In the summer of 2008, I was invited on a field-trip to a small stockyard in a small town with several churches and dollar stores called Bath, NY. The stockyard is one of many in upstate New York associated with Dairylea Cooperative, the largest milk marketing cooperative in the Northeast with annual sales approaching $1 billion dollars. Dairylea’s mission: “Dairylea will be farmer-driven. We will seek to maximize net returns at the farm by preserving and enhancing milk markets”.
The following is a previously unpublished record of my field-trip to the Bath (Live/stock)Market:
A young jet black bull stared at me through the wooden pen, his eyes saturated with anxiousness and confusion. He was reluctant to move any closer toward me from the back corner of the narrow pen, but nonetheless curious about the cows in the adjacent stalls. He was the by far the healthiest and most beautiful beast in the stockyard that day. But he was just one of many dozens of beasts stalled up, unaware of their fate to pass from one master to another.
A couple stalls down was a small heifer with an udder so swollen it nearly touched the dirt floor. She too was quite the beauty, though noticeably underfed. Unlike the black dehorned bull, her eyes displayed grief and unnerving anxiety. Quite possibly she had just been separated from her calf not more than an hour ago. As I pondered her familial fate, I was called by Dan, a cruelty investigator, to follow him into the back where the small animal market was soon to commence. Perhaps I’d see this mother’s child.
Walking to the small room in which the animals were corralled into I witnessed a woman electric prodding her calves into a large wooden pen adjacent to he corral. She had at least six males, many of whom may end up being sold as veal. Dan had told me occasionally a big buyer would come to purchase animals for slaughter. For the most part, however, the people there were small, local dairy farmers—the kind many food activists like to support over industrial dairy which comes from anonymous and environmental devastating sources. A veal calf entered the small space, cautiously creeping toward a possible exit, but no exit existed. He wouldn’t move any further while the auctioneer rolled numbers off his tongue, so an older man-presumably his current master—slapped him in the face to get him moving into the center.
The farmers stood and sat in the three tiers, gazing down at the animals as they entered. Adorned with leather boots, flannel and button down shirts, jeans, and either baseball caps or straw hats, they were the genuine image of the rough-and-tumble farmers one might imagine. Modest and dirty folk, the men had very short hair and were typically lean—though, this included a not-so-modest beer gut—and fitted with wrinkly tan leather skin. The women were more varied, but tended to be on the overweight side, some severely so. Some couples brought their children and even their mutts. The children, all boys, dressed like their parents and displayed a great deal of interest in the animals, even a drive to participate in the market. The young boys exemplified an impressive deal of self-confidence and the older boys had nearly fully adopted the disinterested and unreflective disposition of their parents.
During this visit I noticed a machine that scrolled digitally through numbers to the left of the auctioneer. My first guess was that it regulated gas, lighting or temperature. It was not until I read the ironic text on the machine did I realize that it was displaying the weight of the soon-to-be auctioned calf in the corral. The text read:
Enter calf. He must have been born not more than a couple days ago. His umbilical cord, now a shriveled wire, dangled from his belly. His eyes seemed as though they’d pop out of the socket as he stared with extreme intensity at the rest of the room. He stumbled around, having not yet learned to walk properly. In the space were two men who held shepherd canes. One was Terri, a droopy-eyed middle-aged man with a bushy blonde ‘stache in overalls and a John Deer hat, who immediately whacked the calf on the back upon getting up. The other was a severely obese man in his twenties acting in bored indifference, bumping the calf around as he tried to escape through a small opening, before he too tapped the two-foot tall, orphaned infant with the side of his cane. The calf was sold for under $15. Now came the spent sows, who after having birthed several litters of piglets, likely confined in gestation and farrowing crates, were not healthy enough to produce any substantial profit to keep in production. I was quite horrified to find that all her life was worth to these men and women was $6.
