This post contains images some readers may find disturbing. But if you signed the petition to stop the work of Hermann Nitsch at Dark Mofo, and then went home to eat a steak, I reckon you should look at them anyway.
Lucky he didn’t go to Dark Mofo.
This is a story of life and death (but mostly death), of a cow, bulls, and scapegoats, of arbitrary lines and value judgements, of different worlds and concealed horrors.
It began, for me, a couple of hours before I took the photo above. The cow pictured had fallen ill – grass tetany (magnesium deficiency) – and had collapsed in a ditch at the bottom of a gully, where water runs in wet weather. Sadly, this is the kind of thing that happens on farms.
Unable to get onto her feet, we treated her with a subcutaneous dose of minerals and an epsom salts solution. A subcutaneous dose is unlikely to be as effective as an intravenous dose, but an intravenous dose would require a vet. And farmers typically don’t call vets where there are other options, or where the outcome is going to be line-ball, because of the cost to the business, which is likely already running on nothing.
She had managed to wedge herself “between a rock and hard place” – literally between a rock and a large stand of reeds – such that she wouldn’t be able to move even if the minerals did the trick. So we had to drag her out, somehow. A half-ton animal is not an easy thing to move. We dragged her to higher ground using the tractor and a tow strap, with the tractor in ‘crawl’ gear. It was an undignified, unnatural solution, but short of engaging something like a helicopter or two, our options were limited; steep terrain (even with the tractor, one wheel lifted into the air at one point), kilometres away from any main road, and a very heavy load to shift. But this is the kind of thing that happens on farms.
I also carted up some water and feed, which she tucked into very keenly, once I managed to get the water to her in a container that she wasn’t hell bent on head-butting away from her.
I crept up on her calf which had only been born three days earlier and which, as they often are, was hidden some distance away in a hollow. When it sprang up to run away, I rugby-tackled it to the ground, then picked it up and carried it down the gully to its mother, and tried to get it to feed from her udder while she was lying in a favourable position. No luck – he didn’t seem terribly interested even when I milked it directly into his mouth. The milk was white and running well, and the calf was quite strong, so he’d obviously had the first feed of colostrum before the mother had gone down.
She ended up getting four bags of treatment over the course of that day. When I went up in the dark that night to give her another drink, her calf was still with her, but she had shuffled downhill a bit, toward the ditch. It didn’t look very promising, but there wasn’t much I could do about it at that time of night.
When I went up the next day, she was in the ditch, dead. Her calf was still sitting beside her. He got up and put some distance between us as I walked closer. I sat down in the grass next to the cow, with my little dog, and the calf a few feet away, and cried. Because this is the kind of thing that happens on farms: she’d been sick, had a dozen injections, been manhandled and dragged around by a tractor – an incredibly stressful experience – been unable to tend to her calf – which was likely her strongest urge – and then died. In hindsight, perhaps we should have just put her down in the first place. But hindsight is a marvellous thing.
Then there was the calf, orphaned. In a herd of cattle it’s highly unusual for a cow to willingly surrogate feed another cow’s calf. Orphan calves in a herd will go from one cow to another looking for milk, and will typically be kicked off, quite violently; being kicked in the head by the cow (which can be deadly or disabling) is a very likely outcome. If the bovine grim reaper has been busy, you sometimes have the opportunity to match up a cow who has lost its calf with a calf that has lost its mother. This is gruesome work, requiring skinning the pelt from the dead calf and tying it onto the living calf, so that the mother recognises the scent and – despite being rather confused – accepts that the orphaned calf is hers. Once the pelt comes off, she’s already started to become accustomed to the additional smell of the living calf.
But in this case there was no ‘spare’ mother. So it was a case of having to bottle feed it (which wasn’t going to happen because there wasn’t going to be anyone able to do it around the clock), or put it down (which, on a farm, means shooting it – because no farmer is going to pay a vet a couple of hundred bucks to destroy a source of income when the farmer can do it with a gun; indeed, even vets are allowed to get a gun licence for “animal welfare”), or find it another home.
I contacted someone who’d expressed an interest in taking a calf in the past, and she was keen to take him. So I named him “Lucky”.
He was, I reported, the strongest “nearly dead” calf I’d dealt with. I started to “hog tie” his legs – first his two front together, then his two back together – and at that point he bolted off across the side of the hill so fast that I had to run as fast as I could to catch him. Only when I completed the job by tying his front and back legs together did he almost give up trying to run, and put more energy into bleating in terror. Poor little thing was too young to know that this is the kind of thing that happens on farms.
