Slaughterhouse Breaks: Fugitive Cattle from the Burroughs

Sue Coe: “Modern Man Followed by the Ghosts of his Meat” (1990)

The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) designates animal liberationism as the number one domestic terrorism threat. “Ag-gag” bills describe a class of anti-whistleblower laws that make it illegal to expose how farmed animals are raised and slaughtered. Implemented in Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, Missouri, North Carolina and North Dakota, and backed by harsh prison sentences, these laws ensure that animal agriculture ’s enclosures remain off limits to anyone who would photograph or film them. The vague language of the AETA further penalizes activities that lead to or advocate for the disruption of animal enterprises. In her work on Peru’s “culinary boom,” itself dependent upon guinea pig farming, María Elena García describes the concealment of violence to animals as a process of “invisibilizing” (“The Taste of Conquest: Colonialism, Cosmopolitics and the Dark Side of Peru’s Gastronomic Boom,” 2013). We applaud Edward Snowden for blowing the whistle on the National Security Agency’s global surveillance programs but what about undercover footage revealing the lived experience of farmed animals? The industry’s vast, violent system occasionally bursts into public view, haunting us like the animal ghosts of Sue Coe’s artwork in The Ghosts of our Meat (2014), wherein legions of bloodied and maimed incarcerated animals revisit their human exploiters.

One such haunting occurred when a one-year old bull named Freddie broke free from the Jamaica Archer Live Poultry and Meat Market on January 21, 2016. Jamaica Archer is a halal slaughterhouse in Jamaica, Queens where animals are butchered according to Islamic law. Racing down the street, Freddie arrived at Jamaica First Parking, where the New York Police Department fired at him with tranquilizer darts and captured him within minutes. Named for Freddie Mercury of Queen, the young bull was deemed worthy of exemption from slaughter and sent to Skylands Animal Sanctuary and Rescue, in Wantage, New Jersey. Three months later, another bull, named for Frank Lee Morris, who escaped from Alcatraz in 1962, bolted as he was being unloaded from a truck into the holding pen of the same slaughterhouse. As he fled from the police, hundreds of onlookers accompanied the chase, laughing, yelling, cheering him on, filming and taking photos. Frank sprinted through the streets before stopping in a grassy area of City University of New York’s York College, where he was shot with darts by the NYPD, lassoed and tethered to a tree.

Both bulls made the news. Conveyed to Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, New York by Jon and Tracey Stewart, Frank’s story elicited a display of glowing, if tongue-in-cheek, media attention about the “bold dash” of this “fugitive” and “determined” bull. One reporter quipped, “Enjoy the hay, Frank, and congrats on that new lease on life.” “On permanent vacation,” wrote NY Mag, Freddie retired “to a life of leisure.” References to Freddie’s “daring escape” and “perp walk” into the trailer lampooned his rebellion. AJC.Com observed of Freddie, “Cows who escape like that are usually pardoned.” The Philly Voice reported tweets from the New York City Police Department that Freddie was “decent enough” not to cause any damages or injuries, while New York Magazine mused about Skylands, “We’re assuming this setup is more Charlotte’s Web than Animal Farm.”

The idea of animal agency was not always considered ludicrous. In Animal Planet: the Hidden History of Animal Resistance (2010), Jason Hribal traces narratives of escaped zoo, laboratory, and farmed animals in relation to Western European juridical discourse. Whereas in the European Middle Ages, animals were tried in court and subjected to the same punishments as human defendants – torture, execution, exile—perceptions of animals’ agency gave way to René Descartes’ seventeenth-century view of animals as robots, such that when they bite or kick their captors – or, indeed, break out – their actions are dismissed as reflexes. Of course, the theory that animals don’t care about being held captive belies the structure and ethos of the locales of animal agriculture, which are carefully designed to contain revolt by keeping the animals confined, often within tightly constricting bars, packed shoulder to shoulder in warehouses or on old-fashioned farms, where they are raised “like part of the family” until the day they receive a bullet to the head or are driven onto a truck bound for slaughter at a “processing plant.” Dairy cows’ eyes are bound shut so they cannot see the suckling calves stolen from their sides to live their short lives in crates, and wail when their masks are removed to discover they are gone. Cattle are prodded with electric shocks to move down the chute to the killing floor. Pigs are struck with instruments called “stickers” when they escape scalding tubs of hot water intended to soften their skin so that their hair may be removed. Contrary to marketing optics of “happy meat,” animals are commodified objects to whom anything may be done. So-called humane farming, regulated entirely by the industry, confers concessions such as small windows at the ends of intensive confinement facilities crammed with immobilized birds.

