Butter cow vandalism a missed opportunity

Blood Cow
photo by Iowans for Animal Liberation, originally sent to the Des Moines Register

A group calling itself Iowans for Animal Liberation hid in the Agriculture Building of the Iowa State Fair Saturday evening, waited until the building closed and proceeded to toss red paint on this year’s 1000+ pound butter cow sculpture. Before leaving, the group painted the phrase “freedom for all” on the sculpture’s refrigerated storage vessel. No arrests have been made, though police are reviewing surveillance footage from the scene.

In an email to the Des Moines Register, the animal rights group wrote:

“After dismantling the lock to the refrigerated case housing the Butter Cow with a screwdriver, we doused the entire butter sculpture in red paint,” the email said. “The paint represents the blood of 11 billion animals murdered each year in slaughterhouses, egg farms, and dairies.”

Iowans were not pleased. In fact, the public response has been downright vitriolic, and not without good reason. The butter cow is more emblematic of the spirit of the fair than a tribute to the factory farms and production facilities that the group protests.

KCRG Comments
KCRG’s readers express outrage on Facebook. Though this is just a fraction of the public response, the sense of enmity was ubiquitous.

Sculptor Sarah Pratt, who has no official affiliation with the Iowa farm industry, has spent the better part of a week sculpting the butter cow each year since taking over in 2006.

The story has been picked up nationally, finding traction in USA Today, the Washington Post and Raw Story just to name a few. One might assume that Iowans for Animal Liberation are laying low somewhere, thrilled that their message has been picked up by outlets all across the country, that they’ve effectively started a dialogue about the issues of animal rights in our nation’s farm facilities, that they’re bringing attention to the plight of those animals affected.

Except they haven’t started a dialogue, and they haven’t gotten their message out. Instead of starting a conversation about the manner in which animals are treated in Iowa and abroad, the group has managed to turn nearly an entire state against them, and redirected the conversation away from animal rights and toward one of petty vandalism.

Tom Colvin, executive director of the Animal Rescue League in Des Moines told the Des Moines Register:

“There are processes to go through to make your point known,” he said. “Quite frankly, it’s situations like this — attacking beloved Iowa traditions like the butter cow — are not going to get the general public on your side. They have a reverse effect.”

The group’s post-vandalism email to the Des Moines Register, wherein the author(s) must have certainly anticipated nationwide coverage, rings utterly hollow. “The paint represents the blood of 11 billion animals murdered each year in slaughterhouses, egg farms, and dairies,” they wrote. Before sending off this email, Iowans for Animal Liberation had the opportunity to craft a message that would be read by tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands. They had a chance to point to specific issues, put the wheels in motion for tangible action or perhaps highlight specific legislation (or the lack thereof). Instead, the group crafted a generic, almost trite message that most Americans are accustomed to filtering out on a near-passive level.

Despite conducting a protest in poor taste and to the chagrin of most Iowans, the underlying question remains: Do we have a problem regarding the way we treat animals in this country? Despite the activist self-sabotage and subsequent vitriol, it’s worth noting that yes, we do indeed have a problem. And although Iowans for Animal Liberation have made it nearly impossible to host a productive dialogue on the topic this week, the anger directed toward their actions should not be used as an excuse to dismiss those who lay similar claims.

Iowa has one of the highest concentrations of factory farms in the country according to, an information service provided by the consumer protection organization Food and Water Watch. Of Iowa’s 99 counties, all but 13 have factory farm density levels listed as “severe” or “extreme.”

Iowa Factory Farms

Over the last several years, incidents of farm abuse in Iowa have consistently surfaced via animal advocacy groups exhibiting the appalling conditions seen in various factory farms across the state. The videos are typically accompanied by dramatic music and various propaganda (if we’re calling a spade a spade), yet the images remain, raw and unfiltered.

Mercy for Animals exposed extensive abuse at Iowa Select Farms’ pork facilities in Kamrar, Iowa. An earlier video from PETA showed similar conditions within an Iowa pork farm in Bayard, Iowa. A Compassion over Killing investigation exposed the blatant animal abuse taking place inside Hawkeye Sow Centers located in Leland, Iowa. The Humane Society of the United States, meanwhile, uncovered extensive animal mistreatment on factory farms near the towns of Thompson, Winterset, Stuart and Guthrie Center, Iowa.

Videos such as these have effected some progress. The video from Bayard, for example, resulted in a series of charges that would culminate in the state’s first-ever convictions related to the abuse of factory-farmed pigs (in 2009, no less). However, the response from Des Moines in recent years has been less than amenable. In 2012, Iowa Governor Terry Bradstad signed the nation’s first-ever “ag-gag” bill which prohibits individuals from recording video under false pretenses within an agricultural facility without the permission of the facility’s owner. The bill was first introduced by Iowa House Rep. Annette Sweeney, former executive director of the Iowa Angus Association. The bill made its way to the Iowa Senate by way of Sen. Tom Rielly, who held the Iowa Farm Bureau as one of his top campaign contributors in 2008. The chilling effect is palpable.

It’s clear that Iowa has a history of incidents involving the cruel treatment of animals on factory farms. It’s something we can talk about. It’s something we should talk about. Today, however, is evidently not that day. Perhaps when we’re done reeling over the butter cow incident, when we’re done being distracted by this melodramatic act of vandalism, we can have a real conversation about these very real issues.