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.