In the three months Karoliina Kase spent working on a dairy farm, she visited the young male calves, who had just been separated from their mothers, every day. On one of her first days, a fellow worker warned her not to get “attached” to the newborns, but she continued to make her way to the pens, where she’d play with and pet the baby animals, known in the industry as “bobby calves.”
It was there that she met one calf with a limp; he wasn’t drinking milk, and his bones protruded from his body. He had likely been born with brain damage. She sat with the calf, petting him gently. By that point, he was unable to move.
Kase had moved to Australia on a working holiday visa, and taking a job as a farmhand was part of meeting her requirements. She witnessed the suffering of animals from her first shift onward. Though she longed to leave the job, she eventually chose to stay, and over the course of those months, she documented what she saw. The result is To All the Bobbies Out There, a behind-the-scenes look at the commercial dairy industry.
The bobby calf Kase met and sat with–the one who couldn’t move or drink milk–was not euthanized on the farm. Instead, he was sent to slaughter, despite the fact that Australian law prohibits the transportation of male calves in such poor health. All of the male calves she played with in those pens shared the same fate: after a maximum of two weeks, each of them was killed.
The farm where Kase worked sold the animals to a contractor for $40 per calf. “Every two weeks, a truck would come and take all of the male or bobby calves to the slaughterhouse,” the photographer explains. “These young animals are treated as waste within the industry.” An estimated 450,000 male calves are slaughtered in Australia annually.
“While patting that calf, I knew that in a few days, he would get a bolt punch into his skull, followed by the slitting of his throat,” she tells me. We asked her more about her days on the farm, the animals she met, the grief she experienced, and her enduring commitment to making pictures with purpose.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions the public has about dairy, and what is the truth behind these misconceptions?
“There are a lot of misconceptions about the dairy industry, and I held many of them in order to reaffirm for myself that the consumption of dairy is harmless. One of the most common false beliefs is that animals are not killed in the process of making dairy. All dairy cows are eventually killed for low-grade meat, and most male calves are slaughtered at maximum two weeks of age.
“Another widely accepted lie is that cows produce milk because they are cows. The female animals on dairy farms are impregnated almost yearly so that they will continue to produce milk. After delivering the calf, the young animal must be removed from their mother so that the milk could be collected for human consumption instead.
“Many farmers claim that the separation of calves from their mothers does not affect either of the animals. While there are exceptions to the rule, the vast majority of separations were clearly distressing to the babies as well as the mothers. The mothers would refuse to walk to the paddocks after the separation and both the cows and the calves could bellow–sometimes for days. Plenty of research has also found that these separations have negative psychological and physical effects on the adult and baby animals.
“Cows have complex social structures, like humans. They all have friends and they are all capable of holding grievances towards specific animals. There are leaders or dominant cows, as well as submissive animals. The female cows usually become best friends with the animals they grow up with. When friends would get separated, they would become stressed and bellow after their mates. Friends would stick together and even protect each other from humans. I witnessed these bonds every day.”
You wanted to leave after your first day on the farm. How and where did you find the resolve to stay?
“I wanted to leave the farm after the first shift I worked. That morning shook me to the core, as I suddenly grasped how we control and exploit innocent animals for our own greed. Unfortunately, work was hard to come by for backpackers that year, so my partner insisted on staying for a few more days. By the end of the first week, I had decided to stick around. I figured I might as well use my time on this farm to tell a story on the behalf of the animals, which would be more helpful than just leaving.
“The next three months were full of depression and hopelessness for me, but I managed to endure the emotional pain for the sake of documenting the animals’ stories. A strong sense of meaning helped me get through this difficult time.”
Along with the newborn male calf you sat with, is there any other individual you remember the most from your time on the farm? What happened to her?
“I vividly remember a cow called 1802. She started going into labor during milking and hence was separated into a small pen. Unfortunately, the labor did not progress after a few hours, and workers had to step in and start pulling the calf out. Usually, the calf is pulled with a rope and some muscle power, but in this case, the calf had gotten too big for this to be successful. A C-section would have been the correct approach in this case, but no worker on the farm knew how to perform such an operation nor would we invite vets to the farm for individual animals.
“Hence, the rope tied around the calf’s legs was attached to a buggy and the young animal was pulled out. The calf was already dead and massively overgrown, as a worker had marked down an incorrect due date for 1802. Unfortunately, the troubles didn’t end for 1802, as she started getting a fast buildup of gas in her rumen. This is deadly if left untreated, so she was stabbed in her stomach.
