Inhumane Treatment of Livestock in James Agee’s “A Mother’s Tale” Essay

In “A Mother’s Tale” by James Agee, a calf poses questions to his mother. “What is it? What are they doing? Where are they going? ” (1) The mother can only answer her calf’s questions with a legend passed down about ‘The One Who Came Back’. At the time of this publication, there was a public outcry for the humane treatment of livestock meant for slaughter. President Dwight D. Eisenhower stated, “If I went by mail, I’d think no one was interested in anything but humane slaughter”. The personification James Agee employs is extremely effective in making the reader sympathetic to the struggles of the cattle; thus, making his message clear.

The mother explains to her calf about the conditions that are endured on the trains used for transport. “And nobody could lie down, they slid the door shut with a startling rattle and a bang, and then there was a sudden jerk, so strong they might have fallen except that they were packed so closely together”(5). The overcrowding of railcars was a common practice. The American Humane Association reported in 1952 that approximately 38% of cattle were seriously injured or died during transport. ( American Humane Association)

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Agee writes, “But they never let them out. And never gave them food or water” (6). The Twenty-Eight Hour Law states that livestock may not be confined “for more than 28 consecutive hours without unloading the animals for feeding, water, and rest” (49 USC 80502). The time frame of the ride is described as “it turned from night to day to night and back again several times over” (6). Cattle were typically shipped from the West to the East. The cattle in Agee’s story are clearly being transported from one coast to another in violation of The Twenty-Eight Hour Law.

When the cattle arrive at their destination, there is a false sense of security. Food and water are introduced again, but an ominous feeling plagues the air. “It smelled like old fire, he said, and old blood and fear and darkness and sorrow and most terrible and brutal force and something else, something in it that made him want to run away”. (7) This imagery describes death. This is the slaughterhouse where the cattle have been transported. The cattle are guided towards the dark buildings. A man with blood–splattered pants waits with a hammer. Both arms were raised high above His head and in both hands He held an enormous Hammer”. (10) Cattle were often hit upon the head to be rendered unconscious, though this was usually unsuccessful.

“He was upside down and very slowly swinging and turning, for he was hanging by the tendons of his heels from great frightful hooks”. (10) The cow is now in the beginning stages of the slaughter process. “And then as he became more clearly aware he found that this was exactly what was happening. Knives would sliver and slice along both flanks, between the hide and the living flesh”. 10) Because of the insufficient blow to the head, the cow is now being slaughtered while conscious. Use of the hammer is later “declared to be an inhumane method of slaughter”. (1967 c 31 § 5. ) This was a frequent occurrence in the slaughter industry. Agee’s description of the attempted slaughter is graphic and realistic invoking anger towards the man and sympathy for the cattle.

This is the intended message. “He ran down a glowing floor of blood and down endless corridors which were hung with bleeding carcasses of our kind and with bleeding fragments of carcasses”. 10) Agee further describes the slaughterhouse. “He ran, and away up the railroad toward the West”. (10) The cow heading west further supports the idea of the train ride that took cattle from the West to the East. “All who are put on this range are put onto trains. All who are put onto trains meet The Man With The Hammer. All who stay are kept there to breed others to go onto the range, and so betray themselves and their kind and their children forever. We are brought into this life only to be victims”. (13) This makes cattle seem expendable.

If they aren’t used for slaughter, then they will be bred for slaughter. Seven years after the publication of “A Mother’s Tale,” the Humane Act of 1958 was passed. The Act states that all livestock is to be “rendered insensible to pain by mechanical, electrical, or chemical means before being shackled, hoisted, thrown, cast, or cut”. (Chapter 16. 50 Humane Slaughter of Livestock) James Agee’s story is a protest against inhumane practices. He was a voice among many others that would help change the slaughter industry.

Works Cited

American Humane Association. Treatment of Farm Animals. 2011. <http://americanhumane. org>. Agee, James. “”A Mother’s Tale”. ” You’ve Got to Read This: American Writers Introduce Stories That Held Them in Awe. New York: Harper Collins, 1994. Print. 1-19. Boris, Lynn M. “THE FOOD-BORNE ULTIMATUM: PROPOSING FEDERAL LEGISLATION TO CREATE HUMANE LIVING CONDITIONS FOR ANIMALS RAISED FOR FOOD IN ORDER TO IMPROVE HUMAN HEALTH. .” Journal of Law & Health (2011): Vol. 24 Issue 2, p285-322, 38p, 1 Chart. Chapter 16. 50 Humane Slaughter of Livestock. 2011. <www. wa. gov>.

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