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September 2006
Straight Talk from a Former Cattleman
The Satya Interview with Howard Lyman

 

Shaking Things Up: Film Review

Mad Cowboy: The Documentary
directed by Michael Tobias (79 minutes)

That mad cowboy is at it again. Only this time, he’s not engaging colleges or vegetarian conferences—Howard Lyman is in the movies! After 45 years of operating a feedlot, Lyman sold his ranch and started lobbying for family farmers. Lyman soon realized grassroots was where he needed to be. Traveling 300 days out of the year on speaking tours, Lyman asks people all over the world to examine why we are destroying the earth and ourselves. Of his work and the film, he says, “it is, without a doubt, the most important thing I have been involved with in my entire life.”

Mad Cowboy is perhaps one of the most effective of all animal rights documentaries. Lyman’s perspective is genuine and his mission is embraced by viewers the minute the film begins. Presenting new voices and issues that go beyond the norm, Lyman tackles the entire spectrum of animal consumption in a manner that is easy and enjoyable to watch.

Lyman’s personal story—from his cattle ranching days to his battle with a life-threatening illness that opened his eyes to his diet and occupation—is intricately woven throughout the film. Memorable quotes from his wife Willow Jean punctuate the film as she describes watching her husband grow into his compassion and revive himself with truth. Lyman’s awakening led him to turn his life around, looking into organic agriculture, veganism, politics and his research into Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, aka mad cow disease.

Lyman visits cattle ranchers who are concerned about the corporatization of our food. Richard Gannon, a rancher in Constableville, NY, conveys the sad truth that there is absolutely no way to make a living from being a small farmer. Harry Mitchel, another small farmer, expresses concerns about people not knowing the truth about their food, being subjected to questionable practices, and putting their futures in danger.

Lyman cleverly presents mad cow disease by pulling on heartstrings. He interviews family members of victims, while opening eyes to the reality presented by scientists, researchers and doctors. Traveling to Switzerland, he visits the president of Prionics (the world’s only prion institute), Bruno Oesch.

Mad Cowboy is moving and effective. The scene of pigs in pens awaiting slaughter, though not bloody or particularly horrifying, made my tears roll. Walking between rows of pigs in pens, Lyman is followed by cameras; all you can see is hundreds of desperate and terrified faces looking back. Hundreds of bodies hoofing over one another, squealing and attempting to climb the sides of the pen, knowing they’re about to become dinner.

Lyman ends with a question: “How long is it gonna take?”

See the film, become involved and be part of the answer. —M.W.

To learn more or order copies of the DVD, visit www.madcowboy.com.

In the spring, you’re out there feeding a herd of cows and their new calves. Well, some cows stay and baby-sit the calves while others go and eat. The fact is, a cow always knows which calf is hers. In spending time with them, you learn they have a hierarchy, a pecking order, a much more complex society than you’d ever give them credit for. Most of all, there is no doubt animals enjoy life.—Howard Lyman

This fellow needs little introduction. A fourth generation Montana cattle rancher, Howard Lyman had a rude awakening to the realities of factory farming when a tumor was discovered on his spine and he found himself lying in a hospital bed paralyzed from the waist down. Lyman realized the connection between the chemicals he used on his concentrated cattle operation and the growth in his body. He was given a one in a million chance to walk away from surgery on his own two legs.

Fortunately for us and the animals, Howard did just that. And he has been raising awareness—and hell—ever since. The straight-talking cattleman famously ruffled feathers when he appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show in the mid-90s, talking about the causes of mad cow disease and how U.S. cattlemen were endangering the public by feeding dead animals to beef cattle. A national uproar ensued, and so did a major lawsuit against Lyman and Winfrey for sullying the good name of American beef.

Lyman has shared his story in two books, last year’s No More Bull! The Mad Cowboy Targets America’s Worst Enemy: Our Diet and the now classic Mad Cowboy: Plain Truth from the Cattle Rancher Who Won’t Eat Meat. Howard’s life and work are also now the subject of Mad Cowboy: The Documentary.

In between planning a family trip to Africa to “see the animals before they’re gone,” Howard Lyman took some time to talk with Catherine Clyne about his views on factory farming, “humane meat,” and the slippery slope some animal activists may find themselves on.

Why don’t we start off with your perspective as a former cattle rancher?
You know, I spent 45 years in the cattle business always professing that I loved my animals. But it was years before I was willing to admit I was more interested in profit than the animals’ health. The fact of it is, we simply raised them to a point where they became economically beneficial to us to sell. I finally woke up. Looking in those big old brown eyes, I realized those animals loved life in their way just as much as I loved life in mine; there was no way in the world I could ever put them to death again.

