In order to educate myself on the meat and dairy industries, I decided to visit a stockyard, where animals are routinely auctioned off to the highest bidder. I wanted to see what kind of animals come through the auction, what kind of treatment they receive and what type(s) of people attend such auctions. I chose the Empire Livestock Auction in upstate New York for no other reason than it simply being in proximity to me at the time. It is also my understanding that what I witnessed is not unique to this particular stockyard and that instead, it is representative of the thousands of active livestock auctions in the United States.
This was my experience:
Just after walking into the building I came to the area that is called “the Pens”. Two rows of wooden fences form a hallway from which potential buyers can view the “product” for auction in small fenced-in yards. The first pen contained some of the friendliest goats, who came right up to the hallway to smell me and give me kisses.
The next pen I came to had six pigs about 1-1.5 months old. I bent down to put my fingers between the wooden slats and they all came over to greet me. I loved listening to their baby grunts.
“Hey, they got some nice pigs here”, I overheard a potential buyer say to another. “Yes, they sure are”, I thought, aware that the men were unfortunately seeing something different than I was. Knowing that I was on private land and could be kicked out anytime, I silently moved on to the next pen.
I saw two pigs around 2-3 months old who were cuddled up in the far corner of the pen to keep warm in the freezing winter temperatures. One was resting and the other laid her head on the back of her sibling. It would be the perfect scene if it weren’t for the location.
I opened the door to the surprisingly small room to the auction that was already underway. The four benches arranged in tiers like at a stadium were all full of bidders as was the standing room behind it and to the side, just in front of the door through which I had come. I climbed up to the top of the seating area so I could get a good view of everything. Just in front of the seats was the ring, which was about 15 feet long and 7 feet wide, and there were three people sitting on the other side behind a high desk facing the onlookers. One was clearly the auctioneer and the other two seemed to be in charge of paperwork and keeping track of who won each bid.
A young woman, perhaps still a teenager, was in charge of showing and handling the animals that came through. She carried a cane to help facilitate this. Animals came in from a door on the left and went out through one of the doors on the right. If an animal was purchased, s/he was pushed through a big door in the right back corner of the ring to get ready for transport and if no one bought them, the animals would be pushed back into a holding pen.
Through wooden slats you could see that someone was in charge of pushing the animals through the left door and into the ring. The first calf was pushed into the ring, his weight was announced and the bidding began. The calf, who was one to three days old, quickly went to the highest bidder and the man in the corner opened the back door and the girl in the ring pushed him through before turning quickly to show the next calf. The door was quickly shut and the process started again.
The girl re-opened the gate but this time no one came out. The weight of the next calf was announced but there was still no animal there. We could see through the slats that the man who had been there to push animals out into the ring was gone. The next thing I saw broke my heart.
A tiny calf nose sniffing the air poked out from behind the doorway, followed by the rest of his head revealing the bright yellow tag pierced through his ear bearing L445. The look in his eyes showed fear as he peered out into the ring and looked at all of us watching him. Within seconds the man had come back and pushed the little calf into the ring and the bidding began.
L445, with his umbilicus still attached, was likely a day old having just been taken from his mother only a few hours earlier. He was very clumsy on his feet, clearly still learning to walk. L445 was quickly bought and shoved through the back door to become one of the newest victims of the veal industry, the fate of male calves as they are of no use to the dairy industry. Over the past 6 weeks I have thought about L445, who is most likely stuck by himself in a veal crate unable to move and missing his mother. If he has not already been killed he will be any day now as they are only kept alive for 4-6 weeks. Perhaps I should take comfort in the fact that his suffering is soon to be over?
The next calf to come through was a beautiful heifer, also only a few days old, and I noticed that the price per pound went up dramatically (about 4 times as much), as female calves are of huge importance to the dairy industry. They will be kept for approximately four years having their babies continuously taken from them (so that we can drink her baby’s milk) only to be ultimately sent to the slaughterhouse once they is no longer able to give milk. (I have learned that the dairy industry refers to such cows, some of whom can no longer even stand, as “spent”.) This very healthy looking heifer was popular with the spectators and in the end she was sold and pushed out the door. Her life of slavery and suffering was only just beginning.
Goats and Sheep
After several more male calves the auctioneer announced that there were some goats and sheep up for auction. Unlike the calves, the goats came right into the ring and seemed curious about what was happening. The goats came up to the people in the front row and tried to smell them, despite the fact that they were often pushed away or even hit in the face.
The sheep were a little more reserved and stayed back from the humans as much as they could. I can not say with certainty where they came from but I’ve learned that sheep who have been used in the wool industry get sent either directly to a slaughter house or end up in stockyard auctions after 4 or 5 years to be sold for meat once their wool is no longer as soft as the industry likes.
“Anybody need some hogs today?” the auctioneer asked the bidders. My heart sank and I wondered how much longer I could remain strong. One by one I saw the beautiful baby pigs that had greeted me earlier come through the ring to be auctioned off and as with all the animals coming through the stockyard, they too would ultimately end up being killed for their meat. Typically, pigs are kept alive for 6 months before they are sent to the slaughterhouse; the average lifespan of a pig is 15 years.
A large pig came through the auction and the weight was announced at 400 pounds. As people fought over her flesh she fixated herself on something on the ground. The man sitting in front of me won the bid at just 54 cents per pound. The betting was over but the pig wouldn’t budge from the ring. The girl in the ring had trouble pushing her to the door so the man in the corner angrily came over to the pig and, to my horror, hoisted her up by the tail so that her back legs came off the ground. The pig squealed in pain and the man violently pushed her to the back of the ring. This time I couldn’t help but notice the sign over the door that read: “All employees are trained to handle animals safely and humanely”.
Being only 400 pounds she will most likely be kept around until she reaches at least 600 pounds before being killed for her flesh. I wonder if she is still alive and what kind of life the man in front of me gave her.
The attendees seemed to be local farmers, all were white, and most were men, making me stand out a bit (along with the fact that I was not bidding). No one looked particularly wealthy and there were some Amish folks in the crowd. Knowing that I could be kicked out at any time if I showed judgement or anger or had a strong reaction to the treatment of the animals, I made an effort to be very polite to everyone I met. After all, these people were no more implicit in the meat industry than shoppers in the grocery stores and waiters in restaurants. Every one responded to my politeness in kind and one guy even held the door for me.
With my initial questions answered, I decided it was time to leave. I walked back through the pens and saw adult cows huddled into a small space. One cow, who had an injured leg and overgrown hooves, lifted her head to look at me as I came to the edge of the pen. Her expression was one of deep sadness. I remembered my days of participating in the dairy industry by consuming milk products and thereby contributing to the suffering of so many cows. A strong wave of shame came over me. “I’m sorry”, I whispered through the wooden slats, “I’m so sorry”.
When I left the building, a strong smell of meat coming from the restaurant next door filled the winter air.
Featured image credit: Devon Christopher Adams