There are people who say animals have no soul. After sitting in the crowd of the livestock auction, I am certain that if the animals spoke our language, they would look up at the people and say, “These animals have no soul”.
Photos and video are not allowed at the livestock auction, so I am forced to share the story of how we came to meet Darla by painting the picture with words. On one of the hottest days of the year, when temps were reaching well into the 90’s, we chose to head to the livestock auction for a lesson in what we’re up against. It’s easy to live in a bubble at an animal sanctuary where everything is Instagram photos and unicorns. The mission was to figure out if there is a way to help an animal from the auction who is out of options without buying into the market of lives for profit. We went as peaceful demonstrators who were honest about what we are and what we do. This made our hosts VERY nervous.
We started by observing the auction pen, where animals are led in through a chute into a Coliseum style arena where they are slapped by men with flags to keep them in the center. I saw these men slap the animals in the face long enough to want to scream in anger. These same men hid like cowards behind big metal walls when the animals dared to lunge or kick back at them as they were slapping them in the face. I was praying a bull would land a kick straight to the groin of one of these fools who laughed as the animals spun around in terror. And it is terror…. they’re confused and scared and thirsty. They know they are in danger and they want to be left alone. It’s gut-wrenching.The mothers and babies are kept together for their turn in the auction pen, but they are separated quickly. The mother is chased off as she fights for her baby who is left alone in the pen for the crowd to admire while he cries out for her. Turns out no one wants to bid on mothers and babies together… no one wants to feed the mama.
We wandered through the “catwalk” above the barn where we can see huge farm pigs just like our sweet Grace and Oliver… stuffed into stalls without any water. The ventilation is minimal. The animals are covered in their own filth, as there is no place for them to get away from it. They’re panting. The newborn calves are all kept in a pen together as they cry out for their mothers. The sheep are crammed into stalls full of excrement and flies. The big bulls are in pens so small they can’t turn around. And then we walked out back…..
Darla was kept in the back of the barn in what is called the “cull pen”. It was in full sunshine. It’s a 20×20 stall with one bucket of water that held at least 15 sick or injured cows. The day was blazing hot, and when we found the pen, there was already a cow down on the ground. A kind staff member told us the vet had already been out and there was nothing to be done. She lay in the mud panting and flailing occasionally. With the permission of the staff member, we went in and comforted her. We splashed water on her to cool her. We used our own water bottles to give her a drink, which was alarmingly similar to giving a wounded soldier a drink on a battlefield. We stroked her face and attempted to calm her. We pleaded with her to get up. The most important thing we did, however, was we drew attention. We bore witness and made the staff uncomfortable enough to call the vet again. That beautiful Holstein cow was euthanized with an injection as we begged the vet to let us try and help her. He stated kindly and matter-of-factly, “She’s too far gone”. She was left dead in the pen for another hour while the rest of the cows looked on. They were desperately trying to get to the water trough her body was blocking and accidentally stepping on her lifeless body. They had no choice.
We were approached by the auction boss who asked, “Can I help you with something?” I was bravely clutching my auction number which I’d registered for when we arrived… I was hoping it would help me blend in. Turns out, it would be the number that saved Darla’s life. I held my number up for him and informed him that we were hoping to help a cow today. We were honest about who we were and said we wanted to see if there was a way to speak to the owners of the sick and injured so we could help them. Denied. This information is closely guarded for fear that back door deals will be made… which are not allowed. We informed the yard boss that we were not there to cause any trouble, but we wanted to help a cow… he smiled politely even if it was condescending, and educated us on how the condition of the cows was not his fault. There was no wiggle room. No compassion. We were running out of time to make a decision as I knew the auction was marching on inside the barn.
As the yard boss left us to deal with our own silly moral dilemmas, we realized the window was closing. If we waited until after the auction to try and speak to someone about a cow who wasn’t sold, we would likely leave empty handed. No one was there to help us. If we dared to step into the auction pen to fight for a cow by bidding, we knew we would be in over our heads. The auction is a good ole boys club who already had us pegged as “the vegans”. We knew the risks. We might be run up on our bid out of malice. We might choose VERY poorly and have a cow on our hands who needed more than we could provide. We might take home an animal who was so far gone that we couldn’t help. The auction moves FAST, and we have no experience, which is intimidating. But we weren’t willing to leave without trying. So, I climbed on top of the cull pen and wrote down the auction numbers of four cows I thought in my uneducated opinion were animals we could maybe help. #119. #029. #090. #189. As the cows in the pen next to us were led out, I raced back inside to make sure I understood the bidding. Josh sent me a message from the cull pen as I sat down in the bleachers, “Here they come”. The auctioneer caught my eye, and I believe he knew what I was there for. I made sure he could see me. The crowd by now was only bargain shoppers in big cowboy hats and boots. I sat in my running shorts and tee shirt clutching my auction number.
#119 never made it to the auction pen. She was later euthanized where she lay. #090 walked into the pen and I wasn’t fast enough. By the time I realized she was one of the few I’d identified, she sold for $2 per 100 pounds and was marched off to slaughter. My heart was racing and my hands were sweaty, as was every other part of me. I gritted my teeth as they opened the gate again and the man behind the metal wall whipped Darla in the face with his flag. She was #189. She stumbled in fear and turned in panic-stricken circles. I had no idea why she was in the cull pen, but I knew she was standing and fighting for her life. I opened the bid as my heart pounded for my own fear. The auctioneer looked mildly surprised, but acknowledged me nonetheless. I was forced to outbid another buyer who will forever remain unknown to me. I kept my eyes on the auctioneer as the price climbed in tiny increments, and I refused to back down. When the other bidder finally realized he wasn’t going to win her, as I unfailingly lifted my fingers to bid time and time again, the auctioneer nodded that I’d won and asked for my number. I proudly and defiantly held it up as I held back my tears of anxiety and disgust and sadness. We marched out of the auction pen as Darla was whipped out into the chute by the man with the flag. We paid her ransom and we loaded her into the trailer though huge sobs of exhaustion and disbelief.
Before we ever made it out of the building, a woman tracked me down and said, “Hey, you wanna get rid of that Jersey?” I smiled through tears and told her she was going to a sanctuary, foolishly letting my guard down a moment. The woman implored me by saying she would plan to milk her since Jerseys make such good milkers. I politely told her to get lost. Darla has a family now. No one is milking no one. I resisted the urge to hurl insults or fists.
Darla was taken immediately to Oregon State University Vet School, where we have an established relationship with the staff. She is receiving world class medical care for what was simply an injured udder that was left untreated for a prolonged period of time. Her fever was 105.5 on arrival, and she was acidotic with systemic infection. She had her udder amputated today to try and stop the infection from continuing to spread and is receiving IV antibiotics, fluids, and pain meds. She hasn’t eaten much and so needed her rumen jump started with what they call “donor rumen” from a cow on site at the facility. She’s on the mend, but still very sick. She is approximately 5 years old and she is a direct product of the cruelty of the dairy industry. She was impregnated multiple times and had all her babies stripped from her. She had her milk stolen from her for the sake of cheese sticks and ice cream. When she was no longer useful, she was discarded into the cull pile as trash and left to wait for death as she stepped over dead bodies to get a simple drink of water.
Darla survived the auction, and so did we. We HOPE she will survive to be an ambassador for her own kind and a FACE of the dairy industry. Thank you for taking the time to read and share her story. Please leave dairy off your plate…for all the Darlas.