I know feedlots from the ground up and there is no greater opponent of them in the world than me. There is nothing involved in a feedlot that is good for animals or for homo sapiens. In fact, what we’re doing to about 95 percent of the animals in the U.S. today should absolutely never be done. Nature intended bovines to be grazers. But the greed of the homo sapiens came to the point where we became more interested in how quickly we could get the animals to grow, how we could put more weight on them, how we could make meat more tender; it was absolutely contrary to the way the animal was designed. We began doing things for the wrong reasons.

We start early, too. At fairs you see 4-H kids who’ve raised animals and they’ve become the greatest of friends. Well, that relationship has to be separated early on or people won’t go into the livestock industry. So the industry came up with a very ingenious way of breaking the bond between young homo sapiens and animals. At the end of the fair, animals are sold for far more than market price. 4-H is designed for nothing more than instilling in young people that economics is by far more dominant than their love for animals. I have seen this time after time: these young kids are bonded with these animals until they are suddenly handed an extremely large check.

When things started going wrong for your operation and for you, why didn’t you just go back to the traditional way of raising cattle? Why the vegan epiphany?
I had a tumor removed from inside my spinal cord. The doctor said the tumor was more likely than anything else caused by adolescent cells stimulated to grow by the chemicals I was using on the farm.

I was paralyzed and in recovery for several years and therefore not able to actively manage my farm operation or finances—I had 7,000 head of cattle, 12,000 acres of crop and 30 employees. We were in very serious shape. So I thought, what we really need to do is become organic farmers. So, I went to my banker and said, ‘Look, I need your help. I need to borrow some money to start farming with nature. We need to go back and do things correctly and become organic farmers!’ My banker looked at me and said, ‘What in the world is that?’ I told him and he leaned back in his chair and laughed, ‘You want me to lend you money you’re not going to be spending with my other customers—the chemical dealer, the pharmaceutical dealer, the fertilizer dealer? There will never be a day like that.’ So, you see, it isn’t like farmers and ranchers can wake up one morning and say, ‘By golly, I’ve been doing things wrong. I’m going to turn around and do it right!’ They’ve been put in a straight jacket.

The fact is, in 1945 there was no chemical industry other than the military. At the end of the war, the military knew there was no way taxpayers would put up with buying all of the chemicals, so they needed an intended victim—it became American agriculture. That chemical system was sold to American farmers and ranchers, hook, line and sinker. Today the absolute supporter of the chemical industry is American agriculture.

Farmers and ranchers today are nothing more than indentured servants to the industry, while the industry is totally controlled by bankers and big money interests who only want to turn out as much product as possible, in the shortest period of time, with the greatest amount of chemicals. The financial industries are sitting on the boards of the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. They certainly don’t want to go back to organic farming.

Knowing all of this, when you talk with farmers today, specifically animal farmers, what are their main concerns?
There has been a great deal of interest in animal agriculture today with impending pandemics—like bird flu, mad cow disease—which are an itch under the skin for the industry, just one headline away from the other shoe dropping. See, the industry knows what they’re doing is wrong and they’re hanging on by their fingernails. The fact is, the farmers are not even making a ton of money. It isn’t like they’re sending their kids to college with a new Cadillac. Farmers’ debt is increasing all the time. But this system is a treadmill; they don’t know how to get off. Even though they know organic would be better, they don’t know how to get from where they are today to where they need to be. It’s the same problem I had on my farm in 1983, how do I get where I should be without financial backing?

So, what can we do? How do we help facilitate change?
There’s only one solution that’s going to create change. Every time a consumer spends a dollar they are placing a vote on the future. If you look back in time, a number of school children in America were extremely upset about dolphins being killed in the tuna industry. So they went home and told their mothers that they were no longer going to eat tuna. Mothers laughed and continued to buy it, but found their kids wouldn’t eat it. Well, the sale of tuna dropped like a rock. And that’s the reason we ended up with legislation which protects dolphins. It was all economics—consumers were no longer buying the product. We need to follow that model. It is not about standing on the corner and shouting at people. When you point your finger at somebody else, you have three pointing back at you. It’s time people who profess to be animal rights activists or environmentalists, or simply care about their health, to quit supporting the bad guys with their dollars. That’s when we’ll find change in the market.

Can you talk about the relationship between farmers and the slaughter process?
Very few producers actually follow their animals to the slaughterhouse. Producers want to talk to the slaughterhouse on the telephone, not walk in the door and see what’s going on. You have to understand, the people I knew involved in animal production were good people just trying to do the best they knew how for what they envisioned were the right reasons—feeding a hungry America. They believed they were providing an absolute necessity: first-class protein. It was ingrained in them from the time they were kids, “eat your meat.” I would say the number of times they’ve been in a slaughterhouse—never on the kill floor—in their entire lifetime, you could count on one hand. Just the smell of them is something you will never erase for the rest of your life. We have a system set up so the producer never has to be involved in that last step, it’s all done with middlemen. We’re very ingenious how we can remove people from culpability in the death of animals.

