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
'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.'
'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
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
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
'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.'