Mad Cows & Angry Bovines: Are
They Trying to Tell Us Something?
If August is the month for mad dogs, April may have opened the season for crazy cows. For well before the California Mad Cow cases, we’ve been reading reports about the oh-so-benign-looking bovines, to make anyone consider switching to Veganism, and stop blaming their farts for the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
In the past six months of so, we’ve seen stories about how the Colorado Forest Service is contemplating exploding a remote cabin full of cow carcasses (don’t ask yet), how to survive an angry bovine attack, and how to harness their urine to power whole farms. If you think that doesn’t sound so bad, have you ever approached an angry cow to ask them to pee on demand? We didn’t think so.
It is, of course, a consequence of our increased dependence on bovines for food, that even city dwellers know now a lot about their quirk and surprisingly volatile personalities than a few years ago. Then, expressions such as Pink Slime and Meat Glue would most likely belong to the vocabulary used in kindergarten, not at school cafeterias, or uttered by hushed elected officials.
Few would be talking about ‘gang of cows’ then, or industrial-sized cow-washing facilities, and the thought of scientists studying cow pies to determine diet quality and pasture rotation, well, that would be considered typical nonsense of city folk. Yet, it’s all part of the reality of managing some 100-million head of cattle in the U.S. alone, which is not even the biggest in the world.
It is when such proximity, and the nightmarish logistics of handling them as a highly profitable industry, start to seep through our food chain that things become dangerously out of control. No amount of shameless grandstanding by political leaders is capable to cover up the realization that we may be gambling with our own lives every time we go for the beef. Or poultry, for that matter.
SPONGY BRAINS ALERT
When cases of Mad Cow disease spread out in the U.K. a few years ago, it became clear that the industry would go to any length to quell fears that the country’s whole supply of meat was contaminated. Even when it didn’t know whether that was entirely true. Since the cases were few, and thousands of animals were quickly euthanized, soon enough the crisis was all but declared gone.
Despite the shocking images of the victims, both humans and the cows, suffering the effects of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, most people simply moved on and the whole crisis was all but forgotten. Meat consumption is on the rise again, both in the U.K. as in the rest of the world, with the exception perhaps of some Southeast Asian countries.
In the U.S., we may see a repeat of that performance by the food industry, but in a larger scale. Since last week’s two California cases, other farms have been put in quarantine, and health inspectors are working overtime to make sure the continuous supply of meat to the markets won’t be interrupted. As in the U.K., less emphasis may be put into educating the U.S. consumer about the risks.
It may as well be just a fluke, and fears of contamination remain just that, fears. Mad Cow disease is horrifying but its outbreak is not too hard to control. Much more difficult is to connect that with the way bovines and farm animals in general are raised to feed us in this country. The unsanitary and inhumane conditions most likely will remain the same, after the crisis has passed.
It’s no wonder, given the staggering value the industry represents for the U.S. economy, and how ingrained it is the habit of eating animals for our daily nourishment, and we mean eating meat every single day, as it happens in this country.
Risking jumping the stun gun here, it’s almost certain that this opportunity will be missed. Then again, matters of nutrition, consumption and public health have been so politicized lately as to alienate the majority of Americans, who, yes, need to know more about what they’re feeding their children, but also need to get on with their own lives.
DARK SIDE OF THE MOO
In India, attacks by wild animals on people and farm animals are always on the rise, because human populations have been constantly spreading out through their territory. Once a tiger, for example, attacks and eats a pig or a daily laborer, it’ll come back for more, for it’s such an easy kill. Or so say those who know about these things; we wouldn’t dare either way, of course.
It’s possible that something similar has been happening in this country. Except that here, it’d be a case of cow, or bull, on human. Yes, there are mountain lions, and wolves, and coyotes, and bears, and what not, but we can’t talk about everything here, OK? Moving on. Where were we? Oh, yes, the angry cows.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the agency that keeps watch on this sort of thing, 108 people died from ‘cattle-induced’ injuries across the U.S., between 2003 and 2008. ‘Blunt force trauma to the head or chest’ is cited in the majority of cases. Even if a third of the victims worked in close proximity to the animals, that still leaves a hefty sum of kicks for the rest of us.
