“I’m not your mother!”: A Story from a California “Livestock” Auction

A day-old Holstein calf stood alone in the auction pen. Tish and I sat in the bleachers waiting for the auction to begin. The auction ring was clean — this was the first auction of the day and the wood shavings lining the floor of the pen had not yet been soiled by animals passing through. The tiny calf stood in the middle, looked around and bellowed. The calf’s persistent cry was the only sound in the room, drowning out the distant noise of gates clanking and other animals bellowing from the pens outside. He was a newborn and his drying umbilical chord dangled from his belly and he was slightly wobbly on his spindly legs.

The man who herded the animals through the auction pen entered the ring with a paddle and leaned on the fence in front of the auctioneer’s platform to chat with the auctioneer. The calf, noticing the man, approached him and gently nuzzled his leg. He stood no taller than the man’s knee and his nose nuzzled at the side of the man’s thigh. In one efficient motion, the man turned and smacked the calf in the face with the paddle he was holding and spoke (much too loudly for the fairly quiet room), “I’M NOT YOUR MOTHER!” The calf ran off, terrified, across the pen.

Tish and I sat, stunned, in the bleachers and watched. The man saw us watching and turned to us and gave us an embarrassed smile and a nervous laugh. I felt compelled, for some reason, to smile back — a thin, forced smile, that I’m sure looked equally nervous. Nervous that if I didn’t smile, I would be identified as someone who didn’t belong. Smiling (or trying to) seemed to be an important gesture to demonstrate I was at ease in that space — not out of place. But my smile and the emotions behind it were nervous for different reasons as well — it revealed that I was nervous that I sat there and did nothing, nervous that I forced myself to smile at this man who responded with such violence to the gentlest attempt at contact from this perfect, tiny calf, nervous that my inaction counted as complicity in a system so thoroughly violent in its mundane, day-to-day operations, and nervous that the book that results from this research would do nothing to change such an ingrained system of exploitation.

The silent awkward moment between us and the man in the pen passed.  The auction started and the calf sold — the first in a string of day-old calves who entered and left the auction pen on wobbly legs, fearful of the men who herded them.  We sat and forced ourselves to watch (to witness), the lump in my throat growing bigger with each animal that passed through the pen and the desperate impulse to buy one of the calves growing stronger with each moment that passed (to just save one from their fate as ‘veal’ would have been something at least).


This was a farmed animal auction in the Central Valley of California where calves, cows, and bulls were sold to the highest bidder for the production of dairy and ‘meat’. California is the largest dairy producing state in the country and the Central Valley houses dairy farms with as many as 30,000 cows per farm. Cows used for dairy have to be impregnated annually in order to continue producing milk for the dairy industry and calves are a byproduct of this repeated forced impregnation. Male calves have little to no use to the industry and so are regularly auctioned the day or two after their birth for veal. These calves are removed from their mothers immediately after birth, are sold, and kept (usually confined) for 4-6 months until they are slaughtered. To support the dairy industry is to support the production of veal. This was the story of one of those calves — one stop along his short life in the complex network of dairy and ‘meat’ production.

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  1. This is a heartbreaking story that brought tears to my eyes. Quite the argument against the dairy industry. I think it’s a little known fact that the “by-product” of keeping female cows “productive” is essentially fueling the veal industry.

    A very thoughtful piece Katie – I only wish this honesty wasn’t actually the truth.

    1. Thanks, Elizabeth. It certainly is heartbreaking — and I wish more people were willing to face the reality of the violence of everyday practices of farming animals. I hope that some day this isn’t the truth and we evolve away from these kinds of violent relations with other animals.

  2. This is a prime example of what Dr. Tuttle talks about in “The World Peace Diet.” The herding culture we’ve been born into demands that we disconnect from our natural sense of compassion, especially men. It’s the only way these atrocities can continue.

    1. Kelli – Yes, definitely. I’m a firm believer in uncovering the violence of the system itself and the effects of this disconnection, rather than blaming individuals working in these industries. The man in this story is much more a reflection on the violent system in which he was raised than it is a personal reflection on him as an individual. At the same time, I think it’s important to understand that it is the choices of individuals (e.g., consumers) who keep this system going. Thanks for your thoughtful comment! 🙂

  3. I had been a vegetarian since 1985 and felt pretty good about not eating meat. I felt that was the whole of it. About two years ago I stopped buying and eating eggs. Dairy products were ok with me as no cow had to die to give milk, right? Thank God for undercover videos. I hope they continue to be filmed and exposed to the public. When I saw the little two day old bobbie calves with dried umbilical cords hanging and bawling for their mothers as they were pushed to slaughter for their “inferior” grade of meat, my taste for yogurt and ice cream vanished. Some of these calves were too weak to walk and were picked up, carried and slammed down to the floor. I can’t do it anymore.

