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The Great LA Cattle Escape and California Drought

The great cow escape took place one evening in late June. Forty cattle took a break from the streets of Pico Rivera in a sprint for their lives.

The fugitives belonged to Manning Beef, the last of its kind meat packer in LA The company had placed them in a holding pen before slaughter, a daily hassle-free task performed by workers for over 70 years. But this herd has pushed open a door.

What followed wasn’t exactly a hunt for “Fast & Furious” or, more appropriate given the stakes (or is it steaks?), “To Live and Die in LA”

But there was a real-life police chase-like drama in Los Angeles, filmed by television helicopters for a captivated audience where vegans and meat lovers were almost certainly united in support of the pursued.

Black and brown Angus cattle with fast hooves trampled on residential streets. They knocked over people trying to surround them before finally assembling in a Friendship Avenue cul-de-sac, flooded with flashing lights from police cars and helicopter searchlights.

When the escapees were finally rounded up, people called the town hall of Pico Rivera and Manning Beef, begging for clemency – to no avail. The company slaughtered the animals, and a Manning Beef executive said bluntly, “The animals have been slaughtered. Note that they were bred for the public to consume.

And that would have been it, except it turned out that two cows were still on the loose.

And so it’s here that the big old nerd in me takes a brief detour through the fate of cattle to transport you to mid-19th century Los Angeles to explain what cows tell us about a monster that will soon be chasing us all.

Drought.

Once upon a time, about 160 years ago, Southern California was a collection of cattle empires, a remnant of Spanish and Mexican ranches. Long-horned steers roamed from Santa Barbara to what is now Camp Pendleton, marked with the symbols of men whose last names remain in our streets, towns and schools: Yorba. Sepulveda. Pico. Temple. Verdugo.

We’re so far from that time that it’s almost as if the sight of an honest stampede through the suburbs has tapped into the collective subconscious of Southern California and brought back warm memories that few of us knew. to have.

But there’s a reason the Southern California era of cattle is rarely remembered, let alone discussed. It ended as an actual biblical apocalypse, with floods, epidemics, locusts, and the worst drought in modern California history.

In 1860, the US census counted more than 1.2 million cattle in California, including 70,000 in Los Angeles County alone. Local society depended on industry – meat and hides for trade, beef for food, rodeos for recreation. Although Californian families in the upstate lost their land to the 49ers squatting and lawsuits following the US-Mexican War, those in southern California continued as if the Yankees did not. never won.

Then came the flood.

Historic precipitation across California in early 1862 turned the Central Valley into an inland sea and Los Angeles County into a mud pit. Thousands of cattle perished, but the subsequent growth of the spring grass convinced the Californios to double their pastoral way of life. Rivers and streams flowed, and everything was in order again for a while.

But no other rain fell this season. Or in summer. Or the fall.

The once fat cows began to look “like skeletons and seem[ed] unable to get away from springs and streams, ”according to the Los Angeles Star. They tried to eat anything with a hint of moisture, like vines and sacks that once contained rice, even.

The bad times were just beginning.

The locusts have arrived to devour the few crops that have sprouted from the ground; smallpox has killed so many people, especially Native Americans and working class Mexicans, that church bells have stopped ringing. The drought became so severe that when it started to rain in early February 1864, the Star celebrated the news with the headline: “Rain! Rain!! Rain !!! ”Its rival, the Semi-Weekly Southern News, proclaimed:“ Finally, through the hopes and fears, smiles and tears, we have proof, in the form of a heavenly and glorious rain, that God has not forgotten us.

But a heat wave and Santa Ana winds quickly dried up all that moisture, and “the earth turned back to iron and the sky to brass,” wrote historian Robert Glass Cleland decades later.

“Last year’s drought caused extraordinary hardship for the country,” Los Angeles Mayor Damien Marchessault said in his 1864 state-of-the-city address. Native Americans who lived near the Colorado River have said he was at the lowest level they can remember. Cattle began to die in droves. Some ranchers have driven their herds from the cliffs of San Pedro for an earlier death.

One traveler described the way back to Los Angeles as “a steady mass of dead cattle.”

The drought finally ended in early 1865. Although there are no official weather records for those years, an 1890 article from the Historical Society of Southern California claimed that precipitation for the 1862-63 season “did not exceed four inches” and the following year “was even less.

By comparison, the most recent rainy year in Los Angeles ended last month with 5.82 inches of precipitation.

Calamity changed Southern California forever. About 70% of the cattle in Southern California died, and so many of their skulls dotted the landscape for years afterward that one observer described it as a “real Golgotha.”

Almost all of the local California ranchers have lost their land to bankruptcy, fire sales, or son-in-law who married Mexican women primarily for their inheritance. But instead of learning the lesson of the Great Drought – living within your means in an area more often dry than not – Southern California’s new ruling class created another world that lived against its surroundings, not with him.

We now seem to be at the end of this era, as the water recedes across the West, and like the Californios of old, we don’t have a ready-made answer for what happens next.

Which brings me back to the two escaped cows that were spared by the slaughterhouse.

One of them was found wandering in Whittier Narrows Park in South El Monte two days after his escape. The second was found a week later trotting along Highway 60 towards La Puente. Grammy-winning songwriter Diane Warren and others donated money and time so the two spared a trip to the slaughterhouse. Valley.

Jess Due, the national nonprofit care director, told me the public is already clamoring to meet the couple, now named June B. Free and Susan. They are currently in quarantine, a standard procedure for any new animal to ensure they are disease free, and then will join the 140 other rescued animals from Farm Sanctuary – among them, nine rescued steers and cows – for visitors to coo and photograph.

I was able to score a private audience with June B. Free and Susan last week.

To get there, I zipped the 14 Freeway to Farm Sanctuary on a Friday morning. Hills with vegetation the color of Manila envelopes gave way to new track housing advertised with a large sign that shouted “Reimagining the Suburban Experience”.

Due greeted me when I arrived. The 39-year-old knew about the drought of 1863 and scoffed at the idea that chasing cattle off the cliffs was a “humane” way to end his life.

“As a species, if we keep ignoring what Mother Earth is telling us about our practices, she will do it for us. And it won’t be the humans who will win, ”Due said as we passed a chicken coop and a chicken coop. All of the Farm Sanctuary trucks had trailers hitched up, in case of fire – just another thing that drought increases the chances of forced an evacuation.

After a short hike, we finally reached June B. Free and Susan. The two laid out in the morning sun in a private earthen enclosure surrounded by junipers. There was a huge tub filled with water near the door, along with bins of specialty food to fatten them up.

It was a picturesque scene until I take a closer look.

Their ribs were visible, as were the scars from the zaps of the electric cattle prods. Each had torn ears and burns on their backs. Susan has a rear leg injury; June B. Free does not allow people to approach her within 10 feet before attempting to charge them. Both of their breasts were swollen, a sign that both had recently given birth.

June B. Free stood up immediately when she saw Due and me. She took a defensive stance and stood in front of Susan.

“They went through a horror movie,” Due said, before yelling at them, “I love you! You’re a little badass, you know?

They were. They were alive. They had swindled a doom by figuring out how to escape their fate.

Now let’s see if we can use our so-called big brains of Homo sapien to fight the inexorable drought rush.





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