I decided to post the whole narrative nonfiction essay about my experiences doing undercover investigations about a half dozen times with an LA-area group. I was going to try to get it published, but I’d rather just get it out there now 🙂
(disclaimer: I wrote this by hand two years ago at the beginning of my prison bit, and it is largely unedited. Forgive me any trespasses of grammar or narration!)
Frank pulls over to the shoulder of the two-lane road in his big diesel Ford pickup, tires roiling up clouds of fine dust. “Here,” he says, passing me a handheld camcorder. I flip the screen open with the CANON insignia on the back. Push the red button to start recording. “I’m gonna go back up the road and park. Call me when you’re ready, or if you get in any trouble. Run if anyone sees you.”
I nod, swallowing like I have a mouthful of cotton. What am I getting myself into?
“These guys are fucking bastards,” Frank says. He has an ever-so-slight lisp. “Try to see if they’re leading live ones into the truck. That’s a huge violation right there.”
“Alright.” I step out of the truck, down onto the dirt. The wind immediately slams into me, pressing my Rolling Stones-tongue shirt against my stomach, then flapping it like a flag high up on its pole. I have to shove the door hard to get it shut.
“Good luck,” Frank says at the last second. “Be careful!”
Now we’re separated by glass and steel. He swings the truck around and speeds off down the road, belching black diesel soot. Now I’m alone.
I hurry into the midst of a row of tall trees with thick vegetation along their entire length; they look like enormous green missiles. I move at a crouch toward the stockyard. The air is horrendous, suffocating with the stench of thousands upon thousands of cows’ shit–even with the high winds. I’m in Chino, just a little east of the Los Angeles County line in San Bernardino County. This area happens to have the highest concentration of dairy cows anywhere in the country. People who make money from the exploitation of animals are almost universally loathe to have their inner workings exposed. Two years from now it is a slaughterhouse about two miles from here that gets shut down because meat tainted with e. coli that ends up in fast food joints and elementary schools is traced back to there.
My heart thumps hard against my ribcage and my breaths come short and jagged. But I don’t want to let Frank down. More importantly, I don’t want to let the animals down. If I can take this risk of trespassing and dealing with angry gun-toting rednecks but have a chance at helping or saving someone’s life, then it’s well worth it. I turn right, toward the mountains in the north, and move along the flank of the property.
Frank’s a badass motherfucker. He works as the head of investigations for a farm-animal sanctuary north of L.A. It is truly a special place. The turkeys, chickens, pigs, cows, goats, sheep, and three crabby emus, all rescued from situations of abuse and/or neglect, are treated as friends instead of food. Tours of the sanctuary are given. People get to interact with the animals and see how sweet, affectionate (aside from the solipsistic emus), and intelligent everybody is. The pigs adore having their bellies rubbed, and will grunt and kick their legs appreciably. Turkeys love having their chests scratched, and will stand there staring at you for many minutes if you’ll keep it up. Much like dogs. Lots of kids go to the sanctuary on school field trips, which is great–they’re the ones who most need to experience these things, the ones who are most vulnerable to the toxicity and negative health effects of animal foods.
When Frank was in his early 20s–about my age–he spent a year in prison in Orange County for planning to burn down a slaughterhouse. That alone makes him a hero and a martyr in my book.
I pull even with the big shit-filled two acre feedlot circumscribed by cylindrical steel cross-beams. Scanning the area with the camera, I see that all the cows are way at the back, feeding on a mixture of corn, grain, and soybeans (a totally unhealthy and unnatural diet for grass-evolved ruminants that makes them sick and in turn does the same to the humans who eat their flesh and milk). But it’s cheap–got to have that gallon of milk for under a couple bucks, those cheap steaks! Now I find the truck with the big open-topped steel crate on back. Two cows lie, unmoving, 20 feet behind it. This is the truck that we spotted from the road–a renderer. The driver goes around all the stockyards and picks up dead animals (and sometimes not-quite-dead ones). He then takes them to a rendering plant, where they’re all thrown in giant vats and boiled up to help make all sorts of products–candle wax, soap, gelatin for stuff like candy bars and Jell-o, chicken feed, even pet food. Yep, pet food. And here’s the real kicker: euthanized shelter animals also go to rendering plants. A couple L.A.-area activist friends of mine followed a truck with several hundred lethally-injected dogs and cats from the pound and watched them dumped out at a rendering facility. That means not only could someone’s pet have gone to feed that dead chicken on your plate, but that your dog’s bowl could very well contain boiled bits of other dogs and cats. Theoretically, your current pet could be eating rendered bits of your euthanized former pet! Especially if you feed them highly commercial brands like Iams. Yum!
