Motherly Love: Heart-Melting Animal Stories of Mothers and Their Young
We've been celebrating Mother's Day in so many ways this year at Brownble, starting off with this collection of 8 mouth-watering vegan breakfast recipes for Mother's Day, or this video on helping mamas get organized in the kitchen, but today I wanted to actually sit down and talk about moms, and not only the human ones. Although we celebrate motherhood every year at Brownble, this year was extra special for me (hence all the mom content!) for reasons I'll hopefully share at some point with you regarding my own mother, who as you know passed away many moons ago. We all feel our mothers are the best ones, so I hate to sound like a broken record when I say mine was THE BEST! Even after having a disability, a serious chronic illness and facing the gruelling task of raising a child on her own, she did it in the most remarkable and special way. I'm not a mother (other than to my two cutie pie furry babies), but I know that mother and child bond well. We all do! Mothers are caring, they would give an arm and a leg for their kids, they spend restless nights, have years of 5 am wake up calls, they worry and they love, unconditionally. They can be over bearing, sometimes over protective, and of course some relationships with mothers are complicated. Sometimes our mothers are actually our fathers. Sometimes our mothers were a close friend, a grandma, a grandpa, or a sister, or a brother. Whoever that figure was for you, or if you are that for someone else, today this is for them, and for you.
One of the reasons I'm convinced some people never approach veganism is they firmly believe some animals are different. That they are somehow here for us to use. That that is their place in this world. They're part of the food chain and that's a part of life. We feel this because we've been distanced from animals. We see them as others, and sadly the animals we use for food aren't even "seen". They're not part of the crazy cool Discovery documentaries, we don't encounter them in real life unless we live near a farm. They're out of sight and out of mind. This makes it easier to see them as different and it makes it harder to connect the dots. The truth is that animals are creatures just like us. They have communities, their priority is getting food and shelter, finding a mate, being a part of a group, and yes, you guessed it, raising their young.
Today's episode is mama inspired but I'm not going to be talking about my awesome rockstar of a mother, or super cool human mamas in history, I'm going to talk about mothers and their young in the animal kingdom, and the crazy cool ways in which they love, protect, grieve and care for their young.
Mama Orangutan: The official piggy-back ride giver
Orangutan mothers (and this is the case for most apes) have long been famous for their awesome care-giving talents. Only second to humans, they are the animal that spends the longest period of time looking after their young. In fact they've been considered to have one of the strongest mother/baby bonds in nature. Their young depend on them completely for two years (and breastfeed for 4!), but mothers stay with their young for 7 and up to 9 years. They teach their young how to build their sleeping nests, how to get food, how to survive in the forest, how to hide from predators, which plants are edible and more importantly, which ones are poisonous, and they are of course professional piggy-back ride givers as their young depend on them entirely for transportation for almost two years. Orangutan mothers are superbly affectionate, making nests for her and her young from scratch every night, where they will cuddle together until morning. They've even tracked female orangutans and have found that they continue to visit their mothers way into adulthood past the age of 15, even after they've grown and can live independently.
Mama Penguins: Professional walkers and one of the few hands-on dads in nature!
If you watched the fantastic documentary The March of the Penguins, chances are you know all about Emperor penguin parents and just how much they sacrifice for their young. Mom and dad move heaven and Earth to protect the egg once it has been laid, sharing responsibility at all times (dad stays with the egg - a grueling task for papa penguins - while mom travels over 50 miles to reach the sea and bring back food for the new baby). Once hatched they take turns protecting the baby penguin from the cold and predators by hiding it under their pouches, and the long journey to find food is shared by mothers and fathers who will do anything and everything to be able to feed their young and keep them safe. Mothers grieve when an egg is destroyed by a predator or the father was unable to keep it safe during mama's first journey to the sea, and they grieve when harsh storms or predators take their young. This "dance" they both take part in to raise their offspring is remarkable.
Mama Elephants: Matriarchy at its finest
Although an entire book could be written on the caring instincts of mama elephants, and the fact that they have the longest pregnancy of any animal (22 months), they really don't have to do it all alone. Elephants live in a matriarchal system, where all elephants care after their young together. Elephants will slow the pace of a herd so that the babies can keep up. They help feed, teach and protect baby elephants regardless of who the mother is, and in spite of that, the actual mother-baby elephant bond is incredibly strong. Mother elephants are extremely affectionate, and if you've ever watched a baby elephant in trouble or have seen it fall into a ditch or into deep water, you've likely seen one or many elephants rush to its aid and work as a team to help the little one.
