This is my narrative nonfiction piece about some experiences doing undercover stockyard investigations (with hidden camera and everything!) of dairy “farms” in Southern California.
The article is at turns riveting, heart-wrenching, beautiful, enraging, and militant (natch).
Or you can check out the same piece, print-published in a beautiful 16-page spread that includes pictures; it was the cover story for the November 2013 issue of The Animals’ Voice magazine. You can view the article as a PDF for *FREE*, or purchase beautiful glossy copies for just $6.40 each!
Frank pulls over to the shoulder of the two-lane road in his big diesel Ford pickup, tires roiling up clouds of fine dust. “Here,” he says, passing me a handheld camcorder. I flip the screen open with the CANON insignia on the back. Push the red button to start recording. “I’m gonna go back up the road and park. Call me when you’re ready, or if you get in any trouble. Run if anyone sees you.”
I nod, swallowing like I have a mouthful of cotton. What am I getting myself into?
“These guys are fucking bastards,” Frank says. He has an ever-so-slight lisp. “Try to see if they’re leading live ones into the truck. That’s a huge violation right there.”
“Alright.” I step out of the truck, down onto the dirt. The wind immediately slams into me, pressing my Rolling Stones-tongue shirt against my stomach, then flapping it like a flag high up on its pole. I have to shove the door hard to get it shut.
“Good luck,” Frank says at the last second. “Be careful!”
Now we’re separated by glass and steel. He swings the truck around and speeds off down the road, belching black diesel soot. Now I’m alone.
I hurry into the midst of a row of tall trees with thick vegetation along their entire length; they look like enormous green missiles. I move at a crouch toward the stockyard. The air is horrendous, suffocating with the stench of thousands upon thousands of cows’ shit–even with the high winds. I’m in Chino, just a little east of the Los Angeles County line in San Bernardino County. This area happens to have the highest concentration of dairy cows anywhere in the country. People who make money from the exploitation of animals are almost universally loathe to have their inner workings exposed. Two years from now it is a slaughterhouse about two miles from here that gets shut down because meat tainted with e. coli that ends up in fast food joints and elementary schools is traced back to there.
My heart thumps hard against my ribcage and my breaths come short and jagged. But I don’t want to let Frank down. More importantly, I don’t want to let the animals down. If I can take this risk of trespassing and dealing with angry gun-toting rednecks but have a chance at helping or saving someone’s life, then it’s well worth it. I turn right, toward the mountains in the north, and move along the flank of the property.
Frank’s a badass motherfucker. He works as the head of investigations for a farm-animal sanctuary north of L.A. It is truly a special place. The turkeys, chickens, pigs, cows, goats, sheep, and three crabby emus, all rescued from situations of abuse and/or neglect, are treated as friends instead of food. Tours of the sanctuary are given. People get to interact with the animals and see how sweet, affectionate (aside from the solipsistic emus), and intelligent everybody is. The pigs adore having their bellies rubbed, and will grunt and kick their legs appreciably. Turkeys love having their chests scratched, and will stand there staring at you for many minutes if you’ll keep it up. Much like dogs. Lots of kids go to the sanctuary on school field trips, which is great–they’re the ones who most need to experience these things, the ones who are most vulnerable to the toxicity and negative health effects of animal foods.
When Frank was in his early 20s–about my age–he spent a year in prison in Orange County for planning to burn down a slaughterhouse. That alone makes him a hero and a martyr in my book.
I pull even with the big shit-filled two acre feedlot circumscribed by cylindrical steel cross-beams. Scanning the area with the camera, I see that all the cows are way at the back, feeding on a mixture of corn, grain, and soybeans (a totally unhealthy and unnatural diet for grass-evolved ruminants that makes them sick and in turn does the same to the humans who eat their flesh and milk). But it’s cheap–got to have that gallon of milk for under a couple bucks, those cheap steaks! Now I find the truck with the big open-topped steel crate on back. Two cows lie, unmoving, 20 feet behind it. This is the truck that we spotted from the road–a renderer. The driver goes around all the stockyards and picks up dead animals (and sometimes not-quite-dead ones). He then takes them to a rendering plant, where they’re all thrown in giant vats and boiled up to help make all sorts of products–candle wax, soap, gelatin for stuff like candy bars and Jell-o, chicken feed, even pet food. Yep, pet food. And here’s the real kicker: euthanized shelter animals also go to rendering plants. A couple L.A.-area activist friends of mine followed a truck with several hundred lethally-injected dogs and cats from the pound and watched them dumped out at a rendering facility. That means not only could someone’s pet have gone to feed that dead chicken on your plate, but that your dog’s bowl could very well contain boiled bits of other dogs and cats. Theoretically, your current pet could be eating rendered bits of your euthanized former pet! Especially if you feed them highly commercial brands like Iams. Yum!
