It was a rare sunny day, with none of Portland’s usual grey skies, when students (myself included) from the Animal Law Litigation Clinic at Lewis & Clark Law School, led by Professor Delcianna Winders, embarked upon a field trip to a livestock auction in rural Oregon. That day, I glimpsed a microcosm of the animal agriculture industry in the United States—an on-the-ground look at the factory farming that I am studying to fight against in courts of law.
The livestock auction was located about one hour outside of Portland. During the drive there, I witnessed the sprawling lush greenery of the Oregon countryside and quaint farmhouses straight out of a children’s book, with the majestic snow-capped Mount Hood in the background. To think that anything disturbing was happening to animals anywhere near this picture-perfect place seemed almost delusional.
Arriving at the livestock auction, we parked in an almost empty lot outside an unassuming building. We knew that the auction lasted all day, from eight a.m. to five p.m., but were surprised by the lack of crowds or other fanfare. Walking toward the front of the building, we encountered a couple of people practicing their lassoing skills with a rope on—thankfully—an imaginary animal. I braced myself for what was inside.
The first thing that hit me was the smell of manure, followed by the sounds of cows. The area where the cows were kept was close to the entrance, separated only by a slatted wall; a few animals gazed out through the slats. The auction area itself was designed like a mini-stadium, as if for a spectator sport and not an auction of living beings. White bleachers surrounded a ring fenced with wooden bars. The auctioneer stood at a podium on one end of the ring, calling out prices and serial numbers for each cow. A woman stood next to the auctioneer, using an electronic device to track sales. The buyers, who were scattered around the bleachers, were nearly all middle-aged, white men with similar builds, indistinguishable down to the baseball cap on every head. Within my group were the only women in attendance; the auctioneer welcomed us to be seated.
The ring contained two gates, one where cows entered and another where they exited, after having been presented for viewing. Two men stood in front of each gate, behind wooden barriers, holding what looked like long flagpoles. A cow would enter the ring from one gate; the men would start waving the flagpoles and occasionally smacking her in the back or rump with the poles. The men’s goal was to keep her moving constantly, preferably in a full circle, to enable the audience of prospective buyers to examine her. Each cow was “displayed” in this manner for an average of twenty seconds, after which the cow was forced through the exit gate using the same poles. The “backstage” area where the cows were held was shielded from public view.
The cows at this particular auction were all dairy Holstein cows, of varying sizes and builds, with hanging udders. Some cows’ backs were visibly injured, some cows were limping, and others had docked tails or bands around their rear legs—presumably to keep them from kicking. As soon as each cow was forced into the ring, the animal would immediately head to the edge of the ring and peer out through the wooden fence-like structure; many of the animals appeared to be looking for an escape. The animals were quickly corralled and roughly prodded or smacked by the men with the poles; each cow was visibly agitated and confused.
The personalities of the cows spoke volumes. Some cows were belligerent, rebellious—they stomped around the ring with vigor, charging aggressively one way or the other. Those cows usually spent the least time in the ring, perhaps because nobody likes the troublemakers. Most were meek, resigned to their fate. They entered the ring and tried to stare out through the bars, looking confused when forced to spin and move for the prospective buyers. When the gate opened to let them depart the ring, their relief was obvious in the way that they sprinted toward the exit, perhaps hoping that a better fate awaited on the other side. One cow seemed to actively seek affection from one of the pole-wielding men; the man momentarily lowered his pole to pat the cow on her head, before using the pole again to send her on her way.
After observing the sales of ten or so cows, I began to view the scene from a more detached perspective: female bodies on display, meant for the objectification and viewing pleasure of men, all of whom blended homogeneously into one. I perceived this obscure livestock auction, likely one of many that occurred in the United States on that day, as a perfect representation of the patriarchy. The only thing that mattered to the men in attendance was the literal flesh for sale, including how that flesh could be used and what it could produce for the men’s benefit. The personalities—all too evident—of the individual creatures on display were irrelevant. The way that the cows rushed towards the exit in hopes of salvation, only to end up exactly where they started, seemed analogous to the plight of many womxn. Trapped in similar cycles of abuse and patriarchal violence, trying desperately to cope with untenable circumstances, women, too, are expected to constantly perform in a patriarchal society, much like the animals were forced to audition for the attending men. The behavior of the cow seeking affection from the man in the ring is reminiscent of oppressed women seeking affection from their oppressors. In a patriarchal system, females are valued only as sums of their parts.
Since arriving in Portland from Pakistan in August, I feel like I am living in a utopia. Portland is an idyllic “bubble” where no one laughs when I talk about animal rights, where I can study and even specialize in animal law, and where I can actually feel offended if a restaurant doesn’t offer any vegan options. I understand that Portland is not representative of the United States or even the State of Oregon, which remains largely rural and agriculture-focused. The livestock auction profoundly reminded me that, in most parts of the world, nonhuman animals are still largely treated like commodities—unfeeling objects whose lives are dispensable and whose suffering does not matter. While humans globally cherish companion animals as family, farmed animals like the cows I witnessed suffer horrendously for the durations of their short, miserable lives, only to ultimately end up as dinner.
The livestock auction further underscored for me the gendered nature of the oppression that both humans and nonhumans face. Throughout history, scores of women around the world have fought and continue to fight for freedom from patriarchal violence, domestic abuse, rape, harassment, and objectification. Females across species deserve to be treated as more than just objects for males’ personal gain. The livestock auction served as a stark reminder that nonhuman females face much of the same oppression, abuse, and objectification as human women. All sentient creatures, male and female, just want to be with their families, not poked and slapped and raped for their secretions, and not killed for food. Nonhuman animals rely on people to fight for them. They rely on us humans to feel for them.
Hira is an attorney from Pakistan and is pursuing her LL.M in Animal Law from Lewis & Clark Law School on a Fulbright scholarship.