by Bonnie Wilkins Overcott
On the farm, economics came first, emotions weren’t supposed to be involved…
My love of animals is intrinsic, perhaps because my first friends were animals. I lived on a farm and, as the oldest child, I was isolated. My sister was just a baby. Preschool and kindergarten didn’t exist in those days. My options for day-to-day companionship involved my pretend friends, Cardo and Gigi, or animals. I suspect the dogs and cats and cows and chickens around me were far more fulfilling friends than any imaginary humans a toddler could invent.
It was a tradition in my father’s family to give the first born child a heifer. I was presented a little black and white Holstein calf. Calves are sweet, gentle creatures. They can’t be separated from their mothers until they can drink milk from a bucket. My father showed me how to teach them. When you put your fingers into a calf’s mouth, its natural reaction is to suck on them. Their tongues are rough, and they suck so powerfully you fear they are going to swallow your arm. Then you slowly lower your hand into a bucket of milk, firmly holding it upright, because the calf gets so excited, they butt the bucket with their head often tipping it over. As the calf sucks up the milk, you extract your hand. It doesn’t take long for the calf to learn.
That calf became my companion and my pet. I often sat in its pen in the barn and talked to it. I worried about it. Once, I decided it had a cold and spent my day nursing it and wiping its large wet nose with Mom’s handkerchiefs. Dolls held no thrill for me. I preferred caring for living creatures.
My calf grew into a heifer, but before she could have a calf and become a milk-producing cow she was shipped off to the rendering plant to be turned into leather products, dog and cat food and whatever other products they produced. She had a broken leg, I was told, and it couldn’t be fixed. Sending her to the rendering plant would generate some cash for my father, and plus, that was how farmers disposed of old or ill milk cows. I have a snapshot in my head of my two-year-old self standing in our farmyard, watching my cow being loaded onto a truck to be taken away. I don’t remember if she bellowed. I don’t remember how I felt at that moment but that imagery is embedded in my memory. I received $160.00 for her. It was put into a savings fund for me to be used for my education.
Since I was so young, I accepted the events. It’s how things were handled I gathered. Cows had economic value and profits must be maximized. Emotions weren’t supposed to be involved. Both my parents loved animals, but it was my mother who spirited away the newborn kittens in case my father decided there were too many. Once their eyes were open however, and they were cute and getting around on their own, he couldn’t kill them. All of our cats were farm cats, but we tamed them and they became pets. Mom was the one who used matchsticks to fix a robin’s broken leg, and kept a vole in a matchbox filled with cotton because he was ailing. She hid Spike, our loyal and faithful dog, when he was born, again so my Dad wouldn’t find him until he was older.
Farmers didn’t neuter and spay cats and dogs nor take their excess dogs and cats in to be euthanized. They disposed of them themselves. Life and death were normal occurrences on the farm. I remember a neighbor who loved dogs. They had portraits of their dogs hung on their walls. He always said, “any man who doesn’t shoot his own dog when its time comes, isn’t much of a man.” I interpreted that to mean that when a dog was sick and dying, it was better for its loving owner to put it out of its misery rather than for a stranger to do it.
We didn’t slaughter our own animals. Some of the farmers around us did. I suspect that my parents, who named every animal including the milk cows, just didn’t like the idea of killing one of their own. Like other animals, cows have personalities and our farm was small enough to get to know them. Florence, I remember vividly, was determined. When she wanted out of the barn, she just kept moving head first until she busted the doors open.
My dislike of hunting and hunters is visceral. Although I grew up in the country, I never shot an animal or bird. Once I read a story in a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book collection. It was Wild Goose, Brother Goose by Mel Ellis. It followed a wild goose’s life. The wild goose’s mate couldn’t fly. Since geese mate for life, he stayed with her rather than joining the flocks of geese heading south for the winter. Then she is killed. It chronicles the interactions between the geese and hunters from the perspective of the geese. Decades later, I still feel sad when I think of the lonely goose.
