30 Sep BOVINES USED FOR THEIR SKIN
Cows* have complex social lives; like humans, they’re picky over who gets to be their friend, they have best friends with whom they experience separation anxiety, they hold grudges with those they dislike, and they have social hierarchies. Herd leaders are established by who is most intelligent, confident, and inquisitive. Cows have close family bonds, and babies naturally suckle their mother for up to a year of age. Cows stress and mourn the separation of family members, especially the separation of mother and child. Calves are playful and cheeky, they play fight together, wagging their tails like dogs so the adult cows know their ‘hustles’ are just for fun.
Cows are individuals and when testing their responses to different stimuli this is very clear. Some are timid, some are boisterous, and I see this in the cows I have rescued and the friends that they live with. I’ve seen them flirt, be sneaky, be nervous. I’ve seen them exclude certain members of the herd and run off with their best friend, just like you might in a school playground. I’ve seen them as the loving, complex, funny, feeling, sentient beings that they are. The below image is of a cow I rescued called Elira, right before she gave me a big slobbery kiss.
This article is about the leather industry and cows. About shoes, car seats, bags, jackets, couches and belts. About an industry that sells the skin of these beautiful animals, so that we can wear, sit on and use them.
WHAT IS LEATHER?
Leather is skin. By the time it gets to us, it’s easy for that to be forgotten, as the skin is preserved through a process called tanning, which uses strong, polluting and dangerous chemicals to stop the skin from naturally decomposing.[i] Before this process occurs, the skin looks a lot more like what it is – skin and flesh ripped off the carcass of a dead cow. Bloody and covered in fur. I took the cover image for this article of dead skins in a pool of blood at a leather tannery just outside of Melbourne, and another activist took the image on the right, at another Victorian tannery.
Many people believe that leather is a by-product of the meat industry, that cows are killed so that people can eat their flesh, what we call beef (which you can read about here). Many think the skin of these dead cows is turned into leather simply to prevent waste.
This is not the case. Leather is a co-product of the meat industry. Skins are used not to minimize waste, but to maximize profits. Leather is believed to account for around half the meat industry’s value, and so buying leather directly contributes to the economic success of farming, factory farming, abattoirs and the slaughter of innocent animals. When a person wears suede, they are likely supporting the veal and dairy industries. When a person wears leather, they could be wearing a cow who was killed for their flesh to be eaten, or a cow who has spent her life as a milk machine.
Baby cows like, Rudolph and Bambi, have softer skin than their ‘adult’ relatives (though no cows in the animal agricultural industries live nearly to their full adult maturity, as their natural lifespan is between 18-22 years, and according to ‘guidelines for slaughter’, the ‘highest quality’ flesh comes from cows that are under 36 months, or 3 years of age)[ii]. These baby cows who are sometimes killed to be eaten under the name of veal at anywhere between 3 to 16 weeks old, will also be turned into suede products that are soft and supple.
Baby cows that are killed almost as soon as they are born, within a few days of their life beginning, belong to the dairy industry, and are called bobby calves. About 700,000 bobby calves are killed in the dairy industry annually, because they are born male and cannot produce milk (read more here).[iii] These cows, being so young, have even softer skin, and so their skin is sold at a higher price, and used for what are marketed as ‘luxurious’ products.
Possibly most horrifyingly, many cows are sent to slaughter while pregnant. Some of the softest and most expensive leather belongs to the skin of unborn calves. ‘Slink leather’ as it is called, is the skin of an unborn calf that has been cut out of their mother’s stomach on the killing floor of a slaughterhouse. Slink leather is used often for delicate leather products like gloves, and is used by many of the top fashion houses as it is seen as so luxurious. There is nothing special or fancy about wearing the skin of a baby who was killed alongside her mother before even a day old.
The slaughter of cows is wrong regardless of what the end result is – a dead cow used for their skin, or for their flesh. It is not justifiable to needlessly kill an animal with sentience, or an ability to feel fear and joy, who does not want to die, just like us.
Although legal, it is commonly deemed unacceptable in many parts of the world, including Australia, to kill dogs because we understand they are feeling beings who have personalities and emotions. We see it as wrong to kill someone like this. However, the only difference between dogs and cows, or any animal we use and kill, is separation and social conditioning. Most of us have not had the chance to properly meet a cow, to see them play, to observe them as they go about their day in an environment that does not oppress them, to watch them as we would watch a dog, rather than a piece of stock to make money from – stock that just happens to be alive. Cows are not livestock but living beings.
However, if you’re not yet convinced that it is wrong to kill an animal, to kill a cow so that you can wear their skin, so long as it is done ‘ethically’, this next part is for you.
THE LIFE AND DEATH OF A COW USED FOR THEIR SKIN
At the start of a cow’s life, he or she is subjected to torture. This torture is completely legal and supported under Australian ‘codes of practice’. In Australia, we can lawfully castrate, dehorn, and brand cows with burning metal, without any pain relief.[iv] Imagine having your flesh burnt, your skin cut open and your testicles cut out, your fingers cut off (fingers have a similar amount of nerves as horns, as they are connected to a cow’s sinuses, skin and bone), while you were fully conscious.
All of this torture is done in the name of ‘easy farming’. It’s simply easier for a farmer to not go to the trouble and financial cost of providing pain relief. It’s less effort if you don’t need to deal with horns getting in the way as they try to herd animals to their death.
The majority of cows are also kept on large farms and stations that are infrequently monitored, and so any injuries and sickness can go untreated, unnoticed, uncared for, for long periods.
