For ten years Marge Oehler has commuted by express bus from Woodhaven, Queens to her secretarial job in the Financial District. Waiting for the bus on Atlantic Ave. at 8:40 on a recent Wednesday morning, she realized something strange was afoot. “I heard cars honking, more than usual. Just leaning on their horns. I turned to look but couldn’t see far”—an overpass blocked her view—“but then all of a sudden I saw this brown blur coming in my direction.” To no one in particular, she asked, “Um, is that a cow?”
Technically, it was a bull. As soon as it passed, she called 911. “There’s a cow running down Atlantic Ave.,” she told the dispatcher. “A cow, in Queens?” she was asked, then put on hold. Two minutes later, the same dispatcher came back. “Yes, yes, we’ve had other reports of the cow,” Marge was told. “We’re sending a car out there immediately.”
She thought of the bull all day long. Later in the day, she called her mother, with whom she lives, but she had no new information into the mystery of the bull. Both Marge and her mother are animal lovers and have always had toy poodles. Marge posts photos on the internet of her poodle dressed as a bride with Marge walking her down a wedding aisle beside another dog dressed as a groom. Their current poodle is named Joy. When they got her 10 years ago, she was not given a proper name for almost a month since Marge’s father was dying of cancer at the time. “My mother heard me laughing for the first time since the cancer came back. It was the dog. The poodle made me laugh. My mother said, ‘We’ll call her Joy, because she’s brought joy back to the house,’” Marge told me.
So it should not be a surprise that Marge was very worried about the bull. She didn’t hear anything until 6 a.m. the next morning as she was drinking her morning coffee. “We can talk about this till the cows come home,” a local TV correspondent quipped to the anchor, “but the point is that ‘Queenie’”—the Bull—“is now home in the animal care and control center.” Marge was greatly relieved: the bull—which she had been thinking about off and on since the encounter—was safe. The broadcast showed footage of Queenie’s apprehension that night—16 hours of anxiety for Marge after she had called 911.
The footage was stark. It disturbed Marge. She saw sirens flashing as Queenie runs for his life ahead of a line of prowling patrol cars. She heard a brief scream from a woman off-screen, and just then the camera-person fumbles for an instant like in Abraham Zapruder’s infamous film. In the next shot, Marge couldn’t see Queenie, but rather just 20 police officers pushed up against an iron fence. They were rushing commands and urgently passing rope between them, their faces captured momentarily by the pulsing red police siren. Something about it felt violent to Marge. Then the camera catches Queenie, one eye looking plaintively toward it through an officer’s legs. The officer is gently stroking Queenie’s head as another secures a tight lasso around Queenie’s four hooves. In the final shot, Marge could see Queenie restrained in the back of a police van, shortly before the gate was closed and Queenie was transported to an animal control center.
Marge’s intial relief at the news of Queenie’s safe capture was short-lived: within 45 minutes, Queenie would be dead of an apparent heart attack.
After Queenie’s grand adventure, I decided to look into the dramatic last day of his life. I felt a bit like the 911 dispatcher with whom Marge spoke: “A cow, in Queens?” I asked. But I also felt a bit like Marge: something about the video footage unsettled me.
I placed a call to the 102nd precinct to see if they had any clues. I spoke with Community Affairs Officer Remsen. We joked a bit about what happened—it was weird, he said, but not as weird as the tiger in a Manhattan apartment last year. He pointed out that the very same thing happened in the precinct—a cow on the loose—exactly one year to the day before. Amazing, I said. He then told me they had looked into the neighborhood’s halal butchers as possible suspects in the case of the runaway bull, but concluded, “At present there are no particular food suspects.”
A couple weeks later I visited the 102nd precinct. I told the officer on duty, Officer Strauss, that I was a reporter looking into the death of Queenie the Bull. By then I had mostly forgotten about what Marge had felt. I just couldn’t get over the fact of Queenie. “I was thinking that if I could track everywhere the cow was that day, maybe I would eat a burger at all the restaurants it passed.” He shrugged as if to say “whatever.” He pointed me towards another community affairs officer, Officer McCoy. “How’s the investigation going?” I asked Officer McCoy. He looked at me like I had just mooed.
The police were no help, so I decided to have a look around for myself. I went to the intersection where Marge saw Queenie on that hot September morning. I asked around. Smirks and shrugs. I closed my eyes and thought of CSI.
This brought me to Madani Halal, one of the nearby slaughterhouses that the police had mentioned. Madani is two block’s from Marge’s bus stop, the closest of any slaughterhouse and as good a place as any to start my investigation. I asked Madani Halal’s owner, Imran Uddan, about Queenie. “Not ours,” Imran said. “Trust me, if it was, we’d be out there getting it back ourselves. You have any idea how expensive cattle is?”
