What Happens When They Can No Longer Stand*?

Alexander was disabled and abandoned at a stockyard. Thousands of others suffer a similar fate. Photo: Farm Sanctuary

What Happens When They Can No Longer Stand*?   

by Wayne Hsiung

A nameless victim in a slaughter truck. A calf left to die. The author’s mom robbed of her ability to stand. In the differences lies the heart of speciesism... and liberation. 

Chicago, Illinois.

The calf had no name. Some of the others had tags. But names were forbidden. There were, after all, too many of them, making it impossible to sort, identify, or empathize. So we will call her “Jane.”

We found "Jane" collapsed in a pool of filth in the back of a disabled slaughter truck. 

The last few months of her life were the hardest. Jane was forced into a concentration camp (a so-called “CAFO”) where the cows would line up side by side, in pens and on barren dirt. They would have dry gruel to eat and brownish water to drink, but nothing more to pass the day. The main task was to fight for space under one of the few small awnings, to avoid the blistering sun that would burn their skin. The swarms of biting insects, in contrast, were simply impossible to avoid.

By the time the men came to take her to slaughter, she was nearly broken. She had lost too many fights for a space in the shade, and the sun and heat had worn her down. She was barely able to stand. But even the sick can be wakened with pain, so when diabolical men attacked her with the electric prod, she roused herself to stand and escape. Like all the others, she was shoved into a transport truck, where her head was pressed up against cold hard steel. But unlike the others, she would not make it to the end of her trip. Her legs gave out, and she collapsed, piled against her sisters and brothers, in a foot deep pile of filth on the bottom of the slaughter truck.

Upstate New York.

Alexander was taken from his mother the day he was born. The company that “owned” Alexander could not tolerate him eating even an ounce of his mother’s precious milk. Separation is a desperate process for all calves, who cry out, in an ear-piercing wail, as they are dragged away. But it must have been particularly traumatic for Alexander, who suffers from a disability that hinders his ability to move. Facing the fear and pain of a difficult world, Alexander needed his mother more than any child. But his mother was the first thing they took away.

On one of Alexander's many trips to the hospital to receive treatment for his injured leg, his friend -- a juvenile cow herself -- wailed as he was taken away.

They planned to take more. As an afterthought to the milk industry, Alexander was shipped off to a “stockyard” where the highest bidders would buy the small calves, either to slaughter them on the spot or fatten them up for meat. The problem was that Alexander’s disability was worsening. He was having trouble walking or even standing. And the buyers could see this. They feared he was diseased, or that he would collapse on the walk to slaughter.  A collapsed animal, for them, is a liability, an annoyance, an economic loss. One by one, they examined Alexander, and passed. Unable to stand, Alexander seemed destined for a terrifying fate – to be abandoned on a dead pile of a stockyard, surrounded by his dying siblings, covered in his own filth, and left to slowly die of dehydration and starvation. But Alexander was the one in a billion who was saved.

Santa Cruz, CA.

She was born in a time of war. Her family fled violent men, victors of a brutal civil war. For months, the family had survived on nothing, sometimes boiling indigestible grass so, at least, they would have something to chew, to fill their empty stomach. When they arrived on a rocky island, it was a surprising sanctuary.  Yes, it was alien and barren and congested. But it was a place where the children could finally rest and grow.

There were struggles in the years to come. The nation was ruled by an iron-fisted dictatorship. Their neighbors would sometimes disappear, unexplained. But her family had food and water and shelter, and that was so much better than what came before. She would eventually travel to a distant land, with $40 in her pocket. She would become a teacher, a mother, and an entrepreneur. But she would never forget the urgency and desperation of her history. And this urgency, she would pass on to her two children.

When she was finally sapped of her strength by cancer, 65 years after she was born, she, like Alexander and Jane, lost her ability to stand. But she had her family, her children born with the same urgency of spirit, to support her. And in that support, she found sanctuary until the end.


I know these stories to be true because I have seen them with my own eyes. I know them to be true because I met Jane, a downed cow in a slaughter truck, the day that she died in a pool of filth. I met Alexander the day that he crumbled to the ground, after nearly four years, as a heroic crew of caretakers (led by the tireless Susie Coston) fought to give him a chance at life. And I met Ling-Ann the day that I was born. Ling-Ann, you see, is my mom, my mom who is dying of cancer, and has now lost the ability to stand.

Like so many other victims, my mother has been stricken by cancer. But unlike Jane or Alexander, an entire industry of services -- nearly 20% of the American economy and trillions of dollars -- has sprung up to care for injured or sick human beings. 

All of these stories flashed through my head as I returned home from Farm Sanctuary a few weeks ago. Tears flowed freely for me as I watched the care-taking team patiently coax Alexander up the trailer ramp, as his crippled back leg dragged on the ground. I cried because I remembered Jane, and the feelings of terror and helplessness that coursed through my veins as I saw her trembling body, heard her trembling voice, in the moments before she died. I cried because I thought of everything that my own mother is given – a hospice team, two expensive walkers and a wheel chair, and doctors just an easy phone call away – and how much Alexander is still denied due to our society's collective failure to care for the animals who have so-long been our slaves.

Prof. Timothy Pachriat asked us recently, at UC Berkeley, to imagine a world where we move beyond a politics of sight to a politics of relation. To move beyond what some have called “the pornography of pain” – the endless stream of brutal and violent footage that is bombarded upon us by conventional animal rights advocacy. We need to see animals, not as vessels of horrifying violence, or even as recipients of rescue and aid, but as persons with whom we can relate. As friends whose stories can move us to tears, and as fellow citizens of Earth who have the same claim to the bounty of this universe as you or I.

Each of the stories above represents an evolution – from torment (Jane), to triage (Alexander), to true sanctuary (my mother).  We can imagine a world where meat is on the decline, where meat is on the defense, and perhaps even a world where meat is banned. But can we imagine a world where the non-human persons of this earth are truly given what they deserve? Where their personality and personhood is given the same respect as a human being’s? Where they are taken to public hospitals when they are hurt, consoled by strangers when they are sick, and helped up when they cannot stand? 

I believe that we can, and that it is when we start imagining a different sort of world -- a world where every animal is truly equal -- that that world can become a reality.  

*A friend and disability advocate wrote to me indicating the harm caused by normalizing the ability to stand, or suggesting that the lack of such an ability implies weakness or other negative characteristics. DxE believes very strongly that all animals -- disabled or otherwise -- have equal moral value, and we apologize for anything in the blog post that suggests otherwise.