How Now, Downed Cow?

"I grew up on a farm; the family business was a slaughterhouse. I understand that animals are a food product for people, although some people go ballistic over that," says Capt. Jody C. Abner, field supervisor of the Hamilton County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "I ride horses, and some people think I'm cruel. So I'm not an activist; it's not like I'm coming in from outside. I've been on the other side and I know what can and can't be done; I know what's cruel and not cruel. And I can't imagine letting an animal suffer like that.""That" was the 1200-pound Jersey cow found abandoned last January in an alley near the Tri-State Meat Packing plant on Baymiller St. in Cincinnati's West End. The cow, known as a "downer" (an animal that ca nnot walk on its own), had her back legs chained together and was lying in six inches of slush when it was discovered."She couldn't lift her head up out of the water; I had to move it for her," says Abner. In fact, he says, the cow was suffering so severely that although the normal procedure would be to call in a veterinarian to look at her (and euthanize her if deemed necessary), Abner used the pistol he carries with him and dispatched her on the spot.The bovine was discovered inadvertently by INS agents who had raided a nearby factory and chased suspected undocumented aliens through the alley, in the process tripping over the cow."Otherwise," says Abner, "we never would have known about it."And, say animal rights activists, there are many more cases of "downed" animals being surreptitiously delivered to slaughterhouses, where they are illegally butchered and their meat sold for human consumption. According to Tom Meinhardt of the Animal Rights Movement the illicit traffic in downed animals is an organized mini-industry."The farmers don't want to spend the time or money to humanely euthanize and bury the animal," he says. "So they hire 'bunchers,' who are truckers who make the rounds of farms picking up downed animals, which they then sell to the slaughterhouses, who sell the meat to people. So everybody makes money."Or used to. In June Cincinnati became the first city in the nation to outlaw the delivery of downed animals to slaughterhouses. As Section 701-99-A-1 of the new ordinance reads, "Whereas it is practically impossible to humanely transport downed animals; and whereas downed animals may pose a threat to human health ... no person shall transport or deliver any downed animal within the city of Cincinnati." The exception to this prohibition is to all for bringing the animal to a veterinarian for treatment. Although Cincinnati was once a major center of the meat-packing industry (hence the nickname "Porkopolis"), currently there is only one slaughterhouse, Tri-State Meat Packing, operating within city limits. The ordinance, therefore, was fairly obviously aimed at them. The company, however, vehemently denies trafficking in sick animals."That poor thing [the above-mentioned Jersey) should have been thrown over a ravine or buried," says Tri-State manager Jerry Shell. "But the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] won't let them do that; you have to have somebody pick it up. The rendering plants [facilities where dead animals are processed for byproducts such as gelatin, bonemeal, leather, dog food, etc., but not for meat to be eaten by humans] will do it, but they charge $100. So to save themselves some money the farmer will dump the cow here. We have no control over that."To further illustrate his point, Shell offers the following analogy: "What if you are home sleeping and somebody kills a dog and leaves it on your lawn? There's nothing you can do about it."Shell insists Tri-State Meat Packing has no communication with, much less control over, the folks who drop half-dead cattle outside their door."We absolutely deny that we have anything to do with the people who leave these animals here. We are open from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. and during all that time there is a USDA inspector, a veterinarian, on our premises. If an animal is sick, it's condemned and sent to a rendering plant. Just last week we had 15 or 16 cattle condemned. So it's absolutely untrue that we get meat from sick animals."Downed on the farm Nevertheless, the Animal Rights Community and Farm Sanctuary, a nonprofit organization based in Watkins Glen, NY, charge that nationwide there exists a vast underground network of bunchers who, in collusion with slaughterhouses, traffic in downed animals."It doesn't take much," says Abner. "Anybody with a good-size pickup truck and a little horse trailer can be a buncher."Which was apparently the case with the Lexington, KY man who, back in 1991, first drew Abner's attention to the problem. Tipped off by a phone call, the SPCA found two downed Black Angus cows in an alley next to 1221 Baymiller St. The animals were injured, cabled together by their rear legs, lying on top of each other and unable to stand on their own. According to the informer, the cows had been dropped off at 7 p.m.; at 9:45 p.m. the same person returned to the alley with two more cows. One died before the SPCA's vet could arrive; the others were destroyed on the scene."We don't do a necropsy on these animals that we find; we have no idea what might be wrong with them," says Abner. One cow, again left in the 2000 block of Baymiller St., this time in 1995, had sores on her hip, was leaking milk and had pus draining from her rear -- a sick dairy cow who had outlived her usefulness.And that, say activists, is the fate shared by many old dairy animals, who make up the bulk of downed animals delivered to meat plants."There's no reason they have to let them get this sick," says Abner. "It only costs 25 cents for a bullet. When I was growing up, that's the way we would have done it."Instead, say activists, farmers squeeze