To what extent do non-human animals experience life? Do they have emotions like ours? Do they suffer in the kinds of life we assign to them? Do they enjoy the what we do for or to them? In Andrea Arnold’s documentary Cow, we follow the life of a dairy cow over a period of years. Cows are so much a part of our lives. Just consider the number of dairy products we consume. Do we want to know what a cow’s life is really like?
The film opens with Luma, an English cow, giving birth. We always enjoy such new life. But for a dairy cow, it may not be the same. We don’t watch mother and calf bonding over time. Rather, not long after birth, the calf is taken away and bottle fed so that Luma can get back to providing milk for us. This is a stark message to the viewers that we are not watching a romanticized version of a cow’s life. Rather we are seeing the cow’s place in a world of commerce. We’ll also see Luma mating and giving birth again. (Dairy cows may bear a dozen calves over their lifetime. That means they can keep giving us yogurt and ice cream.) We also see what lies at the end of her productive years. (Hint: there are no cattle retirement homes.)
The film has no chronology or commentary. We just watch Luma (and to some extent her calf) in the day to day, year to year life of such an animal. But the film calls to us to consider what that life is like for Luma. Central to that assessment is how we think about animals. A decade ago, a group of scientists issued “The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness” that concludes that non-human animals do have the kinds of emotions that humans experience. It is easy to see that as we watch Luma.
This is especially true when we watch Luma’s calf being taken away. She and the calf are visibly upset. Even after Luma is lead into the milking barn and hooked up to the milking machine, she continues to display signs of grief and anxiety. (Obviously, this can be the effect of editing, but there is no reason to suspect the filmmaker of subterfuge.)
This isn’t how we want to think about cows. They seem so happy when we drive by them in a field. Advertisement from the past told us that Carnation Milk came from “contented cows”, and “All us cows do our best from Jerseymaid”. But as we watch Cow, we don’t see that happy life. This is not All Creatures Great and Small. This is a chance to see the reality of an industry. It’s not necessarily cruelty, but like so many things in life, we are probably happier not thinking about it. But perhaps it gives us a chance to better understand the world we live in and the other animals that we share it with.
Cow is showing in select theaters and available on VOD.
Photos courtesy of IFC Films.