So the good folks at the agency, who has already published instructions on how to Survive a Zombie Apocalypse, have put out guidelines to outlive an attack from a hard-headed cow, or a rampage of some slightly insane bovines. It’s very useful, of course, but we often wonder why every single guide for surviving stressful situations starts by: first of all, keep calm.
They may be dangerous, they may get mad, and they’re not what you’re thinking. But farm animals in general, and cows in particular, are a captive source of research, from studies about nutrition to environmental pollution, from crowd control exercises to photo-op for political candidates on the prowl.
As usual, the Improbable Research has already honored research in the field. That’s the case of Cow Pieology 101 – The Study of Cow Pies, by Tom R. Troxel, head of the Department of Animal Science at the Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural Food and Life Sciences. Pieology may not be science but yields valuable insights to farmers, helping determine feeding schedules and pasture rotation.
Another research being conducted is to develop ways of extracting the urea from the cows’ urine, to use its two atoms of hydrogen to create fuel cells that may serve to power farms with cheap energy. Since waste is a big part of any food production facility, if it can be reused as fuel, it may considerably cut costs of the whole operation.
Cutting costs is also behind the cow wash contraption that has been adopted by some British farmers. The idea is an adaptation from the old-fashioned car wash, with its brushes and soap and everything. It’s modified and installed next to the milking barn, so herds can pass through, one by one, and get clean. With less chance, of course, of kicking and killing an attendant in the process.
BLOWING UP FROZEN COWS
The gloves should be off for this next one. Now imagine a group of cows roaming free in the Gunnison National Forest, last spring, when suddenly a cold snap catches them off guard. What a cow to do? What, seek shelter in an isolated cabin in the mountains, of course. The only thing is, as savvy as these frolickers seemed to be, they forgot a crucial detail: the cabin had no heat.
They, sadly, froze to death, and now that the winter is gone, they present a formidable problem for the local forest service. If they are, er, allowed to thaw and decompose in the warmer weather, they may ruin the forest’s hot-springs. Another way, trying to load them on trucks would be against the service’s own ban on vehicles in the area.
So, what a forest service to do? What, explode the cows, of course, dynamite them, bomb them, however big gun you may be thinking you’d use to get the job done, they’ve probably already considered it. Anything that could turn them into ‘manageable frozen chunks’ that can be easier to remove. And you thought you knew everything there’s to know about your burger, eh?
But just so you don’t think that we’re trying to spoil your next meal, this is standard procedure, really. At least if you know a bit about the USDA, which just happens to have come out with just the thing the Colorado rangers may need to make their day: a memo called, you guess it, Obliterating Animal Carcasses With Explosives.
It has all the necessary graphs and proportions between ammunition caliber and amount needed and carcass weights, where to place the explosives, use of detonators, measuring distances, useful resources, the works. It shows they know their stuff, no question about it.
At the end of the day, however one slices it or how bizarre or disproportionate it all may look, it does make sense.
You probably noticed too how fast we’ve jumped from one incredibly picturesque situation, that of a group of cows playing in the snow-covered Rocky Mountains, to the grim reality of bits of frozen flesh and blood being dispersed violently by a big explosion. All without explaining how the hell those cows could have found an abandoned cabin in a snowstorm and still failed to survive.
Even the doomed Donner Party had a better rate of survival. Anyway, the rangers will still have to keep bears and other wildlife away from the remnants of the carcasses, after the explosion, because we never know, maybe they all died because one or two of them were mad cows.
No matter what, though, we have no plans of spending time in the Rocky Mountains any time soon. But we will watch the entire footage of the explosions on YouTube.