Violence, milk and pedagogy? Re-thinking relationships between non-human animals and schools – by Victoria O’Sullivan

A few days before the global school climate strikes that were held in late September, 2019, I drove over the Auckland Harbour Bridge and pulled up alongside a cattle truck (conscious of the irony that was my mode of transport). Through the slim horizontal openings that allow air to circulate, I caught glimpses of the animals that were awkwardly shifting position in the cramped conditions, inside. I deliberately kept apace with the truck in order to make eye contact with one of the cows, to at least bear witness to the existence of her short life.

I’ve seen these trucks make their way over the bridge before, but it is the synchronicity of these events (and one other, specifically an email from the New Zealand Teaching Council containing a newsletter) that presents a window (or perhaps a horizontal breathing slot?) to re-examine relationships between the meat/dairy industry, animal bodies, the environment, young people and education, in Aotearoa New Zealand.


Only a few months ago, with the pavement still warm from the climate strikes, and not long before the Australian bushfires started ripping their way through the country, the New Zealand Teaching Council’s September newsletter arrived in my in-box. It contained a photo from the 1940s of a row of school-boys drinking milk. Accompanying the image was the caption, disarmingly innocuous sounding in light of the connections that exist between industrialised agriculture and climate change, “New Zealand schoolchildren received free milk as part of a world-first scheme to improve the health of young New Zealanders between 1937 and 1967. While some children enjoyed school milk, others disliked drinking milk that was sometimes warm and smelly!”

For thirty years, in response to a glut of milk (a consequence of the Great Depression of 1929 that resulted in a collapse in the price of New Zealand’s primary-industry exports) and a desire to improve the health of children’s teeth and bones, the then government (and successive ones) oversaw the provision of free milk in New Zealand schools. In accounts of this time (that intersect with romanticised notions of New Zealand being a ‘land of milk and honey’) the source of the milk—the animal subject, tends to be invisible. Fast-forward to 2012, and it is the multi-national company Fonterra that provides free milk to primary schools (approximately 70% of them). Today, we might re-assess such a scenario and consider it problematic for the way in which it makes it difficult for a young person to be anything but a consumer of dairy. A glance at Fonterra’s Milk for Schools website visually points to the existence of certain (extractive and consumer-oriented) human-animal relationships. Below an image of five children, a panel with digits reminiscent of an old-fashioned airport arrivals/departures board constantly ticks over, tracking the relentless quantity of milk cartons being consumed by children. On another page, a stylised milk truck appears as if in constant motion as yellow street lines whizz by as it travels the length and breadth of the country. The same page shows a green skip-type re-cycling bin constantly emptying and re-filling as plastic bottles are consumed.

Since 2006, New Zealand Farmers Livestock and AFFCO have run a scheme labeled with the parasitic-sounding name, Cash for Calves. It donates 35-40 cents (based on the weight of the calf) for every bobby calf slaughtered to schools (and volunteer fire services) nominated by farmers. AFFCO’s national livestock manager claims that “bobby calves are a fact of life on a dairy farm and with this scheme everyone wins,” except the calves (and their mothers) he appears to have forgotten about. Considered the ‘neccessary waste’ of the dairy industry, the ‘product’ of mothers whose lives are defined by pregnancy cycles so as to maximise milk-production for human consumption, bobby calves represent 40% of the total amount of calves that are born in New Zealand that are not reared for beef purposes or as cows to join the milking herd (in the 2018/2019 year, this figure represented 1,809,644 calves). When calves are removed from their mothers (and sent to slaughter), they are so young that The Welfare of Bobby Calves: Good Practice Guidelines for the transportation of calves for slaughter includes reference to their navel cords, which should be “dry or withered, not pink/red, raw or fleshy”.

The ‘everyday’ nature of the text in the 2019 ‘bobby calf update’ newsletter sent to farmers, suggests a disarming disconnect from the reality that is the slaughter of these animals. It reminds recipients that the ‘bobby calf season’ (one that is worthwhile “looking forward to”) is approaching. As an “extra thank you,” suppliers stand to win a $1000 travel voucher so that they can enjoy “much deserved rest and recreation once the season is over”. The images are as disarming as the text: a healthy calf in repose gazes at the reader; a group of people (children and teachers and/or parents) animatedly read books that have presumably been purchased with the proceeds of donations; people (previous recipients of travel vouchers) hold envelopes with red ribbons wrapped around them, and a dollar sign (acting as a visual navel cord) floats between the calf and the group of people reading.

AFFCO’s nationalistic (and quite violent) slogan, kiwi to the bone, too easily suggests that there is something innately natural and inevitable about our close relationship to meat and dairy. But now that our attention is firmly on the climate crisis, if the slaughter of sentient beings wasn’t reason enough to question this relationship, perhaps the crisis will prompt us to do so.

The new Ministry of Education climate change teacher’s resource, Climate Change: Prepare Today Live Well Tomorrow designed for years 7-10 of the New Zealand curriculum, makes clear the connection between livestock emissions and climate change (see p. 11). Unusually, for an environmental education resource, it even refers to ‘love’ as a quality defining human-animal relationships (referring to Greta Thunberg’s love of animals), and refers to Mātauranga Māori, a non-extractive worldview.

In addition, since young people learn about animals and the environment in subtle and multiple ways, perhaps we also need to question the ethics of initiatives like Cash for Calves and Fonterra’s free milk in schools (but more importantly, the practices of the meat/dairy industry, at large). In the process of doing so, we might avoid teaching kids that animals (and the environments they live in, or indeed any lives) are beings to be extracted from—a way of thinking that has led to the environmental crisis in the first place.

Photo credit: Victoria O’Sullivan, images from the Global School Climate Strike (Auckland, September 27, 2019).

Victoria O’Sullivan is a PhD candidate at the University of Auckland. Moved by the existence of the Anthropocene (in the sense of being affected and propelled into action; made mobile) and its potential impact on generations of human and non-human animals yet-to-come, my research explores ethical responses to environmental crises, through new materialist theory and post-qualitative methodologies (in particular, walking methodologies). My research also involves exploring non-human animal presence in schooling contexts, particularly in Aotearoa New Zealand. Prior to becoming a lecturer in Education, at Auckland University of Technology, I taught visual art at secondary level.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: