Down and Out in Eden and North
had been in Eden only four months, and already I had workedas a
landscaper, a meat wrapper, and as a factory cog. The factory gig
ended abruptly, with me shouting, "Fuck this, fuck that, fuck
you and this bullshit hassle!" Hundreds of deadened factory
serf eyes, brimming with resentful jealousy, followed me as I stormed
out the door. I was free--temporarily. As I drove off, the reality
of bills and rent began to make me a little anxious. Driving past
a plethora of dairy farms, I suddenly knew how I would make rent.
I drove directly to the dairy nearest my house and
was hired immediately. The owner recommended I throw on a pair of
rubber boots and a rain slicker for the grand tour. We strolled
through the straw-bedded stalls filled with calves, and descended
down an incline into the darkness of the main barn. "Watch
your step, it can be slippery in here," said my new overlord.
A single bare light bulb dangled in the vast expanse of stalls and
gates. My dilating eyes slowly recognized what my feet and nose
already knew: I was wading through at least six inches of liquid
"Tell me now if you can't do this-'lotta folk
can't stomach this business."
"No, no," I said, "I'm fine with it."
And up till then I was.
I showed up for my first shift and was met by a real
good ol' boy, Augie, the seasoned cow wrangler whose position I
was training to fill. Augie was there to show me the ropes. "First
thing we do is fill up the grain," he said, bending down to
grab the feed buckets. I bent over and a flash of white lighting
ripped through my nervous system, knocking me off my feet and straight
into the shit. He almost wet himself laughing. Only then did he
point out that all the wire fencing was electrified. Lesson learned,
we moved on. "Now we go get the A group," he said. After
we closed and opened the appropriate gates that would route the
cows to the milking station, we began to yell
at them. "Come on!" I pled as I wailed a plastic rod against
their hides. I felt like a bastard. "No, hit 'em' harder, they
can take it," commanded Augie, "and say it like this:
I affected a shrill nasal tone and the recommended
pronunciation. All the cows looked my way through their cloudy eyes
and began the labored process of standing up. Some still needed
extra prodding and minor electrocution to get going. By the time
I got to them, these cows had been milked twice already in the last
24 hours and were pretty hesitant to climb up out of their own waste.
They slowly trudged their way up the final incline, some having
to make several attempts after falling, and we latched the gate
behind them. We opened the gates to the milking gallery and Augie
worked a pulley that started a 100-foot wall of dangling electrified
barbed wire strands moving toward the cattle. Sparks flew as the
cruel strands hit the cows near the back of the line. Some, caught
off guard, fell and were shocked repeatedly. The others made a mad
dash for the milking lines. Once there, they were milked 16 at a
The whole process was repeated with the B and C groups.
There were about 300 head of cattle total, each one producing-with
the assistance of hormones and a forced milking schedule-about 100
pounds of milk every day, roughly ten times what they produce naturally.
As the weeks went by, I got used to the dark, repugnant
labyrinth of filth, the feel of calloused cow tongues on my face,
and getting urinated and defecated on routinely. I learned how to
avoid being crushed between the bovine behemoths, and how to escape
the bull, who clearly wanted me dead. I was a milking pro-lining
up the cows into the gallery, manually removing the encrusted dung
on their teats, hosing them off, spraying the udders with iodine
and attaching the suction tubes that drew the milk into a large
vat. Often, the cows were visibly irritated and struggled to kick
off the tubes from their sensitive and frequently infected udders.
Whenever a cow did this, I was to take note so the boss could shoot
her full of antibiotics.
Udder infection, or mastitis, is the result of over-milking
and constant exposure to feces. The byproduct of any infection,
of course, is pus. That's right; you're drinking pus. The dairy
industry keeps track of pus levels by counting the number
of somatic pus cells per liter of milk. By industry standards, milk
with a somatic cell count higher than 200 million per liter shouldn't
be consumed by humans. The average count in New York is 280 million
per liter. The national average is 322 million.
Every once in a while, we had to move cows that could
no longer walk with a backhoe into quarantine. Hoof infection was
rampant, and a lot of the cows had problems walking. I was instructed
several times to lay down a trough filled with some medicine that
the cows would walk through. I never saw any recoveries. They continued
to limp miserably in their own crap, each cow excreting about 120
pounds daily. The mess was swept away once a day by a large squeegee
on a tractor. And to think when I lived in Eden I drank well water.
The only cows exempt from wallowing in the dimly lit
swamp of waste were the expecting mothers. Only once did I have
to assist in the birth of a calf. That consisted of locking the
mother's head between two gates, chaining the calf's legs to a third
gate behind the mother, and pushing on the gate as hard as possible
until the slimy baby shot out onto the floor. Then I had to hose
the calf down and shove a two-foot tube down its throat to feed
it a special mixture of milk filled with antibiotics and steroids.
The dairy owner was disappointed because it was a bull, worth almost
no money. The next day the calf was dead. The boss told me the mother
had slept on top of him, but after his initial response, I wasn't
buying it. It was time to get a new job.
I wish I could end this story by saying that I gave
up milk and dairy as a result of working on the "farm,"
but I can't. Like most Americans, dairy still makes up the largest
fraction of my diet. According to the USDA, the average American
eats 586 pounds of dairy products annually, almost 40% of our total
diet and 52% of our calorie intake.
Journal of the American Dietetic Association reported in 1996 that
75% of the world's population is lactose intolerant. In America,
70 percent of African and Native Americans, 95 percent of Asian
Americans, 50 percent of Mexican Americans, and 15 to 20 percent
of Caucasian Americans have difficulty in digesting lactose, which
causes symptoms like gas, bloating, cramps, nausea and diarrhea.
Many of us suffer these symptoms daily with no knowledge of their
cause-a great boon for the antacid industry.
This "wholesome" stuff contains antibiotics,
pus, blood, bacteria, allergenic proteins, and growth hormones.
I'm no vegan, but these facts are something for fellow dairy-lovers
to consider-after all, the vegans have nothing to worry about. The
deplorable circumstances at dairies are a direct result of lax regulations,
which favor the producer rather than the consumer. You may not feel
much sympathy for the suffering of these animals, but your health
may also suffer as a result of their wretched conditions. Think
on that the next time you're chugging a latte or ordering a double-cheese
And, whatever you do, don't quit your factory job
to work at a dairy.