Not long ago, Hans Locher, the landlord of the Swiss restaurant Storchen, announced he intended to serve soup, sauces, and even antelope steak in a glaze that contained up to 75% human breast-milk content. The idea came to him 35 years before when he experimented cooking with his wife’s surplus milk. Locher offered US$14.50 for a liter of human milk, but his aspirations were squashed by the Swiss government: "Humans are not on the list of authorised milk suppliers such as cows or sheep."
In response to the international news on Locher’s proposal, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), sent out a letter to Ben & Jerry’s, requesting that they begin to integrate human milk into their product. (Using human milk for human food isn’t the newest idea). Ben & Jerry’s then sent PETA a letter of their own. They wrote: "We applaud PETA's novel approach to bringing attention to an issue, but we believe a mother's milk is best used for her child." A woman who was later interviewed at the Ben & Jerry’s factory was grossed out by the suggestion, especially after having to deal with nursing her own children: “The (breast) pumps just weren't that much fun. You really do feel like a cow.”
In all the buzz, Americans really didn’t understand PETA’s intentions. The letter was in jest, a clever way of getting the press to not only inform the public on the perils of drinking cow’s milk, but also to rattle some awareness into people that “cow’s milk is for baby cows.” Ben & Jerry’s letter summarized PETA’s point to the tee: “Mother’s milk is best used for her child.” In other words, stop making ice cream with the milk of mother cows; calves should be drinking cow’s milk, not human adults!
Does Dairy Harm Cows?
PETA is just one organization among many that believes that by raising awareness on the suffering involved in (cow’s) milk production people will make responsible choices and stop financing the dairy industry. If that woman didn’t think breast pumps were “that much fun” for humans, do you think she (or most Americans) have even thought about how a cow feels when she gets pumped twice a day, every day for 4 years?
Too few people realize that in order for cow’s to produce milk they, just like humans, have to give birth first. However, it would be economically unprofitable to allow the calves to drink their mother's milk until s/he is ready to be weaned in several months. To increase profits, it is standard for dairy farmers to separate the mother and child within two days after birth. After all, dairy farmers stay in business by selling cow’s milk to humans, not feeding it to their calves.
The males, because they cannot produce milk and are considered low-quality beef, are chained up into crates so small they cannot turn around, and left there with others in the dark for up to five months until they are ready to be slaughtered for veal. Females are placed in solitary confinement in small plastic sheds called “hutches” where they are fed a formula until they grow old enough to become replacement cows. Once they reach estrous, they are forcibly impregnated (sometimes in what are known as “rape racks”). After nine months of pregnancy, they’ll give birth and then be forcibly impregnated again. On larger dairy farms and in winter, the cows may be inside nearly the entire day. Because dairy cows are fed, bred, and given hormones so they’ll produce up to 3-10 times the milk their grandmothers produced, up to one third of dairy cows suffer from the painful utter infection, mastitis.
Once dairy cows have given several births, they are considered “spent.” Many “spent” dairy cows can’t even walk—these cows are known as “downers”—and may be abandoned and left to die a slow death. Those who are capable of walking into a slaughterhouse are made into ground beef and stew.
Is Drinking Another Species Milk "Unnatural"?
The emotional and physical suffering involved in the production milk and the accumulation of evidence that suggests that milk in anything but healthy has led many vegans and paleo-dieticians to declare that milk is unnatural, and thus inappropriate to drink. Some people will cite no more than that cow's milk is for calves and therefore cannot be healthy nor moral because it is not "natural." By extension,one may also conclude that drinking adult human milk or interspecies suckling is also unhealthy, unnatural,and immoral. However, this argument is riddled with problems:
- If human culture/action alters something “unnatural,” is anything natural? Is it natural to eat oranges from Australia in the US? What about cotton shorts? Does not language taint the sensation/experience of wildness, thus domesticating it through diction? At its best, the rhetoric of "nature" is vague and ambiguous; at its worst, the rhetoric of "nature" is oppressive. For instance, White men have long speculated as to whether women are naturally subordinate and whether blacks are naturally less intelligent than whites. The value placed of defining the limits of human nature is never objective; it is always entangled in one's values and cultural situatedness [1, 2, 3].
- More importantly, just because something is “unnatural” doesn’t mean that it is something we ought not to be doing or using. Modern technology such as vaccines, bicycles, bio-plastics, and the Internet aren’t necessarily “natural,” but few of us would/could live without them. To conclude that what is natural is good, is to commit the naturalistic fallacy. Even if we knew what was "natural," there wouldn't necessarily be any reason to obey it.
- Whether humans are the only species to drink milk from another species is morally irrelevant. Humans are also the only species to laugh at farts and kill one another over ideological differences, but rarely does anyone make a moral issue out of thee activities because they are specific to human beings. But if interspecies suckling is not confined to the human imagination, all three of these objections to the intrinsic wrongness of humans drinking non-human milk (and non-humans drinking human milk) breakdown.
