The unexpected effects of plastic on animals

By Cal Major

I became a vet to protect animals; to improve their health and take care of their wellbeing. My passion has always been in marine conservation and aquatic species, but I love domestic species no less.

In July 2017 I set off on a solo circumnavigation of the Isle of Skye, Scotland, on stand up paddle board.

I had expected to see beaches covered in plastic, as they are almost worldwide now due to the 8 million pieces tonnes plastic that find their way into the ocean each year. I even half expected to come across sea-life affected by it. But I hadn’t expected the biggest heartbreak of the trip to be witnessing first hand the impact our plastic obsession is having on… cows.

Cow Nose 1

Cows are brilliant. They are unassuming, stoical and beautiful. I worked closely with them for the first few years of my career as a vet, and so have a love for them that runs deeper than just their beauty; for their strength, loyalty and resolve. Having been thrown over a fence by an angry beef cow with calf at foot, repeatedly kicked in my shins, sat on by a calving cow, charged at by a herd of new mothers and told where to go by these powerful creatures more times than I care to admit as a newly graduated vet, I also have a deep respect for their power, and the ease with which they could seriously injure a human if confronted or threatened. For this reason, standing back and watching this beautiful animal, unwittingly vulnerable, chewing on a discarded fishing rope broke my heart. The beach in question was piled high with plastic. But also visited by sheep and cows, lambs and calves, picking between the plastic for seaweed and edible goodies, and inevitably ingesting the plastic waste too.

I was unable to get any closer to this cow than you can see in the following clip, an excerpt from Skye’s The Limit, the film documenting my expedition. I was completely alone, out of signal and miles from any roads or people on land. The cow and her bovine mates could have seriously injured, even killed me if she had felt threatened by me approaching any closer.

This story has a happy ending. But for how long? How long before she finds more plastic to eat, or her calf does, or the next cow does, or the next sheep? How many innocent animals are we going to subject to this before, as a human race, we say “enough is enough”?

Launching 2

Later in the week I met a pair of farmers with a herd of prized white Highland cows. These cows were their pride and joy, the farmers knew them each individually, and even cared for the geriatrics of the herd.

Cal bottles 3

They had experienced this problem in their own cows. They had had to have several of their beautiful cows operated on, their stomachs cut open, to remove plastic that they had eaten off the beach.

We have a responsibility to ourselves, our own health, the animals in the ocean, but also our four legged friends closer to home. All of our health is linked – humans, animals and the planet, after all.

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