The following is a journal entry recounting my experience with a specific steer during an internship at Farm Sanctuary in Northern California. Reading it nearly six years later, it still gives me the chills.
Occasionally, humans assign cattle a number. Rarely a name. It is my guess that most humans try to avoid picturing the life of the cattle they consume, for fear of attaching value to the animal, and in turn, experiencing guilt at the thought of his or her death. And so, these cattle remain anonymous. Just cows. Raised for meals.
But they are individuals. Not an “it”, but a “who”. They are one among many, like humans, cats, or dogs. They have stories. Pick any cow, and she will have a story of a swollen udder and stolen babies. Pick any steer, and he will have a story of painful mutilations and a long-lost mother.
This is the story of one. His name is Mateo.
November 28, 2009
Last night was life changing in the most tragically beautiful way. One of the steers here, Mateo, had fallen during the day and was unable to get up. This usually means the end for cattle, as they are bred to be so big that when they age, they simply cannot hold their own weight. He was resting in an upright laying position when the day ended, and we were supposedly going to attempt to get him standing this morning. If not, he would need to be euthanized, as his quality of life would be quite low without the ability to walk.
Then around 1:00am, we received a call in the intern house, asking us to come help in the geriatric cattle pasture. Mateo had lay down on his side and was in danger of suffocating to death if left there all night. We were to try to flip him back up, to see if he would try to stand, given our help and momentum. He was extremely heavy, and from what I saw, had given up already when we arrived. His legs were too weak and he wasn’t trying. By the time we got there, he had already made up his mind.
Still, we tried everything, flipping him over once, but without success. He looked scared but peaceful on the ground. It was freezing cold and windy, but there he was, warm and still.
When we could try no more, a humane decision was made, and our Shelter Director called a vet to come out and put him down. We all stayed with him, petting him, comforting him. He was so large. It was actually breathtaking to be in his presence, with so many others, as his life on earth came to an end. I kept looking into his eyes, which blinked every few seconds, and wondering about his thoughts. Wondering how much pain he had seen. Hoping he would somehow reunite in spirit with his mother, from whom he was stolen away as a tiny baby.
Mateo was one of the bravest ambassadors. He was one of those calves you hear about who boldly jumped off a moving slaughterhouse truck to escape their certain death. There he was in front of us – a steadfast survivor – who, 8 short years ago, had too much drive to live, or perhaps too much fear to die. So much drive and fear that he thought, I will leap off this moving vehicle, and he did. Eight years is young for a steer to become downed, as he was now. But because he experienced complications from his jump, he suffered from premature arthritis. He lived with the older cattle in the geriatric herd for the last years of his life. He was frightened by crowds of humans, very sweet and shy.
Yet last night, when we surrounded him, he was calm. I think we were losing him slowly as the vet was on his way. I found myself rubbing his nose and telling him it was okay, like you might do for any treasured companion animal, and although I had only known him for a few weeks, I felt sure he understood. He would be free soon. Without pain and on the way to his happy place, wherever that was. Forever.
In the morning, his body remained, covered with a blanket in the pasture. And it appeared so considerably and almost mythically large. I dreaded the scene of him being moved to a final resting place – of course, not a pleasant thing to imagine. A fellow intern and I were coming back from Orland when we pulled in and saw him, still covered, and being moved. What we saw next was so chilling, and beyond amazing.
The main cattle herd, separate from the geriatric herd where Mateo lived, was across a dirt shelter road in a different pasture. But as we looked to our right, we saw ALL of the cattle, standing near the fence, just staring in Mateo’s direction. They could not even see him. They must have simply sensed that something was amiss. For a moment, my breath was gone. My heart was broken.
And then I saw Dawn, the herd matriarch, who had served as a mother figure for Mateo when he first arrived here, pacing and mooing. The most visibly distressed. Frantic. As if to shout, “What are you doing with my baby?!” Some of the others were eerily mooing, too. All of the rest were frozen, staring. They knew.
My emotion completely consumed me. There it was right in front of me: proof that cows are sentient, emotional beings capable of feeling love and pain. Capable of mourning. And at that moment, I wanted to tell the whole world what I’d just experienced. To speak up. To help them understand. How can they not understand? Why did it take me so long to understand? If they witnessed this event, would they change?
Today reminded me of why I’m here at all. To fight for these animals who cannot fight for themselves. To lend my voice, to end exploitation, to stop cruelty, and to save others, like Mateo, who are brave enough to challenge the system. I will fight the system. Until it no longer exists. I will be Mateo’s voice. I will fight for just circumstances in all situations, always, with Mateo in mind. He is a symbol for courage and tragedy. He inspires me. He will stay with me forever. Out of this life-altering event comes more passion. And more reason to keep on. To change and inspire change. To educate. To be better.
May Mateo find peace, comfort, and happiness. And may others learn from his bravery.