My father loved to hunt pheasants. He kept his rifle in the car’s trunk disassembled. Occasionally, he’d pull to the side of the road, open the trunk, assemble the gun, and head off through rows of corn. Sometimes he’d come back with a dead pheasant. He was not an avid meat eater, but he did like pheasant. Hunting was part of the culture in which I grew up. Mainly a male activity at that time, I never envisioned myself participating. I didn’t like the loud sounds guns made. I had no fascination with learning about the mechanics of guns in order to hunt. Target practice, shooting tin cans off a fence, was always fun, but I never wanted to graduate to living creatures.
One of my uncles wore a fall jacket that he painted a bull’s eye on the back. He told us that “when they shoot me, I want them to do a clean job of it,” referring to the hunters that invaded the countryside every year. I remember not being able to go outside to play because of the hunters. Every year hunters still kill a few of their own.
One day, my father came into the house from herding the cows into the barn from the pasture. He described the mayhem he had found from a group of hunters who had gone through our fields and killed every living thing in sight and left them lying in the sun to rot. He was disgusted. He didn’t understand. Men killed animals for food, not for sport.
The last time I went fishing, I caught a bullhead. Someone took the muddy gray thing, with the antennas around its mouth, off my hook and threw it back into the water. That bullhead floated just below the surface of the water by the side of the boat looking at me accusingly. I felt so guilty for hurting it, and probably killing it, that I never fished again.
We can all buy meat in the grocery store and don’t need to slaughter farm animals ourselves or hunt down wild animals. Hunting involves comradery, the pleasure of getting out in nature, and using outdoor and survival skills. The meat of a wild duck or turkey, deer or bear can’t be bought in a store. Wild game has a different flavor than farm-raised animals. Over the years, I developed a suspicion that hunters may enjoy killing living creatures.
I try to justify hunting by saying that people need food. Animals hunt other animals. Some animals are meat-eating and others are not. It’s just nature, the circle of life. Man has been hunting and fishing since the beginning of time.
A few years ago I accidently viewed a video taken surreptitiously by PETA. During the mad cow scare, downed cows, those too sick to stand, weren’t to be put into the food supply. The film showed employees of a slaughterhouse lifting up a sick black and white cow with a front end loader and tossing her, like you’d toss a gunny sack full of grain, into the door of the slaughterhouse. The bellowing, the expression of sheer terror, was like nothing I’d ever heard before. That’s the day I quit eating meat.
For some time, I realized I couldn’t kill an animal to eat it. I was never able to bring myself to read Sinclair Lewis’ The Jungle after reading the passage about the pigs “dangling by a foot and kicking in frenzy – and squealing” overhead as they were hoisted up on the assembly line that would turn them into pork. Buying unidentifiable chunks of meat in the grocery store was hypocritical because someone else did the killing. Seeing the abuse of the cow angered me to the point that I decided I would no longer support an industry in which abuse of animals, whether it be chickens, pigs or cows, was a normal part of doing business.
I’ve tried justifying hunting again as a more humane way of killing an animal. I’m certain there’s a certain amount of fear when the deer or elk realizes it’s being stalked. But they have the senses and skills to evade being killed. The bullet, if the hunter is skilled, does its job quickly. But that intense dislike of hunters and hunting and the idea of people taking pleasure in killing living creatures always results in a sickening sensation and rage welling up inside me.
In an article in Time, Jeffrey Kluger wrote “The human brain is coded for compassion, for guilt, for a kind of empathic pain that causes the person inflicting harm to feel a degree of suffering that is in many ways as intense as what the victim is experiencing.” I’ve always suspected hunters lack that kind of empathy. Especially those who tell me they went out hunting and didn’t even bother to collect what they killed.
As a vegetarian, I try not to be a missionary about it, but one Christmas gave out copies of Unlikely Friendships by Jennifer S. Holland to everyone I know. The book reminds me of the prophecy in Isaiah. “The wolf will dwell with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little boy will lead them. Also the cow and the bear will graze, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox.” To me that’s a description of paradise where all living creatures live together in peace.
During one of my last discussions with my mother, I mused, “I wonder why I dislike hunting and hunters so much.” My Mother answered, “Hunters shot your cow.”