Milk is a big earner for New Zealand. According to the Ministry of Primary Industries, dairy reaped $13 billion for the country last year. But recent scandals have seen the New Zealand dairy industry lose its grip on the global market. In 2008 there was the infant formula that poisoned thousands of Chinese babies, and last year milk was recalled from several countries out of concern that it was tainted with botulism-causing bacteria. Then, this month, a video of a New Zealand worker bashing a calf to death emerged. The brutal footage was released as Chilean authorities investigate the huge NZ-owned company Manuka for animal abuse. The revelation caused red faces throughout both countries and prompted people to start looking at practices in New Zealand more closely.
Just like humans, cows need to make babies in order to produce milk. In New Zealand, nearly four million calves are born each year as a dairy industry byproduct. Around 1.7 million get sent to the slaughterhouse for beef, and the remaining calves are either sold for pet food, reared as replacements, or destroyed on the farm. But there are no records kept to separate these categories.
Hans Kriek from animal advocacy group SAFE says routine calf-bashing is one item on a long list of brutalities. The former animal-welfare inspector has seen the suffering of calves swept under the carpet to protect international reputation.
VICE: Hans, why is there so little monitoring about what happens to these calves?
Hans Kriek: Well, there are only about ten animal-welfare inspectors for the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI), and they have to deal with every single animal welfare issue in this country, where you have over 100 million animals. And some of the inspectors cover areas that are so phenomenally large there is no proactive monitoring at all with regard to the treatment of those calves.
The ministry says there are 56 inspectors… what’s the discrepancy there?
Well, recently, they suddenly gave inspector status to fishery officers and people who check for food-safety standards. They aren’t animal-welfare experts—they don’t know what to look for. So with regard to the proper animal-welfare enforcement there are only ten. For all animals in New Zealand.
Without proper monitoring, how do we know what happens to these calves?
We know what happens with the vast majority. The majority of them are removed from their mothers after a few days and taken to the slaughterhouse. So that’s the 1.7 million that MPI referred to. The industry has been holding that up as “Oh, look how humane we are. We take them to the slaughterhouse, and they are humanely killed.”
You don’t believe they are humanely killed?
Well, they take the little calf away from the mother, and I don’t know if you’ve ever witnessed it on a farm, but the bellowing of these cows is just incredible, because they are calling for their babies.
The calf is only four days old when it is put in a little box on the side of the road of a dairy farm, usually with a couple of other calves. And they can be starved of food for up to 36 hours. So there you have these baby animals who are still weak on their legs and sitting in these boxes without any food, waiting for the truck to come around. The truck drives around lots of farms, so it can take a while before they are picked up.
I used to be an animal-welfare inspector for the SPCA, and I dealt with complaints about the rough treatment of those bobby calves all the time.
What kind of stuff did you see?
Well, I've been at the slaughterhouse when the calves are unloaded. They have to come down a ramp, but they are so small and weak, and the ramp is so steep, that they don’t want to go. So you have these workers pulling them by their ears and holding them by their tails and dragging them off the ramp. Then they throw them in wheelbarrows, because some of them just can’t walk.
Finally, the animals are taken to the slaughterhouse, and they are shot in the head and killed, so that’s what the industry in New Zealand calls high standards and humane. In our book it’s absolutely inhumane.
What about the calves that remain on the farms. We don’t hear much about them.
Absolutely. There is absolutely no monitoring of what happens to them. For one, most calves are born too early, because in NZ there’s a process called calf induction. That’s when veterinarians inject the cows to abort their fetuses so the farmers can start milking the animal earlier, which is a brutal practice. And the fact the veterinary profession collaborates with the industry to do this—it’s appalling.
When I worked as an SPCA officer, I had a complaint about a dairy farm, and when I went out there I saw this pile of little calves that the farmer had bashed to death with a claw hammer.
You saw that on a farm?
Yeah, he had just bashed them on the head. So we don’t know how many calves in New Zealand are disposed of in this way, but the fact is that it’s not just a few. It is fairly routine practice.
Why do you think it took the calf-bashing video from Chile to raise the subject in New Zealand?
That’s the media for you, I suppose. The moment there is a bit of footage of something gruesome the media runs with it. But the fact is, when you have a dairy industry, you are going to have suffering calves and cows, no matter what. That’s the reality. And I think a lot of people don’t realize that. We still encounter people who have no idea that a cow has to be pregnant in order to produce milk.
The dairy industry is lauded as being wonderful for New Zealand because it brings in a lot of money, but there are downsides to that industry. We already know that there are severe environmental downsides. But now people can see there are animal-welfare downsides. I think that took people by surprise, even the media. The industry was trying to portray this as a one-off thing that happened in Chile, but as the story unfolded it became clear we routinely do it in New Zealand.
How do you explain the general feeling of apathy in the public before this came out?
I think people have busy lives, people have things to do, and so they by-and-large don't want to know. It’s like people who buy battery eggs. They don't want to know where those eggs come from. And in the case of the dairy industry, they don’t really want to know how the milk gets to the supermarket. And what the consequences are for the animals.
So what could the government do better?
First of all, they should appoint an independent welfare watchdog. This could be a commissioner for animals for instance, like we have a commissioner for children. So then you have an organization that can solely advocate for animals, and they don’t have to look at economic facts or at farmers' interests.
What is SAFE’s ultimate goal with regard to dairy farming?
Well, from our point of view, you can lead a very happy and healthy life without having a dairy industry. I haven’t consumed dairy for over two decades, and I’m perfectly fine. So from that point of view, SAFE would encourage people to consume far fewer dairy products. Ideally speaking, none at all. Because that’s what pays off for the animals.