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.
There are some workers toward the back of the property moving around random junk with a bulldozer. I try to just look like a curious wanderer (which is ultimately what I am in all my life, so it’s not too hard). Swinging around to the other side of the stockyard, I see a small lot next door with a shack or shed on it. Behind this, right on the other side of a rusty chain link fence, there’s a tall steel pole with a horse tied to it on a very short rope. She’s extremely emaciated. I stare for several seconds, making sure the camera gets a good look. Make a mental note to tell Frank about it. Then I move on, scanning the bullpens for sick and/or downed animals. I get close to the steel-barred fence again, the better to see deep into the lot. Up ahead, right by the fence, someone catches my eye. A young cow, a juvenile, lies there panting after his mates have departed out of fear. I step closer. He raises his head slowly to look at me. But still he doesn’t get up.
I whip out my cell phone and redial Frank. “Hey. I think I may’ve come across a downed cow.” I explain the symptoms. If there’s an animal who can’t stand up to reach water, the owners are legally obligated to bring them water and have a vet see them. At the very least, we might be able to get help for him.
“See if you can make sure,” Frank says.
“Let me try one more thing.” I reach between the bars and thrust my hand toward the young cow, saying, “Hey!” Finally he gets to his feet, slowly, reluctantly. I feel bad about bothering the poor guy, but it was worth it to be certain. “Never mind, Frank. Guess he was just really tired from the heat and everything.” That was heart-wrenching. But it’s nothing compared to what’s to come.
The goat and sheep stables are at the front of the property, between the auction shed and the parking lot. An open fence leads to this area. I step through and stroll around, investigating the pens. They’re maybe 40 feet long and 20 wide. There are anywhere from 20 to 30 animals in each pen. I make sure to scan each one slowly so the video will have good shots of every one.
Suddenly I’m surprised by movement in my peripheral vision. I turn. Approaching me from down the line is a tiny black lamb, no more than six months old. She must’ve squeezed her minute frame between the bars of a fence. I pick her up. She weighs as much as an average cat, and feels even more fragile. Her curly wool is dark, like spilled ink. But it feels like goose down. Her face is tiny, perfect, the quintessence of purity. This lamb is adorable, one of the sweetest and most lovely little darlings I’ve ever come across. She doesn’t struggle at all in my arms. It’s as if she came to me to save her. Get me out of here; I’ve seen what they do to the others. They already took my mommy.
And that’s my first instinct: to just turn and run to the parking lot, hide somewhere until Frank can get to me. But that would blow my cover. I’d never be able to come here again. And Frank mentioned something about the City Council considering shutting the whole place down, because of its prolonged negative history. That would be a huge victory. And showing them a bunch of persistent violations would certainly help the Council’s case.
Yet it would be so easy. Just run–or even walk, nonchalantly walk to the parking lot and wait for Frank. Boom–her life is saved. So that even if nothing comes of the camera footage, at least one individual will have her freedom. I want so badly to do it. You have no idea how badly I want to do it.
But, hateful as it may be, I must think long-term here. It’s fucking hard to do with such a beautiful, helpless baby animal in my arms. Because I know her ultimate fate is to be used for her wool and milk, forcibly impregnated, her babies stolen away from her, and then when her milk production declines to an inefficient level she’ll be slaughtered for meat. Her life violently stolen so that a handful of people can have a particular type of meal. Goddamnit. It’s so fucking hard, but I have to remain in character. I call over to one of the workers, another Latino in flannel, who’s cleaning out (to a degree) a nearby pen. I hand the lamb to him. As she passes from my arms, something inside of me seems to leave with her. Something tangible. A little piece of my humanity, perhaps, never to be regained no matter how much I do.
I will forever feel responsible for that individual I could have (no excuses–should have) saved, forever beholden to my mistake. Fuck the long run. The future is uncertain. But right then and there I could’ve saved her, an absolute certainty. It breaks my heart to hand her over–out of my loving arms and into ones that are utterly indifferent. And still, years later, it breaks my heart to think about. I wish so badly that I had gone ahead with my first instinct. That I had saved her. She is almost certainly dead now. I’m so sorry, sweet girl–nameless lamb. I’ll never forget her delicate little body in my arms. Let her memory live on through me to help subsequent generations of animals. It is the only way I can possibly atone.
