The Adventure of a Lifetime

All was dark, and then, suddenly, it was bright—almost too bright. The newborn calf opened his eyes for the first time to a beautiful Midwestern summer day; there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The yellow sun shone directly overhead, and the blue heavens spread out in all directions. Cattle’s eyes only have these two color receptors, which made the sight even more marvelous, crowning a world filled only with shades of gray. What colors!

The fact that the calf was born along with a brother and sister was exceptionally rare. His mother was so proud, but also profoundly sad; this was not her first time giving birth, and she knew she had at most a few days with her two new sons before her babies were taken away. In the wild she may have nursed them for a year or more, but there are practically no wild cattle.

She gave her infants every drop of love and nutrient-rich milk she had, and the unique bond that exists between parent and child and across so many species was formed. The calf didn’t understand it then, but those initial days of life would be his most joyous. Discovery and nourishment filled each moment. What wonders this world must hold!

On the third day they came for him and his brother, dragging them away as their mother cried, which she would do for days—a loud, low bellow, as she wandered the pasture, searching in vain. The cow was a gentle creature, ignorant that violence was even an option; not that it would have made a difference. The calf’s sister remained silent and confused, unaware this was the last time she would see them. The dairy farm had use for her, after all.

The calf was fearful as he stood in the back of a truck with several others. The rumbling ground was scary, but at least his brother was by his side, and he could still see the cerulean sky above. After a few hours he was led off the truck and into what looked somewhat like the barn near his mother, only much larger.

They put him in a wooden crate that would definitely not have fit a full-grown cow, with a chain around his neck so he could only face one direction. His brother—by a lucky accident—was put in the stall next to him, and there were gaps in the slats so the two could see each other. That’s good, but I wish mom were here. I don’t like this place.

A few weeks passed in this dismal crate state, and the calf almost didn’t remember what life had been like at the beginning. If it wasn’t for the vividness of his mother’s affection he might have completely forgotten, and cattle have great memories. It was mostly dark in his new life, and when it was light, the only “sky” he could make out was the same gray as nearly everything else in this cruddy barn. He exclusively consumed what seemed to be milk, but it was nowhere near as good as his mother’s, leaving him with a constant stomach ache and diarrhea. This accumulated on his tail and legs between the rare occasions he was hosed down.

One day they came for his brother, and he heard them use the word “bob,” but he didn’t know what this meant. While somber to no longer have his brother so close, he was happy for him. I bet he’s going back to mom!

***

James awoke before dawn to the opening guitar and harmonica of Bruce Springsteen’s “The River,” like he did every day. There was a time when he changed the song on his alarm regularly, but found this only made him dislike more and more of his favorite tunes given the association with the grogginess and headache he felt now. He instead opted for outright hatred of one.

He dressed quietly in the dark so as not to wake his wife — she had only got home a few hours ago after closing at the restaurant. Despite the hardships of the past several months he still loved her as much as the day he proposed, senior year at the high school not 10 miles from here. Even though he barely saw her as a result, their opposite schedules actually worked out; it meant someone could always be home with their newborn son, and they couldn’t afford childcare.

After refilling the dog’s water bowl and eating a quick breakfast of leftover Italian sausage his wife had brought home with her, James stopped by his son’s crib on the way out to whisper goodbye. He didn’t dare kiss him or speak audibly; the child was in a rare moment of deep sleep, and if he woke up now his mother would lose well-earned shuteye taking care of him. James had been lucky to get four hours himself. He fired up the 1997 Ford Ranger—still running great with 200k miles thanks to his handiwork—and drove off towards the factory as the clouds in the east began to glow a spectacular pink and gold. He was too tired to notice.

“Mornin’ James!”

“Mornin’ Dave!” he replied. “What’s on the agenda for today?”

“We gotta clear out the first 20 crates and drive ‘em over for processing.”

“Gotcha, I’ll grab the cart.” James had mixed feelings about the bob veal. On one hand it was much easier than moving the older calves (a very relative term), as these only weighed about 50 pounds. But they were awful young to be taken to slaughter. He had mixed feelings about all of it, actually, but this was one of the only games in town and there was now an extra mouth to feed, not to mention college to pay for someday. At least that’s what he hoped.

19 down, one to go, his shirt soaked with sweat, James lifted the final calf onto the cart. The calf in the next crate whined.

“Hey, it’s your lucky day, partner,” he said out loud, wheeling the unlucky one towards the door. He emerged into the sunlight and stopped to put on his sunglasses, but he rested the cart unevenly so it tipped, spilling the young calf onto the ground. A second later Dave’s work boot smashed into its face.

“Hey, what’d you have to do that for?” asked James, feeling a little guilty as it had technically been his fault.

“You worry about these idiots too much, man. It ain’t right.” replied his boss. Shaking his head, James picked up the abject creature and carried it the rest of the way up the ramp and into the truck bed. A few of the calves in the truck were brown, and reminded him of how when he was a child himself, his grandpa convinced him that the family’s brown cow was the source of their chocolate milk. No one corrected him until age 14, when he met his wife. The old man took it to his grave.

“Do you think you could be a bit mo…” James started to say, but halted mid-sentence as he tripped and fell the four feet to the soiled ground. Even the most basic motor skills can fail you when your mind is elsewhere. He spent much of his time outdoors in the sunshine—it was one of the things he loved about this town—but despite the lifetime of ample vitamin D and resultant strong bones his right forearm snapped. The ulna protruded inches out of the skin. He wondered if this was covered by company insurance.