I hoisted him up onto the four-wheeler. We had a very slow trip down the hill, him lying in my lap. When I got back to the house I put him in the yard and untied him and put a halter on him, so he could wander around the yard while I sorted out some milk formula. He drank well – needing hardly any coaching – and with good appetite.
The day had got away from me and I had appointments in the afternoon, so I decided to take him halfway to his new home that day, and the rest of the way the next day. He would stay the night by the sea, at the house we rent in Taroona. I tossed up taking him in the back of the ute, but that would’ve been pretty cold in the wind on a winter’s day, and required the stock crate, and with all that room he likely would’ve stood up and fallen over several times, or, if I didn’t use the stock crate, I’d have to tie him up to stop him trying to jump off, which would’ve been stressful again.
So I lined the boot of the car with a tarp and an old thick padded coat, folded the rear seat forward to let in light and air, and lifted him into the boot. He seemed quite happy there – or at least he didn’t need to be tied up, he just sat there.
The trip to Taroona was uneventful, and when I lifted him out, he wandered around the yard and found a sheltered corner. I mixed up another bottle of calf formula and he drank that well. I was feeling pretty pleased that he was going to a good home – where he was wanted as a pet – rather than suffering the fate of an extraneous orphan.
When I fed him after nightfall, I noticed a distinct drop in temperature between the top of the yard and the bottom corner where he’d chosen to bed down, so I made a bed for him on the deck out of an old camp mattress and a blanket. Being undercover and close to the kitchen door, insulated from the ground, it was likely going to be one of the warmest nights he’d spent to date.
He was pacing around the deck sniffing at stuff when I went to bed – I could hear his hooves clopping on the timber as he moved from one spot to another. I set my alarm for 3am to give him a feed, more for comfort than sustenance. When I walked out with the bottle, he wasn’t very interested, and I feared the worst.
The morning confirmed my fears. He was on his side on the mattress, head down, mucus running from his nose. My guess was pneumonia.
I spoke to the person who was going to take him, and suggested it probably wouldn’t be such a great idea to introduce him to the family and have him die the next day. So we decided to wait and see.
Now I was in a real bind. Pneumonia can be treated with antibiotics, but antibiotics can’t be bought over the counter – a vet has to see the animal first. With the callout fee and an as yet unknown dosage and cost for the medication, committing to treatment wasn’t far off signing a blank cheque, for an animal that I was already feeling much less hopeful for – especially considering that pneumonia in calves can significantly shorten their lifespans even if they do survive.
I have little doubt that if we’d discovered the calf like that in a paddock one morning, we’d have put it down. Or maybe taken it into the shed to try and feed it and see how it fared. But I wasn’t on the farm. I was in Taroona. In the green leafy ‘burbs. With a calf that was supposed to be a pet. One I’d given a name – “Lucky”. And so I was keenly aware that inside, lying on a bean bag in front of a heater, was my ridiculously tiny dog, for whom I have little doubt that my family would decide to max-out our credit card to pay for treatment if it came to it, and four metres away, outside a glass door, lay another animal, probably losing his fight for life.
The decision now was looking more likely that it would end up being a three way decision – call the vet, or put him down, and putting him down would be a question of whether I drove him to the farm to shoot him, or, to save it the stress of another trip, sharpen up a knife and slit its throat. While I’m pretty good at sharpening knives, I’m no butcher, so I was leaning toward another car trip. And I spotted a fleeting hope flash across the back of my mind, that he might just die in the car so I didn’t have to look him in the eye while I pulled the trigger.
In case I’m sounding trite or aloof, make no mistake, the angst of the tension between the moral horror and my farm-bred-conditioning was making me feel ill.
He did actually seem to be getting stronger, and he was showing more interest in feeding as the day wore on. But I wasn’t sure if he was recovering or just getting desperate. In the meantime I had to go up the road on an errand, and while I was there, the prospective owner checked in for an update. On discussing it – that I suspected he was going downhill rather than getting better – we agreed to call in the vet and discuss options and costs and how we’d split them – but I’d head back and make sure it was worthwhile first.
It wasn’t. His tongue was hanging out and his panting had become erratic and laboured, with the occasional cough. I decided I’d get him down to the farm and ‘do the deed’. I walked back inside to gather the stuff I needed, and on one of the trips past the door, just minutes later, I saw him go into a weak rigor, and then relax. I went outside, and sure enough, he’d stopped breathing. I knelt down next to him, put my forehead against his, scratched behind his ears (maybe he still had vision/sensation?) and said, “sorry, buddy”. Because, no doubt, that would’ve made the calf feel much better about everything.
It was the fastest decline I’d ever witnessed, from the otherwise most robust orphan calf I’d ever dealt with.