I zoom the camera in on the cows lying behind the truck. They do indeed appear still, dead. The driver is probably inside the nearby trailer, chit-chatting with the owner. I dial Frank on my cell phone. “Hey. There’s not really much goin on here. Two cows behind the truck, but I’m pretty sure they’re dead.”
“Alright. Go to where I dropped you off, I’ll be there in a couple minutes.” After he picks me up, we follow the rendering truck around for a few miles. We’re hoping to catch him picking up an animal who is still alive, because that’s a violation of the California Downed-Animal Act, which carries a decent fine. The stench coming back at us is indescribable; dozens of animals in various stages of rot. Between that and all the cow shit, I am painfully nauseated. Passing a dairy farm, with an open gate, we break off and pull over in front, next to the house of the people who own the place. Three baby cows lay in a heap of limbs, dead. Just off to the side of the first row of what look to be veal crates: tiny boxes that male calves from the dairy industry live in for about six months before being slaughtered. The boxes are so small they can’t even turn around. This is so their young flesh will be as tender as possible for smarmy cunts with a taste for the flesh of babies. But this is dairy land. “Are those veal crates?” I ask.
Frank brought veggie burgers and soy hot dogs from a vegan fast food joint in Pasadena on the way out here. He takes a big bite of a ketchup-slopped hot dog. I don’t know how he can eat with those poor baby’s corpses in sight. “No. Not veal. Dairy.”
“Dairy? What do you mean?”
He speaks around a mouthful of half-masticated food. “They use those crates for females too. When dairy cows have male babies they’re taken away to make veal. When they have females, they’re often kept in fuckin crates like that for bout the first few months. Easier to feed. Give em medicine. Don’t hafta round em up.”
“I never even fucking knew that!”
He shrugs. “Not many people do.”
I shake my head, shocked and disgusted. There is no limit to what people will do to these helpless creatures. Even worse, there is no limit to the apathy (perhaps the most insidious of all emotions, worse than plain evil because it is hyper-contagious) of those who enjoy the products of this cruelty. I try to eat my veggie burger, but I feel ill. It seems somehow disrespectful to the young dead cows to be ignoring them, sitting here in the air-conditioned truck eating. But then I remind myself there are undoubtedly worse sights and sensations to come. And if I’m going to effectively play the part I must find a way to detach myself. This is good practice. I stuff bites of burger and greasy French fries into my maw, wipe my mouth and fingers on a wad of napkins. Trying to pretend the bodies aren’t laying out there. Just waiting for the rendering truck to come snatch them up.
“Alright,” Frank says, guzzling from a can of soda, “let’s go check it out.” We climb out of the truck and hurry through the open gate onto the property. Each row of crates extends for 60 or 70 yards, each wooden box right up against another. The rows extend far back into the distance. Two steel buckets are attached to the outside of each crate; one for food and one for water. Several of these buckets roll on the ground in the wind, blown off their boxes. This means several individuals are without either food or water–for who knows how long. I snap still pictures of the dead babies, the detached buckets, the rows of crates. I approach the first crate and look inside. A small female calf lies with her front legs curled under her chest. Immediately I take a picture. Her eyes are so big, moist, the epitome of innocence. She is perfectly, utterly helpless.
No doubt still she yearns for her mother. The separation of mother from calf is traumatic on both individuals; the mom bellows for days. Dairy cows have to be kept constantly impregnated so they’ll keep producing milk–like other mammals, like humans, they only lactate for a certain stretch of time after they’ve given birth. Every bit of milk or cheese or dairy of any sort contributes to forced impregnation, kidnapping, infanticide.
The dairy calf, she notices me standing there, and immediately becomes agitated. She rises shakily to her feet. Backs up as much as she can in the tiny crate, which is only a couple feet. “It’s okay, sweetie,” I lilt. But she just whips her eyes around, looking for a way to get away from me. My heart breaks for her inevitable fate. I can’t help you, but hopefully I can help create a world where your grandchildren won’t be abused and exploited and killed.