Mama Polar Bears: No dieting for these mama bears!
Mother polar bears go to great lengths to even be able to take on a pregnancy, preparing their bodies for this grueling task by gaining over 200Kg (that's 400lbs!) before they can even get pregnant or sustain pregnancy. Then they fast for 8 full months while feeding their young. Polar bear mothers normally have twins, and they are constantly looking out for predators, carrying and transporting their babies, and are constantly showing affection and cuddling with their cubs to keep them warm.
Mama Alligators: A different kind of Uber
Mother alligators are really attentive mamas. Not only do they spend a huge amount of time creating the perfect nest for their young, but they then carry their babies in their jaws for maximum protection, taking them to safe places in the water where they will teach them how to swim and fish for up to one year of their lives.
Mama Harp Seals: Third Helping Italian grandmas have nothing on these moms!
Mother harp seals will nurse their young with 48% fat seal milk for 12 consecutive days without feeding themselves, and are constantly trying to protect their cubs from hungry polar bears.
Dolphin and orca whale mamas: Ah... those newborn baby sleepless nights.
Some species of dolphins as well as orca whale mamas don't sleep for a full month after their babies are born. They're keeping an eye out for predators, and ensuring their babies swim alongside them to safer waters, teaching them how to fish and survive in the wild.
Mama Wolf Spiders: Carpool all the way baby!
Mother wolf spiders don't leave their eggs on their webs like most spiders do. Instead they carry them on their backs day in and day out until they've hatched, and even once hatched they will continue to carry the babies on their backs until they are self-sufficient.
Red-Knobbed Hornbill Mamas: Thou shalt not pass!
These magnificent birds will protect their young from predators by sealing the entrance to their tunneled nests with their own feces! Meaning no one can get in, but also mama can't get out to feed. Still, she incubates and nurses her young away from danger until the babies are ready and can survive in the wild.
Our most forgotten mamas
Our homage to mother hens in our language, our story books and movies is very ironic. They are such loving and caring creatures and we actually recognize this openly. However, hens are among the most mistreated of farm animals, especially when it comes to egg-laying hens.
I want to insert a little trigger warning here since in the next paragraph I'll be mentioning some more sensitive topics related to the treatment of hens in our agriculture system. I've written it in the most sensitive and light way possible, but if you don't wish to read these lines, you can skip to right after the dividing lines you'll see a bit further down below. I know how hard learning about these things can be, but it was daring to read about these issues that changed my life many moons ago when I went vegan, and it might be hard, but empowering for you too.
Rather than letting egg-laying hens roam free, have their baby chicks, have their dirt showers or peck the soil, behaviors that come naturally to hens, we de-beak them without anesthesia causing horrible pain during and after the procedure. We pack them up in cages that don't even allow them to move. We overcrowd these cages, and these birds who are normally extremely clean animals are left to live in dirty and unsafe conditions. We don't let them express their most ingrained instincts or self care habits and they have many, just like we do. They can't stretch their wings or move around. Sadly, cage free facilities are not much better. They might not have actual cages, but these are substituted by giant overcrowded warehouses with almost the same, and in some cases worse, problems. The idilic small farms with chickens running free and going about their day pecking the soil exist, but they are few and far between, and they are definitely not the facilities where the eggs in our supermarkets or grocery stores come from. They are also not the facilities where the majority of restaurants supply their eggs from. Chickens are also excluded from all forms of government welfare regulations when it comes to the transport of animals to and from facilities, where much of the abuse occurs.
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Mother hens however have shown to be incredibly nurturing creatures. So much so that studies have shown mother hens to have a reaction comparable to human empathy when their chicks or other animals around them are in distress. Something that makes them extra sensitive and stressed when living in tight quarters in factory farms with other birds also under stress and in unsafe conditions.
Mother hens show such a deep desire to see their chicks hatch, that they will choose their nest with extreme care, making sure the egg will be safe, and protecting it at all costs. Mother hens and their chicks are able to communicate verbally wth specific calls to make sure they always stay together, and mother hens show completely different behaviors than chickens who have not laid eggs, focusing solely on the protection of the chicks and making sure they learn what they need to learn before becoming independent from their mothers. They will also teach their chicks constantly, for example, by pressing their chick's beak towards water to teach them how to drink. Mama hens are able to round up all their chicks and herd them away from predators and often become very aggressive if a person or animal approaches her chicks. Hens are fantastic cuddlers, and this occurs even with humans, as seen with numerous chickens who have been taken to farm sanctuaries. It turns out we use the term mother hen for a very good reason!
