Over the past eight years I have check cattle in and out at the livestock auction whenever monetary need arises or I find myself longing to spend time with bovines. Not following the traditional path of a woman in the livestock industry, I work in the yards alongside the men and in direct contact with the animals. While the hours are long, the pay low, and the working conditions dangerous, I have counted it all worthwhile because I can indulge in my favorite pastime – cow watching. I enjoy seeing how they can curl their long pink tongues and whisk them around the inside of their nostrils. I notice how their pink lips and noses move when they drink, how they chew up stray papers they find laying in the alleys, how they lie in the dirt with dignity, hunched up over their forelegs and shoulders. Watching their tails switch from side to side as they walk down the alleys to their holding pens. I find myself amazed that they can move 1,200 pounds with the grace of a model on a fashion show runway.
I like how they think and how they move and find a certain amount of gratification in setting leads with the various gates to get them to go into whatever pen I want. I hold out my fingers for the newborn calves to suck. It’s true that they will follow me anywhere when their instincts to be comforted are indulged.
For all the happiness I find in them, I must acknowledge a harsh reality. Each time I work with them, I see the line between life and death. Many times cattle come to be sold in poor condition. I have seen cows with cancer eye so bad that their entire head was swelled to twice the original size and the odor of rotting flesh permeated the air long after they had walked away. This was a few years ago – before Colorado passed laws about bringing in the most extreme cases to public auction. Still the sick and dying come to the sale barn because that’s the only way producers have to get a few head sold off. I see bleeding and infected udders, cracked and bleeding hooves, prolapse, malnourishment, extreme age, and overall neglect. These cases are not even ten-percent of all the animals I check in. But for each hard case, I feel as if there’s a fine razor cut on my heart and my conscience when I witness agony. I still find myself almost wishing I could bring a gun with me and drop the sickest of the cows in their tracks and then turn the gun on the owner for letting them get so bad off.
I had two orphan calves in my backyard during the summer. Their mamas were cows that had been issued their sentence and not knowing their future, dropped the calves right after the sale. It isn’t unusual to find them in the corners of the pens when we go to load the cows out. One was born to a wild cow and she was in with several more of the same. The cow was shipped out in the dark and the calf wasn’t discovered until the morning. I said I’d tend to her and I call her Lucky because she is. Had she waited a few more hours to make her appearance, she would have died inside her mother.
The other calf was born to a cow which was dying and just barely able to get to the truck. How she had the will and strength to deliver the calf is something I will never know. Even though it was able to nurse its colostrum, it was tiny – barely bigger than my dog. She had patches of hair missing from malnourishment and her mom’s bad health. I call her Hope because I hoped she would live. When the opportunity arises. I do what I can. I give them names full of inspiration and willingness to continue to the end of their purpose, though I know the vast majority will be processed. I prepared pints of formula four times a day, held and pet them, and socialized them like I did my sons. The calves are still with me. I love them and keep trying to convince myself that I’m serving a higher purpose.
The fact remains that the purpose of a cow’s life is to die. That’s the part I both love and hate about working with them. I fancy that I might well be the last pleasant human contact they have before they walk up the cement chutes and board the truck that will take them to the packing house in Wisconsin or Nebraska or wherever else the cattle buyer has sentenced them to die. The hope is how I keep my job. It’s inevitable that they will cross the line of being a wondrous living creature, to becoming a consumer commodity. First they are life. Then they are beef, leather, film, cosmetics, grease for bearings in vehicles, insulin, and gelatin capsules for Prozac.
When asked to cover a few Saturday afternoon hours for a fellow employee a few weeks back, I was assured that there would probably be nothing happening. There were no loads expected to be dropped off for the next sale and there was only one pen of cow to be picked up. I felt safe assuming the duty. I was well into my shift when the call to load out the pen came. I thought I’d have a fifteen-minute chore ahead of me as I headed out to the truck chutes to unlock the gates and get the invoice. I was completely alone and I worried about being confident and efficient since most of the truckers are surprised (and sometimes appalled) when a woman comes to load them out. I want to give the barn a good name by my work and, most of all, I want to be professional.
The trucker had gone down to the pen and was bringing them out. He asked why he could find only fifteen head. He was told to pick up sixteen. I explained that one had died. One grand dame (possible great grand dame) Holstein was down in the pen. The others had started meandering up the alley of curiosity or habit, I don’t know which. He told me she wouldn’t get up and that we’d come back after the others were “on the buds.”
It was a sad bunch. The packers who purchased the cattle usually buy those in the worst condition. I’ve never had the nerve to ask what they became once they got to Wisconsin, but I’m guessing dog food. All the animals were either lamed, skinny, old, or torn up in some way. One big black bull had cracks so deep in his hooves that he left a small trail of ruby drops in the dust as he walked to the chutes. He also took a pretty good spill while climbing the cement chute stairs to get onto the truck. The driver had to sting him to his feet with a cattle prod. I was relieved when the bull heaved his great body and plodded on. The other cows followed. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do had he stayed down.
We went back for the downer that hadn’t moved an inch from where we left her. The trucker twisted her tail, but she stayed put. He handed the hot shot to me and told me to prod her nose with it while he tried to help her from the back. The first time I poked her, I deliberately didn’t engage the current. He took the hot shot from me, went to test the current on the water pump, found it working and admonished me to zap her when he handed it back. I did. She held fast. I reached down to pat her bony head and chunks of hair fell out all over the dirt and fluttered in the breeze. She was dying.
