August 19, 1991 12:00 PM

FOR 15 YEARS WAITRESS BECKY SANDSTEDT was blithely unaware of the horrors taking place at the sprawling South St. Paul Stockyard a few miles from her Minneapolis home. The nation’s second largest stockyard, South St. Paul is the last stop before the slaughterhouse for more than a million cattle, calves and pigs each year. Sandstedt, 31, a dedicated animal lover, began taking a special interest in the place in October 1989, after watching a TV special about “downers,” the small number of ailing and diseased animals that end up in stockyards along with healthy herds.

Several weeks later, Sandstedt visited the site and witnessed gut-wrenching scenes: cattle with festering eyes and half-rotted faces, hogs with tumors the size of baseballs, cows frozen to the ground or tethered to chains. Separated from the herds headed to slaughter, these sick, dazed animals were dragged and dumped in pens where they languished until stockyard workers could dispose of them. “My heart broke,” says Sandstedt, who decided to launch a solitary crusade for humane treatment—and quick euthanasia—at the yard. “Downed animals have rights and feelings,” she says. “It’s wrong to abuse them.”

Sandstedt began visiting the open stockyard daily and taking photographs to document the inhumane treatment. “[The workers] didn’t take me seriously at first,” she says. “Later, when they told me not to take pictures or to leave, I threatened to go public with what I had.” In November 1989 she asked for a meeting with the stockyard manager. “I was calm on the outside, but my heart was pounding,” she remembers. The manager assured her that the problem of downed animals was being dealt with. Sandstedt wasn’t convinced; she continued to stop by the yard, enduring occasional catcalls and insults from some workers while persuading others to let her bring hay and water to the sick animals. Through the winter, even on holidays, she says, “when other people were eating animals, I was feeding them.”

By the following June, Sandstedt had still seen little progress. She contacted the state humane society, whose lawyers set up a meeting with stockyard officials. Nothing happened. In September she rented a video camera and started filming at the yard each morning just after dawn. Two months later, Sandstedt met again with the stockyard brass. “They said that dragging downed animals by chains wasn’t painful,” Sandstedt recalls indignantly.

Management’s apparent indifference only made Sandstedt more determined. Sometimes, when she saw especially cruel treatment, she would stop videotaping and demand that the suffering animal be put to sleep. “One time I found a calf dying in an alley behind the pens,” she says. “A worker didn’t try to lift it. He just started kicking it.” Of her persistence, she says, “I figured if I could get one sick animal humanely killed, it was worth it.”

By spring Sandstedt had shot 44 hours of videotape, which was edited into an 18-minute documentary of horrors. Supporters distributed copies to TV stations around the country; NBC responded by sending an Expose film crew to South St. Paul. Six days before the show was to air on May 19, the stockyard announced that it would no longer accept downed animals, forcing shippers to take them back.

“The timing was purely coincidental,” says Chris Frederiksen, manager of the stockyard since last November. Others disagree. “Becky’s role was crucial in exposing the abuse and getting the cleanup,” says Gene Bauston, director of Farm Sanctuary, a nonprofit advocacy group working to improve conditions for farm animals. On Memorial Day, 800 animal-rights activists from around the country gathered at the stockyard to celebrate Sandstedt’s victory. “I didn’t set out to get all this attention for myself,” she says, “but I can speak and work for this because I’m working for the animals.”

A strict vegetarian since attending an animal-rights seminar in 1988, Sandstedt says she has had a soft spot for quadrupeds since childhood. One of six children, she would bring home strays to her animal-loving mother and nurse them back to health. Lately her passion has influenced her romantic relationships as well. “I’d love to find the right guy some day, but most of the men I’ve dated are meat eaters,” says Sandstedt, who is single. “They’re very attractive, but they don’t share my love of animals. I need someone who will tolerate all this.”

Fueled by a fresh sense of purpose after her triumph at South St. Paul, Sandstedt quit waitressing at the Minneapolis—St. Paul International Airport’s Lone Eagle lounge and is looking for work in the field of animal rights. “I want to keep finding homes for animals and lobbying for humane euthanasia,” she says. “I believe I was put here for the animals. This is my cause.”

SUSAN REED

MARGARET NELSON in South St. Paul

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