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Committing to the discomfort of care and curiosity: Investigations of cows’ welfare, lives, and relations

Committing to the discomfort of care and curiosity: Investigations of cows’ welfare, lives, and relations

by Carley MacKay

Carley MacKay 's research explores cow welfare in Ontario's grass-fed beef farming sector.

In my dissertation research, I investigate cow welfare on grass-fed beef farms to, in part, question and examine the possibility of grass-fed beef farming in providing cows with more care than conventional beef farming. In connection with this, I analyze cow welfare to explore the agencies, subjectivities, and relationships of cows whose lives are taken in the name of food. I unpack grass-fed beef farmers’ understandings and practices of cow welfare and use animal geographies, biopolitics, and critical food studies to unearth the ethical complexities of farmer—cow relations, which complicate and strengthen cow welfare’s multidimensionality. Alongside working with farmers, I acknowledge and engage with cows as research subjects who teach me about their welfare, lives, and intimate relationships with others. Woven into my analysis of cow welfare is my exploration of the entanglement of caring, loving, profiting, and killing that underscore farmer—cow relationships. Within this context, I write about the different ways that I physically, mentally, and emotionally navigated this research as a vegan, feminist animal geographer committed to the discomfort of care and curiosity that an analysis of life, death, and relationality summoned within me.

Adding to debates within animal geographies, I write about the different ways that cows exercise agency and express subjectivity in their relationships with farmers despite, and in response to, the different forms of governance that shape farmer—cow relations. Furthermore, I conceptualize how welfare practices govern cows’ bodies and interpersonal relations, showing, for example, how castration, polling, and weaning affect cows in ways that hinder their agency and subjectivity; They do not, however, erase or eradicate their subjectivities and agencies. Central to my argument is that further inspection of how welfare practices affect cows’ social, emotional, and embodied lives is needed.

Through interviews with farmers, interactions with the animals, cows – as subjects who shape the research process – teach Carley about how welfare practices impact their relationships, lives, and experiences.

Drawing attention to farmer—cow power dynamics on grass-fed beef farms, I illustrate what lively, agentic, and subjective relations between farmers and cows look like, showing how cows exercise resistance, as well as compliance, in their relationships with farmers and express their social, emotional, and individualized identities. Alongside this, I reveal the emotional dimensions of farmer—cow relationships which serve as critical knowledge for questions and debates about the production and consumption of food animal because, as I make clear, these complicate as well as strengthen our ability to have meaningful and challenging conversations about the ethics of farm animal production and consumption.

I weave animal geographies into conversation with biopolitical theory to expand the scope through which we understand food animals’ commodification and welfare. Cows’ liveliness, I argue,  complements and complicates their commodification and welfare, and this has strong impacts on the emotional and ethical nature of their relationships with farmers. For example, I emphasize the biopolitical dimensions of cow commodification and killing while also highlighting the ways in which love, attachment, grief, conflict, and the acceptance of killing shape farmers’ connections with cows. So, while farmers’ reliance on cows for profit is a defining feature of farmer—cow relations, I also argue that their emotional connections to cows cannot be reduced to the logic of capitalism because they are not solely defined by capitalism. Surfacing in this analysis are the ethical, emotional, and economic complexities and contexts that shape human—animal power relations. In my research, I show that attending to these complexities and contexts provides us with insight for disrupting fixed logic about the ethics of animal production while simultaneously prompting us to rethink our relations with animals we call food.

Carley's work highlights farmers and cows' complex interspecies relations where mutual dependence, care, and calculation take place.

Cows are emotional and social beings who can teach us about their lives if we know how to listen. Navigating ethnographic encounters with cows as an animal geographer committed to better understanding their lives, I show how discomfort is viscerally important to multispecies ethnography. I offer insight into what discomfort is, what it can teach us, and how it can help us in our attempts of meaningfully reaching animals with the goal of making their lives better. In connection with this, I describe how curiosity and an ethics of care are the driving forces that lead us into discomforting research settings, within which discomfort and care make us question, confront, and, in some cases, change the way we understand our politics, positionality, and research methods. Just as importantly, discomfort and care bring us closer to animals, helping us shine light on those whose bodies we might consume but whose lives we often fail to think about. The connections I made with cows throughout this journey have helped me intimately understand their lives through an analysis of their welfare, and it is my hope this research expands readers’ understanding of farm animals, inspiring care and appreciation for animals and critical reflection of our shared vulnerability, worthiness, and entanglement.

Carley MacKay joined the research team in September 2019 as a PhD student at the Department of Geography, York University. Her research explores cow welfare in Ontario's grass-fed beef farming sector. She investigates how beef farmers understand cow welfare by analyzing the ethical, environmental, political, and economic factors that might impact these understandings. She also examines how farmers' conceptions of cow welfare shape their daily practices and relationships with cows, as well as how they affect the relationships, lives, and deaths of cows. Carley's work highlights farmers and cows as entangled in complex interspecies relations, within which mutual dependence, care, calculation, and killing take place. She draws from debates in animal geographies, animal biopolitics, and critical food studies to conceptually ground her work; she uses semi-structured interviews, multi-species participant observation, and animal welfare document analysis as key research methods.

Carley MacKay is part of The Lives of Animals Research Group team headed by EUC Dean and Professor Alice J. Hovorka. She recently wrote a chapter on Animal subjectivities and lifeworlds: Working with and learning from animals through the practice of multispecies participant observation published in A Recent Agenda on Animal Geographies (Edward Elgar, 2021) co-edited by Hovorka, et al.