From Trash Animals to Sacred Cows: exploring human-animal relationships across the globe

One longhorn steer named Chaco may be responsible for shaping the direction of Kelsi Nagy’s life. Always a horse enthusiast, the Washington native came to CSU for its environmental focus and nature-centered lifestyle. However, it was a neighbor’s steer, Chaco, who was treated as a pet among a rotating herd of beef cattle, that got her thinking about how we treat animals in often very contradictory ways.

At CSU when Nagy (B.A. ’00, M.A. ’05) was completing her B.A. in English under the mentorship of Sue Ellen Campbell, she took a class with Bernie Rollin, famed animal ethicist and University Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, on food ethics. Learning about where our food comes from, combined with her life experience with horses, reflections on Chaco, and growing love of ‘food animals,’ Nagy decided to become an advocate for animal welfare.

Nagy explains, “There are so many ways that animals are invisible to us in daily life, from our leather car seats to cream in our coffee. I became inspired to speak out about the system [of factory farming and animal production] that inflicts all this suffering in the world.”

Attracted by the focus on animal ethics and environmental philosophy, Nagy pursued a master’s degree in CSU’s Department of Philosophy under the guidance of Holmes Rolston and Lee Speer. Nagy explains, “I was curious about how and why we treat animals so very differently in different kinds of contexts and how this treatment is correlated to our ethical beliefs.” Nagy found that philosophy “taught her how to learn” and how to engage and think through these difficult issues, skills that would serve her well throughout an interdisciplinary academic career and a life dedicated to animal welfare.

This desire to understand animals on their own terms has been the foundation of Nagy’s work since her years at CSU. After working in the local food movement, including Windsor Dairy, a grass-fed dairy farm, Nagy went on to complete a master’s degree in anthrozoology at Canisius College in Buffalo, NY in 2013, pursue a doctorate in geography at the University of Oxford (expected, 2018), and become an Associate Fellow of the Oxford Center for Animal Ethics.

Along the way, Nagy’s pursuit of animal welfare and an understanding of the complexity of human-animal relationships has taken her around the world—from India to Argentina to Spain, and then back to India for her doctoral research as documented in her blog World Cow Girl. Harkening back to Chaco, cows began to take center stage in Nagy’s quest for meaning and clarity in our interdependence with animals. In Argentina, Nagy studied the grass-fed beef industry; in Spain, she investigated bullfighting; in India, she was fascinated by the sacred status of cows. In each instance, Nagy discovered that our treatment of cows is never about the animal itself. Rather, it is about a much richer and more complex story of the significance of the animals in human political and cultural contexts.

For example, Catalonia banned bullfighting in 2011 and yet continued with other cultural practices that could be deemed just as brutal. In Nagy’s study of the role of the bull in the local culture, she found that the bulls were symbols of masculinity that called forth identification with their bravery, courage, and artistry.

“I found that the bull and bullfighting represented this pressure valve for people’s stressed lives. This paganistic animal sacrifice was a cathartic release for modern life, as well as a marker of political and regional identity,” Nagy says.

Crossing Species

But Nagy’s passion isn’t limited to animals we eat (at least in Western culture). After completing her M.A. in philosophy, Nagy, along with classmate Philip David Johnson II (M.A. English, ’05), launched a cross-disciplinary study of pest species with the anthology Trash Animals: How We Live with Nature’s Filthy, Feral, Invasive, and Unwanted Species (2013, University of Minnesota Press). From rats, prairie dogs, and crickets to flying carp and seagulls, the volume reflects upon animals that we deem as worthless, useless, and disposable.

Nagy and Johnson explain in their introduction, “None of [these qualities] are inherent qualities of an animal itself; rather, it defines an animal’s relationship to humans or attitudes about how humans understand the way an animal fits into our worldview.”

Nagy and Johnson are interested in how and why we label certain species as ‘trash’ and the moral implications of our constructed identities of certain animals. Given that ‘trash animals’ are often subjected to violence, especially extermination, Nagy and Johnson work to unpack the jumble of instinct, culture, prejudice, and language that create and impose the category of ‘trash’ on particular animals.

The co-editors’ hope is to bring some clear thinking to our feelings about animals to lessen our violence toward them and, hopefully, increase our appreciation of them. As they explain, “It is difficult indeed to think straight about animals, but if we attempt to see animals apart from our anthropocentric projections and desires, might we be able to see these animals with some sort of clarity? If, in fact, our false beliefs about a species are the cause for conflicts between humans and animals, might we find a better way to be neighbors simply by changing our minds and then our behaviors?”

From Cows to Pests and Back Again

Nagy’s current focus in India is urban cows: the contradictions between the sacred and profane, between purity and pollution, as well as how India’s sacred cows are being used as a symbol of Hindu identity and nationalism. Again, Nagy is finding how our perceptions and treatment of animals, regardless of whether that is as trash or as a deity, says more about human politics, cultures, and economics than about the worthiness of the animal itself.

Despite the tangled web of culture, identity, and nationalism that ensnares animals, Nagy is hopeful for the future. Having settled back on the Front Range, Nagy is once again inspired by the local food movement and her dream of “less livestock and better treatment” for our food animals. For her next project, Nagy hopes to tackle the disappearance of native bison from the Great Plains. She desires to plunge—philosophically and creatively—into how we relate to the place where we live and how we can do that ethically with our non-human neighbors like Chaco and, more importantly, his forgotten friends.

Cow in India eating out of a trash can
Cow roaming among locals, eating out of trash barrels. Photo courtesy of Ashby Butnor.

Research Spotlight

Nagy’s current focus in India is urban cows: Cows are viewed as sacred and serve a religious function in Hinduism. “There is an affection for cows that is very real and not seen elsewhere,” she says. Cows are viewed as religious signs of abundance as well as economic prosperity due to their ability to provide milk, yogurt, ghee, fertilizer, and labor.

In the city of Mysore, there is a large population of Brahmins, people from the highest, priestly caste, and a high tolerance for cows. Cows freely roam the streets of the city and eat from garbage piles. Nagy describes the long history of animals eating scraps left by residents: “There’s a common saying, ‘first chapatti to the cow (representing the goddess of wealth) and the last to the dog (symbol of the ghost world).’”

Despite these urban cows becoming “very comfortable in the city,” their health, as well as local residents’, is affected by their scavenging habits.

Through her research, including following particular cows through the city, Nagy has discovered the increased ingestion of plastic in the garbage piles. As a result, what is considered to be the healthiest and most holy of beverages, raw cow’s milk, is increasingly contaminated by plastics. Nagy’s research investigates these contradictions, between the sacred and profane, and purity and pollution, as another complexity of our relationships with non-human animals.

Nagy is also intrigued by how India’s sacred cows are being used as a symbol of Hindu identity and nationalism. The cow is used as a mark of separation from Muslim and Anglo cultures and is being co-opted as a “political strategy of unification” by Hindu nationalists. In addition, Nagy is investigating how the “cow taboo,” the prohibition against harming or eating cows, stands in contradiction to the growing beef industry in India. Though many “beef” producers claim that buffalo is being sold, the reality is that many once-sacred cows are being slaughtered and shipped to growing beef markets throughout Asia.