I zoom the camera in on the cows lying behind the truck. They do indeed appear still, dead. The driver is probably inside the nearby trailer, chit-chatting with the owner. I dial Frank on my cell phone. “Hey. There’s not really much goin on here. Two cows behind the truck, but I’m pretty sure they’re dead.”
“Alright. Go to where I dropped you off, I’ll be there in a couple minutes.” After he picks me up, we follow the rendering truck around for a few miles. We’re hoping to catch him picking up an animal who is still alive, because that’s a violation of the California Downed-Animal Act, which carries a decent fine. The stench coming back at us is indescribable; dozens of animals in various stages of rot. Between that and all the cow shit, I am painfully nauseated. Passing a dairy farm, with an open gate, we break off and pull over in front, next to the house of the people who own the place. Three baby cows lay in a heap of limbs, dead. Just off to the side of the first row of what look to be veal crates: tiny boxes that male calves from the dairy industry live in for about six months before being slaughtered. The boxes are so small they can’t even turn around. This is so their young flesh will be as tender as possible for smarmy cunts with a taste for the flesh of babies. But this is dairy land. “Are those veal crates?” I ask.
Frank brought veggie burgers and soy hot dogs from a vegan fast food joint in Pasadena on the way out here. He takes a big bite of a ketchup-slopped hot dog. I don’t know how he can eat with those poor baby’s corpses in sight. “No. Not veal. Dairy.”
“Dairy? What do you mean?”
He speaks around a mouthful of half-masticated food. “They use those crates for females too. When dairy cows have male babies they’re taken away to make veal. When they have females, they’re often kept in fuckin crates like that for bout the first few months. Easier to feed. Give em medicine. Don’t hafta round em up.”
“I never even fucking knew that!”
He shrugs. “Not many people do.”
I shake my head, shocked and disgusted. There is no limit to what people will do to these helpless creatures. Even worse, there is no limit to the apathy (perhaps the most insidious of all emotions, worse than plain evil because it is hyper-contagious) of those who enjoy the products of this cruelty. I try to eat my veggie burger, but I feel ill. It seems somehow disrespectful to the young dead cows to be ignoring them, sitting here in the air-conditioned truck eating. But then I remind myself there are undoubtedly worse sights and sensations to come. And if I’m going to effectively play the part I must find a way to detach myself. This is good practice. I stuff bites of burger and greasy French fries into my maw, wipe my mouth and fingers on a wad of napkins. Trying to pretend the bodies aren’t laying out there. Just waiting for the rendering truck to come snatch them up.
“Alright,” Frank says, guzzling from a can of soda, “let’s go check it out.” We climb out of the truck and hurry through the open gate onto the property. Each row of crates extends for 60 or 70 yards, each wooden box right up against another. The rows extend far back into the distance. Two steel buckets are attached to the outside of each crate; one for food and one for water. Several of these buckets roll on the ground in the wind, blown off their boxes. This means several individuals are without either food or water–for who knows how long. I snap still pictures of the dead babies, the detached buckets, the rows of crates. I approach the first crate and look inside. A small female calf lies with her front legs curled under her chest. Immediately I take a picture. Her eyes are so big, moist, the epitome of innocence. She is perfectly, utterly helpless.
No doubt still she yearns for her mother. The separation of mother from calf is traumatic on both individuals; the mom bellows for days. Dairy cows have to be kept constantly impregnated so they’ll keep producing milk–like other mammals, like humans, they only lactate for a certain stretch of time after they’ve given birth. Every bit of milk or cheese or dairy of any sort contributes to forced impregnation, kidnapping, infanticide.
The dairy calf, she notices me standing there, and immediately becomes agitated. She rises shakily to her feet. Backs up as much as she can in the tiny crate, which is only a couple feet. “It’s okay, sweetie,” I lilt. But she just whips her eyes around, looking for a way to get away from me. My heart breaks for her inevitable fate. I can’t help you, but hopefully I can help create a world where your grandchildren won’t be abused and exploited and killed.
Frank and I move on. Our next objective is to put me into the belly of the beast. Inside the grounds of a large stockyard, and an auction there. But I can’t exactly waltz in with a camcorder in hand. It’s time to go truly undercover. We drive to a nearby Stater Bros. supermarket–across the street from where my Honda Accord is parked at Carl’s Jr. Frank injects himself in the stomach for his Type 1 diabetes. Then he comes over to my side of the truck and we stand at my open door. He takes out a black electronic box that would fit inside a pack of cigarettes, along with a jumble of wires. Then a big pair of black shades. I put those on first. They have two several-foot wires running out the back of the sunglasses’ cotton tie that keep them from falling off. This makes it so the wires run down my back.. Invisible to onlookers. The wires come out the bottom of my T-shirt and hook to the tiny black box. This goes in my pocket. When we push RECORD on the box, it films everything I see with an invisible camera in the black plastic between the two lenses. “Man, these things are awesome!”