Yet, in our modern (Western) culture, drinking cow's milk is nothing like it may have been thousands of years ago when they may have drank milk straight from the utter. Milk and the cows who produce it are commodified to the max. Barbara Noske (1997) calls their condition, “de-animalisation” because they have been alienated from their labor (i.e. milk production and child bearing) and species life (i.e. freedom in a pasture with their families). Not only that, but milk is heavily processed and pasteurized, and it is even illegal to sell raw in the USA. But humans only take from other species, they don't give back. Humans would never allow non-human animals to drink milk from human breasts, right?
Actually, some humans do: in many cultures it is common to see women suckling nonhuman animals. We are just oblivious in the modern West because 1) the colonialists have killed off mot of these people and their cultures, 2) it probably was/is considered inappropriate to discuss these sort of things in public (as it was imaginably perceived as a form of bestiality, and 3) it seems almost unfathomable, beyond the imagination, that human bodies could/would be instrumentalized by nonhumans, especially because since the triumph of Christianity humans have always taken pride in their distance from animal/ity.
But would a Human ever Breastfeed a Pig?
How interesting that as the Swiss restaurant story was developing, I had already begun researching the issue of interspecies nursing. I hadn’t given it much thought until I read about it in Midas Dekker’s book on interspecies relations, Dearest Pet (1994). I then read about the Papua New Guinea women who nursed pigs in Yi-Fu Tuan’s book, Dominance and Affection (1984), and a woman who nursed sheep in the first chapter of Brian Luke’s book, Brutal (2007).
In his book In the Company of Animals (1986), James Serpell gives several examples of cultures where it is actually quite common to find women suckling the young of nonhuman species. The colonialists who first came over to the Americas from Europe were shocked to find women, for instance, nursing bear cubs in North America. The Barasan women of eastern Columbia, took care of all their people's pets--they were the trainers and caretakers. They would even breast-feed puppies and masticate to feed the birds. In Jamaica, women transported small dogs on their shoulder and breast-fed them when they sat down.
A very elusive matriarchal Amazonian tribe, the Awa Guaja, are known to have their women nurse jungle animals from puberty, especially the monkey whom the Awa Guaja consider sacred and whom they will not eat. The monkey children are taken from their biological mothers at birth and given great comfort in the women's home where they are raised alongside with their children. The women have also been seen suckling small pigs and raccoons. The tribe currently faces the threat of extinction as Malaria and Tuberculosis have been brought in by a mining project.
The Bishnoi who live in the Thar desert in the northwestern corner of India have been strong defenders of trees and animal life since the 15th century. Several hundred years ago, over 300 men, women, and children sacrificed their lives to save the trees, each offering their head to save a single tree, which were to be cut in order to burn lime for the construction of a new palace for the regional king. The king later apologized and prohibited any cutting of trees and hunting of animals in their area. Bishnoi women are so affectionate toward the local wildlife, sometimes they will breast-feed gazelle fawns.
Yet, many of the better-known cultures that practice suckling nonhuman species are located in Oceania and the northern Pacific islands. In some Australian aborigine cultures, the women breast-feed puppies. It was reported that some women would nurse these puppies with the same affection as their biological children, if not greater. Carol Lumholtz notes that the women would sometimes eat the insects off their fur and kiss them on the snout. The Andaman islander women frequently breast-feed moneys and pigs on one breast while their biological child would nurse on the other. Some of the women indigenous to Hawaii, too, used to nurse their puppies. In Papua New Guinea, one anthropologist said "women will often suckle young mammals just as they would their own children;" mammals including monkeys, opossums, and deer.
Those animals who are breast-fed by women are rarely ever exploited for food, though there are a few exceptions. The Ainu of Japan capture a bear cub, hold him captive, and a woman nurses him. Later, the bear is released from the house and taunted out of the town where he is killed so his spirit is freed from his body. He'll then be eaten by the people. This is often a very traumatic experience for the foster mother, who alternates between laughing and crying. There are also some Polynesians who raise dogs as pets and food. Those dogs destined to become food are treated by the people with detachment, while those who are pets are cared for by women as their children. But sometimes the men, determined to earn more income, forcefully take the dogs away from the women to be sold as meat.
In the 1930's, Margaret Mead lived among the highland Guinean people who'd keep pigs who behave no differently than dogs. The women breast-feed, name, hand-feed, and groom the orphaned pigs. The women, children, and pigs all live in the same huts apart from the men until they have to give up their pigs for a festive pig roast to appease the neighboring people. Of course, the women are very upset when this happens. In many of these cultures, women's preferences are subordinated to those of men. As one Guinean man paraphrased the situation: "There is a reason for tribal warfare. The main reason is we fight for land. We fight for woman. And we fight for pigs."
Do “Modern” Women Breastfeed Animals?
