Sparky, Martini and Dodge
It is late October and one month after the grand opening of Precious Life Animal Sanctuary. Claudine Erlandson, lifelong animal activist, and I drive to a livestock auction. Our purpose is to possibly rescue a calf to be a future companion for our one and lonely Holstein steer named Benjamin (rescued by a woman who now lives in Oregon).
We know this will be a heart wrenching experience as the day-old male calves at the auction are there for a reason. All are unwanted, unhealthy and many will not survive. Sadly, their gentle, caring mothers who have carried them for 280 days will never have a chance to nurture and feed them as they have been taken from them shortly after birth.
As we pull onto the grounds, long lines of livestock haulers are waiting to unload tightly packed, terrified, spent dairy cows no older than five years. They will be auctioned off to buyers who will reload them and transport them to slaughter.
The calves from various dairies are being unloaded in a separate barn. Many are wet from birthing with visible short bloody umbilical cords. Most appear cold, dazed and unsure on their feet. Some take their first steps; others fall down. All have empty bellies with no nourishment. Tragically, most have not been given any or insufficient colostrum which needs to be absorbed within the calves. first 24 hours of life. This first mother.s milk provides their only immunity against a variety of diseases. Because of this uncaring and neglect, many will die a slow death from high levels of e-coli, salmonella and coccidiosis in a disease-infested environment.
Three female employees in their early twenties and an older woman begin to sort out the calves into three pens according to size. One tiny Jersey calf runs loose in the auction barn with a paper plate tied around his neck that reads, "Take me, I.m free.. The dairy woman explains the calf has a 50/50 chance health-wise to survive and no chance to live past the auction. Due to its small size, it will take longer to reach slaughter weight so it will be shot after the auction. We immediately inform the woman we want it.
The first pen contains approximately 50 calves, mostly standing and the largest in size and considered the best value. Yet there is one with a broken leg and others with common hernia defects.
The second pen contains around the same number, but the calves are smaller in size and more unwilling to stand. The woman in charge tells us which ones not to bid on as some have pneumonia and two have ringworm. The employee remarks she can.t understand why a dairy would bring them to the auction with no chance to live.
The third pen contains around thirty of the smallest calves. Even to an untrained eye, it is easy to spot many that are sick and depressed.
The bidding starts and moves fast with two main buyers purchasing the majority of the calves in the first and second pens. We are told the calves go to Sunnyside and Yakima for three months and then are shipped to California for finishing during the next nine months. At that age, they are slaughtered for various chain stores and markets in Japan. (Their normal life span would be 25 to 30 years.)
During the bidding of the second pen, a calf for Benjamin is selected from the group of black and white bodies. He seems livelier than some of the others. The bidder then goes to the third pen and auctions off several sick calves for $2 to $3 apiece. Four calves remain. The auction is over and several livestock haulers back up to the barn to load their calves. One cattle truck has a foot of manure already in it as the day-old calves are put in for their cold journey and not all will survive.
We ask the employee what will happen to the four remaining unsold calves. Two young female employees inform us that they will shoot them shortly and the renderer will pick them up. Claudine talks a young girl into taking one of the calves which leaves three. Two small jersey calves are huddled together so close they appear to be connected at the head. They look in fear as we approach and we can.t bear to separate them. It will be easy for the employee to shoot them together. The other calf is lying in a corner and no bigger than a newborn fawn. It is chocolate brown with little white hearts on its legs. We pick him up and call him Dodge for dodging the bullet. We put the other two in the van and start the journey home.
We stop along the way and attempt to feed them bottles of milk replacer and all three refuse the life-sustaining drink. They are stressed, sick and the van fills with diarrhea. The realization hits that it will take a monumental effort as well as a miracle to save them. From a distance, it would seem easy to let them die until you came face to face with their innocent suffering and will to live. The diarrhea continues and they become dehydrated. A local veterinarian is contacted and administers a variety of shots and prescribes a host of medicines to be given orally and injected with a needle. For two straight weeks all calves gets six shots a day in their rumps which become painful pin cushions.
Little by little, the no-name Jersey and Holstein improve. Unfortunately, little Dodge is not better; he shivers, hardly drinks and continues to get more shots. The vet does not think he will survive and every morning when I open the shed door, I expect to find him dead. Slowly, a miraculous recovery takes place and he starts to drink more milk replacer. On close inspection, patches of his coat have fallen off exposing bare skin. The vet is called again and gives reassurance it is due to his extreme sickness and should grow back.
It has been six weeks and they are all doing as well as can be expected given the compromise of their immune systems. They rely heavily on their heat lamps with outside freezing temperatures. Every day they show more spunk and increased appetites. All three show no fear of this two-legged stick figure that is their mother. As we lie down in the straw, they lick my face, my hair and undo my shoe laces. We huddle close together under the heat lamps as they doze off in a secure nap.
These newborn creations given no human value will now have value to be what they were meant to be. Filled with wonder and innocence, soon they will run and play together, climb hills, explore stands of fir and lose themselves in blankets of fog that roll in from the straits at Precious Life Animal Sanctuary
Dodge, Sparky, and Martini, our three male dairy calves, celebrated their first birthday on September 28, 2007. One year ago, all three were born at different dairies and trucked to a livestock auction when they were one day old. Unwanted, sick, underweight, and unwilling to stand, they were to be shot at the end of the auction. The renderer had been called to pick up their remains. We could only try to save three. We picked them up, carried them to our van, and drove them home. Our big animal vet said two had a 50/50 chance of making it, and the small, dark-colored one, no bigger than a newborn fawn, had no chance at all. All three had diarrhea and had been exposed to strains of E. coli, salmonella, and coccidiosis from such a disease-infested environment.
They were placed in a small shed on a bed of straw under heat lamps with freezing temperatures outside. Each one received twelve painful shots each day for two weeks. The small dark calf began to lose patches of his coat with bare skin exposed. All we could do was lay with them, stroke their backs, talk to them in a soft voice, and listen to their painful sighs. It was necessary to force them to drink milk replacer to keep them alive. One could only hope and pray every day and night that their small, compromised bodies and a deep will to survive would somehow pull them through. Slowly the diarrhea subsided, their appetites increased, and they started to put on weight.
In late spring after being cooped up in a shed, they were let loose in the big pasture. What a joy to see the wonder in their eyes as they ran through the meadows, climbed hills, and explored stands of willows and firs. Best of all was meeting their big brother, Benjamin, a full-grown black and white Holstein. "Benny" had been rescued from a Skagit Valley dairy many years before.
All three calves have individual identities but all are gentle, affectionate, and - like any dog or cat - love to be petted. All are vocal as they listen and respond to human voices. In their innocence, they trust, and know that someone cares and they belong.
They are truly contented cows but, sadly, not one dairy cow in any mega-dairy across the U.S. will experience in a lifetime what Dodge, Martini, and Sparky experience in one day.
Probably only a handful of cows like them ever have a chance to live out their natural lives of 20 to 25 years. The other day-old calves at the auction with Dodge, Sparky, and Martini who managed to survive the brutality and misery will be slaughtered at 30 months of age. Most U.S. trading partners will not accept any cattle older than this due to the increased risk of BSD.
“When the suffering of another creature causes you to feel pain…
Come closer, as close as you can to him who suffers and try to help.”
— Leo Tolstoy