***

Although unable to engage in the kind of play two young calves would under different circumstances, the calf befriended his neighbor in the crate to his left, the one to his right now empty. At the very least they could commiserate. This calf was not so fortunate as to have been born on a small, free range farm, as he had been. His mother, like the vast majority of cows, lived an imprisoned reality not unlike the one he did, except with the addition of frequent milking and artificial insemination. Neither he nor his mom even possessed basic concepts of some of the experiences the calf had during his limited time spent outside. Gray lives in a grayscale world.

A few months went by, and the calf now weighed about half as much as his mother did. At least that’s what he thought—his memories of her were faint, and those of his brother were fading. All he knew for sure was this miserable existence in the crate. I’m getting so big, I wish I could just move or stretch a little bit!

After 18 grueling weeks his bovine prayers were finally answered—it was the day they came for him. The front of the stall opened, and he excitedly took his first real step since arriving here. The excitement was short-lived. His muscles never had the movement required to develop properly, and his legs gave out, sending him crashing to the floor. He struggled to take a few more steps but with the same result. There was then pain on his side as they kicked him, followed by a much sharper one on his behind as they electrocuted him with a cattle prod, causing him to expend the little strength he had to stumble forward into a waiting cart. Rolling out of the barn was a bittersweet moment, mournful to be leaving behind the calf in the stall next to him—cattle are herd animals and immensely social—but glad to be moving farther and farther away from the crate and chain, to someplace else…but where? He did not know.

For the second time in his short life, the calf found himself in the back of a truck. He glanced up at the sky, expecting it to be the same gray he had grown so accustomed to, but instead he was greeted by a gorgeous color that almost seemed unfamiliar to him. Almost.

Abruptly a thought occurred. It was difficult to grasp, like the last remnants of a dream, but gave him hope in this anxious situation. Last time I was on this rumbling ground beneath the blue sky was right after leaving mom — I must be going back to her now, like my brother did. Oh boy, this is the best day ever!

He failed to notice how much shorter this trip was than the first.

The calf was wheeled off the truck and into another type of barn, but this one was strange compared to the other two he’d seen. The smell was the strangest aspect of all. He was dumped off the cart in a small metal room crammed with others like him—four or five months old and barely able to stand or walk. The silence was eery, but he contributed to it nonetheless; he wasn’t quite as smart as the pigs in the building next door, which are on par with dogs, but he knew something was wrong with this place, even more than the last barn. He was also yet to see an adult cow anywhere. Where could mom be?

A door opened and they entered the room, holding a device he had not seen before. One by one they went to the calves, touching the machine to their head, and each would immediately fall over as if sleeping. The calf was scared and tried to move away as they approached him, but there was nowhere to go. The pain was blinding, and he collapsed to the floor in a stunned panic. But he was conscious, which seemed more than could be said for the calves who had been standing next to him and he was now effectively buried beneath.

He lay at the bottom of the death pile for several minutes, too terrified to move. At last the calf on top of him was dragged away, and then they pulled him through the door through which they had entered, and across a blood-covered floor. The sticky liquid appeared black to him, like the matador’s cape in the bullfighting arenas of Spain was to his distant kin, and foretold of a similar fate. Oh no, what is happening!?

Once again he was chained, but this time it was his back legs. The chains lifted so that he hung upside down, and then the center of aguish moved from head to throat as they slit it wide open.

Most of the calf’s life had been spent in a purposefully dim-lit space. He now stared up at the radiant lights on the gray ceiling, illuminating the killing floor below, as he labored through his final few breaths. Mo…

All was bright—almost too bright, and then, suddenly, it was dark.

Epilogue

“Time to start closing up, Mary,” said the manager of John’s Italian Family Buffet. It was music to her ears; she needed the extra money so volunteered to work a double shift on the holiday. It had been crazy busy and she was exhausted, though this had become a perpetual state.

She started with the meat table, specifically the veal parmigiana. Although a popular dish, it was refilled late in the evening so nearly the whole tray was full. It presently contained all of the meat that was produced by the calf, less what had rotted at various points along the supply chain.

Working in the industry, Mary knew how much food was wasted, on top of the even greater amount of food, water, and energy—particularly fossil fuels—required to create that food in the first place. This was especially true when it came from animals. Even if most of her friends didn’t, she cared about the changing climate and the starving polar bears. She also knew that even dairy cows were lucky to live to a quarter of their 20-year potential lifespans, and that it was much worse for the approximately one million calves killed for veal annually in the United States alone. The total cattle slaughtered globally was many times that, with the aggregate number of sentient animals massacred each year in the billions, a significant percentage of them for naught. Billions!

On most days Mary would gather the leftovers, and on her way home drop them off somewhere the food would be welcome—there was no shortage of such places in this town. But the blisters on her feet were killing her, and she had a young son at home she longed to see. She was a single mom now that her husband had died. The accident at the factory was traumatic enough, but the shared sense of helplessness as he succumbed to the consequent antibiotic-resistant infection was unbearable. The news said it was becoming an epidemic. She carried the tray over to the nearest trash can and dumped what remained of the calf into its dark interior. Its contents were ultimately emptied into the dumpster in the side alley, which sat still and silent in the night, slightly lit up by the restaurant’s neon blue sign out front. It was the final stop on his adventure.

Inspired by this podcast (starting at the 19:00 mark) and to a lesser extent this podcast.