Activism Updates: Yesterday, we went to a cattle auction.

Please Note: This article has undergone a revision since it was first written. Two footnotes have been added.

There are many introductions I might make to this post. I might discuss the accusation that vegans are privileged city-dwellers subsisting on a First World diet who don't understand how animal agriculture works. I might relate the conversation I had with a Buddhist friend last week when I told him we planned to attend a cattle auction. I might use any number of tried and true vegan inroads to conversation (Meet Your Meat, etc.). But we didn't do this so that I could answer vegan criticisms, tell personal stories or fill this space with received language. We did it to see and to tell you what we saw.

This is what we saw.

We attended the auction with two other vegan activists from Halifax, and some of the photos below are theirs. The auction was held at Atlantic Stockyards Limited, where the animals are temporarily housed in pens both outside and inside a non-insulated barn. There was no animal food or clean water in evidence anywhere at the facility, and in a few cases it was apparent that at least some of the animals had not been fed or watered in some time (see below).

Outside the barn, the cows and calves were packed tightly into pens, and in many of those pens it was impossible for them to sit down. Inside, it was much the same for the cows and calves, though the sheep and goats had more room to maneuver (see below). On the auction floor, a cattle handler would open a door to the left of the ring while another behind the door beat the animals with a large stick to herd them forward. Single animals had plenty of clearance, but multiple animals often had difficulty, with one or more slipping in mud and feces and being pushed aside by the rest until they could right themselves. Most of the animals who entered the ring were clearly frightened and uncertain of their surroundings. A few were curious about and/or sought comfort from people standing around the auction ring, but in all cases they were swatted away. The cattle handler in the ring carried a long prod, which he used to swat the cows and calves in order to keep them moving during the auction and to herd them through the exit door to the right.

Cattle Outside Cattle Inside Auction

The barn contained cows, calves, sheep, lambs, goats, geese, ducks, a rooster and a rabbit. Among the sheep, we saw a black lamb with a serious, untreated eye infection. Her1 left eye was swollen shut, and the left side of her face was covered in pus and fluid. (we didn't take any pictures of her, but we should have). Another lamb approached me to nibble at my fingers, a rarity since most of the animals there were afraid of people, and when she turned away I saw something large and unusual hanging from her belly. Sean thought it might have been a diseased udder, but it was covered in fur and hard to identify2.

Beside the sheep pen, there was a goose who ducked his head between the bars to groom the sheep and lambs. They seemed to enjoy one anothers' company, because we saw several sheep approach to be groomed. For me, it was an interesting and poignant counterpart to the animals' near-universal fear of humans. They weren't afraid of one another.

On the opposite side of the sheep pens were several cages. In them, two ducks, a rabbit and a rooster were housed without food. The rabbit had a little water, but it was yellow and full of filth. The other two animals had no water at all. Sean went to fetch my water bottle from the car, and we all watered them ourselves from our own supply.

Injured/Diseased Lamb? Grooming Goose Rabbit's Filthy Water

Upstairs in the barn, there was a walkway that ran from one end to the other, and we were able to stand above the cattle handler responsible for herding the cows and calves into the auction ring. While we watched, he beat the waiting cows and calves with a large stick for no apparent reason except his own entertainment. They were not being herded into the ring, they were waiting in the chute with the gate closed, and they were not in any other obvious distress. On the other side of the barn, another worker kicked a calf between the legs repeatedly because it wasn't preceding him out of the barn fast enough. We were not able to get pictures of either of these incidents.

I'm not certain how recently the animals had been fed and watered before we arrived, but the lack of provisions for the ones in the small cages worried me on behalf of the rest. That, coupled with the illness and casual cruelty I did see made it clear to me that the people responsible for these animals viewed them as things and not beings. In truth, I could see why. The environment lent itself to that view in so many ways; the auction itself, the number of animals, the overpowering smell of urine and feces, the sounds of so many mooing and bleating at once. How easy it must be to desensitize over time and stop seeing these animals as beings capable of of feeling pleasure, pain, joy and fear, of developing relationships with one another, even across species.

In the end, the auction was no worse than I expected it to be. Nobody wants to buy sick and injured animals, so what we saw was likely the product of casual neglect and desensitization. But it's also worth noting that we saw no evidence of positive treatment. Where the animals weren't ignored, they were abused.

I've tried very hard to keep my emotions out of this account. My feelings aren't nearly as important as the treatment of the animals I met yesterday and billions of others like them, and they don't help anyone to consider the lives and deaths of those beings. But I do hope that those of you who consume animal products will take the opportunity to visit the animals who become your meat and produce your milk, eggs and wool and that those of you who already participate in animal agriculture will think carefully on your relationships with the beings in your care. It seems the honorable thing to do.

Thank you for reading, and thank you for everything you do to make the world we share a better place.

  • 1. The female pronoun is used by default here instead of a default male pronoun or the neuter pronoun 'it' and is not meant to convey a specific gender determination. I regularly switch between the masculine and feminine pronouns in order to promote gender inclusivity and try never to refer to animals as 'it' whether I know their sex or not.
  • 2. My husband was raised on a large animal farm, is the son of a large animal veterinarian and has himself castrated farm animals. At the time this picture was taken, he said the mass in question was either not a lamb's scrotum or was so large and mis-shapen the scrotum was likely damaged or diseased. His opinion about the possibility of a diseased udder was equally qualified. Again, the mass was hard to identify.