Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Where's the beef?

It's my final summer before applying to vet school. I've got to be a competitive applicant. So I did what I had to do, and started shadowing with Doc at the cattle sale barn, to get my requisite food animal experience.

What to say, really? It's been an eye-opener. We've got an assembly line. Cattle come through the chute with a number glued to their back. We look up the number to find out what to do with the animal. If it's a cow, it must be a pair (meaning she has a calf which will sell with her) or a preg (Doc sticks his arm up her ass, fiddles around, and declares either that she is in a certain trimester, or else open) or a killer (which is sent to be sold for slaughter, of course). Bulls are primarily killers, but some are being marketed as breeders, and thus must be semen tested. In the clean laboratory where I first shadowed, this was a calm and simple affair, involving collecting a bull off of a tame and docile steer trained for the purpose. A bit odd to the uninitiated, no doubt, but not the least bit distressing. Here, we do rectal stimulation with a giant electric probe. It is perhaps even more unsettling than it sounds—and yes, I would liken it to rape and sodomy, as there is no other comparison. Each time, it reduces the big, bulky bulls to quivering masses, falling to their knees after first bellowing in shock.

Everything that comes through the chutes is either a "dumb bitch" or a "sonofabitch" or both—gender is irrelevant when it comes to mumbling curses. Each one must be aged and tagged, which involves tightening it into the squeeze chute, catching it by the nose with metal pinchers, wrestling its head to the side, tying it there by the nostrils, checking its teeth, and punching a metal tag through its ear. My oh-so-very-important job is to select a tag labeled with the proper age (1-7; "short and solid" meaning the teeth are worn but still useful; or "broken mouth" meaning the teeth aren't much good and so grazing, and thus weight maintenance, will be difficult) and color, designating whether the cow is a killer, open, or in a certain trimester of pregnancy. And that's all there is to it.

But there is, of course, occasional excitement. There was the steer who got so spooked he ran into a panel and broke his neck. There was the cow who'd had the blood vessels in her eyes burst because someone had roped her and dragged her by the noose into the trailer. She was literally seeing red, and charged dangerously at any human she saw, out to kill. Even Doc didn't blame her for that. There was another cow—thankfully I was not present that day—who broke her leg in the chute and had to be lifted out with chains and a Bobcat. They deposited her outside in the sun, to wait all day for someone to come and shoot her and take her off to the rendering plant. Because that's the rule: "non-ambulatory" animals can't be sold or slaughtered, just boiled down for fat. But so long as they can rise and walk—or hobble or drag—themselves through the ring, they're good to go. There are plenty in that category.

Anything that balks, and most do, is encouraged along by the electric cattle prod. I now quite willingly assist in this endeavor, zapping the beasts on the rump if they hesitate for even a second. I must say in my defense, though, that I always first try to move them verbally (by hissing, as I've been told that cattle have a limited auditory range and cannot hear deep shouting) or by more gentle physical means, such as a swat on to butt with an open palm. I won't hit the skeletal Holsteins, though. These gaunt milk cows, ancient by age five from being used so very hard (when the lifespan of a typical cow, unhindered, can reach past 20 years), terrify me. Their roach-backed ridged spines jut like a mountainous landscape and their pointy pelvises are stretched, tight as a drum, with nothing but hide. These gals will soon make it into Grade D school lunches—ground beef. By the pens, the lowing, mooing, and bellowing of cattle is deafening. Temple Grandin, the autistic woman who revolutionized slaughterhouses and feedlots with her ability to see and think like an animal and thus design more humane protocol, says that only upset and frightened cattle vocalize. She also says that the cattle prod is almost completely unnecessary when cows are handled properly. But Dr. Grandin is not here.

I've helped in more ways than just jolting cows and gluing stickers, though. I've also learned, at Doc's urging, how to castrate. A bull calf, just weaned and still pretty small, comes into the chute. It squeezes around him, locking him in place. Doc enters stage left through a gate in the chute and grabs the scrotum. He takes a sharp tool, pinches it through the sac, and rips backward, exposing the testicles. Sometimes the calf is stoic; sometimes it struggles and bellows in pain. Meanwhile, Doc runs his hand up along the fleshy, purple, and venous structures, tearing the connective tissue as he goes, separating everything that holds the testicles in place…and then he pulls, slowly, steadily, waiting for the distinctive "pop" as each muscle layer gives way. And then a last snap and they're free, to be put in a filthy bucket for some starving sale barn employee to take home for a gourmet Rocky Mountain dinner.

Doc asked me if I wanted to try my hand at it. I thought he was joking. He wasn't. Like the Pontius Pilate I've been channeling these past few weeks, I grimaced, and preemptively washed my hands of the matter. "Forgive me, Lord, for what I am about to do." I refused to perform the initial slice—the most painful part—but I allowed Doc's hands to guide mine up the slippery tube, separating the two testicles, using my thumb to pull back the connective tissue, riding up, and pulling, pulling…

They snapped free (with a little help from Doc's knife) and I did the next one all by myself, again after the first cut. Rip, pull, snap, toss. Nothing to it. My calf collapsed in the chute. "Aw God, I killed it." But they gave him a jolt with the prod, and he stood up, eyes rolling, and ran off with the rest of his brethren.