Frank and I move on. Our next objective is to put me into the belly of the beast. Inside the grounds of a large stockyard, and an auction there. But I can’t exactly waltz in with a camcorder in hand. It’s time to go truly undercover. We drive to a nearby Stater Bros. supermarket–across the street from where my Honda Accord is parked at Carl’s Jr. Frank injects himself in the stomach for his Type 1 diabetes. Then he comes over to my side of the truck and we stand at my open door. He takes out a black electronic box that would fit inside a pack of cigarettes, along with a jumble of wires. Then a big pair of black shades. I put those on first. They have two several-foot wires running out the back of the sunglasses’ cotton tie that keep them from falling off. This makes it so the wires run down my back.. Invisible to onlookers. The wires come out the bottom of my T-shirt and hook to the tiny black box. This goes in my pocket. When we push RECORD on the box, it films everything I see with an invisible camera in the black plastic between the two lenses. “Man, these things are awesome!”
“Yeah,” Frank says, “they’re pretty nifty. Expensive, but useful.” The auctions, he tells me, will be going on from about 3 to 5 P.M., so I should go to that for a while, and then surreptitiously wander around the premises to see if I can find any downed animals or other inappropriate conditions or violations. “Have a story ready. Pretend you’re there for your uncle or something looking at animals.”
“I got it,” I say, slinging my denim jacket on to ensure that the wires won’t be visible running down my back. “I’m a good actor.”
“I’m gonna drop you off and go drive around the farms again, see if I can’t find anything. Maybe fuck with the guy in the rendering truck. Call me if there’s any problems. Be careful.”
“I’ll be fine.”
We drive up the street to the stockyard and he drops me off in the dirt parking lot. I strut toward the barns and yards, trying to affect an air of indifferent confidence. I pass a series of sheds and small bull pens. Terrible porcine squealing and screaming emanates from one of the wooden structures. I make a mental note to return. Inside the main shed is where the auction takes place. A set of concrete steps with aluminum bleacher seats on the left. I take a seat up near the top. A quick glance around reveals that of the 40-50 people seated, I’m one of the only whiteys here. A fat guy in a wife-beater sweats bullets in front of me, effluviating sour B.O. Thick coils of black fur stick out from under the sallow tank top on his back. An older Latino in red and black flannel and jeans sits next to him. They converse in hurried Spanish. I tune it out, focusing on the auction. A 20-foot steel fence stands five feet in front of the bleachers. Beyond that is a ring with dirt and hay forming a thick layer on the ground. In back of that are two wooden-planked walls, with a door on either side. One of them opens and several sheep are ushered out by a guy with a long black rod with a whip at the end. There’s another man inside with a similar implement who closes the door and forces the animals to move around the pen so people can see what they look like, how they move, before making bids. Speakers up near the ceiling emanate a voice briefly describing the individuals–weight, age, etcetera–and the starting bid.
The terrified sheep flit around the pen, looking for an escape, trembling and jittery, eyes darting manically. It makes me so sad, so angry, but I force myself to look on with detached interest. I’m just checking out what’s available–my dad sent me here. He’s interested in getting some animals for his back yard. They bring out a horse with a badly injured leg; he limps reluctantly around the pen, and only when whipped and prodded. He goes for cheap. He’ll most likely be transported eventually to a horse slaughterhouse in Texas, one of only two or three such facilities in the country. Horse meat is exported to France and Asia and other places for human consumption. All kinds of animals are brought out; a gaggle of quacking geese, chickens, turkeys (I think of rubbing the turkeys’ chests at the sanctuary and rage roils and boils inside me. I have glorious visions of waiting until night when the big barn is devoid of human and nonhuman life, and burning the fucker to the ground), goats, cows (with and without their calves). One of the saddest moments is seeing a mother cow trying to position herself between her baby and the guy with the whip. Their terror is palpable. To think that people believe–or more likely delude themselves into believing–that farm animals are like automatons, that they don’t experience love and fear and affection and sadness and joy, is so ludicrous as to be insane. Literally insane, as in completely out of touch with reality.
I’ve gotten a good amount of footage in here. Time to wander the grounds and see what I can find. Hopefully none of the workers get suspicious of me. Remember, I’m just a curious potential buyer perusing the “products” they have to offer. I stroll out back behind the sheds, where a giant series of bullpens stretch back a quarter mile. Back here it’s all cows. The wind is really whipping around, and kicks up the stinging mixture of treacherous alkaline soils and powderized shit. Thank Earth I have the sunglasses. Otherwise the wind would be stinging the hell out of my eyes. But the poor cows, they are out in the open, exposed to the elements. Unable to do anything about the searing sandy wind, tearing around. I get a little closer to a large group of cows feeding at steel troughs filled with that omnipresent mixture of grains and soy. The stuff that causes stomach lesions and horrible bloating that can literally explode their stomachs. The cows back away from the bars. Staring at me warily. I’ve quickly learned that here they are totally afraid of all human interaction; I would be too. Their behavior here is diametrically opposed to that of the cows at the sanctuary, where they’re treated with affection and respect, where they’re accustomed to positive human interaction.
