It's usually pretty quiet at Carbon Canyon Christian School, located in the rural outskirts of Brea. Then, last week, they killed a cow.
On May 17, Tony Barnes' agriculture class was all set to watch a 1,000-pound steer named T-Bone get slaughtered as part of a lesson plan. Barnes, a former farmer, didn't think this would raise any eyebrows.
"I warned the kids," says Barnes, who's also the school's vice principal. "It's not the best thing in the world. All the parents had to sign a permission slip. The kids gain life experience. They learn where food comes from, where what we get on our table comes from."
Barnes explains that the cow is killed and sold to a butcher, who will hang it for 10 days and then sell it as food.
For Elizabeth Bonilla, an 18-year-old student at nearby Brea-Olinda High School, the matter was anything but clear-cut.
"They shouldn't be shooting it in the head," she says. "Not in schools in front of kids. This is wrong. This cow was raised in a nice stable. It's going to have an ambivalent death now. I think the value of life is depleting. It's painful. I'm kind of an idealist."
She turned that idealism into a protest that began a bit before 9 a.m. on the execution day. Bonilla, her sister Olivia, and seven other Brea-Olinda students arrived at Carbon Canyon Christian School sporting homemade protest signs with such slogans as: "OUR KIDS SEE ENOUGH VIOLENCE!" "DO YOU WANT YOUR KIDS TO BE TRAUMATIZED?" and "COWS HAVE FEELINGS, TOO!" By 9:30 a.m., there were nearly 20 protesters. By the time the next morning's local funny papers hit the streets, the students had been branded "animal-rights activists."
"I have no problems with you kids protesting," Barnes told them. "It's your right as Americans. I'm not the enemy."
"If you kill that cow, you are the enemy," one girl shouted back. It's about this time that Barnes recognized Olivia (Brea is a pretty tight-knit town), whose father owns a meat company.
Olivia explained to Barnes, "It's not like he kills it in front of kids."
"Actually," said Bonilla, "that's wrong, too."
It was soon evident that this wasn't playing out the way Bonilla had envisioned it. The kids discussed more active measures. They attempted to run through the field with signs and place new locks on T-Bone's pen only to be shooed off by school employees. They tried to shut the metal gate, but there was no lock to keep it closed.
When the butcher's truck arrived, Bonilla and six other girls stepped in front of it, chanting, "Inhumane and insane!"
"Do you know little kids are watching this?" shouted Bonilla.
The butcher, annoyed, yelled back, "What's scary is these guys. They can play their video games and bring their guns to school. . . . "
"You're the one bringing guns to school!" shouted an outraged girl. The truck then rolled forward in an attempt to scare them, but, impressively, the girls didn't budge. The standoff lasted about a half-hour until police showed up and persuaded the girls to let the truck pass. As it did, some parents arrived to watch the slaughter with their kids.
"Don't do this to your kids," someone yelled. "You'll traumatize them! You'll give them nightmares!"
The truck rolled in and drove to the back, where it hit a dirt trail that wound into Carbon Canyon, coming ultimately to a small yard where horses, chickens and the soon-to-be-late cow were held. About 50 kids gathered around, ranging in age from first grade to high school seniors. The little ones sat up front so they could see better. A few lost their nerve, and Barnes granted them permission to retreat.
One school employee stepped into the pen and lassoed the cow. With Barnes' help, he tied the cow's mouth closed and dragged the animal out of the pen. The butcher presented his captive-bolt gun, told a story about a kid who accidentally killed another kid with one just like it and admonished them to "never point a gun at anyone else."
The butcher then held the gun to the cow's forehead and pulled the trigger. There was a pop like a champagne cork, and the cow's legs buckled inward. It fell gracelessly to the ground, like a building imploding, before landing with a thud.
Many children averted their eyes. Many more were enthralled. One girl began to cry.
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The cow had been dead for more than three minutes, but it had not stopped convulsing, its legs kicking aimlessly into the air, its head bashing repeatedly into the ground. The butcher then pulled out a knife and slit the animal's throat. Blood gushed out and dried on the dirt like paint. One little girl, previously the picture of bravery, left. Others wept, but most remained fascinated.
The protesters were out of sight during the slaughter. Some people said they went up the street; others thought they went back to Brea-Olinda High School.
The butcher continued his incision, explaining as he did the need to bleed the cow in order to preserve the taste of the meat. By now, it was almost as if the cow had never been a living thing. Its skull was removed, its eyes staring at nothing.
Amid intense attention from the media, the public and animal-rights groups, Brea city officials launched a probe into whether Carbon Canyon Christian School is properly zoned for steer snuffing.