“You ladies here to buy a cow?”
“We’re thinking about it,” was our straight-faced reply. It was true – we were thinking about it. Our thoughts were frantic with the desire to purchase every last bovine in the facility. A desperate daydream as implausible as the purchase of a single calf.
We knew that when we planned a trip to the local livestock auction. We knew that we would witness indescribable suffering, that we would be unable to rescue any lives from this tragic, exploited existence. However, faced with a barn of tagged Holstein calves, the urge to take one home was nearly insuppressible.
A women pointed toward the middle pen. “Those ones there were un-sellable. They’re free if you want any.”
Stepping closer, I gazed down at the discarded infants. Of the seven, five huddled in the corner farthest from human reach. One hobbled aimlessly, disabled by a swollen kneecap. My eyes drifted to another, lying alone in the straw, his fur slick with wetness.
“That one’s too young,” continued the woman, eyeing the damp calf, “I think he was just born this morning.”
I inquired as to their fate if no one took them home.
There was no hint of compassion in her succinct response. “They’ll kill them,” she informed us. And I wondered why I had bothered to ask.
The overall purpose of livestock auctions is, on a most basic level, the buying and selling of live farm animals. As one interviewee explained to me, farmers take animals to these auctions for “last resort” sales. Auctions also serve as the grim finale to 4-H projects when youth sell their one-time pets for profit.
Yet the actual function of these institutions is multifaceted. Much to my dismay, I discovered that the local livestock auction serves as venue for weekly social gatherings. It even features a dinner within the auction building. Farmers congenially devoured hamburgers and sausages with friends while, on the other side of the wall, cows and pigs were packed into dung-streaked stalls awaiting sale. No doubt the majority of attendees were there without interest in selling or buying, were present simply for the benefit of social interaction.
The gossiping and raucous laughter of the human animals was a disturbing addition to an already morbid scene. While they chowed down in their heated hangout, a mere wall away several hundred cows stood crammed on muddied cement floors, their breath puffing whitely in the frigid air. Plaintive mooing, terrified squeals, heartrending whimpers of motherless infants – these were the sounds of that fearful misery. And meanwhile the ranchers, in mud-streaked cowboy boots and flannel shirts, ate on mercilessly.
It is all too common to excuse the consumption by omnivores as culturally ingrained disassociation. To point out that when they eat a steak, they don’t truly make the connection to the sentient body of an individual cow. To suggest that, if handed an axe and a haltered bovine, they would be incapable of killing that animal, much less consuming its flesh afterward.
At this particular livestock auction, there was not the slightest pretext of disassociation. These men and women knew exactly what they were eating.
How did this callousness develop? Was there a deliberate decision to dismiss compassion toward nonhumans, or did it never occur to them to sympathize with the cows? Were they, like that young boy in his too-big cowboy hat attentively watching the auction with his mother, taught by their parents that this interaction between species was acceptable? And, perhaps more importantly could this current state of insensitivity be reversed? How could anyone even begin to tackle such a deep-rooted disregard for nonhuman life?
I often wonder, if a person has no qualms in violence toward non-human animals, is it such a great leap to endorse or participate in violence toward humans? Can compassion be selectively flicked on and off? Psychologists have long recognized that animal abuse is a precursor to human abuse.
And there is no denying that the treatment of the animals at this auction was abusive and violent. A microphoned auctioneer hollered earsplitting blather while animals were prodded, one by one, into the ring. A man in cowboy attire employed a four-foot long switch to keep the animals in motion. The animals, eyes wide with fear and legs jostling in panic, circled the ring frantically while their bodies were auctioned off to the highest bidder.
The audience watched with expressions approaching boredom. These people had been repeating this routine every Friday for years. How many Fridays, how many animals sold, discarded, murdered, these were numbers I did not want to know. Yet the participants recognized no moral errors. To them cows were irreversibly objectified as pieces of property, as walking lumps of food.
Several weeks ago I spoke with the executive director of a non-profit working on behalf of farmworkers and growers in animal agriculture. She explained to me that most growers trapped in poultry factory farming schemes did not want to inflict suffering on their birds. Oftentimes the cruelty of battery cages and other abuses are strictly required by industry employers. The growers themselves, she told me, began farming because they cared about animals and animal husbandry.
I was tempted to protest there is a serious distinction between caring about animals and caring about animal husbandry. A distinction illustrated quite clearly at this particular auction. It left me speculating, if I had handed out a questionnaire, what percentage of the auction crowd have given an affirmative to that ever infuriating statement: “I love animals.”? Surely they, like the meat-eaters who pamper pet canines, have adopted a blindness to that particular hypocrisy. I would bet the farm that almost every one of them considered himself an animal lover.