I get right up against the fence and stare at them. So many of these 1000-plus-pound animals in such a small space. Dozens in each bullpen. They are literally knee deep in their own squishy, sloppy excrement. With the nitrous oxide, methane, and other pollutants that are so highly concentrated in the area from cow farts, burps, and shit, it’s no wonder the rates of asthma and other respiratory illnesses are so high in local schoolchildren.
Exploiting animals doesn’t just hurt them; it hurts humans, especially children, and the environment too.
There are some workers toward the back of the property moving around random junk with a bulldozer. I try to just look like a curious wanderer (which is ultimately what I am in all my life, so it’s not too hard). Swinging around to the other side of the stockyard, I see a small lot next door with a shack or shed on it. Behind this, right on the other side of a rusty chain link fence, there’s a tall steel pole with a horse tied to it on a very short rope. She’s extremely emaciated. I stare for several seconds, making sure the camera gets a good look. Make a mental note to tell Frank about it. Then I move on, scanning the bullpens for sick and/or downed animals. I get close to the steel-barred fence again, the better to see deep into the lot. Up ahead, right by the fence, someone catches my eye. A young cow, a juvenile, lies there panting after his mates have departed out of fear. I step closer. He raises his head slowly to look at me. But still he doesn’t get up.
I whip out my cell phone and redial Frank. “Hey. I think I may’ve come across a downed cow.” I explain the symptoms. If there’s an animal who can’t stand up to reach water, the owners are legally obligated to bring them water and have a vet see them. At the very least, we might be able to get help for him.
“See if you can make sure,” Frank says.
“Let me try one more thing.” I reach between the bars and thrust my hand toward the young cow, saying, “Hey!” Finally he gets to his feet, slowly, reluctantly. I feel bad about bothering the poor guy, but it was worth it to be certain. “Never mind, Frank. Guess he was just really tired from the heat and everything.” That was heart-wrenching. But it’s nothing compared to what’s to come.
The goat and sheep stables are at the front of the property, between the auction shed and the parking lot. An open fence leads to this area. I step through and stroll around, investigating the pens. They’re maybe 40 feet long and 20 wide. There are anywhere from 20 to 30 animals in each pen. I make sure to scan each one slowly so the video will have good shots of every one.
Suddenly I’m surprised by movement in my peripheral vision. I turn. Approaching me from down the line is a tiny black lamb, no more than six months old. She must’ve squeezed her minute frame between the bars of a fence. I pick her up. She weighs as much as an average cat, and feels even more fragile. Her curly wool is dark, like spilled ink. But it feels like goose down. Her face is tiny, perfect, the quintessence of purity. This lamb is adorable, one of the sweetest and most lovely little darlings I’ve ever come across. She doesn’t struggle at all in my arms. It’s as if she came to me to save her. Get me out of here; I’ve seen what they do to the others. They already took my mommy.
And that’s my first instinct: to just turn and run to the parking lot, hide somewhere until Frank can get to me. But that would blow my cover. I’d never be able to come here again. And Frank mentioned something about the City Council considering shutting the whole place down, because of its prolonged negative history. That would be a huge victory. And showing them a bunch of persistent violations would certainly help the Council’s case.
Yet it would be so easy. Just run–or even walk, nonchalantly walk to the parking lot and wait for Frank. Boom–her life is saved. So that even if nothing comes of the camera footage, at least one individual will have her freedom. I want so badly to do it. You have no idea how badly I want to do it.
But, hateful as it may be, I must think long-term here. It’s fucking hard to do with such a beautiful, helpless baby animal in my arms. Because I know her ultimate fate is to be used for her wool and milk, forcibly impregnated, her babies stolen away from her, and then when her milk production declines to an inefficient level she’ll be slaughtered for meat. Her life violently stolen so that a handful of people can have a particular type of meal. Goddamnit. It’s so fucking hard, but I have to remain in character. I call over to one of the workers, another Latino in flannel, who’s cleaning out (to a degree) a nearby pen. I hand the lamb to him. As she passes from my arms, something inside of me seems to leave with her. Something tangible. A little piece of my humanity, perhaps, never to be regained no matter how much I do.
