Animal Rights Zone

Fighting for animal liberation and an end to speciesism

During August of 2010, the Animal Planet channel repeatedly televised a documentary entitled “The Last Cowboy,” which narrates the lifestyle, work habits, struggles, and rewards of three Wyoming cattle ranches—those owned by the Stuckey, Hughes, and Galt families respectively. 


Every year at the end of “calving” season, family members must assist in branding each new animal in the herd, which may include as many as 400 “head.” This entails roping, dragging, innoculating, and branding each animal—as well as castrating the bulls, in a ritual that, if done to humans, would obviously qualify as “abusive.” Unlike Spanish bull fighting, the express purpose of cattle branding is not to exert ‘power over beasts,’ but to identify the rancher’s property and thus distinguish it from that of others on the open range. Nevertheless, the essence of both activities is that of domination.

This annual ritual is eulogized, or romanticized, as an expression of a “family tradition” that has been passed on from generation to generation. One rancher admits, “This is all I’ve ever done, and it’s probably all I’ll ever do.”

Beyond that family legacy (and the promise of a meager annual paycheck at the marketplace), there is little to recommend this “beloved tradition.” To an independent observer, this nostalgic struggle to preserve “the cowboy way” appears to be a futile archaism—much like the perpetuation of coal mining among the men of Virginia and Tennessee. The only element that justifies recommending “cowboying” over coal mining is that, unlike the latter, cattle ranching isn’t plagued by black lung disease. But besides the nostalgia, one gets the sense that both occupations should become extinct. When an objective observer considers all the energy, time, man hours, feed, and acres of rangeland that must be devoted to cattle ranching, he is almost compelled to ask whether such efforts and resources would not be better (more efficiently) spent on a different, more modern pastime. In terms of scale, for example, the Galt ranch maintains 3,000 cattle on 100,000 acres of land—an average of 33.3 acres per cow.

As the narrator observes, “It’s the cowboy life that binds the generations.”

As one who appreciates history and tradition, I’m among the first to admit that binding generations is a worthy goal. But the “cowboy life” is a glamourless reward for an industry whose sole function and purpose is the commodification of cows—and, like the slaughter of whales or harp seals, is a legacy not worth saving.

During the past two decades, a plethora of books have been written on animal ethics and the horrors of “factory farming”—euphemistically called “animal agriculture” by the industry. For a rather exceptional treatment that examines the anthropology, history, sociology, economics, and ecology of the “cattle culture,” see Jeremy Rifkin’s Beyond Beef: The Rise and Fall of the Cattle Culture (Dutton, 1992).

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Comment by Paul Hansen on April 12, 2012 at 2:33

Good point, Will: ranching is indeed more parsimonious. But coal mining has a downside that the kid might not think about, because neither his paycheck nor the marketplace reflects it: the “hidden” costs of extra medical expenses, lowered property values in coal country, destroyed habitats (due to mountaintop removal), and early deaths. That’s the basic problem when industry experts cite “cheap coal” whose price doesn’t take into account the environmental toll, which ultimately someone else has to pay for.

Comment by Paul Hansen on April 10, 2012 at 3:19

Thank you much, Roger. I’ll read this when I get a moment.

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