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English-Nederlands-Espaņol

'People are a lot madder than BSE-cows'

     

Koos van Zomeren (Dutch author and writer of columns in the Dutch newspaper NRC) can no longer bear to watch it. Again the writer is standing up for animals in distress. People have no conscience. That there are victims from BSE is not the fault of sick cows. The outbreak of BSE is nothing more than a presentation of the consequences to where they belong, he thinks, with man.

 

Koos van Zomeren was interviewed for the Dutch magazine 'Vrij Nederland' on the 25th November 2000 by Xandra Schutte.

Reproduced with permission, translated by Lia Belt.

     
Ask Koos van Zomeren, writer and animal friend, what comes to his mind first in the consternation around BSE, and he starts with the news. With the images from the farm in Eibergen, where a new case of BSE was discovered this month. The farm is cleared, as it is called in a nice neutral term. 'They say that the cows' brains will be analyzed, conveniently skipping the part about the animals being butchered. Sometimes they say: "Daughters will also be checked". It all sounds very innocent. And then those secretive images, shot across six hundred meters of pasture, of a barn and a door, with a truck in front. Then you see the cows, just visible before they walk up the plank into the truck. I find this morbid.' Nearly all the paintings in his living room show cows standing or lying down. On his window sill there's a sculptured cow sitting on its wide behind, the great udder clearly visible between its hind legs. Cows were van Zomeren's muse for a while, resulting in the book Wat wil de koe (What does the cow want), recently included in the substantial collection Ruim duizend dagen werk (Over a Thousand Days of Work). In this he talks about what cows see in us. It ends with the notion: we take their milk, we are their incomprehensible children. That's what cows radiate, he clarifies. They are amazed about us. And I think: let these beautiful and kind animals keep being amazed about us in all their goodness.

 

And now his muse is under fire. This makes the romanticist that Van Zomeren is bitter. 'In the old days', he says, 'cows were the symbol of lasting love. The symbol for the good mother. At least they have accomplished that cows are now symbols for pollution of the environment and danger to public health. In the current crisis the attention is immediately focused on how we can protect consumers from cows. But I'm thinking: how can we protect cows from consumers? That's where the root of the problem is. We are handling animals unscrupulously. The outbreak of BSE is no more than a presentation of the consequences where they belong. With man, with consumers, with producers in this sector.' He pronounces the word 'sector' as if he's spitting out something that tastes bad. He goes on: 'what is the matter with cows? There's this animal that weighs about 500 kilos, that for itself, if she rears one calf in a year, needs one thousand liters of milk. The sector talks of milk in kilo's. The current dairy cow, still weighing 500 kilos, produces ten thousand to fifteen thousand kilos of milk. That's a factor twenty of her own body weight and ten times as much as she would produce for her own offspring. Just compare numbers and you'll see that this is an extremely forced situation. Cows are being manipulated to the bone. Breeding programs are organized to breed certain characteristics in a reasonably short time. Within about five years you can introduce modifications that are desirable at that time.'
     
'The cow that gently stands around in the pasture and in the eyes of the passing cyclist and walking layman is no more than a stupid animal that spends its dull life grazing instead of moving at the tops of its abilities in a physiological sense. In fact, cows are permanently running a marathon. It's top-sport you're seeing, or actually not seeing, but that's what's going on. And there's drugs involved. They are given food with the highest possible energetic nature, cows can't get by on just grass. It's a production process gone mad, in which cows are the central link and also the end mark. When you see a BSE-cow, spinning around madly and with a sponge in her skull, that's no fun for you. But for the cows it's no fun at all. They found one cow at the farm in Eibergen that had BSE. The chance that the other cows got the same food is relatively great. But they are not killed to save them from the disease, but in the interest of the meat sector.'

 

So it's not just about the consumers' health?
'No. Ministers Brinkhorst and Tazelaar, of the Product branch are both saying that consumers don't have to worry. Consumers are a type of cow as well. The sector is only interested in one thing, and that's maintaining meat consumption on the current level. They'd even prefer it if more meat were eaten, while it would be better for the environment and for our health if we would make some serious cutbacks in our meat consumption. You can wonder when people from the animal protection viewpoint will speak out on this point. Factory farming is for the most part veiled in darkness. People have no eye for what is happening, they don't want to see, only want to reap the benefits. In this sense the question of who is to blame has been spread out thinly over us all.'
     
But can you still speak of blame?
'After the war an agricultural policy was introduced, that was also connected to meat provision, in which everything had to be as cheap and abundant as possible. That's when the mechanism of the greatest possible production at the lowest possible price started. According to figures, I don't know them all exactly, the Dutch spent twenty-five percent of their income on food in the fifties, as opposed to only ten percent now. If everything has to be cheap, you're asking for accidents. But imagine that BSE was limited to cows and sheep - there's a certain justice in that the circle is closed and ends with humans'. Smiling maliciously: 'it would be best if Agricultural Ministers would get BSE and that their whole business would have to be cleared. Their entire Ministry. And their daughters, for research of course.'

 

Do you see BSE as the cows' revenge?
'Yes, in a literary sense, but not in a practical sense of course. But it's a great metaphor. In the meantime there's been so much suffering, with sick cows and infected consumers, that you can hardly gloat about that.'
His blushing cheeks make Koos van Zomeren look like he just came from the fields. He starts again about the cow from Eibergen climbing into the truck in the news. 'It could also have been a cow of eight years old that's being picked up to be taken to the market, to hang inside a butcher shop in the afternoon. This is an argument you hear a lot: they were meant to be slaughtered anyway. But talking like that diminishes the value of a cow's life and eventually also of a human life. What's the difference when I'm watching television and see two random Africans go at each other and someone's head gets cut off and I say: oh well, people are meant to end up in cemeteries anyway.'