I will forever feel responsible for that individual I could have (no excuses–should have) saved, forever beholden to my mistake. Fuck the long run. The future is uncertain. But right then and there I could’ve saved her, an absolute certainty. It breaks my heart to hand her over–out of my loving arms and into ones that are utterly indifferent. And still, years later, it breaks my heart to think about. I wish so badly that I had gone ahead with my first instinct. That I had saved her. She is almost certainly dead now. I’m so sorry, sweet girl–nameless lamb. I’ll never forget her delicate little body in my arms. Let her memory live on through me to help subsequent generations of animals. It is the only way I can possibly atone.
The afternoon is gathering itself toward dusk. Everything takes on a lavender hue. Normally it would be beautiful, but here it just makes the gates, the sheds, the fences and troughs and knee-deep shit even more insidious. There’s a green dumpster nearby. Frank told me to check inside any of them for dead animals. He has seen that before–dead goats and turkeys just tossed in the dumpster like pieces of garbage rather than living beings. But all I see inside is beams of wood, trash bags, various detritus. I breathe a sigh of relief. I don’t particularly want to see any more dead animals today. Little do I know that the worst by far is yet to come.
The deepening twilight tells me it’s almost time for people to load up their new purchases. One of the most important things for me to witness; the process can be both cruel and illegal, depending on the manner in which it’s done. I head back toward the auction barn. From the breast pocket of my denim jacket I pull out a pack of American Spirit cigarettes I borrowed from my roommate. I’m not a smoker at this point (except occasionally when I’m drunk), but it’s a good excuse for a person to be milling around outside–anywhere, at any given time. I position myself across from the sheds where earlier I heard all the tormented squealing of pigs, in front of the bathrooms. I light up a cigarette and take periodic puffs, trying to make it last long. I glance around with what hopefully looks like casual interest. All kinds of Chevy and Ford trucks (America–FUCK YEAH!) sit with engines idling, waiting for their turn to load up their new “property.” The thick black funk of exhaust is heavy in the air. A baritone chorus of burr-burr-blumb-blumb-blur diesel engines drowns out most other noise. Each truck has trailers of various sizes hitched up in back–from little open-air ten-footers all the way up to 30-plus-foot grated steel monstrosities.
A commotion breaks out nearby. Apparently a goat has gotten away from wherever he was supposed to be. He’s a beautiful animal. Black and white and brown bristly fur, with thick curved horns. Two men hold onto them. The goat bears down with his head, trying to resist. But they overpower him, dragging him backward by the horns. His hooves scrape and grind against the gravel with loud kshhh kshhh kshhhhh sounds. The three of them disappear behind the trucks.
Now there’s a trailer backed up to one of the pens, which has a white-boarded ramp for the animals to walk up so they’re approximately level with the floor of the trailers. Several workers begin herding a bunch of sheep toward the ramp. One of them has a long black stick which he uses to smack them on the butts when they try to go off in a different direction. There’s a drop-off from the top of the ramp to the low bed of the trailer. The sheep have to be pushed off–they won’t willingly jump down several feet. They land with loud thuds, some of them crashing down in a jumble of tangled limbs. The last sheep is the most resistant of all. She noticed how it went with all her fellow prisoners. She struggles against the workers, moving around the pen like a deft boxer, evading their grips and wallops. Finally they force her onto the ramp. Still she sets her feet and refuses to go. A worker rears back with his big booted foot and plants a stiff shoving kick squarely in the bulge between her rectum and vagina. She bleats and falls forward. But the trailer didn’t back up all the way; there’s a two-foot gap between it and the edge of the ramp. The sheep falls, flailing, half-on and half-off the trailer. Stuck in the gap. She struggles. I grit my teeth, forcing myself (with difficulty) to stare on disinterestedly. I take a big drag on the Spirit. So big that it burns my throat and I nearly start coughing. That wouldn’t be good. Given that all the workers seem to be Spanish-only Latinos, I’ve never been this okay with the deportation of non-legal citizens. Slaughterhouses and all of the animal-exploitative industries (except for vivisection) hire tons of “illegals” because they’ll do these horrible things that most Americans want no part of. And they’ll do it for extremely shitty pay. They’ll do what they have to in order to survive, to send money home to their families, and there is honor in that–but not in brutalizing helpless animals. We countenance and encourage this, as well as the cruelty, when we demand cheap meat and milk and eggs and cheese.