The attendants were quite patient as they waited for the next sow to enter. I stood in the top stand between two larger men and a woman with a feisty beagle-mix glancing around at everything that was happening. I would have felt like a ghost if I weren’t occasionally glanced at myself with either suspicion or curiosity by those in the room. The market was a collage of gazes. I would look into the eyes of the auctioneer, Mike—a frightening man with furled eyebrows—and Mike would scan the potential buyers, the buyers the calves, and the calf me. It reminded me of Foucaultian and feminist theorists who discussed the panopticon, the arrogant eye, and the male gaze. I attempted not to reduce these men and women to the category of villains, and they may have attempted not to reduce me to the category of naive stranger, but once in he arena, one is swept away by the tide of objectifying glances. Essentially we all became objects of contempt and subjugation. They the killers, I the stranger, the calf a profit, the farmers mere buyers.
Every once in a while I’d glance into Terri’s eyes. In them, an innocence and dumbness, as if he had never emotionally matured as had been the case with Harold Brown who was told to shut off his compassion when he was in a 4-H program. They seemed sad and desperate eyes, but my perception could have been no more precise than my anthropomorphic interpretation of they cow’s eyes I had read before. Occasionally he’d look back and I wished I could communicate with him telepathically without any prejudice on either of our parts. I wondered what we’d say to one another and what conclusion or consensus we could reach, if any, about our different worldviews. As our eyes connected for those brief moments I could not tell whether he took my voyeurism as an invitation for introspection or a hostile judgment.
I went to glance back at my peers in the room, but they had already lost interest or their moral patience. I decided to leave too. The entire atmosphere of the stockyard stunk of oppression. From the farmer who struck his calf across the face, which seemed analogous to a pimp slapping his whore, to the gazing at the bodies of the animals to make a purchase, which seemed to parallel patrons of a strip joint or a massage parlor. As I went back to see the cows I had visited with previously, I noticed a stall full of piglets, probably a dozen or more, and three kid goats. They like the rest of the animals there also looked terrified. The piglets huddled together in two circles laying face-upon-face of their siblings. Then it struck me that these markets were probably not far off from the markets they once sold slaves in at auctions, separating families—mothers from children, brothers from sisters. Of course, the marketing of animals came into existence simultaneously if not before the bartering of people. The word cattle and chattel share the same root with the word capital, and, of course, the terms livestock and stockyard immediately draws upon an association with the stock market. The developers of this stockyard even played off the connection between capitalism and colonialism by naming the stockyard “Empire Livestock”! After all, the Europeans’ desire for meat was one of the major drivers of manifest destiny and the continual deforestation and genocide in the Amazon.
In the corridor between the large and small animal auction rooms, I met up with some fellow travelers. As they reached into the pens to sooth the animals with touch, some would flinch and jump back—a sign that human hands may have abused them. One of them had said hello and goodbye to each animal she could. It was terrible knowing that these animals had been or would be purchased and sent off to their deaths and that we were here and could do nothing. A couple of them were tempted to buy the animals and bring them to the farm, but knew that they would only be supporting the industry and that we didn’t necessarily have the space for them. A few of them were half in tears. They told me that they had overheard some of the attendees talking amongst themselves about how ridiculous it was for animal activists to be here. (We obviously stood out in our clothes and dispositions, not to mention our corporeal sympathies).
It was time for the large animal auction so we moved on to the stadium seating, which was probably big enough to seat a hundred people. The woman with her beagle was there as well as another man with a very friendly mutt. The mutt cheered some of us, offering a happy animal story. The dogs were safely placed into geographical category of people as they were on the other side of the barrier separating the farmers from their potential animal property. Interestingly, the people the other travelers felt were the most cruel were on the market floor along with the animals, as such was their job, how they earned a living. They were becoming inhuman on the floor in some eyes and were probably unfairly attributed more responsibility than the patrons for the animal’s treatment. It really seemed they were a lot friendlier when they were not pressured to assist with the selling of the animals. Interestingly, the animals seemed as if they were more “human,” as they expressed a greater depth and breadth of emotions than the rest of us who sat idly observing.
