Dreams of Times Bygone and Those to Come
The sheep’s in the meadow, the cow’s in the corn.
Where is the boy who looks after the sheep?
He’s under a haystack fast asleep.
Will you wake him? No, not I,
For if I do, he’s sure to cry.
By Jim Mason
Not long ago, I stayed at Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, New York, for the summer doing chores and teaching staff and interns how to research and investigate animal agribusiness. When the work was done, sometimes I would loaf in one of the barns just to be with the critters — just as I did as a boy back on the family farm in Missouri nearly a half a century ago. One day as I lay in the loft drugged on the soft smells of hay and animals, a slow rain on the roof hushed the swallows for a while and I dozed off.
The next thing I knew I was Little Boy Blue, rubbing my eyes, waking up in the hay. Then I looked up and all around me were turkeys and cows, chickens and pigs. I know it sounds weird, but I could see into them — I mean, I had some kind of X-ray vision. I saw all of their organs carrying on the processes of life: lungs swelling with each breath of air; hearts heaving and laxing, and arteries pulsing with each surge of blood. I saw the inner workings of their bodies. I felt the animal life forces at work. I saw their souls … and I felt my own.
And I saw more: I saw time at work — and men at work — on the bodies of these animals. It was like a time-lapse movie — the kind you see on TV, in which seeds sprout into plants and grow up before your eyes.
I saw wild turkeys, that is to say turkeys in nature — in woodlands and grasslands, in their natural habitat — their home. They were swift, sure-footed ground birds — bold, cagey runners who made a thunder as they rose up on wings and soared a thousand yards to roost in the safety of trees.
Then I saw men take the turkeys away and put them into pens and cages. There, by killing and culling and controlling every element of their lives, the men made them fat and clumsy so that they could not fly away, so that they made more meat for the table. These turkeys could not run about the woodlands; indeed, they could barely walk about their pens. Nor could they flirt, court, and choose their own mates. Nor could they make sexy love as birds do, for they were too big, clumsy, and deformed.
But the men forced them to reproduce anyway by wrestling the males and “milking” them for a few drops of semen, which they mixed and diluted in a plastic tube of sterile saline solution. Then the men grabbed the females, who were screaming and shitting in terror, and “broke” them (as the men put it). The men manhandled their big bird bodies into position (upside down), tails jerked downward, vents forced open — all the better to receive their shot of semen in sterile saline.
I saw aboriginal pigs, lean and sinewy, darting about the woodlands and grasslands just as swift and sure-footed as the turkeys. I watched as they, too, were taken away by men to the confinement of pens and cages and turned into obese, clumsy, deformed vehicles for meat, fat, sausage, ham, bacon … and colon cancer in the men.
These pigs had problems with sex as well, so the men invented Swine Reproduction Management Techniques. They dosed the females with drugs to pressure their estrous cycles and to patch up the fragile fertility caused by the men’s husbandry. So sexually enfeebled, the sows had no eagerness when ovulation called for semen. But the men figured out a way to tell which sows were “ready” for the artificial inseminator’s vials of commercial semen. They took some boars to surgery, and they removed or re-routed their penises. Thus, in the heat of lust, these boars could mount and mark — but not penetrate and impregnate — the “ready” sows for the inseminator’s plastic tubes.
The men were elated by their ingenuity and they were mightily amused at the sight of these boars mounting and thrusting to no avail. The men called them “sidewinders” and boasted of another Animal Science and Engineering Breakthrough.
I saw the original cattle — the aurochsen, who roamed Europe and western Asia. They stood six feet high at the shoulders, and they were powerful, aggressive beasts with huge heads and horns. I watched as hunting tribes began following the great herds of aurochsen along their migrations. In time, the animals became familiar with their presence, and herd and tribe became one community.
Then the hunters learned to castrate, hobble, and separate bulls and to select breeding animals so that each tribe’s herd had a special horn shape or a distinct coat color or markings. Each tribe was very proud of its animals’ looks.
I watched as the most cruel and violent men gained control of their communities and came to be the owners of the herds and patriarchs of their tribes. They goaded their younger men to go out and fight against others over water, grassland, cattle, slaves, and women.
As I watched centuries pass, these tribes became nations that spent their wealth on armies so that they could dominate others and steal their wealth. Each nation refined its herd until there were hundreds of breeds of domestic cattle — all smaller, dumber, and more docile than the original aurochsen.
But the survivors of the primal herds were wily, tough critters who would not go away. They plagued farmers, trampling crops and menacing workers in the fields. Aurochsen bulls had sex with farmers’ prize cows, which destroyed bloodlines and produced undesirable looks. The nations organized campaigns to round up and exterminate the aurochsen. Centuries whizzed by. Then it was 1627 and I was in a private hunting park in Poland; I watched as a gang of aristocrats killed the very last aurochs in the world.