They’re finally able to wrest the sheep onto the truck by grabbing and wrenching up on her wool. They slam her down angrily onto the wooden truck bed. Nearby another truck with a long enclosed trailer backs up to another loading pen. This is going to be a big load, so I want to get it on tape. As the driver/purchaser hurries around to the back of the trailer, I approach. “Hey there,” I say, gesturing to his trailer. “My dad’s thinking of gettin one a these. Whatsit, a 28-footer?” A wild guess.
“32,” he says. A white guy, rare at this particular auction site. Jeans, blue and black flannel, shades and a ball cap. Good thing about the shades, too–this way mine won’t look so out of place in the dusk.
“Oh, okay. Whatcha loadin up?”
At first I don’t understand him, as is often the case with me (too many damn rock concerts, sticking my head against too many giant goddamn speakers). My first instinct is to say, What? But I catch myself. It might give away my out-of-placeness to have not understood him. “Ah. Mind if I watch?”
“Go head.” He starts pulling squeaky steel latches on the trailer to open it.
I play back his earlier answer in my head. After cross-referencing the perceived sound with names for farm animals in my encyclopedia of the mind, realize that he said hogs. Now I get why I didn’t understand him at first: I expected an answer like cows, chickens, turkeys, goats, sheep, or pigs. I’m not used to thinking of pigs as hogs. To me it’s a derogatory term, like swine or kike or nigger.
The back of the trailer is opened and ready to admit its prisoners, its slaves of flesh. A gate lifts at the front of the pen and pigs of all sizes bolt out, from 200-pound big boys to juveniles the size of beagles. A worker follows them. He carries a long black rod. I assume it’s like the one inside the auction bullpen, used for smacking and herding them.
Another worker back in the shed coerces out more and more pigs as the ones before them are forced up the ramp and into the truck. But some of the pigs are too scared. They group together at the edges of the pen, trembling violently. They’re all high-pitched, terrified squeals. I stick my face between the wooden boards of the pen, ensuring that my shades have an unobstructed view. Quickly I realize it’s not just a stick the Latino in the pen carries. He doesn’t hit them with it; he prods them with it, and they positively shriek in shock and pain. It’s zapping them with jolts of electricity. I’m horrified, sick to my stomach. But I can’t look away. It’s the least I can do for them. What I want is to hop the fence, punch the worker in his throat, and jam the shock rod up his asshole.
But instead I just watch. Maintaining an air of passivity. The electric prod often just scares them into corners more than anything. Instead of abandoning it as ineffective, he just becomes more vicious. The sounds of those tormented pigs, so human in nature, will forever haunt me. Finally the worker gives up on the prod and starts using his body and feet to get them up the ramp. He kicks pigs in the stomach, the backside, the groin. One solid kick lands in the face of a small juvenile. The last pig, the worker snatches his tail and drags him by it, picks him up by just that little squiggly bit of pink flesh and hurls him into the truck. I bite back the tears and rage that so desperately want to pour forth like magma stopped at the top of a volcano for identification by Vulcan.
Now that they’ve all been loaded up, the truck owner shuts and locks the steel back doors of the trailer. I walk around the side and peer in through the steel slats. It is just about as wrenching inside as out. The thing is packed literally to the point of overflowing. Every single individual is being squeezed on all sides by the bodies of others. Some of them have to climb up on top of the mass of flesh and stay up there because there’s just no room for them. The squeeze is too intense. One pig screeches and flails, standing atop the others, freaking out. The pulsing sounds are cacophonous; everybody is terrified, panicking. One of the larger pigs nearest the edge sees me staring through. She stares back, her big scared blue eyes so very human-like. Help me, they say. Please make this stop. But once again I have to forsake the fates of these individuals, hoping that it will assist in the greater good of the future. But what if I’m–we’re–wrong? What if freeing these individuals and torching this modern equivalent of the cattle cars to Treblinka would produce the most good? If that’s the case, then somebody has to do it. And if everyone keeps passing the buck, no one will do it.
My phone rings. I step away, snuffing out my cigarette on the ground. It’s Frank. “Hey,” he says, “I’m in the parking lot. Come out here.”
When I climb into his truck, he says, “There’s this truck I want to follow. You down?”
I grin. “Hell yeah.”
It’s a small yellow pickup with an open-topped trailer attachment. I recognize it from a video on the sanctuary’s website, which showed a sheep in horrendous pain; the trailer was so packed that a cow had one of her feet on top of the sheep’s face. Her eyes bulged from the pressure. She bleated in agony. This time the trailer is filled solely with sheep, about a dozen of them crowded and huddled together. The truck exits the grounds and turns left. After waiting until the truck is about a hundred yards away, we follow.