“I came across 1802 the next morning, when she attempted to escape a holding pen, but she ended up slipping and falling. She was unable to get back up by herself. We lifted her back on her feet with a tractor, but this was only a temporary solution. 1802 was put into the sick herd, where she died about two days later, most likely due to internal injuries from the labor. Even though she had been abused by the industry for a few years and experienced immense trauma in her last days, 1802 was very gentle and friendly with me.”
Did you raise your welfare concerns with the people at the farm? If so, how were they handled?
“Some welfare issues, such as the separation of families or the killing of male calves, are just part of the industry-standard practices. I did draw the attention of more experienced workers to sick or dying animals. Sometimes, help would be provided, but other times my attempt to better the situation would backfire, as the herd manager would completely forget the animal in need or treat them with the wrong medicine.
“For example, I remember I put a cow with eye cancer into the sick herd, so a vet could take a look at her at a later time. Of course, a vet never came to treat the animals. This cow with eye cancer was feisty and wanted to rejoin her friends, so she jumped a tall metal fence. In this process, she scratched her underbelly quite badly, but there were no serious injuries. Unfortunately, the herd manager then decided to send this animal into slaughter. I was heartbroken when I found out what had happened to that cow.”
Why were sick and disabled animals not treated?
“Casual workers are not taught anything else on the farm besides milking and cleaning. I felt inadequate working this job, as I knew that if something happened with an animal, I would not know what to do. Furthermore, the backpackers would come and leave every three months, meaning that no one would become experienced or knowledgeable.
“Besides the unskilled labor, the experienced workers just didn’t care. For example, our calf mortality was extremely high for a dairy farm, as the person in charge of calf management didn’t even bother to clean the milk tanks which were used to feed the youngest calves. The hours are long, the pay is little, and there is no personal reward to put in the extra care for individual animals.
“Commercial farms often have over thousands of animals. I think it’s a fair estimate to say that for thousands of animals, there are at least a hundred animals who need some sort of medical attention at any given point. Unfortunately, a sick animal may require special attention from the workers, medical intervention, and they may not be used for milk at that time. This all costs money, but at the same time, some stock losses can be deducted from taxes.
“For workers, it’s easier to not be emotionally involved with the animals, as they all face the same future. How can a worker take away a cow’s calf if they have an emotional connection with the animal? Or walk a ‘spent’ cow onto a slaughterhouse truck? Workers in this industry treat animals as objects, as doing otherwise would make this job unbearable.”
Was there anything you could do while working on the farm to help alleviate any of the animals’ suffering?
“There’s only so much one can do on a massive animal farm. I drew attention to the cattle who needed medical care and made sure the ones who could not move anymore had water and food. I tried to be gentle with the animals and pet them, if they would let me. Every day, I would also play with the male calves, who would shortly be sent to a slaughterhouse. As I gained more confidence on the job, I also intervened when one worker decided to smack some cows who were blocking up the entryway onto the milking platform.
“One afternoon, when I was hosing down the yard after milking, I noticed a cow had given birth to a small calf in a nearby pen. The tiny calf was bellowing, but the mother had zero interest in her offspring, which is common if the newborn is dead or weak. I asked other workers to come and do something, as it was maybe my third day on the farm.
“Another backpacker joined me and decided to bottle-feed colostrum to the premature calf. Making sure that newborns receive their first nutrient-rich milk within hours of birth is essential for their health. A few minutes went by, and the calf’s breathing was accompanied by a bubbling sound. Finally, more experienced local workers came to take a look and determined that this calf was too premature to survive. Not only that, but the other backpacker had accidentally gotten milk into the animal’s lungs.
“A local worker decided to put the animal out of their misery and attempted to suffocate the calf, but unsuccessfully. Everyone decided to leave, as the tiny animal was barely bellowing anymore. I stayed around to pet the poor animal as they slowly perished away. Whether my presence alleviated the animal’s suffering–I’m not sure, but I couldn’t leave the baby dying on their own.”
Were you allowed to photograph everything without any trouble? Did anyone question what you were doing or indicate that they wanted it to remain hidden?
“I did ask permission to photograph on the farm, given that I do not reveal the name of this place in any way. I did not disclose the specifics of my intentions, but I was given permission to photograph. The farm was massive, so I had plenty of privacy to document everything I needed. My fellow workers did not care what I was up to during my free time.”
Was there anything you chose not to photograph?