The afternoon is gathering itself toward dusk. Everything takes on a lavender hue. Normally it would be beautiful, but here it just makes the gates, the sheds, the fences and troughs and knee-deep shit even more insidious. There’s a green dumpster nearby. Frank told me to check inside any of them for dead animals. He has seen that before–dead goats and turkeys just tossed in the dumpster like pieces of garbage rather than living beings. But all I see inside is beams of wood, trash bags, various detritus. I breathe a sigh of relief. I don’t particularly want to see any more dead animals today. Little do I know that the worst by far is yet to come.
The deepening twilight tells me it’s almost time for people to load up their new purchases. One of the most important things for me to witness; the process can be both cruel and illegal, depending on the manner in which it’s done. I head back toward the auction barn. From the breast pocket of my denim jacket I pull out a pack of American Spirit cigarettes I borrowed from my roommate. I’m not a smoker at this point (except occasionally when I’m drunk), but it’s a good excuse for a person to be milling around outside–anywhere, at any given time. I position myself across from the sheds where earlier I heard all the tormented squealing of pigs, in front of the bathrooms. I light up a cigarette and take periodic puffs, trying to make it last long. I glance around with what hopefully looks like casual interest. All kinds of Chevy and Ford trucks (America–FUCK YEAH!) sit with engines idling, waiting for their turn to load up their new “property.” The thick black funk of exhaust is heavy in the air. A baritone chorus of burr-burr-blumb-blumb-blur diesel engines drowns out most other noise. Each truck has trailers of various sizes hitched up in back–from little open-air ten-footers all the way up to 30-plus-foot grated steel monstrosities.
A commotion breaks out nearby. Apparently a goat has gotten away from wherever he was supposed to be. He’s a beautiful animal. Black and white and brown bristly fur, with thick curved horns. Two men hold onto them. The goat bears down with his head, trying to resist. But they overpower him, dragging him backward by the horns. His hooves scrape and grind against the gravel with loud kshhh kshhh kshhhhh sounds. The three of them disappear behind the trucks.
Now there’s a trailer backed up to one of the pens, which has a white-boarded ramp for the animals to walk up so they’re approximately level with the floor of the trailers. Several workers begin herding a bunch of sheep toward the ramp. One of them has a long black stick which he uses to smack them on the butts when they try to go off in a different direction. There’s a drop-off from the top of the ramp to the low bed of the trailer. The sheep have to be pushed off–they won’t willingly jump down several feet. They land with loud thuds, some of them crashing down in a jumble of tangled limbs. The last sheep is the most resistant of all. She noticed how it went with all her fellow prisoners. She struggles against the workers, moving around the pen like a deft boxer, evading their grips and wallops. Finally they force her onto the ramp. Still she sets her feet and refuses to go. A worker rears back with his big booted foot and plants a stiff shoving kick squarely in the bulge between her rectum and vagina. She bleats and falls forward. But the trailer didn’t back up all the way; there’s a two-foot gap between it and the edge of the ramp. The sheep falls, flailing, half-on and half-off the trailer. Stuck in the gap. She struggles. I grit my teeth, forcing myself (with difficulty) to stare on disinterestedly. I take a big drag on the Spirit. So big that it burns my throat and I nearly start coughing. That wouldn’t be good. Given that all the workers seem to be Spanish-only Latinos, I’ve never been this okay with the deportation of non-legal citizens. Slaughterhouses and all of the animal-exploitative industries (except for vivisection) hire tons of “illegals” because they’ll do these horrible things that most Americans want no part of. And they’ll do it for extremely shitty pay. They’ll do what they have to in order to survive, to send money home to their families, and there is honor in that–but not in brutalizing helpless animals. We countenance and encourage this, as well as the cruelty, when we demand cheap meat and milk and eggs and cheese.
They’re finally able to wrest the sheep onto the truck by grabbing and wrenching up on her wool. They slam her down angrily onto the wooden truck bed. Nearby another truck with a long enclosed trailer backs up to another loading pen. This is going to be a big load, so I want to get it on tape. As the driver/purchaser hurries around to the back of the trailer, I approach. “Hey there,” I say, gesturing to his trailer. “My dad’s thinking of gettin one a these. Whatsit, a 28-footer?” A wild guess.