every possible nickel they can out of the animal. Resulting, say the activists, in needless suffering as the cows are often forced to live past their prime and/or suffer from injuries like broken legs. In addition, downed animals are generally moved by dragging and are often dropped out of trucks or off loading docks, causing further suffering to these 1200-pound animals.The use of downed cattle, activists charge, also poses a serious hazard to human health. In fact, they say, even if meat from downed cows is not sold directly to people, the fact that the animals are used in any products at all is dangerousD -- just look, they say, at "mad cow disease" (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE) in Britain, in which human illness developed from eating meat from cows that had been fed infected sheep byproducts. Cows, being natural vegetarians, should probably not be eating meat in the first place; certainly the byproducts from diseased cows should not be fed to humans.However, downed cattle that are sent to rendering plants -- again with no necropsy -- are used for a variety of products, such as rennet, gelatin, bone meal and animal feed, that eventually make their way into human food. While the FDA, in response to the mad cow scare, has banned the feeding of certain rendered products to ruminant animals (like cows, sheep and goats), there are exceptions, like "blood and blood products." In addition, rendered cattle products are used in poultry feed, and poultry manure is then used in cattle feed. Therefore, says Farm Sanctuary, a cycle is set up in which ruminant animals are in fact fed toruminant animals, although the protein is first "recycled" through chickens.Alzheimer's disease, or BSE? Since studies have shown that spongiform disease can be transmitted among different species (minks received the disease from cattle and then transmitted it back to other cattle), it's possible that serious human illness can result from the disseminated byproducts of even one contaminated cow. In the United States, cows infected with BSE show different symptoms than their British counterparts -- becoming "downed" r ather than "mad." Therefore, say activists, it's entirely possible that anim als felled by BSE are being introduced into the American human food supply. They also point to the fears of some health officials that some people diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease are in fact exhibiting symptoms of diseases caused by ingesting BSE.The U.S. Food and Drug Agency asserts that there has been an "extensive surveillance effort" to prevent BSE in the United States, but Farm Sanctuary disputes that claim."Only an extremely small number of animals have been tested for BSE," says executive director Gene Bauston. "The effectiveness of this surveillance effort is also questionable because it has focused on symptoms typical of mad cow disease in Britain. It is possible that a U.S. variant of BSE may cause other symptoms. Specifically, U.S.cattle may not display jittery ("mad cow") behavior like British cattle, and they may not have the same spongelike brain lesions. We believe the U.S. surveillance program needs to be expanded to, among other things, include detailed post-mortem studies of 'suspect' cattle who are slaughtered for human consumption."And while those in the meat industry say it's impossible for sick cows to pass through their inspectors, animal rights activists note that the USDA (Dept. of Agriculture) really doesn't have enough inspectors to go around. Moreover, while the on-site inspectors ostensibly work for the feds, they are paid by the slaughterhouses, and thus have little incentive to reign in the source of their income, activists charge.Tri-State's Jerry Shell, however, denies that the method of payment to inspectors results in any corruption: "Our vet is on the premises at all times. He comes in at 6 a.m. and first checks all the equipment. Then he checks the livestock every step of the way from when it comes off the truck until the meat is in the cooler. Only then does he go home."According to Shell, since Tri-State does not accept or slaughter diseased cows, and the company does not seek out the "downed" cows occasionally left outside its door [there have been only three cases documented by the SPCA since 1991], the new municipal ordinance will have no impact on either farmers who drop off their animals or the human meat supply. However, Shell says, it might prevent the company from profiting from animals that were downed in transport."You might have 40 cows in a truck, and the driver slams on his brakes or whatever, and one or two will fall and the others will walk all over them, " he says. "You can have a fancy cow [i.e., one that can be sold at market value] that broke its leg, but is otherwise healthy. Currently, we take them off the truck and have the vet look at them; the vet is not allowed to inspect animals on the truck. If the animal's not okay, it's condemned and sent to a rendering plant. If it is okay, you might lose the hindquarters, but the forequarters will be okay and we slaughter it. Now [since passage of the new ordinance] we don't know what will happen. We're waiting to see."The SPCA's Abner, though, says that the new ordinance, which was sponsored by Cincinnati Mayor Roxanne Qualls and passed unanimously by the City Council, will make a few farmers think twice.Before, he says, there wasn't much he could do to prevent this sort of cruelty."Even if I had filed warrants," he says, "it's a second degree-misdemeanor. They just got a slap on the wrist. Which I didn't mind, because even a slap on the wrist will make you think twice about doing something again. It's hard to imagine the kind of person who would leave an animal in that situation. At least now we're trying to fix it so that nobody does it."

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