There seems to be a movement back to smaller operations, with some people setting up small on site abattoirs—at least for poultry, since the USDA won’t allow larger animals to be slaughtered that way. What are your thoughts about farmers who go that route and firmly believe animals are an integral part of sustainable agriculture?
Is the production of animal protein on a small level—a family farm—better than large operations? No doubt about it. But you have to remember the final end is always the same. That animal dies. Looking in the animals’ eyes, being a participant in ending their life, I’ve been there, I’ve done that. I will tell you, I never liked it before and I absolutely abhor it now. If anybody tells you they enjoy ending a life, they’re either mentally deficient or the greatest liar in the world. Joseph Goebbels, the minister of propaganda for Nazi Germany, said, find the biggest lie you can tell, tell it often enough, and people will believe it. When you convince yourself there is an absolute need for animal protein in the human diet, you can substantiate what you’re doing on a humane level. But there is no need for animal protein. The human body was not designed for the consumption of animal protein. So doing something that’s better for the wrong reasons, still does not make it right.

That’s interesting. What do you think of the latest Michael Pollan book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma? One of the things Pollan does is explore where his food comes from. He tries to get his arms deep in the blood of the messy process of who his meat is. And throughout, he keeps saying, I know this is wrong, this is gross, and will I ever be able to eat a feedlot cow again? But he continues to excuse eating meat.
I think Michael Pollan made some interesting observations, but he missed that main point—we don’t need meat. The problem is that he goes out and looks at all of the problems and says what we’re doing is horrendous, it’s not good for us, it’s not good for the animals and the list goes on. But yet, he still finds a way to become an apologist for eating animals because he likes his addiction. It’s like a smoker—all of the data shows if you continue to do it, it’s going to kill you. Well, Pollan has the same problem. He knows there’s all these problems associated with eating meat, but, oh god he likes the taste of it, so he’s gotta find a way to make it happen.

What are your thoughts about the increasing association of animal rights groups with the meat industry, for example, promoting certification schemes, like Whole Foods’ Animal Compassion standards, or advocating switching to cage-free eggs?
[Humph.] Well, I am glad to see people focusing on the issue and that there is interest in going from where we are to something that’s better. But, that being said, the association between animal rights people and apologists for the meat industry is absolutely, totally wrong. Activists should not be looking at bigger cages, but no cages. Whole Foods, for example, has done a masterful job of roping people in, saying, we’re not perfect, but we’re sure better than those other guys.

Sure, certain methods of production are more ‘humane’ than others, but never forget, there’s no such thing as humane slaughter. I never saw an animal clicking its heels going to the slaughterhouse, saying, “Yippee, skippy, I’m going to be a McDonald’s burger tomorrow!” There is always fear in their eyes. They know exactly what’s going to happen. So for anyone to claim there is such a thing as humane slaughter, well that’s the greatest oxymoron in the world. As far as I’m concerned, any time you join a team or sign up on the sidelines of somebody doing something wrong, you’re doing something wrong.

We have seen economic issues raise its gory head again. There are too many people in the animal rights movement more concerned about the financial bottom line and associating with organizations that have great financial resource, than whatever brought them into the movement in the first place.

When you say what we need, rather than bigger cages, is no cages, would you concede that campaigning for cage-free eggs is moving towards no cages?
Let’s put it this way: if I go out and buy cage-free eggs, is that better than buying the industry standard eggs? Absolutely. But is an egg necessary for a healthy lifestyle? Absolutely not. The end product is still killing the animal and the consumption of those animals is killing us. The number one cause of death in America today is heart disease directly related to the consumption of animal protein. Heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity—each and every one of those is directly related to the killing of the animals. Is a filtered cigarette better than a Camel? Maybe. But is either one of them good for you? Absolutely not. So let’s quit bullshitting ourselves about this, ‘I’m part of the solution by buying cage-free or free-range eggs,’ mentality and become part of the only real solution—buying no eggs. Let’s quit sticking our heads in the sand because when you do that, you got your ass in the air and all of a sudden somebody’ll come along and kick you.

I love it when you say bullshit.
I’m an old farm boy and I call it what it is. I’m sick and tired of having a button-down approach to a practice that is absolutely abominable. And when we’re involved in confining the animals, when we’re involved in killing the animals, we’re part of the problem. We become part of the problem when we put our money into the industry by buying or support the buying of animal products produced better than some other ways. I try to never allow any of my limited dollars to end up in the till of those I consider to be the bad guys. I can’t control a lot of things in the world, but I have pretty good control over my own habits. I’ll admit, I am not perfect, but I always try to do better tomorrow than I have today.

When I look at where we were 10 years ago and where we are today, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this is the fastest growing movement in the world. The difficulty is, the amount of time that we have for the solution may be shorter than the speed we’re moving at. And that really bothers me when I see my children and grandchildren.

What do you think the solutions are?
Awareness. It’s not what we say, but what we do.

To learn more and for a schedule of speaking appearances, see www.madcowboy.com.

 


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