large stalls with sand in which they can snuggle. Older cows often suffer from osteoarthritis and other uncomfortable symptoms of aging.
"Having an old cow is very economically unhelpful for many farmers," said Hollander. "A single cow's maintenance costs 150 euros per month." Caring for a cow that gives no milk costs about 18,000 euros in total. Because the farmers that bring their animals there pay only 40 euros per month, the farm runs primarily on donations from people who adopt cows.
Right now, there are 43 cows in Foundation Leemweg's shed, and there are seven spots still open.
Horses are not bred in the Netherlands for slaughter, but old or lame horses often go to the horse butcher. There are about 45,000 retired horses and ponies in the Netherlands, but only 32 horse retirement homes. Just one of them—De Paardenkamp in Soest—is not a commercial company. The home was founded more than 50 years ago, after the owner saw a horse going to the slaughterhouse and decided that, after a life of working hard, they deserved something better.
I spoke with manager Ijsbrand Muller, who told me what a day in the life of a retired horse looks like. Besides being inspected and cared for, laying a turd here and there, and taking a breath of morning-fresh air in the meadow, the horses do little but relax and eat. Elderly horses have 18 hours per day to chew their food because the teeth are the first thing that decays. Their hair goes gray, their backs droop, and they start to look more bony. Colic, arthritis, and diabetes-like disorders are typical aging characteristics.
After 20 years, a horse is officially elderly—but owners have to put their steeds on a waitlist for the Paardenkamp long before that. (Horses can reach about 35 years old, but Paardenkamp once had a Shetland pony that lived to 50.) The facility can house 120 horses; 800 are waiting for spots. An owner who wants to put his or her horse on the waiting list becomes a sponsor, paying 15 euros annually. When a horse is placed at Paardenkamp, the owner is supposed to cut the emotional cord, but can still come to visit their animal. In fact, anyone who wants to can visit and pet the elderly horses.
Grandma pigs don't have to turn into lunch meat, either. They can spend their final years in het Beloofde Varkensland (Promised Land of Pigs), a nonprofit organization set up by Dafne Westerhof. It welcomes pigs that would be otherwise doomed, no matter if they are too big or too old. They live together with a group of old cows and bulls, with whom they can burrow, sunbathe, rumble, run, or splash around in the mud baths as one big happy family. And every week, they get cuddled and massaged by strangers who come to visit.
One Sunday, I visit Westerhof to see firsthand what the life of a retired pig looks like. I pull on my boots and nearly slide—twice—through the swampy mud in order to climb over the fences and give all the animals a hug.
In the pig massage salon, Brave Dodo—a massive potbellied pig hidden under a pile of hay—jumps up and walks towards me. Westerhof saved him with her pig ambulance, a former bus converted into a mobile operating room that neuters, microchips, and tests pigs. Dodo likes me; he rubs so hard against me that I fall from my crouched position and onto my ass. I just let it happen, petting him until he plops down next to me with a satisfied grunt.
"May I hug the oldest pig on your farm?" I ask Westerhof. Soon, I'm spooning with La Mamma, a huge mother pig who has given birth to 170 piglets over the course of her life. A hard worker, she's earned her place here. She was allowed to keep her last piglet, and since then the two have become inseparable. "Pigs are like people. They prefer to live in a group," says Westerhof.
Everywhere around me, pigs are chilling. One poops right next to my head, but that's is quickly collected in a bucket. I also discreetly sniff my hugging partner and find that pigs don't stink as much as we think.
On the farm, there is also an old house in which pigs with dementia and joint problems get to hang out. On Sundays, they get a feast of warm applesauce and apple juice. "Because pigs are so similar to humans, they get the same medications," Westerhof tells me, explaining that she feeds them their arthritis pills in a peanut butter sandwich.
I've now hugged an old pig, been licked by an 18-year-old cow, and used a huge bull as a backrest while my arm hung on one of his horns. During those intimate moments, I was able to look my food in the eye.