My last name, Einhorn, means “unicorn.” Family lore has it that in the shtetl, pharmacies were marked by a sign showing a single horn, because horns were ground down and used as the base of powdered drugs. So either we’re related to pharmacists, or more interestingly, connected to mythical beasts. Either way, most of the Einhorns I know, including myself, collect unicorn figurines the way a 12-year-old girl would.
I thought more about horns when I met this sweet billy goat Gruff at Farm Sanctuary a few weeks ago. This guy got lucky: most goats, sheep, and cattle used in industrial food production are dehorned or debudded (horns start as buds, hence the expression “nip it in the bud”). This is done by restraining the animal in a head gate and using a hot iron to saw off the offending part.
There’s living tissue in the horns, so it’s not like cutting fingernails. The reactions of the animals confirm the obvious: it’s terrifying and painful. USDA figures show that more than nine out of ten dairy farms practice dehorning, but fewer than 20 percent of dairy operations that dehorned cattle used analgesics or anesthesia during the process. Animal Welfare Approved, the best third-party certifier for meat and animal products, prohibits dehorning and disbudding.
It’s well known now that declawing cats is inhumane; it’s like cutting off the first segment of a finger. The same is true for horned animals, but agribusiness pushes them so far out of our sight (and minds), we don’t think about it.
The procedures are done for obvious reasons: they make the raising of large numbers of animals in confined spaces more efficient and convenient for the operator. Horned animals take up more room in feedlots and trailers, may get caught in fences, and are potentially more dangerous to the handlers. For these reasons, they’re also less valuable at livestock sales.
Animals use their horns for defense, dominance, and territoriality: not terribly convenient for farmers. But that’s how they arrive in the world and that’s how they should leave it. Taking away an animal’s body part isn’t our decision to make (spaying and neutering of cats and dogs is the exception; humans created the pet overpopulation crisis, it’s our responsibility to control it).
I’d like to live in a world in which the food I eat comes from animals that aren’t tortured, but sometimes, it feels as if that desire is as fantastical as my childhood wish for a pet unicorn.