Then I saw the modern phase of the extermination of natural cattle — call it agribusiness’s Final Solution. Factory farming needs only top meat and milk producers. Any breed not up to snuff gets phased out of existence, and with it goes a significant chunk of the world cattle gene pool. I saw black & white Holstein cows and tawny Jersey cows plugged into the machinery of factory farms so that people can have cheap milk, cheese, and ice cream.
There were fatted calves of the Angus, Hereford, and a few other beef breeds. They were imprisoned in hot, dusty feedlot pens under black clouds of flies. They were standing, wheezing, shaking, coughing, and looking for shade.
In horror, I watched them prodded into trucks, taken to a slaughterhouse, knocked in the head, and hoisted up by a chain around one hind leg so that a “sticker” could slash their throats and make death certain. I saw each one blink, breathe, for the last time. Regrettably, I saw the entire disassembly line where each animal’s body — still steaming with the heat of life — was skinned, gutted, beheaded, sawn in two, and reduced to “prime” and “choice” cuts for supermarket cases.
I saw the Red Jungle Fowl in all its flame-feathered glory in the rainforests of southeast Asia. There were flocks of 50 or so, with birds of all ages scratching, preening, dust-bathing, and pecking at the ground. I must have startled them, for a few called out signals and with a mighty beating of wings the entire flock flew up to safety in the canopy.
Then men came and snared roosters to take back to their villages where they pitted them against each other and gambled on the outcome. Soon they captured other birds and began to keep them and breed them in their villages. These feisty gamebirds became popular and soon were traded throughout Asia. They were common in Islamic countries, and when Europe’s crusaders invaded the Levant they were delighted by the sport of their enemies. The crusaders trudged home, carrying chickens.
Time flew by again, to 1923, when Mrs. Wilmer Steele invented the factory farm in Delaware, USA. I watched her lace some feed with vitamins A and D, which helped her keep quite a number of chickens alive indoors over the winter. Word spread fast, and before long, everyone was following Steele’s example and raising big flocks on little labor. Soon chicken flesh was so cheap that everyone could have it.
Now in factories, chickens suffered like never before. There were epidemics of diseases and disorders. In dusty, stuffy buildings, entire flocks of birds died from influenza and other contagious diseases. Nightmarish scenes occurred: Some birds pecked others to death and ate their remains.
Nevertheless, the profits from mass chicken production were too enormous to even think of turning back. Factory farmers and scientists worked feverishly at reinventing the chicken; in time, they made it conform to the factory system. In short order, they stopped the nonsense of chicken cannibalism by burning and cutting off birds’ beaks. Their biggest project — the Manhattan project for chickens — was inventing a super-fast-growing bird. This pushed up profits even more because they got more chicken flesh on less feed.
They did not see that this also built suffering into chickens. The new factory chickens were barely able to stand or walk because their bodies — like turkeys’ — had outgrown their legs. I watched them crouch on manure-encrusted floors and scoot about on their bellies, propelling themselves as best they could with puny wings and legs. I saw their lost feathers and raw, blistered chests as they wallowed in filthy, wet litter.
Other birds suddenly jumped, squawked, and dropped dead. I heard one farmer call this the “flipover syndrome,” another called it “heart attack.” I overheard one of them say that this problem “is in the birds; they grow too fast these days.”
I saw chickens in even worse factories — in cages stacked in rows in long, dark, windowless buildings. These were egg laying hens, or “layers,” and they looked battered and exhausted. They were crammed 6 and 7- — sometimes 8 — birds to a cage, and the cages were lined up by the thousands in the gloom. I saw the chickens’ pale combs, chopped-off beaks, broken feathers, and brittle bones.
The building looked like a giant machine built to hold these hens and collect their eggs. And indeed it was. I saw a sole human worker there: he was roaming along the rows of cages, pulling out dead birds and dropping them into a cart. The survivors were in a living hell — the longest hell for any factory animal, for these hens were imprisoned this way for over a year.
Then, when they were too exhausted to lay eggs, the factory owner turned out the lights, turned off the feed and water lines, and let the hens suffer for about a week. Many birds died, of course. The survivors lost their feathers, but when the lights and feed returned, they began laying eggs all over again. Sadly, it seemed to me, they carried out nature’s plan in the most surreal and unnatural setting.
All these beautiful, powerful animals, who once were minding their own business in their home ranges, were taken and reduced to slaves by human beings. It was the original slavery, I thought — the granddaddy of all slavery. And it wasn’t enough to simply enslave them: the human beings had to take complete control of their bodies, sex and procreation to make them more productive, to make them better slaves — all to make the humans’ lives easier.
I felt so very sad — sad for the animals enslaved, sad for nature ruined. And I felt very sad for humanity that it had done such things. I cried so hard I woke up.
I sobbed some more as I came to my senses. Then I realized where I was: at Farm Sanctuary where animal slaves — a few anyway — have been rescued and allowed to live out their lives in freedom. I rose from my hay bed and went down to a field. There all around me were cows and pigs, chickens and turkeys who once suffered on factory farms, but now they were here, safe, and comfortable. This might be the beginnings of a future, I thought. Joy rose up and seized my tears.