Imran is short and stocky, in his mid-30s, with a shaved head and a beard but no whiskers. He’s an observant Muslim with a secular streak. After graduating from Clark University, he worked at an advertisement agency. His friends on Madison Avenue designed the slaughterhouse’s website. Nowadays, Imran Uddan’s top priority is preserving the custom and the integrity of the halal process: “I’m not a scholar myself, but I do want the customer to do the right thing. I may recommend they consult with an Imam”—or a website that specified halal procedures, which he signified by pretend-typing in the air as he spoke—“before they mess something up,” he told me.
A trip to Madani Halal is a snapshot of modern Queens. The clientele are West Indian, African, South Asian, Latin American, Hasidic, and Arabic. Uddan’s father, who emigrated from Bangladesh and worked at a kosher butcher, founded the slaughterhouse in 1996 but has since retired to dedicate himself to studying the Koran. Imran’s mother, who operates the cash register, is Puerto Rican. “Only in America, right?” he said, to me.
There are approximately 90 slaughterhouses in New York City with roughly two-thirds of these calling themselves halal, three of which are within 20 blocks of where Marge spotted Queenie. When we met, Imran led me through chicken coops to his office. Halal means “lawful” in Arabic, he explained, and refers to codes of conduct that are meant as a reflection of the love the Prophet Muhammad showed towards the world and all its things. Halal sets baseline prohibitions: no swine, no bathing the beast in its own blood or milk, no killing one animal in front of another. “It’s all about love and respect for the animal,” Imran said. “If you have no emotion when you take the life of a living creature, if you don’t care about this tragic and powerful thing you’re doing, then you’re less than a human. That’s what I believe, anyway.” Marge would probably agree, I thought.
At Madani Halal, a customer will select the live animal—poultry, goat, or lamb mostly, they generally steer clear of cattle (unless requested by a customer) because “it’s a huge pain in the ass. Those suckers are like 500 pounds”—from the coops or the large indoor holding pen. A practicing Muslim, facing east towards Mecca, will cut the animal’s throat while reciting a prayer. To expeditiously serve 500 or so daily buyers, Madani Halal’s butchers keep the prayer short: “In the name of Allah, Allah is great.” While the customer waits, a staff person—who may or may not be Muslim—then skins the animal.
Madani Halal offers its customers the option of conducting the slaughter themselves.
I watched Imran and an employee prepare a goat for slaughter in a white-tiled back room that smelled of antiseptic. Two customers were going to kill the animal themselves. The younger of the two, speaking in Arabic, asked for the knife, a 22-inch blade with a slight curve at the tip like a scythe. When his companion turned to leave the room—I certainly didn’t blame him—the younger man scolded and called him back, and placed his companion’s hands on the goat’s twitching snout. Meanwhile, Imran restrained the bleating, shaking animal in a metal rack that looked a bit like a portable laundry rack. The two customers fussed over how to hold down the goat’s head without cutting their fingers off; Imran patiently showed them the proper positioning.
Once ready, the man with the knife said a prayer. With two hands on the handle, he made a quick, shallow cut. It didn’t do the trick, so he sawed back-and-forth a couple times like he was working a wood saw. The goat’s blood sprayed upwards in a misty arc. It sounded like a cheap sprinkler on a slow oscillation. Imran intervened. With a brisk shove of his hips he moved the two men away, simultaneously taking the blade from the younger one. He pushed the blade hard downwards, cutting the goat’s esophagus and jugular in a single motion. Its head lolled back as if on a hinge, but somehow it still bleated, and with each bleat its head snapped back into a normal fixed and lively posture. Seeing this, Imran briskly thrust the tip of the blade into the wound with a couple quick, sharp jabs, punching out the goat’s last remaining life. “You have to cut the nerves at the top of its spinal column or otherwise it feels itself dying,” he explained later. “You can’t flinch.”
After the slaughter, I asked Uddan about the way Queenie the Bull died. “It’s awful how it all ended,” he said. “I saw on the news how they were chasing it, lights and sirens and all. That would give anyone a heart attack. Sure, it’s a bull, but it’s still a fragile creature.”
I asked him what they should have done. At that moment, I thought of Marge. “Couldn’t they have had someone with them?” she had said. “It’s just makes me so sad.”
“I suppose they did what they thought was best,” Imran said. “But still. If they don’t know how to handle it, they should have gotten some help. They could have contacted us.”
Matt Schwarzfeld is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in the Village Voice, City Limits, ProPublica, and rooflines.org