ECO-Vrindaban: Where Truly Happy Cows Roam Free


ECO-Vrindaban: Where Truly Happy Cows Roam Free

By Madhava Smullen

We live in a world where animals—who are just as alive and feeling as we are—are treated like non-sentient commodities. A staggering nine billion animals are slaughtered every year in US factory farms alone. While they wait for their early death, like prisoners in a concentration camp, they are confined so tightly in battery cages or windowless sheds that they can barely move. They are de-beaked, de-toed, and finally slaughtered, often while fully conscious.

This system is not only incredibly cruel—it’s disastrous for the environment, too. According to a 2006 United Nations report, factory farming generates eighteen percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Millions of rainforest acres have been cleared for livestock grazing or animal feed crops. And all this for… well, not much at all. While you could feed twenty-two people with one hectare of potatoes, one hectare used to produce beef could feed only one.

Fortunately, there are people who are doing what they can to stop cruelty to animals, to give them their natural right to freedom, and to provide an alternative to factory farming. People at well-known organizations like PETA, the ASPCA, Farm Sanctuary, and Mercy For Animals.

And then there’s those you may not have heard of, yet—like ECOV (an acronym for Earth, Cows, Opportunity, and Vrindaban Villages), an organization that has been quietly operating since 1969 from the green, rolling hills of West Virginia. ECOV is a farm sanctuary nestled in a small community that aims for a pre-industrial agrarian lifestyle in harmony with nature, animals and the earth. It specifically cares for cows, who are one of the most abused species on the planet—nearly 4,000 are killed every hour in the US alone.

As one of the oldest cow protection organizations in North America, ECOV has provided loving care for over 800 cows and bulls over its more than 40 year history. These animals are free to live out their full natural lives in peace and contentment, never seeing the horror of factory farms.

Some were rescues. Starting in the mid-1970s, as they grew their herd, the ECOV staff would visit auctions to bid against commercial dairies; and with the help of donations from animal well-wishers, they were able to rescue cattle from commercial farms, which they still do to this day.

“I remember going to pick out five pregnant Holstein heifers from a commercial dairy near Columbus, Ohio, in 2007,” says ECOV general manager Doug Fintel. “As I walked amongst a hundred cows, I was shocked to see the emotional state they were in. Whenever the breeder walked into the pen, they would run away and cluster into groups, just trying to get away from him. They were out of their minds with fear. I felt like I was in a scene from the movie Schindler’s List, and we were saving them from the gas chamber.”

Doug was delighted to be saving not only the heifers, but their unborn calves too—of which the males would have faced an especially grim future. As veal calves, they would have been confined in pitch dark pens so small that they would be unable to even turn around, resulting in their muscles remaining soft and undeveloped… just so that consumers could enjoy their tender meat. “Whenever rescued cows first arrived on our ECOV farm, they’d be pitiful and uptight, with a wild look in their eyes,” Doug says. “But gradually, they would calm down, and eventually when humans walked near them, they’d be completely relaxed, not even noticing we were there.”

Of course, while rescuing cows is very fulfilling and important work, it’s not a common activity for ECOV. Since cows live to be up to twenty-three years old, and ECOV commits to taking care of cows for life, they take in new additions to the herd very cautiously. Besides, the organization’s main focus is compassionate care for their cows and providing cruelty-free milk, which is integral to the simple village life its community is based upon.

Of course, ECOV cows are milked either by hand or with vacuum bucket milkers, the most subtle type of milking machine on the market today. And the calves are looked after with love and care.

“In factory farms, they completely separate the calves from their mothers at birth and bottle-feed them milk replacer instead of their mother’s milk,” explains Doug. “But at ECOV, the calves drink milk directly from their mother for their first six months, and stay in a comfortable pen within seeing range of her. Then they are gradually weaned and put on a hay and grain diet over a several week period.”

