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Cull auctions sell animals who have been culled from the herd: those who have been deemed no longer productive or economically viable. Animals sold at cull auctions will typically either be transported directly to a slaughterhouse or be moved to a feedlot or farm where they are fattened first before going to slaughter.

It took me a few minutes to focus on the animals passing through the ring at the cull auction I attended. As soon as I did, I was struck by the markedly different condition of the animals being sold at this auction in contrast to the dairy replacement sales I’d seen. These were all severely worn-out cows—mostly black-and-white Holsteins—their bodies visibly destroyed by years of dairy production. Many of them, it turns out, were not more than 5 or 6 years old, though their bodies looked ancient. Their skin hung loosely on their hip bones and against their ribs. They were dirty, caked in mud, feces, and scabs. Many of them were emaciated and limping badly. Many of them had docked tails. Many of them had udders that were red and infected or dragging on the ground. Their eyes bulged, the whites showing. Mouths foamed with saliva. This was the look of the cull market auction: animals fearful, worn-out, close to death.

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Loud bellows echoed through the auction hall. I was immediately overwhelmed, unable to focus on each individual animal because of the scale of the suffering, each devastated body blurring into the next.

close quarters: Pens at a cattle market in Argentina.Beatrice Murch / Wikimedia
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We were seated in the front row by the door through which the animals exited, so as each cow left the ring, we were able to look into her face. As I sat there and met the gaze of cow after cow, I felt deeply ashamed to be human. To be a member of a species that so systematically breeds, raises, uses up, sells, kills, and consumes not just cows but many other species felt sickening and unforgivable.

This feeling only intensified when a Holstein cow with ear tag #1389 limped through the door into the ring. She was small for her breed, and the impacts of her life as a commodity producer were easily legible on her body. Her tail was docked, her hide was covered in scrapes and abrasions, and she had an auction sticker with a barcode stuck to her side. Her frame was slight, and her ribs and hip bones protruded visibly beneath her skin. One of her back legs was not bearing weight (the source of her limp). Her udders hung to the ground and were red with mastitis. Compromised mobility and mastitis are common in cows used for dairy, especially those at the cull market auction, since both of these ailments frequently signal a cow’s declining productivity.

Most of the cows at the auction that day were selling for $50 or $60 per hundred pounds of weight (by weight because they were all just one more stop away from becoming meat, their bodies disassembled and sold in quantity per pound). When the cow with ear tag #1389 entered the auction ring, the auctioneer started the bidding low—at $20 per hundred pounds. No one bid, and the price quickly dropped to $15, then $10, and finally to $5. No one bid. At 700 pounds, the cow with ear tag #1389 could not be sold for a mere $35, and the teenaged handler in the ring began to herd the cow toward the door. To me, she didn’t immediately look much different from the other cows that had passed by, but the experienced meat buyers could see right away that she was not worth buying. Suddenly the audience erupted in a chorus of “uh-ohs,” “oh boys,” and “there she goes.” Although I had my eyes glued to the cow in the ring, the seasoned meat buyers knew before I did what was happening. The cow collapsed, crumpling to the ground, in the ring. There was a momentary silence and then the auctioneer said, “Well, let her rest, I guess.” They left the cow there in the ring and, not wanting to mar the efficiency of the auction, continued selling cows around her. Several cows were brought in one at a time, turned in circles, were sold and exited while the cow lay on the floor, her mouth foaming with saliva and her breathing labored.

While this was going on, my mind raced with frenzied thoughts:

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Should I have bid? Was it too late to buy her? What would happen to her because she didn’t sell? How would I transport her if I did buy her? Would she fit in my station wagon if I put the seats down? Where would I take her? Where would she live? How long could she live in our tiny backyard before our neighbors complained? What ethical questions were involved with financially contributing to the auction and were these outweighed by the good it might do to buy her and give her a different life? Why this cow and not the dozens of others I had watched pass through the ring? I knew from my research already that many “downed” (nonambulatory) cows who may be close to death in the moment are often rehabilitated, needing only fluids, food, rest, and some basic veterinary care to perk up and recover. I wondered if this was the case with the cow with ear tag #1389. Thirty-five dollars was nothing to buy a whole cow’s life; I had spent more than that on the tank of gasoline I had purchased to drive to the auction. But the practical details of buying her overwhelmed me as I sat there, my body rigid, watching the scene unfold. The necessity of a transport trailer, the practicalities of quickly finding a large animal veterinarian and a sanctuary to take her in—these, paired with my lack of firsthand experience caring for cows, caused me to freeze in the moment, and I sat there and did nothing.

