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September 2000
A Stockyard Virgin Deflowered

By Jeff Lydon



It was my first visit to a stockyard. My whole body was clenched, so I tried to borrow some calm from my seasoned guide, Gene Bauston, co-founder of Farm Sanctuary and veteran of countless investigations. I expected a profound experience, something worth chronicling.

Once inside: nothing; my heart gone comatose. I sat in a bleacher with a dozen bidders as the auctioneer’s mad babble droned like loud speakers in a Third World train station. The buyers’ nods, signals for a bid, reminded me of the auto auctions I’d worked as a teenager.

But it was not cars these men were buying. It was calves. Gene admitted to having grown a bit jaded to the process, perhaps an inevitable and useful reaction to his work. This was my first time. Why did I feel as if my mind was on Novocain?

On the auction floor, a burly guy whipped the calves one at a time from a corral on the left into the central viewing area where their weights were announced. Another man, this one bald and armed with a heavy walking cane, poked them into an about-face so bidders could assess the inventory from all sides. Then he caned the calves into a corral on the right.

Each calf was present for about 20 seconds. They teetered on spindly legs new to walking, nearly tripping over still-bloody umbilical cords. They were veal calves, all destined for slaughter within months. I saw in their wet eyes wonder and innocence—and fear—and still I felt nothing.

It was tidy, orderly, efficient, mechanistic.

At one point, the bald stockman left his cane in the exit corral. Rather than disrupt the line to retrieve it, he improvised, luring the calf away from the viewing pit with an outstretched index finger. Taken from his mother’s breast so soon after birth, the calf followed the finger.

Maybe it was the betrayal, a man holding forth the promise of mother’s milk to trick a child into another step toward death. Or was it the symbol of what this animal, only days into the world, had already lost? Whatever kindled the spark, my insulation burned to ash in an instant. From a cloud of numb denial, thunder pulsed up my spine and echoed between my temples.

But there would be no lightning. I sat and watched a hundred calves marched to veal crates—off to transport, and ultimately death. And I only watched. There were no downers that day, at least none that I saw. Ironically, in illness we find their one chance of escaping a life that is nasty, brutish, and short. Farm Sanctuary could only rescue a downed animal, someone so sick that he or she can no longer walk (providing the stockyard operators yielded an unlikely degree of cooperation).

I replayed the names of cows rescued from stockyards that I’d come to know at the sanctuary—Opie, Larry, Penelope. Had they been healthy at bidding time, some would have been someone’s dinner long ago. Certainly, none of the calves at this auction would ever have a name.

That obvious realization sent me back to a dirt road in Vermont I once walked. I stopped at a fenced pasture where a pig lived and the farmer, noting my interest, told me I could pet the pig. He called the pig and she responded like a dog, trotting over with snorted greetings and maneuvering into a good position for a neck scratch. I asked what her name was.

The farmer stammered, "Oh, I don’t name the pigs. I couldn’t name a pig. If I named a pig, I just couldn’t do it."

He looked up for a second. Yes, there was shame in his eyes, an acknowledgment of sin. He didn’t want to say what "it" meant and I didn’t have to ask. He knew. He understood what he was doing. Even those who make their living by killing animals can, sometimes, recognize the individuality—the beingness—of those animals.

Gene tells the story of a chicken among thousands of others loaded onto a truck headed for the slaughterhouse. Somehow, this chicken freed herself from the mass of doomed animals, flitted to the earth, and began scratching around on the ground. One of the chicken farmers started to feed the chicken, joking about how her heart was getting too soft. But she spared a single chicken and that hen became a pet. Separated from the flock, the chicken changed from a poultry product into a bird in the time it takes to fall off a truck.

At Farm Sanctuary, there’s a young cow named Precious, born blind. The farm family raising Precious had to separate her from the heard. After bottle feeding her for a time, the farmers couldn’t bear to sentence their "Precious" to servitude, confinement, and ultimately slaughter, so now she’s at the sanctuary.

Still, the two Farm Sanctuary sites, East and West, care for around one thousand animals, a dew drop in the holocaust of nine billion animals butchered every year in the United States Those rescued animals beat even tougher odds than did the Jews on Schindler’s list. Of course, Oskar Schindler knew their names, not their numbers.

Jeff Lydon is an animal rights activist living in the countryside near Ithaca, NY with his wife, Sarah, and their companion wolf/dog, Quinn. He teaches writing and rhetoric at Elmira College.


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