Imagine you're a murderer in a town full of murderers. Every day, you see angry mobs protesting outside the homes of your fellow killers, calling for justice. Some of the killers even get arrested. But somehow you always get left alone.
On the one hand, you're relieved. You can carry on your killing without facing the consequences. But on the other hand, you're scared stiff of the day they come for you.
For years, that's a bit how it was for dairy farmers. They saw anti-fur protests and the 'Meat is Murder' banners, the hunt saboteurs and the anti-vivisectionists. Other people's cruelty against animals was often exposed, but the horrors of how cows are abused and killed for profit stayed largely hidden.
Despite their wicked ways, these dairy farmers got a free pass for so long. Few of us even knew about the horrors facing calves and cows in the milking system. Even those who knew a bit about animal rights weren't always clued up about this form of cruelty. That's why the killers kept getting away with it.
I was ignorant of dairy myself for a very long time. For years as a vegetarian, I assumed that quitting dairy was just a perfectionist or philosophical thing that completists did, rather than an appropriate response to an industry of unparalleled cruelty. Cows are my favourite animals and I was proud of not eating beef, but I still ate halloumi, mozzarella and paneer by the bucketload.
Vegan friends encouraged me to learn about dairy farming but I resisted: rather than looking into it and really thinking about what I discovered, I took the middle ground of supporting well-meaning (but demonstrably unsustainable) 'ahimsa' farms. I even ran a marathon to raise funds for one of them.
Then, the night before the marathon, a calf came to show me the way. I had a vivid nightmare of a calf looking at me with sad, accusing eyes. In my sleep, I was trying to tell him that I was running a marathon to help cows. But he was unmoved by my words. He continued to stare deep into my soul.
The next day, at the finishing line of the marathon, I randomly fell into a celebratory embrace with another runner. Suddenly I noticed he was wearing a 'Vegan Runners' t-shirt. I told him I admired vegans and he told me to become one. Between him and that calf, I felt like the signs were clear. I went vegan in that moment and I'm so glad.
Having ditched dairy for good, I felt able to look into the truth more. I think subconsciously I didn’t want to look too closely before. But when I opened my eyes, I was sickened by what I found. Sickened, revolted and angry.
Exposing the truth
I wrote an article for The Guardian in 2017, exposing the cruel practices of milk farms. Immediately it was obvious it was going viral, with thousands of people sharing the article very quickly. People were shocked to learn the truth of what actually goes on. We were all sickened, revolted and angry together.
When I've written similar exposes about egg farming, and many other animal-abusing industries, I'd only had minimal push back from the perpetrators. But this time it was like a bomb had gone off.
Farmers bombarded me with abuse and menacing messages. One of them wrote on Twitter that his calves had been stolen and I was responsible. They tried to force The Guardian to take my article down but they couldn’t, because everything in it was true, and their messages only got angrier from there.
The NFU, Dairy UK and NFU Scotland, AHDB Dairy, NFU Cymru, the Ulster Farming Union, RABDF, CLA and Ruma all united to issue a joint statement condemning me. Apparently they'd never agreed on anything before.
This kind of panic comes from people who've known for ages that their treatment of animals is exploitative, non-consensual and abusive. They just thought they could get away with it. People have always known that 'a pork chop' is really a chunk of dead pig, but with milk you don't see any blood. The industry has spent a fortune in marketing money to make themselves seem above all that - wholesome and healthy. That's why they abused me about my Guardian article: it was the first time a major publication had exposed them so clearly.
Dairy, we're coming
Amidst all the abuse, I also got a tidal wave of messages from readers who had gone vegan after learning the truth. One woman said that her whole family had gone vegan because of what I wrote. Then at the end of the year The Guardian announced that it was one of their most read articles of 2017.
I like to think the calf in my nightmare would be happy with me now and we could have a good cuddle if we met in real life. Actually, we kind of have. When the Retreat Animal Rescue sanctuary in Kent saved a calf from the dairy industry last year, they named him after me because of the fundraising I’ve done for them. And when I met little Chas at the sanctuary, he looked just like the calf in my dream.
One day they will all be free. So be scared, dairy, because we're still coming for you.