Experts

Current topics explained by RUG experts

Hermien the runaway cow

Beef cow ‘Hermien’ escaped on her way to the slaughterhouse. She has been on the run since December and is a true media sensation. The animal-friendly Partij voor de Dieren has started a crowdfunding campaign. Isn’t that a bit strange? After all, approximately two million cows are slaughtered every year.
By Jurgen Tiekstra / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

Sjaak Swart

Assistant professor Science and Society

‘I once published a work called Dieren in Context (Animals in Context), in which I explain that there is a kind of relationship-based ethics. For example, why do we care more about our own children than we do about children halfway around the world who are living under much worse conditions, and who we can do much more for at a fraction of the effort? That’s what we call the utilitarian approach. But we can’t help but identify more with our own children, and that identification creates a sense of moral obligation.

The same might just apply to animals: this cow managed to escape from something we secretly all have a problem with, which is the slaughtering of animals. This particular cow has been given an identity, and we feel that she is showing us that she disagrees with the practice. She may not be human, but that identity has led us to want to protect her the way we would another human being. Having to deal with this is morally uncomfortable, especially for people who don’t deal with slaughter animals a lot. To the farmer community, she’ll always be a product. These are just different kinds of identity.

The Volkskrant said that her name isn’t even Hermien, but Joke 18. The farmer who kept her tended to name his cows after his wife and add a number to the name. So not only do the two groups approach the issue differently, they’ve even given the animal different names. The added number also illustrates the difference in context.’

Koert van Ittersum

Professor of Marketing and Consumer well-being

‘Giving the cow a unique name is effective: it gives her a kind of identity. The moment you name something, it becomes something. A name resonates. It’s allowed the Partij voor de Dieren to use her for marketing purposes. The whole thing works really well for their agenda to reduce the production of meat. It’s not the first time that something which gets a lot of media attention is used by, say, commercial enterprises to attach their name to it and to use it for advertising in a tongue-in-cheek manner. It’s a fairly efficient communication tool: its costs very little and reaches a lot of people.

The question is how many people this will reach. I honestly don’t know how people will react to this situation. As far as I know, the reports about it don’t really mention the meat industry. The cut-price chicken was a big deal a while ago, but not because some chicken had escaped and been given a name. I doubt that this event will cause people to be more critical of the meat industry. It’ll probably blow over soon.’

Willem Bruil

Professor of Agrarian Law

‘The legal side is really the least interesting part of this story. The farmer owns the cow, which means he has the final say in what happens to it. He is liable for any damage she causes. She’s getting all this attention because she supposedly escaped from the slaughterhouse. But the cow had no idea it was going to the slaughterhouse. People are projecting that onto the animal. They’ll probably end up catching her, and she’ll be killed after all.

All the attention is certainly understandable, especially from an animal activism point of view. What can I say? The whole commotion is a bit ridiculous. But there is also something endearing about it, isn’t there? The whole idea that this cow didn’t want to be killed and ran off.

She’s a beef cow, which I think means she’s been fattened up over a period of two years. The farmer will pick the right moment a cow can be turned into steak. In the meantime, he has to take care of the cow. He has to comply with all kinds of rules: she needs room to move, food, and fresh water. There are rules about the transport to the slaughterhouse, and about the killing itself. Sometimes things go wrong, especially in Belgian slaughterhouses.

Limousin cattle are beef cows. They are meant for the slaughterhouse, which is where every cow eventually ends up. Animal experts have explained this escape by saying that Limousin cattle normally roam outside, and are therefore not used to people. Dairy cattle have people around them all day, beef cattle don’t. So when they’re loaded into the trucks, they experience a lot more stress.’

Nederlands