I tell Frank about what I saw. When I talk about the little black lamb, and how heartbreaking it was, he says something that makes it even worse. “Next time just take off with her. We’ll take her to the sanctuary.”
“Are you serious?” My heart, sinking. My spirit, another little death among millions.
“But that’ll compromise my ability to return there, won’t it?”
“Maybe, maybe not. Who gives a fuck? Too good to pass up.”
I sink into the seat. “Fuck.”
“No, it’s alright. In the long run, it’s probably for the best.”
I shake my head, biting a fingernail. I’m sick of the fucking long run. At what point does the long run become now? Even more importantly, at what point does the long run move into the past?
The yellow truck is about five cars ahead of us, waiting for the light to go green so we can turn left and merge onto the freeway. “I wanna see where this guy’s going,” Frank says. “If it’s as fucked up as I think it is, and we can get footage, we could maybe shut down his whole damn operation.” The light turns green. Cars and trucks in front of the yellow truck–our mark–inch forward, some of the U-turning like tortoises with sticky feet. The mark makes it through.
“Come on, motherfuckers!” I cry. With three cars in front of us, the light turns yellow. We have to make this light. It’s a busy intersection, and if we have to wait through another cycle the truck will have a good two-minute head start. If he gets off the freeway or switches to another one within a few miles we’ll lose him. The light turns red just as the car in front of us hits the turn. We’re ten feet back. Frank guns the engine and rockets through the intersection and onto the freeway ramp with a throaty roar of the diesel engine. I laugh, vamped up, almost delirious with excitement. Oh Christ please I hope a cop didn’t see us. We’d be toast for sure, the tailing job finished before it really even started.
But no. We speed onto the 60 and find the truck, hold back several cars in the next lane over. But this becomes difficult, because the fucker is going so slow. Eventually we have no choice but to fall in right behind them (we can now see there are two men in the truck cabin) in the far right lane. The fastest they ever go is about 60 miles per hour. Which is good for the animals, I suppose–better than 70, anyway–but bad for tailing someone. The only thing working in our favor is that it’s dark. Our headlights are the only thing clearly visible. After 30 or 40 minutes we’ve changed freeways twice (a common occurrence anywhere in southern California) and we’re on the 210 North, the Pasadena Freeway. It seems we’ve passed the point of no return. After following them this long, it makes no sense to turn back around. We’ve come this damn far. It would make all the time spent so far a total waste. We’re in for the long haul.
Frank talks about his views on kids, a subject on which we immediately click. He doesn’t have any. Doesn’t want any. He’s quite a misanthrope (hence a kindred spirit) and loathes that there are so damn many humans on the planet. He is vasectomized–a heroic act in my opinion. At this point I’m only 21, and already I’ve been thinking about getting one. The only thing that stops me at this point is my doctor parents, who think it’s a wretched idea. They don’t understand that if I ever want kids–highly unlikely–I’ll just ADOPT. Imagine that! Helping some poor unwanted kid who’s already alive, rather than creating yet another hungry mouth and shitting anus. My mom says any doctor who would perform a vasectomy on a 21-year-old would be a hack, and might hack off parts I want to keep! I have heard it’s difficult for just about anyone in their 20s, let alone early 20s, to get a vasectomy. This, along with my omnipresent malaise, and monetary concerns, delay me. But I do eventually get one, just a few days after turning 25. One month, in fact, before beginning a four-year prison sentence in Illinois for marijuana trafficking.
Frank expresses a brilliant idea; why the fuck do people get their foolish and selfish breeding subsidized by the government in the form of tax breaks?? It’s further encouraging overpopulation and the straining (and draining) of public and social resources–e.g. schools, roads, and welfare programs. Instead they should reward people for not having kids, for being responsible in this hyper-crowded, hyper-polluted, hyper-destructive country. It is another dream of mine to someday open a free spay-neuter clinic–for humans. How awesome would that be? It would certainly attract a lot of publicity, that much we can agree on!
