Following the human tradition of recording testimonies as a form of activism, this final part of our three-part feature series, Untold Testimony with Katie Gillespie, is dedicated to sharing testimonies of the stories of three animals. While the testimonies in these pieces share the stories of individual animals, they also act as a reminder of the billions of other animals around the world who live and die, and whose stories will never be told. In December, we brought you Untold Testimony: Betsy. In February, we brought you the story of Maizy. Today, meet #1389.
Untold Testimony: #1389
by Katie Gillespie
The door to the auction pen opened to let in another cow. The cow, with ear tag #1389, limped through the door, shaking slightly on unsteady legs. As a Holstein, with the unmistakable black and white spots, her frame was unusually small for her breed. Her body was gaunt, and the contours of every bone were visible just beneath her skin – her ribs, her hip bones, the bones around the base of her “docked” tail, cut to just a few inches long to make it more convenient for the humans who attached her to milking machines three times per day. An auction label was stuck haphazardly to her side, displaying a barcode and set of numbers to identify her during auction. In spite of her emaciated body, her udders were swollen and hanging almost to the ground. One of her back legs was severely lame, and she struggled to put weight on it – the source of her limp. Her coat was covered with feces and mud and sores and abrasions in various phases of healing. She looked out into the bleachers at the audience, sniffed the air, and stood still.
This was the “cull market” auction, where cows who had been used and used up in the dairy industry were being auctioned to meat buyers who would take them to slaughter. Two teenagers worked the pen, prodding, poking, and whacking the animals with sticks to keep them turning around in the pen, and then driving them out the exit where they were weighed and herded into pens. They would wait there to be picked up by whichever meat buyer had purchased them.
The bidding for most of the other cows had started at $40, $50, or $60 per hundred pounds of weight, depending on their size and overall condition, and the prices would go up or down from there depending on level of interest and demand. The bidding for this cow started low – at $20. No one bid. The auctioneer lowered the asking price to $15. No one bid. Then it went quickly to $10 and finally to $5. Still, no one bid. At a mere seven hundred pounds, the cow with ear tag #1389 did not sell for $35. The teenagers started to herd her out the exit door, and suddenly the audience erupted in a cacophony of “uh-ohs,” “oh boys,” and “there she goes.” She slowly sunk to her knees in the pen and laid down, too weak to get up. There was silence for just a moment, a pause in the incessant auctioneer’s calls. Then he said, “Well, let her rest, I guess.”
The door opened again, another cow came into the pen, the teenagers maneuvered around her, and the auction continued. A few minutes later, after several more had been auctioned off, one particularly frightened cow came into the pen, and her movements startled the cow with ear tag #1389. Desperate, she struggled to her feet, and stumbled to the exit. I was sitting there, in the front row, and as she reached the exit, our eyes met for just a moment, her large, dark eyes full of fear and pain, before she moved through the door and was gone.
I felt sick, like I would vomit. The bidding for her life had only lasted 20 seconds or less, and during that time I was paralyzed. Frozen. I didn’t quite realize what had happened until it was too late. I could have bid. I could have paid the $35 it would have cost to buy her – it was less money, in fact, than I had spent on gas to get to the auction. I could have stood up and yelled to the auctioneer to stop the auction while she lay on the ground, saying I would buy her after all. Or I could have sought out the auctioneer afterward to see if I could buy her freedom after the auction was over. But instead, I did nothing. I watched and witnessed. I was at the auction for research on the dairy industry, and I was in full-on observation mode. My heart broke for her, and simultaneously my mind spun with the practical details of buying her: Could I even bid (I wasn’t registered)? How would I transport her? What if I couldn’t find her a home? How would I locate a vet who would know about cows? Was it right to financially contribute to this cruel system? In the time it took to ask myself these questions, the bidding was over.
Other animal rights activists might have rescued her by whatever means necessary. Others with a greater sense of spontaneity, open-heartedness, determination, and quick thinking might have bought her and then figured out what to do next. I felt helpless, frantic, and like the worst person in the world.
I left the auction without her. I went home. I tossed and turned that night, images of the cow with ear tag #1389 flashing through my restless nightmares. The next morning, I called to ask about her. The owner of the auction yard told me that she was dead. She hadn’t made it through the night; she was already dead when they showed up to work in the morning.
The cow with ear tag #1389 remains unnamed. She was raised, used, and used up in the dairy industry with no name. She came to auction with no name. She died at the auction yard with no name.
In the best cases, the process of humans naming animals implies some sense of care and responsibility for their lives, and recognition of their individuality. She was not given this kind of care or consideration or recognition by humans. I don’t have the right to give her a name. I sat there and did nothing, and she died in a miserable place at the end of what was probably a miserable life. There is no photograph of her, no tangible artifact of her existence or of her individuality. But she was an individual, with her own life, her own feelings, her own struggle. Her face will haunt me – the look in her eyes etched permanently in my heart. And I will tell her story to remember her and to provide a historical marker for all those in the dairy industry whose stories will remain untold.
Katie Gillespie is a PhD candidate in Geography at the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle. Her work focuses on animals in the food system — in particular, within the dairy and slaughter industries. Katie currently teaches an undergraduate class, “Animals, Ethics and Food: Deconstructing Dominant Discourses,” which asks students to explore and rethink their relationship to animals in the food system, and she co-organizes the Animal Studies Working Group at the UW. In her free time, Katie writes the blog Serenity in the Storm, which features vegan food, news, and animal studies/advocacy-related topics, and she volunteers at Pigs Peace Sanctuary in Stanwood, WA.