Death is all around here on the eastern New Mexico prairie. At least that’s how I feel today.
Yesterday, when driving home from volunteering at the community college, I saw a herd of cattle running along inside the fence line of a large pasture. I’m used to seeing placid groups of cattle grazing peacefully and this was something unusual, so I stopped my car by the side of the road to see what was going on. There was a huge cattle truck parked off by the fence with its gates open and ramps down. Because I didn’t remember seeing any cattle in this particular field, I assumed that they had just been unloaded there.
There was a cowboy mounted on his modern day steed, a four-wheeler, attempting to herd the smaller groups into one big herd--at least it looked like that to me. I wondered why he would stir up what I was starting to realize were already panicked animals, but I eventually decided that he must be trying to move the cattle to the far corner of the pasture so that the big truck could make its way out of the gate.
As I watched, the cowboy drove back over to the truck, perhaps to talk things over with his co-workers (co-cowboys?). And then the cattle headed down the fence line toward where I was parked. As they passed me, some of them stumbling and obviously worn out, I was able to look closely at each animal. Their eyes were rolling, their tongues hanging out, and some of them had foam coming out of their mouths. They were wet all over with what looked and smelled like liquefied cow manure. It ran down their sides and their legs; it ran down their faces into their eyes and mouths. They were breathing hard and just moving forward by instinct.
It made me so sad. I know that they are born and bred for slaughter. I know that they will make up the hamburgers I’ve always eaten. But looking at them, I couldn’t understand why an animal that is destined to be killed and cut up and turned into meat wasn’t being treated with some dignity during its brief life. There was no reason for those animals to be living in filth. There was no reason for them to be turned out into a pasture while soaking wet, with a night of freezing temperatures ahead of them. They were exhausted and no doubt thirsty, and I could see no accommodations for watering them.
I drove home, feeling that the world is a bad place and that I am a bad person for driving fast by the feedlots around here and never, ever really looking.
This morning I headed out on my bike to look at “my” cattle and to see how they had fared during the bitter night. I was hoping to find them grazing tranquilly, all panic somehow forgotten. It was a hard ride, cold and extremely windy. I had to travel down what I classify as a “scary” road: Scary = fast moving (though occasional) traffic and no shoulders. At times I got off and pushed my bike into the wind, lest it push me backwards.
When I arrived at the pasture…I got it. There were no tranquil cattle grazing. There were no cattle at all. I had completely misinterpreted and misunderstood what I was seeing yesterday. Those cattle were about to be loaded into the big cattle truck. And for an animal raised for meat, going somewhere in the big truck is never a good thing. They were panicked and trying to get away. They were hopeless, because they knew that the cowboys always win. Sure, I’m assigning human emotions to animals. But I defy you to look into the eyes of manure-covered beasts like them and not see a life of unwilling, unrelenting, and miserable slavery.
I know there is a better way. I have raised meat animals myself, in my “back to the land” days. Although we were inexperienced, we did everything we could to ensure that our animals had good lives and that they met their end in as humane a way as possible. They were raised in a clean barnyard and were never sent to the slaughterhouse. They were killed at home with a quick shot, usually as they ate a peaceful meal in familiar surroundings.
Here is my challenge to you: Learn about how the animals we eat live and die. It’s not easy reading, believe me. And don’t just read about it—go to a feedlot and look into their eyes.
Read about the raising, transportation, and slaughtering of animals at http://earthsave.org/news/ff.htm
Read about another way to celebrate the that animals we raise and who nourish us: http://www.taosdaily.com/index.php?fuseaction=home.viewarticle&article_id=1571
Read the book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver for information about humane raising of meat animals.