     
So how should we deal with cows?
'Cows have always been fooled. They used to give no milk when there was no calf around. So farmers held up another calf to the cow, milked her and gave the milk to the calf. The overproduction went to the farmer and his family. If the calf was butchered, it's skin was set up near the cow and she would still produce milk. Only in the Middle Ages did cows start to give milk without there being a calf present. Free milking, they call it. Funny, it shows what we think of as freedom. But this cleverness of farmers has some elements of an agreement between the farmer and the cow. You work like this, and I work like that, and if we do things this way I'll be fine and I'll take care of you as best I can. Modern cows are tour de forces of technology, an accomplishment that the people who make cows can avail themselves of at will. Instrumental thinking about other forms of life has been limited until very late in history, by the properties of animals themselves. There were physical boundaries. They are still there, but they have moved a long way. If cows could be made square and easy to stack, we would do that.'

 

It sounds so conservative: it used to be better.
'I have no romantic picture of the countryside in the fifties. Animals were kicked, and their tails were twisted to get them inside carts. Those were expressions of personal cruelty that you can still witness at cattle markets, but that have been driven back more and more, because people think it doesn't rhyme with their views on how animals should be handled. If you kick a cow outside after milking it, then it will no doubt hurt in the place where you kicked it. But it is rid of you for the rest of the day. We have now bred cows that can't be rid of us for a moment. They can be outside, but they stay in the context, physically as well, that we have created for them. In the end I arrived at the proletariat of the early twentieth century. Cows are the proletariat of these times.'

     
Should they free themselves?
'I think another Marx has to rise up. For a while I used to be in Overijssel, near the German border, very early in the mornings. Then you see stable doors sliding open and cows coming out. They are going to their work. I can't see it any other way. In a long row they walk into the pasture to their workplace. Carefully, painfully, as if their entire bodies hurt. It's like the atmosphere in a Zola novel. The proletariat I mean. It will have to be freed. This metaphor for me is funny, because in the seventies I tore myself with difficulty away from the proletariat I served in the Socialist Party and took to the field of nature to be away from it all. And now I'm discovering a new proletariat.'

 

After J.J. Voskuil, Van Zomeren was ambassador for the foundation Varkens in Nood (Pigs in distress) for a while. Immediately he was confronted with unanswerable questions. 'For example: if Holland tells pig farmers to leave the country, we will be getting pork from Spain, and how do you think they enforce rules there? This made me despair. I have no intention to start a Cows in Distress foundation.' He says: 'I wasn't born to campaign. I've concluded that as a consumer you shouldn't eat meat when you don't know whether it was produced decently. And then you should eat less of it. You can't keep saying that things should be different, without accepting the personal consequences.'
     
Pigs in Distress is now being led by Robert Long, who caused quite a stir when he compared the cruelties in factory farming to the camps in WWII. Van Zomeren has no ethical objections to this pamphlettish comparison. 'Try thinking of something else to raise this discussion to a higher level. Last week I was in the neighborhood of Nijkerk in a consolidated area. I passed a barn from which rose the groaning of hundreds of pigs. It was a lamentation, a chorus of very many sad voices in which now and again you could hear an individual pig screaming. I have no doubt that was a place where pigs were castrated without anesthetics. Such things haunt you for the rest of the day. And the comparison to concentration camps comes to mind, no matter how ignorantly we talk about it.'

 

In his hand he has The lives of Animals by the South-African author J.M. Coetzee, that appeared last year and that makes the same comparison Long did. 'It's the starting point of Coetzees argument', says Van Zomeren. 'In some ways we are confronted with things here for which our language is insufficient. Coetzee writes that the suffering in factory farming even pales the suffering in camps, because the camps were finite, aimed at destruction, while factory farming is aimed at keeping itself in existence. This reasoning goes too far for me. From his ethical position Coetzee also draws a parallel between people living in the vicinity of Treblinka who said they didn't know what went on there, or weren't sure what went on there, or that it was better for them not to know what went on there. It's arranged so that shivers run down your spine. And it's precisely how the islands with a closer morality, concretized in factory farming, are placed in our landscape. Coetzee in his story is looking for an absolute morality in the interaction with animals. I don't believe that. I believe there will always be give and take. That is also a pleasant conclusion, because it means that this is a political thing and we can find a solution.'
     
But it doesn't look like it now. Aren't consumers now mostly suspicious of politics because of the BSE-crisis?
'Consumers are led mainly by hysterics, by mad cow's disease. In England they made calculations about the size a Creutzfeldt-Jakob-epidemic could take. They are frightening figures. But it started with an affair of about five patients. You can see the same again in France now. Immediately, the government is sued to determine who's responsible. To which they add: they have to pay so my child hasn't died in vain. That makes me so somber, all this talk of people who don't want to die in vain. Take it from me, we all die in vain, but that doesn't mean we live in vain. Fear of pain, sorrow, and death itself plays an enormous part, but then also always especially coupled to animals. Cars can claim huge numbers of victims, without leading to this outraged tone of: this cannot happen to us. Personally, I would rather be bitten by a viper than get run down by a car. A natural death, and a magnificent ending to my biography to boot. People are a lot madder than mad cows. We have much larger holes in our brains than they do.'