“I only avoided scenes which might have revealed the location or the farm. Other than that, I really tried to capture everything I deemed essential to tell the story. If anything, I wish I had my camera on me during my own shifts, as I missed a few significant incidents.”
What is your most powerful memory from your time working on this project?
“One of my most emotionally charged memories was when I had to take away newborns from their mothers. I was working a morning shift and another worker said that the herd manager needed my help. I was not sure what was about to happen, but I had a bad gut feeling. I had seen how babies were taken away from their mothers before and how distressing it was to the animals. Witnessing that even from a distance brought tears to my eyes.
“I met with the herd manager, and surely enough, I had to take away newborns from their mothers. We drove to the paddock with a buggy and a small trailer. We went from cow to cow, and I had to pick up the babies and place them onto the trailer. While I was doing that, the babies and the mothers started bellowing. As we drove within the paddock, mothers would chase the trailer, where their calves were.
“One male calf was especially big and strong. He got so distressed on the trailer, he managed to jump off–twice. I was sobbing while taking away the young animals, as I witnessed the pain I caused. I tried to be as gentle as I could with the animals, but this did not alleviate their emotional pain. I felt like a monster. The herd manager saw my distress and tried to soothe me after we had collected all of the calves. Unfortunately, she might have enjoyed the drama, as she asked me to help her out again the next time, which I refused.”
How did you cope with the trauma of witnessing these events? Did anything give you hope?
“I didn’t really cope with the trauma. I became depressed. I kept my mission of documenting in mind, and I reminded myself that this job was temporary. So there was a bit of light at the end of the tunnel for me.
“In regards to the animals, there was no hope. That’s what made this experience traumatizing–the pain and suffering of our fellow earthlings were out of my control. My sense of hopelessness was only reinforced by fellow backpackers, who all seemed to just accept the way things are, even though all of them admitted the industry is messed up. If people are confronted with this type of cruelty in person, and if that doesn’t elicit any change, then what will?”
Have you been able to mourn any of the animals who died on this farm?
“There was no time to mourn on the farm, as each week brought along a new tragedy. The depression stayed with me for months after we left the farm. The upcoming Australian Black Summer meant that the country started burning shortly after we left the dairy farm. While I was lucky to be away from the fires, I saw the devastation of peak drought and record-breaking heat waves caused to the landscape and fauna. Animals, domestic as well as wild, were dropping dead from the heat in the outback.
“I think my mourning from those experiences started when I finally had the time to edit the images I captured, write about the animals I met, and talk about animal rights with other people.”
What can people do to help stop this commercial abuse of farm animals?
“The only solution would be for people to say no to animal products, which is far easier said than done. In my opinion, the most difficult thing in life is changing our core beliefs and values–many of us claim to be open-minded until our innermost self is challenged. This is especially true when we face the reality of animal agriculture, as it’s difficult to admit our own contribution to the horrors and suffering of animals. Unlike other justice movements, veganism requires tangible change in our daily consumption habits.
“While I was on the farm, I observed a variety of psychological defense mechanisms people used to protect their beliefs. The most common reaction was avoidance of unpleasant situations or information. For example, workers would avoid going to the calf sheds when the male calves were loaded onto the slaughterhouse truck. Or a fellow backpacker told me that she doesn’t want to go vegan, but she also doesn’t want to know how the animals were killed for her meals.
“Hence, if veganism seems too far of a goal for someone at this point, I would recommend they read books and watch movies about animal rights. Go volunteer at a farm animal sanctuary, and engage with the animals. Take a look at the work of animal photojournalists who risk their lives and livelihoods to document the hidden horrors of animal agriculture. Try out new plant-based recipes, and give up consuming one type of animal product every week. Embrace being challenged, and accept past mistakes.
“Even though I experienced a paradigm shift during my first day of work, I did not go from vegetarian to vegan immediately. I firmly held onto the myth that animals are not killed in the dairy industry. In the beginning, I never saw a truck taking the ‘spent’ animals from our farm to the slaughterhouse.
“I told myself that old cows are put in a paddock somewhere on the property, where they could enjoy the rest of their lives. In perspective, that’s an absolutely ridiculous idea to have of a profit-driven industrial farm. Deep down, I knew I was in the wrong, and I should stop supporting the industry. Hence, one day, I decided to look up how male calves are killed in the slaughterhouse, and the moment I saw the video, I knew animal products were off the menu for me.”
All images and captions © Karoliina Kase