Gary Kaskel is a writer and filmmaker who has also served as an executive at United Action for Animals and The Humane Society
of the United States. His award-winning 2006 documentary, Animal People, chronicles the history of the humane movement in America. He grew up in Manhattan and now resides in Los Angeles.
An excerpt from Chapter 9…
The Davis, Atwood & Crane slaughterhouse on West Thirty-ninth Street is the target of the ASPCA’s next raid. The place is a hotbed of cruelty for the hundreds of cattle and hogs it processes daily. With more than thirty butchers and two dozen assistants, it is one of the larger facilities operating in Manhattan. It comprises an entire city block and is located just one block from the Hudson River, where the loaded rail cars terminating in New Jersey meet the ferries that transport their livestock across the river to Manhattan.
The managing partner is Elmer Davis, an Oklahoma-born cowboy turned entrepreneur who moved to New York City with his first load of cattle a dozen years ago to open his own stockyard. He soon after partnered with a couple of butchers who borrowed money from their families to build a full-service stockyard and slaughterhouse containing almost a thousand head, and their successful operation thrives on their quick turnaround of animals. That efficiency means creature comfort is the last consideration while the livestock is in their custody. Davis’s tobacco-chewing swagger creates fear among his employees, who have seen his temper flare regularly. When the operation slows down for any reason, Davis becomes a madman, cursing and throwing whatever animal parts have fallen on the ground at the employees responsible for the snag.
Henry arrives with his men, all twelve of them, but not with the usual police paddy wagon that accompanies them on larger raids. Today he is planning to issue citations and make a record of the facility’s conditions. He is dressed in his usual long coat and stovepipe hat, sports his gold badge on his lapel and holds a handful of folded paper citations that have already been filled out that he is ready to issue. The posse spreads out and enters the yards to check for adequate water and feed. As they walk through, they find little of either. Henry carefully checks the eyes of each cattle he passes, finding that many are bloodshot, yellow or oozing puss. He can only shake his head with disgust and move on after a gentle pat or stroke for the doomed beast. As the group makes its way across the yard toward the plant, they come together to wind up at the opening where the cattle are led inside the building, a tall wooden structure with an open roof in the middle and various rooms where workers do their chopping and cutting. They are met by two youths wearing cowboy hats who are corralling the cattle with long prods and ushering them one by one into the killing hall.
“Who the fuck are you?” one of the boys yells out to Agent Jimmy Knickemyer, who turns to his boss just emerging from the rear. Henry steps in front of the group and replies to the boy, “We are the law, my friend. Step aside. You are about to be inspected.”
The boy grabs the whistle around his neck and begins frantically blowing it. This immediately gets the attention of the workers inside. As Bergh and his men enter the facility, the workers begin whooping, booing and cat-calling, which brings out the owners with little delay. Elmer Davis looks around from his perch on a second floor and sees Bergh’s men spreading out to surround the premises. He is incensed. He hightails it down the rickety wooden staircase, where he rushes to the first one of Bergh’s men in uniform that he sees and pulls him by the arm and swings him around before the agent can enter a cutting room. The man shoves Davis aside and barges toward the room with unstoppable determination while the workers begin picking up animal parts strewn about on the floor and throwing the bloody organs, hooves and other discarded anatomy at Henry Bergh and his men in an angry onslaught.
Henry gets hit with several of the organic missiles as he tries to dodge the flying debris and move toward Davis across what has become an angry mob attacking and wrestling with his men. “Mr. Davis!” Henry calls out to the irate owner. “Call off your men or you will all be taken into custody.”
As Henry approaches him, he is knocked down from behind with the hanging carcass of a cow that has been pushed in his direction by an angry butcher. He shakes himself off and gets up. He is now dirty, covered with animal blood and without his hat, which has gotten trampled by a rush of workers wrestling with Henry’s men. Davis grabs a long, heavy blade with a wooden handle from a cutting table and swings it in the air.
Henry winces and reaches into his coat and pulls out a revolver. “I’ll see you in Hell before you put yourself above the law.” He raises the pistol and fires one shot into the air. The bullet hits a glass window, which shatters making a loud crashing noise as the shards of glass fall on the floor behind them.
The shock of the gunshot and falling glass stops the brawl that is ensuing. Henry calls out to Davis. “Mr. Davis, this facility is in violation of the state anticruelty law, and I am ordering it closed pending a hearing tomorrow at noon.” He hands Davis a summons. “You men can wash up and go home.”
“How am I to pay my landlord and feed my family if you close us down?” one angry worker calls out.
“Ask Mr. Davis and his partners to show up for his hearing on time. And pray that God forgives you,” Henry adds contemptuously.
