Boy Blue Wakes Up
By Jim Mason
Little Boy Blue, come blow your horn.
The sheep’s in the meadow, the cow’s in the corn.
Where is the boy who looks after the sheep?
He’s under a haystack fast asleep.
Will you wake him? No, not I,
For if I do, he’s sure to cry.
Not many years ago, I stayed at Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, New York
for the summer doing chores, finishing up a book (An Unnatural Order),
and teaching staff and interns how to research and investigate animal
agribusiness. When the work was done, sometimes I would loaf in one of
the barns just to be with the critters—just as I did as a boy back
on the family farm in Missouri nearly a half a century ago. One day as
I lay in the loft drugged on the soft smells of hay and animals, a slow
rain on the roof hushed the swallows for a while and I dozed off.
The next thing I knew I was Little Boy Blue, rubbing my eyes, waking
up in the hay. Then I looked up and all around me were turkeys and cows,
chickens and pigs.
I know it sounds weird, but I could see into them—I mean, I had some kind
of X-ray vision. I saw all of their organs carrying on the processes of life:
lungs swelling with each breath of air; hearts heaving and laxing, and arteries
pulsing with each surge of blood. I saw the inner workings of their bodies. I
felt the animal life forces at work. I saw their souls…and I felt my own.
And I saw more: I saw time at work—and men at work—on the bodies
of these animals. It was like a time-lapse movie—the kind you see on TV,
in which seeds sprout into plants and grow up before your eyes.
I saw wild turkeys, that is to say turkeys in nature—in woodlands and grasslands,
in their natural habitat—their home. They were swift, sure-footed ground
birds—bold, cagey runners who made a thunder as they rose up on wings and
soared a thousand yards to roost in the safety of trees.
Then I saw men take the turkeys away and put them into pens and cages. There,
by killing, culling and controlling every element of their lives, the men made
them fat and clumsy so that they could not fly away, so that they made more meat
for the table. These turkeys could not run about the woodlands; indeed, they
could barely walk about their pens. Nor could they flirt, court, and choose their
own mates. Nor could they make sexy love as birds do, for they were too big,
clumsy, and deformed.
But the men forced them to reproduce anyway by wrestling the males and “milking” them
for a few drops of semen, which they mixed and diluted in a plastic tube of sterile
saline solution. Then the men grabbed the females, who were screaming and shitting
in terror, and “broke” them (as the men put it). The men manhandled
their big bird bodies into position (upside down), tails jerked downward, vents
forced open—all the better to receive their shot of semen.
I saw aboriginal pigs, lean and sinewy, darting about the woodlands and grasslands
just as swift and sure-footed as the turkeys. I watched as they, too, were taken
away by men to the confinement of pens and cages and turned into obese, clumsy,
deformed vehicles for meat, fat, sausage, ham, bacon…and colon cancer in
These pigs had problems with sex as well, so the men invented Swine Reproduction
Management Techniques. They dosed the females with drugs to pressure their estrous
cycles and to patch up the fragile fertility caused by the men’s husbandry.
So sexually enfeebled, the sows had no eagerness when ovulation called for semen.
But the men figured out a way to tell which sows were “ready” for
artificial insemination. They took some boars to surgery and removed or re-routed
their penises. Thus, in the heat of lust, these boars could mount and mark—but
not penetrate and impregnate—the “ready” sows.
The men were elated by their ingenuity and were mightily amused at the sight
of these boars mounting and thrusting to no avail. The men called them “sidewinders” and
boasted of another Animal Science and Engineering Breakthrough.
I saw the original cattle—the aurochsen, who roamed Europe and western
Asia. They stood six feet high at the shoulders, and they were powerful, aggressive
beasts with huge heads and horns. I watched as hunting tribes began following
the great herds of aurochsen along their migrations. In time, the animals became
familiar with their presence, and herd and tribe became one community.
Then the hunters learned to castrate, hobble, and separate bulls and to select
breeding animals so that each tribe’s herd had a special horn shape or
a distinct coat color or markings. Each tribe was very proud of its animals’ looks.
I watched as the most cruel and violent men gained control of their communities
and came to be the owners of the herds and patriarchs of their tribes. They goaded
their younger men to go out and fight against others over water, grassland, cattle,
slaves, and women.
As I watched centuries pass, these tribes became nations who spent their wealth
on armies so that they could dominate others and steal their wealth. Each nation
refined its herd until there were hundreds of breeds of domestic cattle—all
smaller, dumber and more docile than the original aurochsen.
But the survivors of the primal herds were wily, tough critters who would not
go away. They plagued farmers, trampling crops and menacing workers in the fields.
Aurochsen bulls had sex with farmers’ prize cows, which destroyed bloodlines
and produced undesirable looks. The nations organized campaigns to round up and
exterminate the aurochsen. Centuries whizzed by. Then it was 1627 and I was in
a private hunting park in Poland; I watched as a gang of aristocrats killed the
very last aurochs in the world.
Then I saw the modern phase of the extermination of natural cattle—call
it agribusiness’s Final Solution. Factory farming needs only top meat and
milk producers. Any breed not up to snuff gets phased out of existence, and with
it goes a significant chunk of the world cattle gene pool. I saw black and white
Holstein cows and tawny Jersey cows plugged into the machinery of factory farms
so that people can have cheap milk, cheese and ice cream.