“32,” he says. A white guy, rare at this particular auction site. Jeans, blue and black flannel, shades and a ball cap. Good thing about the shades, too–this way mine won’t look so out of place in the dusk.
“Oh, okay. Whatcha loadin up?”
At first I don’t understand him, as is often the case with me (too many damn rock concerts, sticking my head against too many giant goddamn speakers). My first instinct is to say, What? But I catch myself. It might give away my out-of-placeness to have not understood him. “Ah. Mind if I watch?”
“Go head.” He starts pulling squeaky steel latches on the trailer to open it.
I play back his earlier answer in my head. After cross-referencing the perceived sound with names for farm animals in my encyclopedia of the mind, realize that he said hogs. Now I get why I didn’t understand him at first: I expected an answer like cows, chickens, turkeys, goats, sheep, or pigs. I’m not used to thinking of pigs as hogs. To me it’s a derogatory term, like swine or kike or nigger.
The back of the trailer is opened and ready to admit its prisoners, its slaves of flesh. A gate lifts at the front of the pen and pigs of all sizes bolt out, from 200-pound big boys to juveniles the size of beagles. A worker follows them. He carries a long black rod. I assume it’s like the one inside the auction bullpen, used for smacking and herding them.
Another worker back in the shed coerces out more and more pigs as the ones before them are forced up the ramp and into the truck. But some of the pigs are too scared. They group together at the edges of the pen, trembling violently. They’re all high-pitched, terrified squeals. I stick my face between the wooden boards of the pen, ensuring that my shades have an unobstructed view. Quickly I realize it’s not just a stick the Latino in the pen carries. He doesn’t hit them with it; he prods them with it, and they positively shriek in shock and pain. It’s zapping them with jolts of electricity. I’m horrified, sick to my stomach. But I can’t look away. It’s the least I can do for them. What I want is to hop the fence, punch the worker in his throat, and jam the shock rod up his asshole.
But instead I just watch. Maintaining an air of passivity. The electric prod often just scares them into corners more than anything. Instead of abandoning it as ineffective, he just becomes more vicious. The sounds of those tormented pigs, so human in nature, will forever haunt me. Finally the worker gives up on the prod and starts using his body and feet to get them up the ramp. He kicks pigs in the stomach, the backside, the groin. One solid kick lands in the face of a small juvenile. The last pig, the worker snatches his tail and drags him by it, picks him up by just that little squiggly bit of pink flesh and hurls him into the truck. I bite back the tears and rage that so desperately want to pour forth like magma stopped at the top of a volcano for identification by Vulcan.
Now that they’ve all been loaded up, the truck owner shuts and locks the steel back doors of the trailer. I walk around the side and peer in through the steel slats. It is just about as wrenching inside as out. The thing is packed literally to the point of overflowing. Every single individual is being squeezed on all sides by the bodies of others. Some of them have to climb up on top of the mass of flesh and stay up there because there’s just no room for them. The squeeze is too intense. One pig screeches and flails, standing atop the others, freaking out. The pulsing sounds are cacophonous; everybody is terrified, panicking. One of the larger pigs nearest the edge sees me staring through. She stares back, her big scared blue eyes so very human-like. Help me, they say. Please make this stop. But once again I have to forsake the fates of these individuals, hoping that it will assist in the greater good of the future. But what if I’m–we’re–wrong? What if freeing these individuals and torching this modern equivalent of the cattle cars to Treblinka would produce the most good? If that’s the case, then somebody has to do it. And if everyone keeps passing the buck, no one will do it.
My phone rings. I step away, snuffing out my cigarette on the ground. It’s Frank. “Hey,” he says, “I’m in the parking lot. Come out here.”
When I climb into his truck, he says, “There’s this truck I want to follow. You down?”
I grin. “Hell yeah.”
It’s a small yellow pickup with an open-topped trailer attachment. I recognize it from a video on the sanctuary’s website, which showed a sheep in horrendous pain; the trailer was so packed that a cow had one of her feet on top of the sheep’s face. Her eyes bulged from the pressure. She bleated in agony. This time the trailer is filled solely with sheep, about a dozen of them crowded and huddled together. The truck exits the grounds and turns left. After waiting until the truck is about a hundred yards away, we follow.