Becky Sandstedt went into debt to buy a video camera because she wanted to change the livestock handling practices of the nation's second-largest stockyard.
She made monthly loan payments of $75 out of her cocktail waitress wages so she could videotape "downers," animals arriving at the stockyard too weak or injured to walk.Her videotapes show downed animals lying in holding pens for days, unable to reach food and water troughs. "I once saw a cow, frozen to the ground, still alive," she said.
She also said she saw four downed hogs go for six days with no food or water in temperatures as low as 22 below zero.
And she was on hand with her camera last week when United Stockyards Corp. announced that it no longer will accept those animals for auction.
Beginning Monday, downers will be euthanized at the company's South St. Paul stockyard, and the policy will go into effect later at the company's six other livestock markets in the Midwest.
"Her documentation was crucial in pushing the stockyard," said Gene Bauston of Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, N.Y.
Beginning in October 1989, Sandstedt visited the stockyard nearly every day to shoot what has turned into about 40 hours of videotape. That meant waking up at 7 a.m. after her night shift to make the 15-mile drive from her home in Minneapolis to South St. Paul.
Farm Sanctuary was so impressed that it paid off her $1,100 camera loan. And Bauston is hiring her as a full-time staff investigator.
Sandstedt, 31, said she's loved animals since her childhood and once had six dogs. In her latest batch of companions are a rabbit, two cats and three dogs.
"I'm always taking home strays," she said. "All my pets are strays."
Her first trip to the stockyard was prompted by an animal-rights pamphlet about downed cattle and a television show about stockyard practices.
"I went with her on one of her first trips and it was too awful. I couldn't go back," said Dan Oldre of St. Paul, an organizer of fur protests in the region.
"I believe Becky has seen some very harsh conditions," said Shirley Taggart, president of Minnesota Federated Humane Societies. "It takes real strength to continually go back and see these things over and over."
United Stockyards President Gail Tritle said Sandstedt's work and her public criticism of stockyard conditions forced his company to go public with its policy change. But he said Sandstedt and other animal rights activists didn't influence the change.
"We likely would have gotten to this point" regardless of Sandstedt's activism, Tritle said. "We don't adopt a policy because people demand it."
Under the new policy, livestock producers will be charged a rendering fee for downed animals instead of receiving money from auction.
Sandstedt said that on one visit to the stockyard, she was so overcome at seeing a crippled newborn lamb that she loaded it into her car and drove off with it. The animal died 10 days later.
"I did steal it. I did," she said. "I tried to rescue it."
Although she has been the target of verbal abuse and said an angry trucker once threw manure at her, she coexists peacefully with many of the stockyard workers.