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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
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.
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
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
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
Lyman has shared his story in two books, last year’s No More Bull!
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
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
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
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
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
What are your thoughts about the increasing association of animal rights
groups with the meat industry, for example, promoting certification schemes,
Foods’ Animal Compassion standards, or advocating switching to cage-free
[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.