Hot, sticky blood, on the 102-degree day, congealed under and behind my nails. It took all day to wash away. "Out, damned spot…" Guilt.

Last time, Doc's son, Junior, was helping his pop. Though he's two years younger than me, it looks as though there is a fair chance we will end up in the same veterinary class. Now there's a sobering thought.

One cow, a big yellow Charolais, came charging down the alley and into the squeeze chute, crazed and mostly wild, hurtling through at breakneck speed. Afraid of losing her, Junior slammed the head gate shut, narrowing it even as she came rushing toward it—the space was too small by the time she reached it. There was a jolt and a pop…and flying through the air went the cow's left horn, settling in a cloud of dust on the filthy footing. The exterior keratin had separated completely from bone and flesh, leaving the heavy other shell unattached; raw nerve over bone was now exposed, pink and sinister, and spurting blood at the broken end, rhythmically with the terrified animal's pounding heartbeat. Blood spattered across her eye and to the ground. Her eyes rolled.

"Huh. Knocked her horn off."

I was appalled, though less than I could have been given that I had witnessed a dehorning the week before, a gruesome and painfully horrific procedure if ever there was one.

"Should we, maybe, spray that? You know, with the blood-stop stuff? She's not gonna bleed out, is she?"

"Nah, it won't matter. It'll stop. She's gonna be hamburger soon, anyway! Won't matter."

"You sure? I mean, shouldn't we spray it? That's quite a lot of blood…"

As if I hadn't heard the first time, he repeated: "Heck, she's gonna be hamburger soon, anyway. Gonna be ground into hamburger. Won't matter!"

So he grabbed the cow's nose, pinched and tied, stabbed the pronged tag through her ear, and turned her loose to the kill pen, dribbling a red trail behind her.

I picked up the horn, hid it in my pocket, and brought it home as a souvenir.

Sunday, July 10, 2011


I guess I was like an anion, a halogen maybe, constantly carrying my negative energy along with me, an extra electron, baggage. And with this curse I found myself attracted, electrically pulled, toward those with radiant positive energy. Of course it looked appealing from a distance, their apparent freedom from the constraints usually put upon us all, the way they burned, burned, burned, bright sparks and flames when exposed to air, completely consumed in an instant, exhausted, but living fully and passionately. So that when I came into contact with one of these alkali fellows, an instant attraction held us fixated, a bond so strong we clung together maddened by the very thought of separation. But it was a polar relationship, unequal, one-sided, unhealthy. Ah, and the pain was unbearable so we clung tighter still in some desperate effort to avoid the inevitable. But then all it would take was something so commonplace, so simple as water, to break the bond and send us apart, repulsed, and gone. So I would return to my former state, overloaded, spinning extra, negative, lonely.

Saturday, June 4, 2011


The horse I'm riding is fleabitten gray in technical terms, but white with dark freckles to the layman's eye. She glows in the ten o'clock crescent moonlit night. Moonshine. A name I might have given her after a young girl, seeing the mare, exclaimed, "She's beautiful! You should call her Moonshine!" Of course what she meant was something far too girlish and immature for my tastes—the white horse shines like the moon, I get it. Given a palomino, she'd have called it Sundance or something equally obvious and cliché. But I was thinking liquor. Why not? I already had a Brandy, and knew a Whiskey….but the mare already had a name, a tough, unrefined, unsentimental name more in line with my ideals, so Bones she remains.

Bones. Gritty, tough-as-nails, sinewy Bones. The one whose tendons and ligaments always seem to fail her. Perhaps the anatomical name was a poor choice after all. I've wrestled with her lameness issues for two years and counting now, and it looks like the battle to have a competitive horse is finally reaching its end. I can enjoy her for light riding only. The realization stings, but tonight I have other things on my mind.

It was too hot to ride during the day—and I was too busy—but now that the sun has long since sunk I hop on bareback for muggy summer night's ride. We start off slow at an ambling walk, but I can feel Bones tensing beneath me. Her glowing white hide (about the only thing I can make out in the darkness) ripples with the muscles beneath it. She spooks at a clump of weeds, the fence, a shadow. We make our way back to the woods in the marshy wet ground and listen to the sounds. There's a barred owl off in the distance. Many insects closer, grating and grinding and humming. And speaking of insects, all around us dart hundreds of fireflies, those harbingers of summer (and reminders of childhood).

Oh, how we all used to chase and hunt those things. Lightning bugs, I called them then, but surely fireflies is the far more romantic name. We'd catch 'em, put 'em in jars, feed 'em to toads and observe the glowing through the thin pulsating throat skin. The neighbor kids would smash the bugs on their driveways to observe the slowly-fading smear of luminescence. I hated them for these acts of waste and cruelty.