“Yeah,” Frank says, “they’re pretty nifty. Expensive, but useful.” The auctions, he tells me, will be going on from about 3 to 5 P.M., so I should go to that for a while, and then surreptitiously wander around the premises to see if I can find any downed animals or other inappropriate conditions or violations. “Have a story ready. Pretend you’re there for your uncle or something looking at animals.”
“I got it,” I say, slinging my denim jacket on to ensure that the wires won’t be visible running down my back. “I’m a good actor.”
“I’m gonna drop you off and go drive around the farms again, see if I can’t find anything. Maybe fuck with the guy in the rendering truck. Call me if there’s any problems. Be careful.”
“I’ll be fine.”
We drive up the street to the stockyard and he drops me off in the dirt parking lot. I strut toward the barns and yards, trying to affect an air of indifferent confidence. I pass a series of sheds and small bull pens. Terrible porcine squealing and screaming emanates from one of the wooden structures. I make a mental note to return. Inside the main shed is where the auction takes place. A set of concrete steps with aluminum bleacher seats on the left. I take a seat up near the top. A quick glance around reveals that of the 40-50 people seated, I’m one of the only whiteys here. A fat guy in a wife-beater sweats bullets in front of me, effluviating sour B.O. Thick coils of black fur stick out from under the sallow tank top on his back. An older Latino in red and black flannel and jeans sits next to him. They converse in hurried Spanish. I tune it out, focusing on the auction. A 20-foot steel fence stands five feet in front of the bleachers. Beyond that is a ring with dirt and hay forming a thick layer on the ground. In back of that are two wooden-planked walls, with a door on either side. One of them opens and several sheep are ushered out by a guy with a long black rod with a whip at the end. There’s another man inside with a similar implement who closes the door and forces the animals to move around the pen so people can see what they look like, how they move, before making bids. Speakers up near the ceiling emanate a voice briefly describing the individuals–weight, age, etcetera–and the starting bid.
The terrified sheep flit around the pen, looking for an escape, trembling and jittery, eyes darting manically. It makes me so sad, so angry, but I force myself to look on with detached interest. I’m just checking out what’s available–my dad sent me here. He’s interested in getting some animals for his back yard. They bring out a horse with a badly injured leg; he limps reluctantly around the pen, and only when whipped and prodded. He goes for cheap. He’ll most likely be transported eventually to a horse slaughterhouse in Texas, one of only two or three such facilities in the country. Horse meat is exported to France and Asia and other places for human consumption. All kinds of animals are brought out; a gaggle of quacking geese, chickens, turkeys (I think of rubbing the turkeys’ chests at the sanctuary and rage roils and boils inside me. I have glorious visions of waiting until night when the big barn is devoid of human and nonhuman life, and burning the fucker to the ground), goats, cows (with and without their calves). One of the saddest moments is seeing a mother cow trying to position herself between her baby and the guy with the whip. Their terror is palpable. To think that people believe–or more likely delude themselves into believing–that farm animals are like automatons, that they don’t experience love and fear and affection and sadness and joy, is so ludicrous as to be insane. Literally insane, as in completely out of touch with reality.
I’ve gotten a good amount of footage in here. Time to wander the grounds and see what I can find. Hopefully none of the workers get suspicious of me. Remember, I’m just a curious potential buyer perusing the “products” they have to offer. I stroll out back behind the sheds, where a giant series of bullpens stretch back a quarter mile. Back here it’s all cows. The wind is really whipping around, and kicks up the stinging mixture of treacherous alkaline soils and powderized shit. Thank Earth I have the sunglasses. Otherwise the wind would be stinging the hell out of my eyes. But the poor cows, they are out in the open, exposed to the elements. Unable to do anything about the searing sandy wind, tearing around. I get a little closer to a large group of cows feeding at steel troughs filled with that omnipresent mixture of grains and soy. The stuff that causes stomach lesions and horrible bloating that can literally explode their stomachs. The cows back away from the bars. Staring at me warily. I’ve quickly learned that here they are totally afraid of all human interaction; I would be too. Their behavior here is diametrically opposed to that of the cows at the sanctuary, where they’re treated with affection and respect, where they’re accustomed to positive human interaction.
I get right up against the fence and stare at them. So many of these 1000-plus-pound animals in such a small space. Dozens in each bullpen. They are literally knee deep in their own squishy, sloppy excrement. With the nitrous oxide, methane, and other pollutants that are so highly concentrated in the area from cow farts, burps, and shit, it’s no wonder the rates of asthma and other respiratory illnesses are so high in local schoolchildren.
Exploiting animals doesn’t just hurt them; it hurts humans, especially children, and the environment too.