A perfect example of this is Yowie. Yowie was found in a big field, his eye hanging out of his face. He was rescued from this farm, where he had been neglected. I think of Yowie often when I am in the Victorian countryside. My family has a holiday house just out of Castlemaine, and sometimes I go on big walks that take me through other people’s land at certain points. It is common for me to see decomposing cow bodies on these walks, despite farms being no more than 100 acres up there.
While farms up in that part of Victoria are smaller, many of the cows farmed in Australia are on enormous stations, where they are mustered from over 10km away. This is exhausting for the cows, and subjects them to dehydration over-heating and stress. Mustered into holding pens only once or twice a year, in Australia, according to industry reports, 9% of steers (castrated bulls) and 6% of heifers die before the slaughter, likely from long and painful deaths. If Yowie had not been found, and his eye not been cut out, the bacteria and flies that had been eating at his wound would have likely diseased him, and over time, painfully killed him.
When farmers are ready to send their cows to slaughter, some people believe there is an ethical way to kill someone who does not want to die, and this normally is thought to involve a ‘pain-free death’. According to the RSPCA (an ‘animal welfare’ organization who make regular attempts to justify the killing of animals) a humane killing is the ‘death of an animal without pain, suffering or distress’, and ‘instant unconsciousness followed by rapid death before regaining consciousness’.[v]
Almost every piece of beef and leather, belongs to a cow who was trucked off to a slaughterhouse, as onsite killing is very rare. In Australia it is legal not to give food or water to cows in transit to slaughter, in fact it is industry standard. Imagine being in a truck packed full of other frightened beings, it could be a boiling hot day, and you have no food or water. This is not ‘without distress’, even before arrival at the slaughterhouse.
A 2017 article by Lukas Jasiunas [vi] examines the research by the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences to assess the efficiency of captive bolt stunning. [vii] 998 cows were observed during five ‘normal days’ at a commercial Swedish abattoir which processed on average 30 animals an hour, 200 per day. The researchers assessed the process for both adequacy (the presence of signs of consciousness) and accuracy. Of the 998 observed cows, just 84.1% were assessed to be adequately stunned. Those who were still partially or fully conscious, were then either repetitively shot in their brain, or slaughtered semi-conscious. In the relatively small beef market of Sweden 445,000 cows are slaughtered every year. In Australia we kill 8 million cows for their flesh and skin annually. If this study were to be generalized, that would be an enormous amount of individuals having their throats slit open while semi-conscious.
Please spend just 7 minutes to see what this means for the cows. This footage captured in an Australian slaughterhouse demonstrates this very experience for repeated failed stunning attempts and semi-conscious slaughtered cows.
Bulls were assessed to be inadequately stunned three times more than females, a finding that confirms earlier research.
After closely observing the skulls of the killed cows, researchers found that in total, 10.4% of cows who were shot accurately were still stunned inadequately. Of those cattle shot inaccurately (not shot in the correct part of the head), 35% showed signs of inadequate stunning.
14 bulls were shot more than three times before slaughter. Calves were exposed most frequently to inaccurate shots (14%). The researchers deemed that poor stun gun servicing and limited shooter experience were to blame for this. Scientists noted that ‘the least experienced shooter…seemed fearful of the cattle, often hesitating just before shooting’.
I cannot imagine being in a position where my job was to shoot cows in the head. Empathizing with slaughterhouse workers means having an understanding of how mentally damaging the job would be, and how often an inexperienced worker would inadequately stun cows, leading to painful, conscious deaths.
While in Sweden and Australia we do have some laws around how animals like cows must be slaughtered, some countries do not. Almost no leather is labeled so that consumers can see where a cow was killed for that product. Most leather available to us comes from India and China, were animal welfare laws are practically non-existent.
For example in India, where cows are seen as sacred animals, it is illegal to kill them in much of the country, or there are specific guidelines under which a cow can be killed. However, in Kerala and West Bengal, there are no restrictions relating to the killing of cows. For this reason, many farmers travel from all around India to these states so that they can slaughter their cows cheaply, without following any guidelines or laws. Farmers can force their herd to travel for days on end, without food or water. It is common for cows to have their tails broken, and chilli rubbed into their eyes to force them to keep walking when they stop due to exhaustion.[viii]. In these parts of India, cows have their throats slit while conscious, and they are left to bleed out and often skinned while still alive.
Having said this, it would be misleading to share this information without demonstrating how the Australian model of slaughter translates in reality at the slaughterhouse.
There are so many vegan alternatives to leather. There have been PU leather materials around for decades now, and more recently, sustainable, plant-based leathers such as pineapple leaf, apple and mushroom leather. Some of my favourite vegan leather products include the Dr. Marten’s vegan range, Alexandra K’s bags, Matt and Nat’s products, Veja’s vegan range, Beyond Skin, Mireira Playa’s shoes, and bags by Denise Roobol.
While it has never been justifiable to needlessly kill an animal for the sake of fashion (in the case of leather), and for the sake of food we do not need to thrive, (in the case of beef, leather’s co-product), as more vegan leather products become available, it becomes more and more cruel and irresponsible to continue the barbaric killing of kind cows just like Strongheart, who I’m cuddling, kissing and chatting to below. Please think of him next time you look at a piece of cow skin, stitched and sewn into a jacket, a pair of shoes, or a chair.
Author: Emma Hakansson
Producer/Ethics Consultant at Willow Creative Co
*For the sake of best connecting with the reader we have mostly used the term ‘cows’ for all bovine rather than the correct terminology of bull, cow, heifer, steer, calf.