Farmed animals form strong maternal bonds
This Sunday is Mother’s Day, which not only honours mothers but also celebrates motherhood and maternal bonds. Although the celebration has typically been focused on human motherhood it’s worth remembering that maternal bonds are not exclusive to humankind.
Most animals, including the farmed animals we raise for meat, milk, eggs and leather, have maternal behaviours. But, sadly, for these animals, motherhood is often just an aspect of production, not the life-nurturing experience nature intended. Nevertheless, their efforts to care for and protect their young should remind us that they are not so different from us and deserve compassion and respect.
Research about animal welfare teaches us that farmed animals make great mothers.
A large body of research has confirmed that mother cows and calves experience strong emotional bonds that form rapidly following birth, and that the natural weaning process takes many months. In a natural environment, the relationship between the cow and her calf can remain close for more than 14 months, especially if the cow has no other calves. They can share a social bond for years. When researchers investigated the individual personality differences between mother cows, they found that all mothers show a strong sense of protectiveness over their calves, suggesting that maternal bonding is a trait widely shared among cow moms.
In dairy farming, calves are usually separated from their mothers, sometimes within hours of birth. This causes emotional pain to the calves, with research showing they cry continually and lose interest in food. Studies also show that the separation causes distress in mother cows, which is alleviated when they are reunited with the calves.
Recent research has shown that chickens are more intelligent and complex than previously thought and recent studies show they exhibit empathy. Hens, according to one study, feel distress when their chicks experience discomfort. Researchers temporarily separated hens from their chicks, giving each a mildly aversive sensation by having air puffed in to their cage. The hens did not demonstrate any significant physical or behavioural response when they themselves received an air puff. When they saw their chicks feel an air puff, however, the hens became emotionally distressed; their heart rates and blood pressures increased; they stood alert and called out to their chicks.
Hens, like most mothers, are also teachers. As one study states: “…chicks learn a great deal from their mother about what to peck, when to rest and how to behave when there is a threat.” Without that opportunity to learn, says the study, chicks are more fearful and can develop behavioural problems such as feather-pecking.
Under natural conditions, hens leave the group and find a secluded nest site when they are ready to lay their eggs. One study found that, after laying their eggs, hens will stay on the nest all day and night for three weeks. They will only leave once a day to quickly find food and drink water.
Currently most hens are raised in cages, which prevents them from engaging in these natural maternal behaviours, causing high levels of stress and frustration.
Research has shown that in the wild, pregnant mother pigs separate themselves from the group one to two days before giving birth and begin to search for a suitable nest site. Mother pigs may travel as far as six kilometres to find a suitable nesting location. The mother pig constructs a comfortable nest by rooting and pawing out a hollow in the earth, insulating it with grass, leaves, and twigs, and lining it with branches. The nest is usually complete two to four hours before the birth of the piglets. Newborn piglets lie close to the mother pig for warmth.
The mother pig stays in the nest with her litter isolated from the rest of the group for about 1-2 weeks. Studies show that during this period, she is very protective, and the exclusive contact with her piglets enables the development of close bonds.
Within the first few days of life, piglets begin to follow their mother on short excursions away from the nest. When separated from their mother, piglets call to her with distinctive vocalizations, and the mother pig calls in return.
On modern farms, mother pigs, known as breeding sows, live in extreme confinement. During pregnancy, sows are kept in gestation crates, which are cages no bigger than their bodies. Once they have given birth, they are moved to farrowing crates that separate the mother from her young, who are taken away from her two to three weeks after birth. Piglets are then raised indoors for another six months before being sent to slaughter.
Ewes and their lambs form strong emotional bonds rapidly following birth. Studies show they stay close to their young lambs and encourage following behaviour at the earliest stage, creating stable mother-offspring bonds within the flock.
Lambs as young as 12 hours old can identify their mothers through sight and sound, according to research. Maternal separation causes emotional distress for the lamb and the mother. During the first days after separation, lambs attempt to reunite with their mothers and show a distressed emotional response by vocalizing and pacing.
On sheep farms lambs are weaned (separating the lamb from the mother) at between two and three months, which can cause distress to the lamb and even damage its health.
This Mother’s Day, Take The Plant-Based Pledge
This Mother’s Day, please spare a thought for the animal moms and their young who suffer as a result of intensive animal agriculture. The best way to honour them and help build a more compassionate and ethical food system is to transition to a plant-based diet.
We can help. By signing up to our Plant-based Plates pledge you’ll receive free plant-based recipes, tips and updates on work on this issue.