I now had a dead calf on the deck, in the middle of suburbia. The divide between city and country was suddenly very stark. This kind of thing doesn’t happen in the suburbs. I could’ve put him in a wheelie bin – he’d have fitted with no problem – but I figured there was probably some kind of regulation against that, even though I’m sure plenty of rodents end up in wheelie bins. And even if there weren’t regulations, I pictured the scene where a squashed calf came toppling out of a garbage truck and the furore that would cause. I even considered butchering the calf for dog meat, but again, there were probably regulations against that and, besides, I fancied that it may cause the dog some kind of existential angst, since he’d already spent a bit of time sniffing around with the calf. Plus, I just didn’t want to cut him to pieces, because that what would cause me more angst.
I decided I’d take him down to the farm and burn him – which is what we usually do – but that wouldn’t be until the next day. So I needed to clean up “the mess”, because I didn’t want a dead calf to be the first thing the kids saw when they walked into the kitchen after coming home from school.
So I wrapped him in a tarp, tied up the tarp, wrapped the tarp in a carpet offcut, bundled it into the wheelbarrow and wheeled it to the bottom of the yard. I felt like a criminal. As though I was re-enacting a scene from Breaking Bad or Fargo. Because I was in suburbia, dealing with a large dead thing with a face. The same sense of incongruity struck me the next day as I wheeled the barrow up the driveway to bundle the dead animal into the boot of the car. I found that the only thing that stopped me actually feeling scared about people watching me, was that it was all wrapped up. Hidden. I could only imagine the looks on the neighbour’s faces if I’d wheeled the dead calf in all its glory up the street.
Because the proper place for all this stuff to go on, is on a farm. Out of sight, out of mind. I had made the mistake of bringing unpleasantness and death to within 15 minutes of the CBD, and that violation was even doing my head in.
It wasn’t lost on me that Lucky the bull calf died on the eve of Dark Mofo, and that I burnt him on the day Dark Mofo opened. I’m not an ethicist or a logician, but I’m not sure that Lucky was any luckier than the bull that will be slaughtered for Nitsch’s work. He was born, had maybe a day of normal life, watched his mother being injected and dragged around by a tractor, was wrestled to the ground and carried to his mother, forcibly placed on her udder, then watched her struggle for hours, and finally die in a ditch away from their herd. He saw out that night in freezing temperatures, was tackled to the ground again, hogtied, carried, driven a couple of kilometres on an ATV, driven another 40km, and finally died a painful death with nothing like a cow for miles around.
I’m not declaring myself a supporter of slaughtering animals for art. I’m not even sure exactly what Nitsch’s work involves. But I’m all for the questions it has raised, and I’m all for questioning the uproar it’s created, mostly, I’d be guessing, by people who are happy for animals to be slaughtered for gluttony (because let’s not pretend most of us need as much food as we typically eat).
The scapegoat in Hebrew culture is the goat upon which the sins of the people are conferred, and then driven out of the city. In a sense, farmers engaging in animal husbandry are scapegoats. Society outsources the work, the moral dilemmas, the guilt, the conscience-battering decisions that need to be made between the hard business realities of securing a livelihood, competing priorities and demands on time, and basic human compassion for their fellow beings. Society outsources this to farmers, livestock agents, abattoirs – far outside the city walls.
The scapegoat ritual actually includes two goats. The scapegoat is sent out of the city into the wilderness, and the other goat is sacrificed in the temple – squarely within the city – as an atonement. We regard ourselves as being far too civilised to engage in such animal sacrifice. Perhaps slaughter for art is even more heinous to modern sensibilities, since the Enlightenment has painted religion as a hangover from the Dark Ages, while Art is seen as a hallmark of civilised progress. And perhaps this is the affront that Nitsch inflicts: daring to bring something like the sacrifice within the city walls makes us mindful again of the scapegoat that’s been sent into the wilderness, a scapegoat that has been too willingly forgotten. Or perhaps the current generations have never actually been mindful of what goes on outside the city walls; sending the scapegoat away has allowed the development of a sanitised view of existence to develop, one in which the majority of people are oblivious to the realities of “nature, red in tooth and claw”.
And I’m not here to tell you it’s wrong to eat meat. I’m largely vegetarian-at-home, but I eat meat if served it, and I’ll sometimes order it if eating a meal out. And as someone who’s also been involved in growing fruit on a large scale, I can attest that vegetarians and vegans also need to face the fact that under the current structure of outsourced large-scale food production, the truth is simple: if you live, other animals die. As long as we continue to outsource the production of food, we’ll never learn the many facets and nuances of that truth. Unless someone tries to make us think about it.
Whatever you think of Nitsch’s work, it does no-one any harm to face up to what we’re trying to keep further away than arm’s length.