These memories come back now as I watch the surreal display of tiny blinking lights. They look like a glittery surface where the locations of pinpointed shine change whenever you move your head in the slightest. I've just got to relive that childhood experience. I spur my horse in pursuit.

Mounted firefly hunting! What a novel concept. We chase after the lights, Bones chomping the bit and jolting beneath me. I soon discern that there are at least two different types of the insects. One flashes quickly, then disappears in the darkness for a long while before appearing again elsewhere, teleported. The other kind blinks far more rapidly ("frequent flashers," I quickly name them) and is thus much more visible. I pursue the latter kind, eagle-eyed, keeping my horse in check.

I soon find that these frequent flashers have the annoying habit of flying lower and lower, then alighting on the ground and staying there. No way to catch them on horseback that way. The third time's the charm, though, and with a lucky grab I snag one between two fingers just as it attempts to navigate around Bones' neck. I've got to be careful and gentle now, though, as I recall from those childhood lessons. Just a tiny squeeze too hard and you'll puncture them, allowing their Elmer's glue insides to spill out amidst a sour odor. This one seems uninjured, though, while its flashing speeds up to a fever pitch. It's a yellow-green strobe light now, almost blinding at such a close proximity. I open my hand and the firefly crawls a ways up my arm before spreading its wings and once again taking off in flight.

My "task" now satisfactorily completed—and my bred-to-be-cowpony now an official firefly wrangler—we do a little trotting and loping on the black grass, then there's nothing left but to return to the barn to be cooled off, fed a treat, and put to bed.

For both of us, really.

[unedited photo from sky soon after the nearby (and horribly devastating) Joplin tornado]

Sunday, January 9, 2011

On the Road Again

Would that I had something fascinating to say—some revelation that would rock the world or a funny little anecdote, at least. Alas, I come up lacking anything remotely noteworthy, but rather felt that I should type up a post lest I trod the path of spiritual oblivion. I haven't done a whole lot of soul-searching over the past few weeks. Instead it's been hard work at a rough but interesting job, a smidge of cold labor outside, far too much Internet trolling, partially self-induced and awful sleep deprivation, and a stressful and frustrating and miserable New Year. Blah. The lethargy of a stalling winter.

I've been reading, and have almost finished, a book I was given awhile back by a boss, my flatterer and the source of so much of this current malcontentment. The gift, however, was in earnest, and the book is M. Scott Peck's The Road Less Traveled. There are good parts and bad; interesting and mind-numbingly boring; true nuggets of wisdom and obnoxious psychobabble about the unconscious. I've skimmed a lot of it, mostly due to reading while tired and bored. Maybe I'm missing something extremely valuable.

But the part that has most jumped out at me is the author's assessment of evil and human nature. People, he says, are inherently lazy, and this is the root of all problems. An excerpt:

Why this failure? Why was no step taken between the temptation and the action? It is this missing step that is the essence of sin. The step missing is the step of debate….Our failure to conduct—or to conduct fully and wholeheartedly—this internal debate between good and evil is the cause of those evil actions that constitute sin. In debating the wisdom of a proposed course of action, human beings routinely fail to obtain God's side of the issue. They fail to consult or listen to the God within them, the knowledge of rightness which inherently resides within the minds of all mankind. We make this failure because we are lazy. It is work to hold these internal debates. They require time and energy just to conduct them. And if we take them seriously—if we seriously listen to this "God within us"—we usually find ourselves being urged to take the more difficult path, the path of more effort rather than less. To conduct the debate is to open ourselves to suffering and struggle. Each and every one of us, more or less frequently, will hold back from this work, will also seek to avoid this painful step. Like Adam and Eve, and every one of our ancestors before us, we are all lazy.

So original sin does exist; it is our laziness. It is very real. It exists in each and every one of us—infants, children, adolescents, mature adults, the elderly; the wise or the stupid; the lame or the whole. Some of us may be less lazy than others, but we are all lazy to some extent. No matter how energetic, ambitious, or even wise we may be, if we truly look into ourselves we will find laziness lurking at some level. It is the force of entropy within us, pushing us down and holding us all back from our spiritual evolution.

Wow. The above passage, I must admit, really resonates with me. And it's not even that it's all that original or profound, as I came to the same conclusion myself a long time ago. It's just a hard thing to admit, though I'm guilty as charged.

The goal, naturally, is to confront and control this tendency; to circumvent the knee-jerk reflex of apathy, indifference, and cowardly comfortable laziness, so that, as Dr. Peck says, we can assimilate and assume the role of the benevolent and omnipotent godhead within ourselves. But as Dr. Peck also says, it's a lifelong struggle. So much easier to simply give in to temptation.

Good things are never come cheap, and they're never easy….

Just some thoughts to ponder, and maybe an additional resolution for the New Year. Or maybe "resolution" isn't the right work. A new mindset, perhaps, to slowly adopt and hopefully foster….