The cows that don’t laugh

Fortunately, however, by now I am old enough to understand that things are rarely what they ‘seem to be’. All too often, they turn out to be a good deal worse

When I was young, it seemed that life was so… um… sinister.  All the birds in the trees, for instance: for some reason, they always seemed to keep watching me (while singing so joyfully, merrily, playfully, etc). It kind of gave me the creeps… especially when I occasionally caught the little perverts peeking through the bathroom window.

Ah, but then they sent me away, to teach me how to be logical, practical, sensible, and all that sort of stuff (note: I trust you can all appreciate, from my articles, just how successful their efforts were). And while I was incarcerated in this social re-engineering facility called ‘school’ for around 10 years… they also shot all the birds and cut down all the trees.

So I eventually emerged to find that everything is much more… peaceful now. At last, I can take a dump without feeling ‘watched’…

Hang on, that’s not at all what I wanted to write about. Give me a sec while I switch off the radio. There, much better. Now: where was I? Ah yes, school. I went to one, you know. And while I wasn’t exactly what you’d call an extrovert, aged nine or thereabouts, I still managed to make a couple of schoolfriends while I was there.

One was named ‘Esme’, and the other, ‘Mildred’…

Huh? No, it wasn’t a co-ed school. (This was late 1970s/early 80s, for crying out loud). But Esme and Mildred weren’t schoolchildren, either. They were cows. There was a dairy farm right next to the school ‘sports pavilion’ (translation: dusty football pitch). And Esme and Mildred would occasionally pop their heads up over the boundary wall, chewing cud with that look of deep, intense contemplation, while we were doing P.E.

For some reason, I remember Mildred wearing a hat with a flower in it, and Esme peering through half-moon reading glasses. But that might be because The Magic Roundabout was still on TV at the time. In any case: I don’t remember either of them ever looking particularly unhealthy or unhappy… or even particularly dirty. They seemed to have plenty of room to roam around in, and bore no visible marks of neglect or mistreatment.

Now: I don’t want to make the usual mistake of over-romanticising my childhood memories (a bit late for that now, you might be thinking). Bear in mind I was nine when I met Esme and Mildred. I was too young to recognise any hint of trauma or quiet desperation in the facial expression of a dairy cow. They seemed quite content to me; but for all I knew, their actual lives may have been a living hell.

And by ‘plenty of room to roam’, I don’t mean herds of happy, laughing cows prancing about on lush, sweeping meadows somewhere in the Swiss Alps, with pig-tailed milkmaids yodelling away in the background. This wasn’t a Milka ad. It was more like a large-ish yard, in which the cows had a little space in which to shuffle through mountains of their own shit. (There was certainly nothing ‘romantic’ about the smell, let me tell you…).

But still. From my own perspective, looking down on that sight from behind the barred classrooms windows during a Maths or Chemistry lesson… it looked like a small, smelly corner of paradise.

In any case: I found myself thinking of Esme and Mildred again this week, after all these years, while ordering a sirloin steak (medium rare) at the Bar & Grill down the road. What ever became of them in the end, I wondered?  I guess we’ll never know…

But in case you’re wondering, what actually reminded me of them was a news story about a surprise Veterinary Directorate inspection of a Fgura dairy farm this week, following complaints by animal rights activists.

You may have already seen the pictures… if not, these snippets should give you a rough idea: “cows and goats living in less than ideal conditions in overcrowded spaces and locked in rooms with no natural light.”; “a cow with its back legs tied after its pelvis had been damaged”; “a cow with its placenta hanging out after giving birth”, etc. etc

What you won’t get, however, is a clear picture of the sheer filth and squalor that those cows and goats (and worms, and maggots, and Tse-Tse flies, and God knows what else) were actually living in. But… well, now you can picture it.

As you can imagine, it is a very far cry from that (probably quite decrepit) little dairy farm I remember in nearby Cottonera. And Fgura being literally a stone’s throw from my old school – and I mean literally: you could break a window if you threw it hard enough – it is by no means inconceivable that those pictures are actually of the same farm.   