    1. NINA — Thanks for sharing your story. I think education about what’s really at stake (and whose lives are at stake) when the dairy, meat and egg industries are supported is so vitally important. Thanks for your compassion.

  4. It’s the saddest thing ever, that babies die so we can eat ice cream and cheese etc, if it hadn’t been the hidden footage and sites like peaceful planet and EdgarsMission mission I too would still be blissfully ignorant as ever. Thank goodness for almond milk and all the other amazing products out there nowadays. 🙂

    1. Natalie — You’re so right! It’s easier than ever to become vegan with all the options out there in so many corners of the world. Plus, with the health and environmental benefits of going vegan, there’s a lot to recommend the lifestyle that helps animals. And thanks for letting me know about Edgar’s Mission — I’m always happy to hear about sanctuaries doing great work all over the world. 🙂

  5. Are the people in these places so desentitised to cruelty that they are devoid of compassion and basic humanity to the vulnerable newborn passing through on their way to death?

    1. From my research, I don’t think the people working in the industry are to blame for the desensitization that occurs. Moments like the one described here are not the heart of the problem so much as they are symptoms of a system in which the violent appropriation of nonhuman and human animal lives and bodies is thoroughly woven into the logic of production. Of course there are many cases of extreme cruelty in the meat, dairy and egg industries, but I honestly worry much more about the day-to-day socially accepted forms of violence against the animals laboring and dying in these spaces. Particularly in spaces of slaughter, too, human workers are also often victims of a violent system.

      I’ve been trying to understand the psychology of those involved with the auction and other spaces of animal commodification. In the space of the auction, I think it’s a survival mechanism for people to disconnect. Even with my heart and mind open to animals and their plight, I have to disconnect to a certain extent just to be able to sit there and watch.

  6. This is why I rescue. “Saving lives one at a time” If this story upsets you, THEN DO SOMETHING !!! Don’t just comment on it. If you can’t physically save an animal then support a qualified rescue of your choice… If you can’t donate $ then donate your time.Every effort matters……
    Live compassionately 🙂

    Candi Cooper
    CEO / SWR Adoption 911

  7. I’m so upset by this well written essay. Many don’t become veal. Many are shot or killed at birth or within 24 hours of birth. The ones that live are are sold to become veal or tortured for a short time and then killed. Dairy is so cruel. I can’t believe humans have no problem demanding this being done to calves so they can steal the milk that was meant by nature for the calf, not a human.

    Here is a more in depth post I wrote on what happens in the dairy industry:

    1. You’re so right about many calves being killed (or let to die) at birth because they have so little economic value to the industry. And some are raised as steers for beef, or bulls for breeding. Thank you for posting the link to your post on the subject! I hope others will read it.

  8. This is so resoundingly and artfully put. No gory picture or footage, no sensational wording, just a sensitive and lovingly honest depiction of one tiny soul’s suffering, because the truth is ugly and shocking enough. So many people don’t realise that the production of Dairy demands new lives and the separation of grieving mothers and babies. I certainly didn’t. I’m so thankful that know better now, and I have the choice to stop taking milk that was meant for someone else’s baby, without any detriment to my health or my happiness.

    1. Thank you so much, Sarah, for the kind words about the piece. And you’re totally right. People just don’t realize the realities of what goes into producing dairy.

  9. Thanks for witnessing and writing this. It leaves a lump in my throat and an ache in my heart. Dairy is a very cruel industry as all the industry’s are that commodify animals and humans. I am also trying to understand the psychology that allows “us” to do these things. I do believe it is “survival”, belief in need” and “habit” which pay a big part in the denial of our innate humanness to help another sentient being rather than ignore and use them, kill them. People in the industry need to make a living and survive. They believe they are providing something of benefit that is an absolute need for humans. They are part of a long time habit, an industry or way of life (someone mentioned the herder mentality from Will Tuttle’s book). It is a very very sad state of affairs but blogs like this, day-to-day vegan outreach and change is occurring. I went vegan 4 years ago and not a day goes by that I do not perform some sort of outreach and communication. Thank you for this blog and what to do to help people to wake up!

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, John. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit I have not yet read Tuttle’s book. It’s definitely on my to-read pile. I, too, am heartened by the increase in vegan outreach and change that is occurring. These ideas really seem to be making it out into the mainstream, and I think that’s an important first step to creating a critical mass of change. In spite of the devastating level of exploitation occurring every day, I have to hope that things are changing. Thank you for all you do for human and nonhuman struggles for justice.

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