It rarely crossed my mind that what we were eating had, not long ago, been a living, breathing animal.

While I was going over and over these questions in my mind, a cow came into the arena who was spooked, running quickly and erratically around the ring. Her movements startled the cow with ear tag #1389 and she struggled to her feet, looking dazed. The two teenagers working the ring hurried to herd her out the exit door before she had the chance to collapse again. I caught her gaze as she left the ring, went through the door, stepped on the scale, and was gone.

Another 30 or so animals pass through, sold on to slaughter, before the auction concluded. As we were leaving the auction yard, the animals who had been sold were already being loaded into extra-long transport trailers destined for the slaughterhouse. We got in the car, pulled out of the gravel parking lot and, as we turned out onto the country highway, we saw one of the auction workers standing up on a rung of the fencing that contained a group of cows. He held a thick metal rod and was yelling and striking one of the cows on the head and back.

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That night, after the auction, I had nightmares about the cow with ear tag #1389 as images of her played over and over again in my dreams: her body crumpling to the ground; lying there unable to rise; stumbling through the exit door; our eyes meeting as time froze for a moment before she went through the door and was gone. As soon as the auction opened the next morning, I called to ask about her. I explained that I’d been at the auction the day before, that I’d seen her not sell and collapse, and that I was wondering what had happened to her. Was she still there, available to buy?

“No,” the man on the other end of the line said, matter-of-factly, “I know the one you’re talking about. She was dead in her pen when we came in this morning.”

When I was growing up, some of our closest family friends were a family of very strict vegetarians and environmentalists. Their son and daughter were roughly the same age as my sister and me. We adored them (and still do) and spent long hours playing in the woods outside of Pittsburgh, going on nature walks where we would find fossils and splash in streams, looking for salamanders and frogs, and build forts out of sticks and leaves.

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During these years, we went regularly to the East End Food Co-op in Pittsburgh where our parents shopped, and when we went along with them, their mom, who was like another parent to us, would buy us a treat—always carob, never chocolate. I remember thinking, “Oh geez, carob again? What’s wrong with a little chocolate?” but in the end I would eat it, happy to have something sweet no matter how “weird” I thought it was. In addition to being vegetarian (they did eat dairy and eggs), they also tried hard to avoid added sugar, caffeine (in the form of coffee, chocolate, and tea), processed foods, and other food additives—conscious not only of the health impacts of those foods but also of their human labor and environmental costs.

As I sat there and met the gaze of cow after cow, I felt deeply ashamed to be human.

They sought out organic food before “organic” was a thing. Their use of canvas bags for grocery shopping (something my mom also did in our home) stood out as something unusual back then. And they traveled with these canvas bags full of groceries so they would have food they could eat wherever they went. The food choices they made were carefully thought out in terms of how they would affect the environment, the people producing their food, and their own health.

It wasn’t that our family was unconcerned with these things—we had an abundant garden that produced fruits and vegetables to feed us through the summer and into the fall; we composted; we ate foods (like natural peanut butter and dense homemade whole wheat bread) that my classmates at school thought were weird; and we gave out boxes of raisins instead of candy at Halloween (yes, we were that house). My parents would rinse their paper coffee filters after they made coffee and dry them in the dish rack to save paper. In fact, I think one box of 50 coffee filters lasted years in our house, as did a single roll of unbleached brown paper towels. The paper towels were mostly reserved for cleaning up cat vomit, and we knew never to use them except for that. If we had guests who tore off some paper towels after washing their hands at the kitchen sink (instead of using the cloth dish towels), my dad would swoop in, grab the wet paper towels from the guest’s hands, scowling and muttering, and smooth them out to dry in order to be used again by the next “environmental criminal” (his words) who darkened our door.