We decided the best thing to do was to get the skid loader and give her a ride to the semi trailer. He moved his truck away from the chutes and I fired up the loader. I hadn’t operated the machinery much. The times I did involved pushing around manure and sand. I doubted that I could manage to scoop up a cow. He understood, and took the skid’s controls while I stood clear. He lowered the bucket and pushed the cow about five feet through the dirt. Once he had her against the feed bunk, he pressed her into the bucket. She didn’t fit well. She was once a large cow and her frame didn’t mold into the bucket at all. Her head and a foreleg, as well as her huge utter and one hind leg hung out over the metal scoop. She tried to break free but was too weak and simply let her head fall back and bob with the loader’s erratic jerking.
He carried her to the back in fog the truck and I watched tentatively as he tried to get a sideways cow into an upright doorway. By now three-quarters of an hour had passed. The trucker was angsty and I was feeling inept. I knew I was into something I couldn’t handle. Knowing that she might easily have her leg broken or worse, I eased my discomfort of watching the cow being loaded by going into the dock house to see if the mobile phone was gone. If it was gone, I could call the guy I was covering for. He’d know what to do. I groaned with a mix of frustration, disappointment, and resignation when I saw that it sat in its cradle behind the pop machine. “Damn!” he yelled as I flung the door to the dock house wide open and stalked outside. I saw the cow was finally loaded, but her back leg stuck out and she didn’t have the strength to draw it inside so we could shut the door. We tried and tried to somehow fold her up so he could get moving. For whatever reason, it just wouldn’t work out. He asked me to sign a statement that she was dead. He could then yank her off the truck and leave her with me to finally finish dying. I didn’t know if I had the authority being a part-time employee and all. I told him so and offered to see if the person I was covering for had come back yet. If not, I promised to call someone who could accommodate him.
I went to check at the trailer house by the barn, castigating myself the entire way. Scared and angry, inadequate and ashamed. I wished I could turn those feelings off and just do the job, “Damn emotional woman,” I muttered to myself.
Relief was in sight when I saw the blue pickup parked outside. Finally I had help and I mentally expressed a prayer of thanks. I explained the situation and he said he knew exactly what the trucker was looking for. We walked back up to the chutes and I felt more comfortable knowing the responsibility had shifted to him. The men agreed that the cow should be pulled of the trailer and set to wrapping a heavy chain around her free leg. Because there was no chute under the semi’s end, the cow would have to drop four feet to the asphalt when the skid hit reverse. She had no strength to break her fall. I turned away. My ears stayed open even though I fervently wish the contrary. I heard a heavy thud when she fell and I heard her weak cry of protest. Was it morbid curiosity or unwillingness to separate myself from her pain that made me stay present at least by listening? I still don’t know.
The trucker and I tried to help tip her back into the bucket of the loader so she could be carried away. I lifted a front leg and he grabbed a back. We couldn’t lift her enough so that the bucket could get underneath her. The men conferred again.
“Well you might as well push her over to the chutes and use them to get her in there,” the trucker said.
My fellow employee looked at me and hesitated. The trucker almost murmured, “She’s dying anyway.” So it was decided.
I watched as the skid loader moved into position to push her about fifty feet. I watched as her head bobbed over the asphalt and she mooed her dying protests to the rough treatment. She was heavy flesh and the push over the pavement was ripping her hide away from her. Things moved more slowly than everyday existence. I had time to notice that her black, leaf-shaped ear was caught under the skid’s bucket. Me eye were involuntarily fixed on that ear. I hoped it wouldn’t disconnect from her head. She hit the chute with a thud and the skid’s bucket eased back. I noticed her neck was caught between the cement and the metal edge and I realized she might be decapitated as I looked on. I tried to yell to prevent it, but it seemed like I took too long to form the words.
Then I saw a crimson fountain shoot up from the far end of the bucket. The ruby spires quickly turned into a putrid pink as her utter burst from the external pressure of the skid’s bucket and the internal pressure of the massive infection she carried inside it. Can a cow cry in agony? Can their screams sear the air? She did. They did.
I stood there stunned. I wanted to go to her, but couldn’t. All I managed to watch the pool of blood and pus under the bucket push its edges out further and further in conquest of fresh ground. How much blood do they have? I wondered I could smell the dead white blood cells, the infection that was killing her before we finished the job. She looked at me, became quiet, and let her head fall where gravity set it. Her eyes glazed over, but even when she was dropped at the place where the byproducts and hide plant picks up the dead, she lived a little while longer.
I was told to list her tag number with the other dead cow at the bottom of the invoice: Number 0122 – Dead on 8/29/98 p.m. Some obituary. I put my initials next to it just incase there were questions. When I handed the yellow copy to the trucker, I was crying. I didn’t care what he thought. What mattered was what I thought and I no longer cared about being seen as competent or professional. Caring about how I looked to someone else was ridiculously shallow and foolish. I cried with greater intensity out nothing more than willful defiance of the expectations of the job and sorrow for my participation in any of it.
He looked at me, almost with envy, took his paper, carefully folded it, cleared his throat and said, “You’re absolutely right to feel in this situation. I’m used to it because it’s my job. I move the almost dead. But I also have dairy cows at home. And you know what? I love them.”