Either way… poor Esme and Mildred, I thought, as my teeth sank into that juicy, succulent, gore-dripping steak. (Hmm. Needs a little mustard). But more than that, I found myself thinking… how is it that the standards of hygiene and animal welfare, in things like dairy farms, were altogether so much higher way back in 1980 – almost exactly 40 years ago – than they seem to be today? What could have possibly happened, to explain a downward slide in standards of such alarming proportions..?

Fortunately, however, by now I am old enough to understand that things are rarely what they ‘seem to be’. All too often, they turn out to be a good deal worse.

In this case, the news was soon updated to include an official reaction from the inspecting authorities. “The chief vet Roberto Balbo said the farmer passed away around a month ago and the children were taking care of the farm but could not cope with the increased demand.”

“[Also,] the Parliamentary Secretariat for Animal Rights said inspectors had found the farm to be overcrowded, and less [FEWER!] animals should be on the farm to ensure better management of the facilities.

“Since the owner of the farm died recently, discussions are ongoing on the future of this farm…”

OK, first of all, my condolences to the family of the deceased farmer. (He might even have been the same one who fed Esme and Mildred, all those years ago). And it is distressing to see that – very evidently - no thought was given to the future of the farm before its owner passed away.

All the same, as you can well imagine, I almost choked on a small morsel of beef as I read all that. It seems that the situation at that dairy farm was all along known to the two main agencies/authorities concerned (note: though I saw no comment from the Health Department); and that neither seem to see the situation as being in any way critical or urgent.

Oh, and they also added the following detail. “Furthermore in relation to comments aiming at criticising the milk (quality), the test results carried out last month indicate no public health issue.”

Well, I must say that’s a huge relief (I was planning to order a Cappucino afterwards). So the ‘milk quality’ is all right… therefore, there is nothing to whatsoever complain about. I guess it’s no concern at all, that the animals producing that milk look like props for the next Zombie Apocalypse horror movie…. or mutations caused by some ungodly virus from Outer Space…. as long as we can all safely drink their milk, everything is just hunky dory…

It’s funny, because I was under this vague impression that, to sell a food product such as ‘milk’ anywhere in the EU, the entire process – from the means of production, to the packaging, to the storage, etc. – would have to conform to a certain set of basic standards.
Without going into the specifics of the relevant EU Directives, the specifications include things like ‘overcrowding’, ‘unacceptable conditions’, etc.

To my mind, it is ABSOLUTELY INCONCEIVABLE that the dairy farm we saw in those pictures could possibly meet, or ever come remotely close to meeting, EU specifications on animal welfare, health and safety, hygiene, etc. Heck, it probably wouldn’t even meet the criteria established by the Black Hole of Calcutta in 1756…

And even if this is a temporary situation brought about by those unfortunate circumstances… as far as I can see, it doesn’t make it any less of an animal welfare/hygiene emergency.

Yet the Veterinary Department and Animal Welfare Secretariat seem to see no problem with the same farm continuing its operations, even in conditions that are not merely squalid, but also plainly in breach of EU standards (note; not to say ‘illegal’, because to be fair it depends on whether the Directives have been implemented).

Effectively, what this means is that those standards are just not being applied at all. Even allowing for the fact that the new owners have been ordered to clean up their act… it is clear that the authorities are not genuinely interested in reaching or maintaining those standards in the first place. ‘As long as the milk is OK’… anything goes. And if the European Commission one day decides to poke its nose into Malta’s dairy sector… oh, then we’ll organise a few ‘surprise inspections’ to keep them happy.

Come on. If there was one positive thing about joining the EU in the first place, it was surely that our standards would be elevated across the board.

And yet – in dairy farms, if not everywhere else – it seems that standards have plummeted through the floor since dark, distant, dreary 1980s.  We probably conformed to EU Directives more back then, than we do today.

Ah well. Now that I think about it… I’ve decided not to order that Cappucino after all. Safe or unsafe, the mere thought of that frothy milk having come from the udders of those… THINGS… has kind of put me off.

So I’ll have an espresso instead – no milk – and… hmm… can I have a look at the cheese board, please?

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