However, just because the dogs were better treated than the calves and the sows did not mean they too had not been dominated. The woman with the dog would tell her beagle to “pet” the mutt. She would lift up her paw and pet the mutt with it, and later, as the beagle continued to do so, the woman would laugh. Her dog was indeed becoming a person by subordinating the other dog, making him into her “pet,” a condescending position of what Yi-Fu Tuan calls “dominance and affection.” The woman was two steps above the other dog; the mutt was her pet’s pet, just as one of the animals she may have purchased would have been her pet’s dinner/entertainment. The man with the mutt was by far the friendliest and least judgmental of us, although no one was all that disrespectful of our presence overall. There really was never a moment of hostility.
The auction began with the selling of some grapefruits for a dollar, which was tempting, but fortunately I had not brought any money. Next, twelve dozen farm fresh brown eggs in WAL*MART bags were sold. The trademark on the bags read “Save More. Live Better.” Mike offered to buy and fry the eggs for someone if they brought a steak. A rusted broken dog kennel was up next and then a trailer. Finally, they brought out the first animals. They were large rabbits in a wooden box. An older man holding a cane and wearing a hunting sweatshirt lifted the largest by the back fur. Holding him up before everyone for literally two minutes. You could see the rabbit’s stress as his legs trembled like vibrators.
Then came the kid goats. They came scampering in, sticking together, eyes bulging in fear. The siblings were then individually sold to different farmers, whether as pets or for meat, I don’t know. The piglets came in next. There were three siblings, who like the goats, were only several days old. They stuck together and backed up against a wall, their rears facing one another, making a protective circle. They were shuttering and crying. After the first was purchased, she was dragged away by one of her hind legs, screaming in abject terror. Minutes later the other two were also dragged out the same way, although somewhat more complacently. Their family had been extinguished.
Then a llama was brought in, much to everyone’s surprise. One coarse man made jokes about how he’d like to turn her into a steak. After she was sold, more calves entered. A blonde boy with Terri’s eyes, stuck a child-sized shepherd cane through the gate and poked the veal calf as he came to stop in the corner out of the sight of the farmers. The calf jolted back to the center and the child flashed a proud smile toward Terri, and Terri returned an even prouder one back. When larger pigs were pushed through, the boy screamed “I hate pigs,” and poked the cane through the fence. The local spectators told him not to hate the pigs and sit down.
Dan mentioned before hand that we’d witness how these attitudes toward animals were institutionalized at an early age, and that we should attempt to understand the reproduction of speciesism. Indeed, not only was speciesism being reproduced, but so was sexism, masculinity, and hierarchy. One man who was sitting next to my friend would frequently make condescending remarks about her, especially how she looked like asking her if she sharpened her elbows because they were so pointy. I wondered how churches played a role in institutionalizing hierarchy and ignorance. After all, Christians are said to be God’s sheep, He their shepherd. They shall not question His will, nor should children question the author(ity) of their parents.
The older cows were brought in next. There I saw the terrified Jersey mother, udder about to burst. Suddenly, over the intercom, interrupting the auctioneer, a woman began to sing happy birthday. Everyone clapped afterwards, congratulating Mike on making it into his forty’s. What everyone failed to care about was the birthday of the mother’s calf whose milk rested in her udder. Mike continued his job and made a selling point that she was full of milk, presumably for sale and profit.
One female traveler said that when she looked into Terri’s eyes while he was hitting one of the animals it seemed as though he felt bad when he looked up to see tears in her eyes and so treated the next with some more compassion. Indeed, during one of the auctions it seemed as though the younger ones with more care than some of the older ones. Perhaps he felt more mercy toward the more valued animals. This seemed very possible as the next animal to come in was the ever so beautiful black bull. Some farmer asked if he was another farmer’s bull, and the other laughed. He joked how his animals were like trash compared to the bull. The other responded that his “inventory” wasn’t so great either. And so the other responded, “as long as your inventory sells.”
Mike announced that the bull’s name was Hershey, a cow with a name, for he had been someone’s pet. Apparently he was too old, big, and/or expensive to retain his status. As soon as this was mentioned, the shepherd caners started to pat Hershey instead of whacking him. But after a while they fell back into their roles. As one farmer reached out to touch the placid and worried bull, the old man whacked Hershey across the hip. Hershey, of course, was bought by another. How long he will live, I don’t know. In the end, even loved ones are sent to the slaughterhouse.