I accompanied Katie on another research field site last week. It’s been a year since our last shared excursion. This time was different. I’m not sure why. Maybe i’ve learned more tools for compartmentalizing. Maybe it’s been the year without conversations to prepare me for the visit. Whatever it was, i went in with fresh eyes. We arrived at the auction site well-fed this time. It sounds silly, but in the past few years, i’ve learned that being well-fed makes all the difference. We scheduled and even mapped our lunch into our plan for the day.
Katie has been visiting auction yards and farms for the past year – she’s grown more gutsy. She marched up to the first people we saw and asked where and when the auction was going to happen. We helped ourselves to the grated cat walk that ran the length of the holding pens. We didn’t ask for permission – just acted like we belonged.
Katie’s dissertation work is about the life-cycle of bovines, more generally. This is one of the only auction houses that sells male bovine for their semen on the West Coast. By chance, the day we went, the auction yard also auctioned day-old calves, milking and spent cows, and heifers along with the bulls.
Our first timid foray down the cat walk only took us half way down. We spent maybe a little too long watching the young under-one-year olds, crowding in with each other, reaching through the gate to nuzzle the lone bovine on the other side. A Jersey looked up at us and i nearly melted. They are well-known for their expressive eyes and beauty. But we were braced. The first call for auction came through, and we dutifully found our seat in the auction yard.
As we entered, a day-old stood, alone, umbilical cord dangling – blackened as it dried – bleating pitifully. The yard person stood, leaning against the stand, chatting with the auctioneer. The calf took small tentative steps toward the large man, slowly nosing up to him, pressing into his thigh. He turned, annoyed, with his rattling paddle, whacking the tiny calf in the face and smacking him on his bony spine, blurting out, “I’m not your mother or your father!” He turned to us, chuckled, as if, “Right? Am i right?” We smiled weakly, trying not to stand out, but sick to our stomachs, as the calf wobbled out of reach of the paddle. I wanted to jump over the barricade and hug the tiny animal. I wanted to take him home. I wanted to tell him everything was going to be okay. But the truth is, as i watched each day old come through, whacked by the paddle, pushed along – they would only know misery and pain their whole lives. It struck me, in that moment, that he had known so much terror and discomfort in the first 24 hours of his life, and this was just the beginning. This is their start – ripped from their mother, alone, in steel pens with, if they’re lucky, a little sawdust on the floor. No contact. No recognition of their experience. They are, each of them, simply a commodity – disallowed the recognition of their feeling – of loneliness, of pain, of suffering. They are their future meat and dairy production – nothing else.
We sat through the day-old auction and returned to the gang plank. We wandered further down the length, coming on the last grouping of bovines. Each enclosure clearly marked the bovines from different farms. In the far end was a group of obviously sick, underfed, and abused cows. They were gaunt, tails docked. One of the cows was down, legs splayed. She lay there, pressing against her own udders. Periodically, she would attempt to get up, her weakened legs struggling and slipping against the slime of urine and diarrhea on the floor of the pen. Her tiny, under-developed legs would flail, and she would sigh, letting go, giving up, and laying there. Others stepped over her, around her. We stood there, immobile, watching her in her suffering.
The announcement for the next auction went up. We scurried back to our seats, trying to position ourselves where no one could see our notes or camera screens. Cows came through – some with full udders, “She’s got milk in her, boys. Take her home and do what you want!…See, Johnny, gonna go home and the milk tanks gonna be full tonight.” I shuddered. Her udders were full so she’d weigh more and go for more money. The cows came through, eyed for being “3-titters!” – you can knock $1000 off a 3-titter. But “she’ll milk her heart out for you!” even with only three teats. Her value was deeply lowered by her defect, but somehow, she held some kind of emotional value – her heart was in the labor that she was being bought and sold for – but her heart, apparently, was not considered in her day old calf being ripped from her teat.
This auction moved fast – faster than the one in Washington last year. We were out of our seats and back on the gangplank in just few minutes. In the time we were in the auction pen, the downed cow had her legs bound. She no longer had the option of getting up. Her udders were spilling their milk and it mingled with the fear-induced diarrhea that covered the floor of the pen. And now she was bleeding. I couldn’t tell if it was from her crushed udders or from the too-tight binding on her hind legs. She kept struggling to get up. In her confusion, she had stretched the blue painters’ tape, used to bind her back legs, drawing it taut against her struggle. Her legs were starting to bleed.
We inched along to the end, where the newly purchased bovines were being shuffled into the awaiting transport truck. A one year old bull escaped, running wildly back along the hall constructed to keep them orderly, hoping to escape. He knew something was wrong. The shocking cattle-prod that awaited him in the truck was clearly signal enough that something was not quite right. One of the handlers came flying along, re-positioning rails and gates to pen him in, alone. He paced nervously, trying to find a way out.
Maybe we spent too long standing over the pen of clearly abused and sickly cows. Maybe we just stood out (no matter how hard we tried to dress the part) – but finally, in the fourth hour of witnessing, we were called out. “You ladies need some help?” “No, thanks, though! We’re fine!” “I seen you girls runnin’ around all morning, just wonderin’ what you’re up to. You need some help?” “No! Thanks!”
We’d both recently decided to head out. It was perfect timing. I took one last look at the downed cow, struggling in her blue painters’ tape. We walked slowly along the gang plank, peering down at the animals who were moving on to slaughter or other confined spaces. I was struck, more than anything, by the indifference of the men (all men) herding the cows off trucks, through pens, into the auction space, back to pens, and onto trucks. These beautiful beings were moved along as meat, as milk, as semen, as product. Always as product. They stood, stifled, in stinking pits of the stench of their and the others’ fear. Many of them were covered in diarrhea – their own and other bovines. They knew only fear.
This is the industry. This is capitalism. This is the industrial farm. This is violence.