ECOV staff have always been dedicated to giving the best care possible to all of their cows no matter what the conditions, even if it means sacrificing their own comfort. While establishing their community in the early days, staff lived without heating or running water, chopped wood and built fences all day, and still found time to take care of all their cows’ needs.

Meanwhile in the 1990s and 2000s, when funds and manpower became scarce, the core group continued to stick to their mission. Having managed the herd for 34 years and counting, Doug Fintel has given his life to the program, as has ECOV Vice President Mark Meberg (37 years), and Doug’s assistant Ray (29 years). Today, Doug and Ray are the main full-time workers and they are helped by dozens of volunteers each year. Support is still low and things aren’t easy, but the program continues.

During the winter the current herd of of 65 cows—mainly Holsteins, Brown Swiss, and Jerseys—stay in a cozy, clean pole barn built for 240 cows. One thousand round bales of hay, weighing about 600 pounds apiece, are put up for them to eat and it’s good stuff, grown on a 160-acre meadow that’s spread with crushed limestone every three to four years. This neutralizes acidity in the soil and reduces weeds to produce healthier, more nutritious plants for the cows.

The animals are also given twelve tons of grain, salt licks, and plenty of fresh water. Even during the severe West Virginia winters, when the water fountains occasionally freeze, ECOV staff set up tarps and bring out a torpedo heater to thaw them out and make sure the cows get their water.

As well as this five-star treatment in their barn, the cows are also free to go out whenever they desire. “The big difference between us and commercial dairies is that their cows are trapped on a cement floor 365 days a year, and never get to see the light of day,” says Doug. “They never get any fresh air or sunshine, never get to put their hooves in the dirt. But our cows are free to come and go as they please.”

In the summer time, ECOV’s cows get to spend all their time on about 245 acres of lush, green pasturing grounds, where they can eat their fill. Meanwhile, the staff are repairing fences, and spending long hours harvesting the hay for next winter.

When they need it, the cows are given veterinarian and medical care. And when a cow passes away, usually between 20 and 23 years old, they are given special hospice care.

“One of our volunteers, Robert Vincioline, spends a lot of time with them,” says Doug. “He plays peaceful spiritual music for them, places garlands of blessed flowers around their necks, and of course makes sure they have a clean, dry place to lay, and plenty of food and drink. We check in on them regularly, and often more people from the community will come to visit them and offer their respects. The cows here are like part of the family. Rather than being exploited and treated like production machines, they’re taken care of with love and respect.”

After years of holding off on breeding to focus on stability and care for the current herd, ECOV now plans to begin breeding again, with two or three new Brown Swiss cows expected every year. Establishing an ox-drover program is another future goal towards a simpler lifestyle more in tune with the land.

Along with its expansion, the ECOV team will improve its facilities for the animals. Staff are currently planning a new ox-barn with a feed aisle and lie-down area, an isolation pen with a lift for sick oxen, an equipment room, and a gravity-flow grain storage. The environmentally-friendly structure will be built with timber from ECOV’s own woods, and will feature rainwater harvesting and solar panels. A more spacious and guest-friendly new milking barn—in which visitors will be able to view and pet the cows—is also planned.

To maintain a cow protection program of such high standards, ECOV must raise around $100,000 every year. For many years, the organization has struggled just to get by. Now, staff plan to establish a cow protection endowment fund, which would yield a more permanent income base that could be used to pay for ECOV’s annual operating costs—thus providing a stable source of income less dependent on the macro economy. Even with the endowment, however, ECOV staff still expect to rely on charitable donations from its supporters and well-wishers. Yet despite any difficulties, they are happy to continue on, no matter what, for such a worthy cause.

“Our modern consumer society is great at providing material goods, but it’s unsustainable and poor at providing inner peace,” ECOV Vice President Mark Meberg offers in conclusion. “So our mission is to show people an alternate lifestyle that can reduce consumption, and is not dependent on cruelty to animals. Such a lifestyle of simplicity, in association with the calmness of the cow, can bring greater satisfaction than all the trinkets from China.”

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