Another worker chimes in, “We don’t need God’s forgiveness. The Bible says we have dominion over the fish in the sea and over every creeping thing. That’s in the book of Genesis!”
Henry turns to the man and calmly reaches into his pocket and takes out a paper. He unfolds it and reads. “The Bible also says, ‘He that killeth an ox is as if he slew a man; he that sacrificeth a lamb, as if he cut off a dog’s neck. Yea, they have chosen their own ways, and their soul delighteth in their abominations.’ The book of Isaiah.” He folds the paper, puts it back into his pocket then turns and directs his men to gather evidence for the hearing. The confrontation is over as the workers grumble and disperse, and Davis puts the blade back on the carving table in defeat.
Henry Bergh usually returns home around six P.M. Tonight he arrives home before five P.M. to clean up the bloody mess that he is wearing from today’s adventure on the West Side, as he’s in no condition to conduct Society business looking like this. He tries to enter the house quietly and slip up to his bath unnoticed. As he reaches the top of the stairs, Matilda is there and scans his appearance with wide eyes. A small trickle of dried blood runs down one cheek, his hair is disheveled, one hand is wrapped with a handkerchief to cover an abrasion when he fell.
“Oh my God, Henry, what happened to you?”
“It’s nothing, dear, just a minor scuffle at the stockyards.”
As he walks to the bedroom, she follows him. “Minor scuffle? Look at you. Like a common ruffian with blood and soiled clothes. And your hand?”
“Just a scrape. Nothing serious,” trying to minimize her alarm. He removes his soiled, blood-stained overcoat revealing a blood-stained shirt collar and heads for the bath.
“I warned you about confronting these men. You said your men would protect you. What happened?”
“My men acted nobly. We were simply outnumbered, that’s all. Next time we’ll bring police with us with a warrant.”
“Next time! No! There cannot be a next time! This is insanity. Look at you!” she protests loudly.
Henry keeps his composure. “I am the least of the injured. These abattoirs are houses of horrors. I mean, how God-fearing humans can inflict such torture.”
“Henry! I am also being tortured. You can’t do this again. I'm begging you.”
Her raised voice is something he is not used to. He begins washing up, trying to calm her with his composure. “Matilda, this is not just going away. Don’t you see what they’re doing when they disrespect me?”
“Disrespect you? This is about you?”
He now turns and elevates his voice more sternly. “No, this is about the law. I haven’t gotten this far to have these men ignore me.”
“Ignore you? One of them may kill you!”
“They won’t kill me.”
“How do you know that? It takes only one bullet, one knife, one beating. You’re not a young man, Henry!”
“I cannot abandon this cause for selfish reasons, Matilda.”
She follows his movements around the bathroom as he washes and dries his hands on a towel. “Even if it means your life?”
“I don’t fear for my life,” he says stoically.
“Well, I do! And I’m your wife. This cause is bigger than you, Henry. One man can’t go up against an evil world with his eyes shut.”
“Evil men need nothing more to succeed than to have good men look on and do nothing.”
“So you will wear angel wings on Earth until you are wearing them in heaven?”
“Stop it, Henry. How will you help the cause by being dead and buried? And what about me? Making me a widow is the least of your worries?”
“Not at all.”
“It isn’t worth it!” she blurts out. He is taken aback.
“Don’t say that. It is worth it. But where do I draw the line? Which animals deserve protection and which do not? The work horses get my loyalty but the pigs and cattle don’t? Tell me where to stop. Look into the eyes of those pitiful innocents hanging upside down with broken limbs about to be slaughtered for someone’s next meal and tell them, ‘Well, I’d help you there, but my wife says I’m not allowed to put your welfare ahead of mine.’ Why don’t people slaughter their own dinners? Because they lack the courage to do the evil deed themselves. To play God with another living, breathing being takes fortitude. Or just plain indifference. Or simply evil avarice.”
Matilda starts to cry. Henry lowers his voice.
“If I make one animal less worthy than another, then I destroy everything I have worked for. You just said this cause is bigger than me. And you are exactly right. What we’ve started is spreading. We both know that there are other SPCAs being formed in other jurisdictions. Other laws being passed. The compassionate are waking up and saying, ‘We won’t look the other way any longer.’ If confrontation is dangerous, we cannot give our enemies the advantage of showing our anxiety. Let the abusers know that in our society the man with the loudest voice or the fattest wallet or biggest stick is not always the one who prevails.”
He takes Matilda in his arms. “You’ve always trusted me in the past. I promise to not make you a widow if you promise to not stop believing in me.”
He lovingly gazes into her teary eyes. She raises her hand and touches him on the cheek.
© 2013 by Gary Kaskel, all rights reserved