Though I am not, nor have I ever been, a cattle farmer, I find myself in possession of an orange plastic ear tag, the kind used to identify cows. It looks like what would result if the DOT made name-tags for Christmas presents. It appeared one day masking-taped to the glass door of my studio, an unexplained artifact left for me by puzzling forces. Actually, I had a pretty good guess as to who would affix such an object to my door, and I was right. Because my artwork often deals with animals, the sight of an orange cattle tag made her think of me, thus the tag made its way from a ditch in Madison, Wisconsin, where she found it, to the middle of Illinois—from a field to an art studio, from a cow to me.
Fistula: an abnormal connection or passageway between two organs that normally do not connect. It is a hole that isn’t supposed to be there.
In the 1980’s and early 90’s, an outbreak of mad-cow disease spread through the cattle population of the U.K. It was then that people began to pay more attention to ear tags, which had been in use for nearly a century as a way to track tuberculosis testing. Now, every time the news camera pans across a row of cows, their heavy heads plunging into troughs of grain, forages, and bone meal, the numbers and the tags reassure everyone that all the cows are accounted for and all the trouble can be traced.
According to one source, “between 460,000 and 482,000 infected cows had entered the human food chain before controls were introduced in 1989.”
Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as mad-cow disease: an incurable, fatal disease that causes spongy degeneration in the brain. It is caused by the practice of feeding cows, who are herbivores, the remains of other cows.
It is a process of connecting the food chain back on itself, making a loop, forming a hole.
When these cows enter the human food chain, the disease changes its name, becoming known as new variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease. It still fatal, still incurable, still fills the brain with holes.
My ear tag is a flexible but sturdy plastic, with a black number 19 pressed into the surface. The number is textured like sand, the same font as a high school letter jacket. On the back is a handwritten #10, scrawled in Sharpie marker.
It is burnished and smooth with a patina of dull brown that has so thoroughly stained the plastic no amount of rubbing will get it off. You can tell that it has been close to a cow.
I want to know who #19 is, and why she is no longer attached to her number. I imagine a Wisconsin farmer pacing the green hills of dairy country, looking for her. I joke with my friend that #19 is her number on the basketball team, and #10 is her number in volleyball.
Fistulated cow: a cow with an intentional hole in its side for scientific research, typically to observe digestion. It is a window into what cows eat. This process has been done for over 150 years, but apparently there is still more to learn about the digestion of cows.
When I was 10, I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian. So whenever an opportunity to get a tour of the vet college came up, I took it. At the annual vet school open house, one of the very best attractions was an impossibly huge bull named Bud. Bud stood in an echoey cement hallway under a light-up beer sign, the coincidence of his name and the beer company providing a fitting marquee. Aside from being roughly the size of a U-Haul (at least, that’s how I remember him), Bud was notorious for his gentle demeanor and his willingness to let curious strangers put a gloved arm into his stomach through a white plastic fistula in his side. He truly did seem entirely nonplussed by the whole thing (as cows generally are) and the only really distressing thing to me was the flatulent smell of digesting grass and the dripping green liquid, like chewing tobacco, running down his jet-black fur. I’m certain that making a window into what we eat would be much more unsavory.
In the 1950’s, the government of Papua New Guinea outlawed a long-standing practice of ritual cannibalism, in which people ate the flesh of their deceased as a sign of respect and mourning. Even so, some 30 years later, cases of Kuru, the fatal spongiform, degenerative brain disease that was the impetus for the legislation, continued to surface. Some attribute this to the long incubation period of the disease. Others suspect that the cannibalism continues in spite of the law.
In many cultures, cannibalism is a taboo, prohibited by law and abhorrent by common sensibilities. To these cultures, it is unwholesome—a connection that should not be made, a pathway that should not be followed. It is tempting to see nature as taking a moralistic stand, punishing us with this spongy plague for going against what seems so obviously forbidden.
Meat produced in the U.S. is stamped with a circle of blue ink and the words “USDA: Inspected for Wholesomeness.”
According to a controversial study published in Science in 2003, early humans have genetic markers that suggest a resistance to brain diseases transmitted by eating human flesh. The researchers believe this to indicate the prevalence of cannibalism amongst our ancestors.
DuFlex Extra Large Panel tag
(2-piece set with Black Infecta-Guard Stud) at 3.0 x 4.6" high. It is sold in 8 different bright and inorganic colors, and you can get hundreds of them for next to nothing.
In the office of Brandy, the Agriculture Education specialist at the university, we have several cow ear tags spread out on the table in front of us. Mine is the dirtiest. Hers are bright yellow, and one says “Trixie” on it. I am disappointed because she cannot tell me who #19 is, or under what circumstances might he or she been #10. In fact, the #10 might be her mother’s number, or her father’s, or the generation of calves she came from. Brandy points to her tags, which she keeps, for some unknown reason, in the metal drawer of her desk. Her brother still farms dairy cows, she says, and she points to the birthdates of his cows written across the top. It could just as easily be the dates of inoculation, or insemination, or the birthday of her first calf.
The information recorded on the tags turns out to be as esoteric as the curiosity cabinets of the past, organized by the fancy of the owner, incomprehensible to anyone else.
Without talking to the producer, I cannot trace #19’s fate, to find out why the tag is no longer in her ear. I can assume that it fell out while she was still alive, though, because the tags still attached to cattle when they go to slaughter are thrown out in the garbage with the ears that wore them.
Good record-keeping is a virtue. It’s important to cover your tracks.
I pin the ear tag in a frame, like a butterfly or a relic in a cabinet of curiosities. It’s untraceable.