There were fatted calves of the Angus, Hereford and a few other beef breeds.
They were imprisoned in hot, dusty feedlot pens under black clouds of flies.
They were standing, wheezing, shaking, coughing, and looking for shade.
In horror, I watched them prodded into trucks, taken to a slaughterhouse, knocked
in the head, and hoisted up by a chain around one hind leg so that a “sticker” could
slash their throats and make death certain. I saw each one blink, breathe, for
the last time. Regrettably, I saw the entire disassembly line where each animal’s
body—still steaming with the heat of life—was skinned, gutted, beheaded,
sawn in two, and reduced to “prime” and “choice” cuts
for supermarket cases.
I saw the Red Jungle Fowl in all its flame-feathered glory in the rainforests
of southeast Asia. There were flocks of 50 or so, with birds of all ages scratching,
preening, dust-bathing, and pecking at the ground. I must have startled them,
for a few called out signals and with a mighty beating of wings the entire flock
flew up to safety in the canopy.
Then men came and snared roosters to take back to their villages where they pitted
them against each other and gambled on the outcome. Soon they captured other
birds and began to keep them and breed them in their villages. These feisty gamebirds
became popular and soon were traded throughout Asia. They were common in Islamic
countries, and when Europe’s crusaders invaded the Levant they were delighted
by the sport of their enemies. The crusaders trudged home, carrying chickens.
Time flew by again, to 1923, when Cecelia Steele invented the factory farm in
Delaware, USA. I watched her lace some feed with vitamins A and D, which helped
her keep quite a number of chickens alive indoors over the winter. Word spread
fast, and before long, everyone was following Steele’s example and raising
big flocks on little labor. Soon chicken flesh was so cheap that everyone could
Now in factories, chickens suffered like never before. There were epidemics of
diseases and disorders. In dusty, stuffy buildings, entire flocks of birds died
from influenza and other contagious diseases. Nightmarish scenes occurred: Some
birds pecked others to death and ate their remains.
Nevertheless, the profits from mass chicken production were too enormous to even
think of turning back. Factory farmers and scientists worked feverishly at reinventing
the chicken; in time, they made it conform to the factory system. In short order,
they stopped the nonsense of chicken cannibalism by burning and cutting off birds’ beaks.
Their biggest project—the Manhattan project for chickens—was inventing
a super-fast-growing bird. This pushed up profits even more because they got
more chicken flesh on less feed.
They did not see that this also built suffering into the birds. The new factory
chickens were barely able to stand or walk because their bodies—like turkeys’—had
outgrown their legs. I watched them crouch on manure-encrusted floors and scoot
about on their bellies, propelling themselves as best they could with puny wings
and legs. I saw their lost feathers and raw, blistered chests as they wallowed
in filthy, wet litter.
Other birds suddenly jumped, squawked, and dropped dead. I heard one farmer call
this the “flipover syndrome,” another called it “heart attack.” I
overheard one of them say that this problem “is in the birds, they grow
too fast these days.”
I saw chickens in even worse factories—in cages stacked in rows in long,
dark, windowless buildings. These were egg laying hens or “layers,” and
they looked battered and exhausted. They were crammed six and seven—sometimes
eight—birds to a cage, which were lined up by the thousands in the gloom.
I saw the chickens’ pale combs, chopped-off beaks, broken feathers, and
The building looked like a giant machine built to hold these hens and collect
their eggs. And indeed it was. I saw a sole human worker there: he was roaming
along the rows of cages, pulling out dead birds and dropping them into a cart.
The survivors were in a living hell—the longest hell for any factory animal,
for these hens were imprisoned this way for over a year.
Then, when they were too exhausted to lay eggs, the factory owner turned out
the lights, turned off the feed and water lines, and let the hens suffer for
about a week. Many birds died, of course. The survivors lost their feathers,
but when the lights and feed returned, they began laying eggs all over again.
Sadly, it seemed to me, they carried out nature’s plan in the most surreal
and unnatural setting.
All these beautiful, powerful animals, who once were minding their own business
in their home ranges, were taken and reduced to slaves by human beings. It was
the original slavery, I thought—the grand daddy of all slavery. And it
wasn’t enough to simply enslave them: the human beings had to take complete
control of their bodies, sex and procreation to make them more productive, to
make them better slaves—all to make the humans’ lives easier.
I felt so very sad—sad for the animals enslaved, sad for nature ruined.
And I felt very sad for humanity that it had done such things. I cried so hard
I woke up.
I sobbed some more as I came to my senses. Then I realized where I was: at Farm
Sanctuary where animal slaves—a few anyway—have been rescued and
allowed to live out their lives in freedom. I rose from my hay bed and went down
to a field. There all around me were cows and pigs, chickens and turkeys who
once suffered on factory farms but now they were here, safe and comfortable.
This might be the beginnings of a future, I thought. Joy rose up and seized my
Jim Mason is a long-time animal activist and author of An
Unnatural Order, recently
reissued by Lantern Books. Jim and Peter Singer have just finished a new book,
Food Matters: The Ethics of What We Eat, to be released by Rodale Press