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So, it’s not to say that our family didn’t engage in our own set of environmentally minded practices that probably seemed unusual to outsiders, but I remember thinking that our family friends’ food choices were way more extreme. I couldn’t understand why they couldn’t just eat meat like the rest of us. What was the big deal about eating a little meat, I wondered, weren’t they missing out?


It never crossed my mind to wonder, instead, why we ate animals. It actually rarely crossed my mind, in any significant way, that what we were eating had, not long ago, been a living, breathing animal. This, while I claimed to be a dedicated animal lover.

At the same time that I cared so deeply for the potato bugs on our sidewalk, and the squirrels we named Pouchy and Alice who would feed in the backyard, and the ducks at the park, and the cats and other critters we kept as pets, I still ate animals without thinking twice. I made a half-hearted attempt when I was maybe 12 or 13 to declare that I was now a vegetarian, but I think that was more a mark of rebellion than it was an informed ethical or political decision. And it was short-lived. I quickly went back to eating animals, not questioning it again until much later.

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Years later, I’d learn that there are certain things that, when you learn them, shift your view of the world completely. And you have no choice but to respond. Forgetting becomes an impossibility.

Studying the lives of animals in the dairy industry has prompted more fundamental questions for me about violence, commodification, care, and knowledge production. How do practices that visit violence on a body and life become normalized and routine—so much so that the violence does not seem like violence? In the case of the dairy industry, violence is normalized by a constellation of economic, political, and social frameworks. The economic logics that render the cow a commodity obscure, through commitments to efficiency and capital accumulation, the violence at the root of practices that are integral to the commodification process that harm the cow, calf, steer, and bull (artificial insemination, impregnation, separation, intensive milking, slaughter). Conceptualizing a life as a commodity limits the way of knowing that life: as a commodity, that life is understood in terms of what and how efficiently they can produce. They become a form of living capital and their care (no matter how caringly delivered) necessarily must be oriented around facilitating efficient commodity production. Legal framings of farmed animal species as property and as minimally protected under welfare regulations make many of these practices not only legal but also normalized and socially accepted through their legality. Advertising and industry discourses normalize industry practices through humor and narratives about the necessity of dairy consumption. Social mechanisms of education and tradition naturalize farming animals and connect practices of animal agriculture to nostalgic histories of wholesome intergenerational family farming (a process that not only makes violence against the animal in farming seem natural but also elides the violence of settler-colonialism that underwrites ranching and farming in the United States).

Within this framework of understanding the violence of commodification, how can new knowledges and forms of care with other species be imagined? In researching and visiting sanctuaries, I have been moved by the alternative ways of knowing and caring for and about farmed animal species that can occur in sanctuary settings. Routing animals out of the commodity circuit (and thus, out of being conceptualized as commodities) reorients how caring relationships are allowed to manifest and how knowledge about other species and singular animals is conceived.

Building on the possibilities that emerge from thinking about caring relationships and knowledge production differently in encounters with nonhuman animals, what aren’t we thinking of? What does it mean to care for nonhuman animals in ways that are not oriented around human interests? How might care be reconceptualized and re-evaluated in careful and ethically attuned ways? What can be learned about attending to the intimate and embodied lifeworlds of other animals through careful considerations of the spaces and communities in which they live? At root in these questions must be a fundamental commitment to denaturalizing violence against animals and decommodifying their lives and bodies. My hope is that the singular animals who are most affected by this violence and commodification—like the cow with ear tag #1389—can be a guide. My hope is that it is possible to learn from them, to let their stories be instructive as to how human-animal relations might be radically reimagined. My hope is that they prompt us to respond.

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Kathryn Gillespie is a writer, feminist geographer, and critical animal studies scholar. She has co-edited two books: Critical Animal Geographies: Politics, Intersections and Hierarchies in a Multispecies World and Economies of Death: Economic Logics of Killable Life and Grievable Death

Reprinted with permission from The Cow with Ear Tag #1389, by Kathryn Gillespie, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2018 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved.

Lead Image: Adam Dobias / Shutterstock

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