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An Efficient Slaughter: How the Social Intelligence of Cows Helped to Make American Beef Cheap

American Society for Environmental History, Chicago

The massive increase in the human consumption of animal flesh in the United States and other nations during the second half of the nineteenth century depended heavily upon the ability of highly social and intelligent animals to accept and adapt to a brutally efficient system of mechanized growth and slaughter. Historians have long recognized that the industrialization of the livestock industry created a powerful system for extracting energy from plants and other foods and concentrating it in the flesh of livestock. However, we have given far less attention to the many ways in which this depended heavily on the intelligent ability of the animals themselves to cooperate with human beings and their deeply disorienting industrial systems for animal growth, transport, and slaughter. This paper explores the neglected role of one ungulate species in particular, Bos taurus, the domesticated cow. Historians have explained how cattle bioconcentrated the sparse plant energy of the western range and carried the resulting caloric energy to cattle towns with their own bodies for further transport via trains to eastern slaughterhouses. However, we’ve said far less about the essential role played in all this by these extraordinary animals. Had Longhorns, for example, simple refused to cooperate with their “cowboy” handlers during “round ups” or “cattle drives,” the process of growing and extracting flesh for human consumption would have been vastly less efficient, perhaps even impossible. The same might also be said of the ability of other breeds to adapt to railroad “cattle cars” for transport to slaughter facilities that were themselves increasingly designed to manipulate their social natures. In this paper I propose to explore some of the many ways in which humans depended upon and manipulated the intelligence and adaptability of another social mammal in order to most efficiently kill it.