The industry’s carceral logic manifests in nervous quips about the bulls as “perps” whose “jail breaks” win clemency. For political scientist Dinesh Wadiwel, humans relate to animals as unlawful, enemy combatants against whom we engage in a war fueled by hostility (The War Against Animals, 2015). Like pets or the singular Thanksgiving turkey whose acquittal is broadcast into living rooms across the country, we extend pardon to special nonhumans in symbolic compensation for the massive-scale war we wage against them. Mike Stura from Skylands prevailed upon the man who purchased Freddie to exchange him for another bull: “I impressed upon him several times that 38 billion cattle go to the food industry…. It’s nice if one lives once in awhile.” PETA’s statement played to this exceptionalism: “This cow’s [sic] daring bid for freedom can and should be rewarded with retirement at a sanctuary where the animal will never be hacked apart for brisket or burgers.” The Washington Post casted Freddie’s exoneration as a reprieve not only for the bull but for the public, providing a sense of self-satisfaction: “To feel better about the state of humanity, you should probably watch this video of former ‘Daily Show’ host Jon Stewart lovingly feeding hay to a bull who escaped while being transported to a slaughterhouse in Queens.”

Farmed animal escapes are not infrequent. As recently as October 17, 2017, a calf fled from a Brooklyn slaughterhouse to a soccer field in Prospect Park where the NYPD wrangled him as onlookers posted videos online and pled with the police to spare him. Like Freddie, the escapee was taken to Skylands, where he joined thirty-nine other rescued cattle and was named Shankar, Sanskrit for “one who brings about happiness or prosperity.” CBS reported that the calf “mooed and ran rambunctiously down city streets” and quoted one onlooker saying, “He was about to meet his demise, and here he is now.” Slate described the event as “good, dumb fun” and a distraction from everyday life. The Wire reported that the incident, “to Twitter’s Udder Delight,” inspired inventive commentary, while quoted tweets including “udder chaos” and “It’s got a serious beef with someone.” This time, the sheer abundance of photographs and videos posted online contrasted even more strikingly with the industry’s “invisibilizing” obfuscations, enforced by the juridical and carceral power of ag-gag.

Cheerful narratives about Freddie, Frank and Shankar’s altered destinies divert attention from farmed animals’ suffering and, indeed, from the individual violence endured by the bulls in the course of their police captures. Freddie was corralled and shot with tranquilizer darts; instruments like those used in bullfights, the darts are fletched with barbed circumferential rings, containing poison that can kill by shutting down the liver and kidneys. Barbed darts were also lodged in Frank’s buttocks and thigh. High on adrenalin with heavy nasal discharge and labored breathing, Frank was further diagnosed with pleuropneumonia, also known as BRD, bovine respiratory disease or “shipping fever,” a potentially deadly lung disease induced by stress during handling or transport.

Timothy Pachirat conceptualizes fugitive farmed animals as “matter out of place.” He borrows the term from Mary Douglass, who observes that Western etiquette and the civilizing process require the veiling of “repugnant” things from public view, including sex, the killing of animals, defecation and urination. Like matter out of place, escaped farmed animals threaten to illuminate the enshrouded zone of animal agriculture, stirring limited yet potentially destabilizing moments of empathy. In his account of working undercover at a Nebraska slaughterhouse, Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight (2011), Pachirat describes the escape of six cattle from the holding pen of an industrialized slaughterhouse. When the police arrived to corral and shoot the cattle, the workers articulated horror lacking from their daily labor, where they participate in the daily killing, skinning and dismembering of 2,400 cattle. One worker remarked, “They shot it, like, ten times.”

Abruptly bursting out of nowhere into the city streets, the “nowhere” from which the escaped bulls emerge speaks to Pachirat’s interpretation of the slaughterhouse as “the place that is no-place.” Media reports claimed that Frank stopped running when he reached a grassy area of CUNY’s York College because this green landscape was, naturally, a familiar destination to him. But farmed animals have no habitat beyond intensive confinement facilities, seeing daylight only once crammed into trucks and transported to slaughter. In her lectures in J.M. Coetzee’s novel, Elizabeth Costello (2003), Costello reflects on Wolfgang Köhler’s 1913 experiments on four chimpanzees at the Anthropoid Research Station on Tenerife in the Canary Islands. Köhler taught the chimps to stack boxes to reach bananas hanging from a hook from the ceiling of their cage. Costello observes of Sultan, one of the chimpanzees used in Köhler’s research: “In his deepest being, Sultan is not interested in the banana problem. Only the experimenter’s single-minded regimentation forces him to concentrate on it. The question that truly occupies him, as it occupies the rat and the cat and every other animal trapped in the hell of the laboratory or the zoo, is: Where is home, and how do I get there?”

Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond is Associate Professor Emerita of Comparative Literature and Luso-Brazilian Studies at the University of California, San Diego. Her publications on Critical Animal Studies and the legacies of African enslavement include “Haunting Pigs, Swimming Jaguars: Mourning, Animals and Ayahuasca”(2019), “Akbar Stole My Heart: Coming Out as an Animalist” (2013), and White Negritude: Race, Writing and Brazilian Cultural Identity (2008). Her current book project, “Home Sick,” blends theory with creative nonfiction to meditate on grief, end of life, the medical-industrial complex, Islamophobia and the commodification of (human and nonhuman) animals.