The suckling of non-human species isn’t just a thing of the past or something alien outside animistic aboriginal cultures. In Milk, Money, and Madness (1995) Naomi Baumslag and Dia Michels write that "[a]nimals have been nursed by women for a variety of reasons, including to aid destitute animals, to relieve engorged breasts, to prevent conception, to promote lactation, and to develop ‘good nipples’—to name a few. (59). Outside of the Pacific islands and New World, some Roman, Mediterranean, French, German, and American women practiced interspecies suckling. In Turkey, wet nurses would nurse puppies to maintain milk flow if they had to travel long distances by ship to another city. In Dauphine, France, sometimes a puppy was used as a substitute child as a form of birth control (the chance of impregnation is decreased while a woman nurses a child). Some 18th century German and American doctors even encouraged women to nurse canines so as “to harden and conform the nipples, improve breast secretion, and prevent inflammation."
The suckling of non-humans by humans in modernized cultures may be very little known, but it continues today. The following are international new stories covering the topic over the last decade:
- After her husband found a dying baby monkey under a tree felled by a storm, Namita Das decided to bring the ill monkey, Buru, back to health by suckling him. Das regards Buru as her third child and has been suckling him for four years. She considers Buru her son, not a pet, and will continue to breastfeed him until he desires to be weaned. She'll even give Buru expensive cow's milk which she cannot even afford for her two daughters (it is custom to pamper your son). The neighbors consider Das' devotion to Buru "abnormal," and say she is "overdoing her affection" for him. One neighbor complained, "our pets are in chains, but this monkey is far too pampered." But this human-monkey relationship may not be as rare as the villagers think.
- A Golden monkey at a rare animal refuge, in central China near the city of Xian, showed no interest in her child. Worried that the baby would perish, one worker told the story to his wife who was currently suckling their one year-old baby. The woman decided to take matters onto her own breasts and nurse the endangered Golden monkey, giving him, Didi, the vital nutrients for a strong immune system.
- After two tiger cubs were born at the Yangon Zoological Gardens in Burma, they were taken away from their mother who had killed her previous litters. Forty year-old Hla Htay volunteered to breast-feed the cubs in addition to feeding them milk formula, although this courteous gesture was not necessary for the development of the cubs.
- Kura Tumanko, a resident of New Zealand decided to nurse her staffordshire bull terrier, Honey Boy, after her child weaned herself. Honey Boy supposedly has grown extremely fond of breast milk and enjoys it more than Kura's girl.
- There are even some women who have posed with non-humans suckling their breast to either raise awareness or sell a product: Tori Amos, despite not being very fond of “animals,” posed for an album cover while she had a piglet suckle on her breast. Her experience with pig inspired her to become a mother. Kate Garraway posed with a calf for more noble reasons of promoting a documentary on wet nurses called Other People’s Breast Milk.
So there you have it. Women have been nursing nonhuman infants for probably as long, if not longer, than humans have been consuming non-human milk. [Young dogs, goats, and sheep were cared for by women thousands of years before it is believed humans engaged in habitual milk drinking. This huge time lapse leaves open the possibility that women nursed some of the animals’ infants on their homesteads as some cultures do today before humans began to drink the milk of cows, goats, camels, and oxen]. As mammals, we generally have an inborn tendency to care for our own young and the young of others. Taboos surrounding the human/animal dichotomy, the sexualization of women’s breasts, and our relative geographic isolation from “wild” animals makes this behavior appear “odd” and “disgusting.” Yet, Westerners take for granted the exploitation and suffering surrounding dairy production as romantic and, not only natural, but necessary for human health.
You may have been disturbed by human women suckling nonhuman animals—that members of our species would share her milk with other species. Or maybe you were delighted by this idea—harmony can exist between species! Whichever way you feel, remember, that these women willfully shared their milk with other species, with non-kin. Their milk was not forcibly taken from them, they were not forcibly separated from their young, and they were not killed after they stopped producing milk.* Sadly, these things happen to cow mothers every day in this country. After all their labor, cows are sent to slaughter (without mercy and sincere appreciation). So remember, the relationship we have with the cows who provide us milk is not one of generosity and mutuality, but one of exploitation and domination.
I hope you’ll return to read my upcoming post on “The Sexual Politics of Milk” in which I’ll explore the construction of female, male, and cow bodies by our carno-phallogocentric culture.
* Although the women willfully entered into a relationship with and offered their milk to nonhuman animals, nonhuman animals did not necessarily willfully enter into these relationships. In the case of the Guinean pigs and the Ainu bears, these animals were obviously subordinated/sacrificed for humans and not equally respected (in a modern Western sense) as human children. Also, many of these infant animals were not orphans, but were "kidnapped" from their own mothers--the inverse of what goes on today in the dairy industry (whereby humans "kidnap" mother cows from their calves for their milk).
UPDATE (12/26/08): [Clarified ideas in section 3, added anecdotes within Milk, Money, and Madness, and included concluding note]