Frank begins to worry that we’re being too obvious, that the driver of the yellow truck has caught on and will lead us astray. So Frank pulls a daring and clever evasive (or rather pseudo-evasive) maneuver. As we approach an exit he makes like he’s getting off the freeway. He actually merges onto the ramp, on the other side of the widening shoulder from the slow lane. He drops his speed to 40. The yellow truck is now several hundred yards in front of us. At thelast possible second, Frank wrenches the wheel to the left. Onto the shoulder. He slams on the brakes and we crunch to a stop on the gravel and dirt and detritus. Then he kills the engine and we sit in darkness for some 30 seconds. Letting them get a little ahead. There are no freeway interchanges for a long time, so that’s not a concern. The only problem is if they take an exit. But it’s a risk worth taking, because we can’t have them certain they’re being followed.
Within a few minutes we catch up to them again. Frank tries to hang back but it’s even harder now because they’ve dropped to a consistent speed of 55, sometimes even 50 mph. Seems they know we’ve returned. “If they pull over,” Frank says with deadpan resolve, perhaps in a fugue of angry determination, perhaps thinking more clearly than ever, “I’m gonna stop behind them. I might punch out the driver and take the truck with all the animals. Then you’ll follow me to the sanctuary in this.”
I stare at him. “Are you serious?”
I swallow. The idea is scary, but at the same time exhilarating. It would be so incredible to be part of saving so many animals in one fell swoop–future legal ramifications be damned! “Okay then.”
But they never do pull over. We end up following them for over 75 minutes, including five freeway changes. Off the Interstate, northeast of L.A. among the high-walled scrub brush bluffs, they turn left into a residential area, and we follow. Now they know we’re tailing them. The street is narrow, barely wide enough for two Kias.
“If he stops,” Frank says, “I want you to quick jump out with the camcorder and climb on the back of the trailer. Film how crowded and miserable the sheep are.”
I’m anxious but pumped. I wipe my sweaty palms on my jeans. “Alright.”
But the yellow truck goes up to a house at the top. Another, bigger pickup pulls out into the street once the trailer is past. This new big black pickup blocks our path. It just sits there. “Well there ya go,” Frank says. “Must’ve called ahead to his homies once he noticed we were following.” I can’t believe the nonchalance in his voice.
“What are we gonna do?”
He wiggles his lips, as if trying to gum a piece of food without opening his mouth, thinking hard. He pulls onto a side street, turns around. We drive back down the hill. Park behind a little Mexican restaurant. Ironically we’re fewer than ten miles from the animal sanctuary; we started the drive some 70 miles away. We wait 15 minutes and then cruise back up toward the house. We park and get out. There’s a little gully on the right, filled with brush and vegetation, that infamous desert-ish chapparel that makes southern California a veritable tinder box.
Staring up at the house, we crouch there and wonder what to do. The gully slopes upward at the far end to the front of their property. We’ve come all this way. I’m bristling with nervous energy, but adrenaline courses through my bloodstream like big fat salmon shoving their way upriver. I want to do something. Concerns for my own safety have disappeared. I’m in the action zone. In terms of fear and worry, once you get past a certain threshold, you begin to feel invincible; the hard part is conquering that first stretch.
Frank finally speaks. “I hate to say it, but the best thing to do would probably be ta call it a night.”
I frown, scanning the area. “Why don’t we sneak through there.” I gesture to the gully, thick with vegetation. “Hide in the bushes at the top and see what we can see.”
“It’s really dark. A flashlight would give us away.”
“Our eyes will adjust. Plus there’s a decent amount of moonlight.” I do not want to turn tail, so to speak, and leave. 70 miles of following, all that diesel burned–we should do everything we possibly can.
“It’s just not a good idea.” I can tell he’s reluctant to leave as well–this is, after all, the guy who earlier wanted to knock out the driver and steal his truck!–but he’s trying to do what’s smart, rather than that which satisfies our angry guts. “We know he’s got his homies up there. They could have guns. Even if they don’t, there’s only two of us. But at least now we know where their farm is.”
I nod, disappointed. But he probably is right. We begin the long drive back to Chino, to where my car is parked. I can’t shake the disturbing and horrific images of the day from my head. At least now, though, I don’t have to trust others when they say how badly “food” animals are abused. How they live in squalor. Because now I’ve seen it with my own eyes.
We stop at Denny’s on the way back for coffee and chow; it’s close to 11 P.M. and we really haven’t eaten since lunch. We’re both vegan, of course. But tonight, after this day, I take extra care to make absolutely certain that our veggie burgers are 100 percent free of animal products. It’s the least I can do. The least.
But is that really enough–or even close to enough, given the amount of suffering? I don’t think so. I just don’t….
That night I dream of flaming arrows, of shooting them over fences. Of fire. Cleansing, beautiful fire of the just. The just plain fucking fed up.