Cows and their calves
I've left the saddest but also one of the most loving motherly animals for last, the cow. I say the saddest because right at the center of our consumption of animal products is what I consider to be the worst of the worst of the animal agriculture industry: the dairy industry. It's sad and it must be mentioned since it's a very clear case of animal abuse on caring mamas, and just like we did above with our mother hens, more sensitive descriptions are between the two lines below. However, I've omitted many of the details of this industry that might be too strong for this particular post and I've made it as approachable as I can. I think it's important, even if we haven't decided to go vegan, to at least have this information and make informed choices.
Contrary to popular belief, dairy cows don't just produce milk, they need to be pregnant in order to lactate, just like humans. This means that in dairy farms, cows are artificially inseminated, are forced to have pregnancy after pregnancy, but there is no room for a mother and her baby in this scenario. Because her milk is for human consumption (and the production of dairy products such as butter, cream, yogurt and cheese), farmers cannot have baby calves drinking the milk that will be sold to humans. Even after dairy cows endure horrific treatment in dairy farms, are forced to live in terrible conditions and are impregnated artificially (a process that is extremely hard on the cow), all a mother cow wants after birth is her baby. Just as human mamas, bear mamas, dog mamas, horse mamas and almost every other mama in the animal kingdom, this cow wants to mother her young. This baby though, is taken away from her sometimes a day after birth, sometimes hours after birth, producing the most chilling, heart-breaking and traumatizing reaction in both mother and calf. Out of everything I've witnessed of the treatment of animals in our agriculture system, this moment of separation has always stayed with me as the most traumatic (second only to the things done to animals in fur farms).
This moment of separation is so traumatic for the mother cow that it's the only instance in which a cow can get violent, hiding her calf, kicking and bellowing, and trying to protect it from the farmer. Both mama and baby scream and kick for dear life, and the calf is eventually dragged away. This happens to the same mama cow again, and again, and again for years, until she can no longer reproduce and is sent to slaughter. During all these years, all she wants is to mother her babies. Her instinct towards her own calf is so strong, cows who have managed to escape dairy farms have actually run across miles and miles of farms and fields and cities finding the exact farms where their babies were taken to. Incredible. Others who weren't so lucky have been heard bellowing for days, yearning for their baby calf. The calves taken also experience a tragic end to their lives, as the females are doomed to the same life as their mothers and the males are slaughtered for the production of veal, as babies. Both cows and calves, now separated, also have to endure painful procedures without anesthesia, and live a life of abuse in almost all instances in today's agriculture system.
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I know that was hard to read and hard to picture, and trust me, I gave you the PG-13 rated version, but I can't talk about these loving mothers without trying to help create a better world for them. For me, more than the health benefits of going vegan, more than the benefits to the environment, it was bearing witness to what they were going through that made me change my habits, and I'm so glad I did! In the end all that veganism was, was changing one delicious food for a different delicious food. It really was that simple, and as you know, helping you through that delicious transition in your kitchen (and out of the kitchen) is what we're all about here at brownble, both through our blog, courses and online program.
I don't want to leave you with sadness and these harrowing tales though! Mama cows who have been rescued and sent to sanctuaries are so loving and nurturing that they have been shown over and over again to adopt other animals as their own. Not other calves.... other animals! I've seen cows cuddle with orphaned goats and piglets, I've seen them take naps cuddled together with dogs and cats and love being near humans who respect and care for them. When mother cows are allowed to keep their calves, the bond that forms is incredibly strong, improving the calves' search behaviors, weight and overall health when compared to calves who were separated at birth. Cow mamas are dedicated and incredibly affectionate mothers, and sadly, we've taken advantage of their docile personalities, which is the only reason why cow's milk is more popular than the milk from harder to wrangle goats or other animals.
Basically mama cows rule, and they become motherly towards many other creatures, not only their own offspring.
Thank you for sticking around and maybe reading a bit about what's behind our agriculture system and also meeting some of the most loving mothers in the animal kingdom. As you can see, the instinct to mother, nurture and protect is not reserved for us humans. Dogs have it, cats have it, elephants have it, pigs have it, and so it goes in almost all species that roam this beautiful world of ours.