Thursday, September 15, 2011

A Day at the Fair - Part Three

Young riders prepare to strut their stuff

Part of what I love about country fairs is watching the 4H kids fussing over their animals, giggling together in the stalls, leading their animals around the ring as they nibble their lower lip in nervousness. I love seeing their gentleness and dedication as they wash and groomed and feed and cleanup after their charges. These kids will, for the most part, grow into solid citizens. They have parental support, adult leadership, peer groups engaged in healthy activity, and a passion that requires them to develop a skill set and to focus on a goal. But more about that later!

One of the sweetest sights this past weekend was that of a young man, perhaps 13 or 14, sitting on a bench outdoors with his rooster. He wanted the rooster to have some time outside the crate, and the rooster stood calmly between his knees watching people coming and going. He even took it for a walk, guiding it gently with a long thin stick and a soft hand. (My photo didn’t turn out, but you will see one here in which the same lad is crouched on the ground holding his bird.)

I had a wee camera problem with my pictures of the goats and llamas, alpacas and birds, rabbits and two sweet, sweet minature donkeys named Daisy and Shrek. But I figured it out by the time I got to this Berkshire piggy mama, who was at the fair with her 10 two-week-old piglets:

Social mama piggy

And, of course, I enjoyed looking at and photographing the horses. The 4H kids decorated the stalls with information about their horses, answered questions enthusiastically, and showed off their riding skills admirably despite the extremely hot weather and a ring inches deep in dust.

Decorated stall

"Um, excuse me?  If you're gonna disturb my dinner, at least get my name in the photo!"

"That's better!"

"Hey, everyone!  Head's up!  This woman wants to take yer photo!"

"Oh, hai!  Get my name, too, please!"

"Hmmm, I think this is my best side."

And now back to my initial topic - the kids. Watching the 4H kids may make me smile and give me confidence that not all the younger generation is racing down a path to self destruction, but watching them also never fails to raise questions in my mind and leave me a wee bit uneasy.

Kids in 4H are taught to treat their animals humanely, but at the same time both they and I know that most of the animals - the sheep, cows, goats, chickens, pigs - will be led to slaughter or slated for a life of constant breeding right after the fair. I wonder how much of what they learn through their relationships with their 4H "projects"  follows them life-long?

Will those children who take such good care of their sheep or chickens or calves in the club become, one day, just another cog in the huge wheel of mistreated for-market animals who are mass produced artificially, fed chemicals to force them into greater growth and/or greater breeding potential, hooked up to machines and/or denied access to the outdoors, sprayed with pesticides, slaughtered inhumanely? I am a meat eater – and not about to engage in debate about the human diet here - but I am also appalled at how so many commercial animals are treated.

My concern also extends to 4H Horse clubs. The reality is that many (most?) horses are viewed as disposable property, destined to be bought and sold and bought and sold and bought and sold until they are finally auctioned off to the highest bidder and trucked away to the slaughterhouse. I wonder if kids in 4H develop life long attachments to their horses and provide them with a forever home, seeing them as sentient beings instead of vehicles to be upgraded every few years, accessories to be changed with the season. I wonder how many of them are prepared to live with the financial costs of giving a horse a lifelong home even though their riding skills and interests may have progressed beyond the horse's abilities? I wonder how many former 4H-ers know exactly where every horse they've ever loved is today and how each horse fares?

In the 4H program, do the kids learn of the many abused, abandoned and neglected horses in rescue? Do they learn to consider that this horse they claim to love so much today may one day end up, several owners down the road, starving to death in a winter pasture, knee deep in mud, until someone calls the SPCA or until they die?

Maybe 4H does deal with this aspect of our responsibility to the animals we nurture. After all, is it any coincidence that most of those involved in both 4H and in animal rescue are female, while most of those involved in mass production and slaughter are male?

I hope 4H clubs today teach the kids about the other side of animal ‘ownership’ . I hope the kids are taught to consider the consequences of breeding; I hope they are exposed to the world of rescue and of animal control, I hope they are taken to auctions and to slaughter houses and to huge mega-conglomerate commercial farms. I hope so, because without that exposure, without being taught that side of the human/animal relationship, their education would be sadly lacking.

I’m currently reading Trauma Farm: A Rebel History of Rural Life, by Brian Brett (Greystone Books, © 2009), an enjoyable, thought provoking, and often funny book by a man who lives on Salt Spring Island just across the water from me. It is a Non-Fiction Prize Winner with the Writers Trust of Canada. It is about life on a small mixed farm run using humane, environmentally friendly practices, and is full of gems of wisdom, historical and botanical information, critical commentary of commercial production, and a wealth of beautifully written, poetic descriptions of the rich relationship between humans, animals, and the land.

I can’t say it is a quick read, because it compels the reader to pause frequently, to savor an exquisitely worded phrase or paragraph, to re-read a bit of shocking information, to digest an evocative statement, to reflect on a critical analysis. But it is a great read, a thought provoking read, a read for the animal lover and the gardener, for the animal activist and the meat eater, a read for the environmentalist, the wanna-be farmer, the aging hippy, the wordsmith, the book lover, the nature lover. Perhaps it should be required reading for 4H leaders and the teens they mentor.

(Comments are invited from those who have been involved in 4H, who are currently involved in 4H, and – of course – anyone else who would care to chime in!).


EvenSong said...

It is a thought provoking topic, Jean. I've thought about adding sheep or cattle to my pastures, as much for bio-diversity as for the meat, but don't think I could stomach sending an animal I've raised to slaughter, no matter how humanely.
I don't know about the exposure of 4H kids in general, but you may remember that old Mr. Royal Tardez, that lives with me in retirement, I first met with his family when I coached Bri and another couple of young girls, for 4H. So at least in that one case, the child has grown into a responsible adult who has done right by her first equine best friend.
Part of the current horse slaughter argument stems from the shift from horses as agricultural "tools" to horses as companion animals. This shift is by no means total, as I know from living in a primarily rural, ranching location, where, to some, the horse is still a "commodity" rather than a "pet." And unfortunately, some horse-love-struck kids are at the mercy of mom and dad's economic condition when it comes time to move on to other things.
It is a difficult discussion all around.

Erika said...

I was not in 4H but have owned the same horse with my mom for over 14 years now. We won't sell him, he is ours for the duration of his life, and we will make sure he is well cared for until his last day.
One of the reasons I stopped competing in riding events is that I was discouraged at how many people felt that horses were disposable; the amount of "upgrading" that went on was astonishing to me.
At least our off the track TB will be happy for life!

Funder said...

(breaking the blog bankruptcy to go back to this one!)

I hope that the 4H kids, rather than being cavalier about meat consumption, grow up with a respect for animal life. Slaughterhouses are no fit end for a horse - they aren't designed to bring a painless no-stress death to an equine. I've read a lot of Temple Grandin's stuff and I don't think I'd object to an equine slaughterhouse designed/managed by her. I think she's made some great humane changes in cattle slaughter, but I still have objections to feedlots - I try to speak with my wallet when I can.

I have a really hard time selling my own horses - I've only sold one of the four I've owned. But at the same time I'm immensely grateful that people are willing to sell me their horses. It's a gamble to sell them, but sometimes they do end up in great forever homes. Humane euthanasia is far kinder than sending a horse to the auction, but a teenage babysitter can sometimes find a good home with a newbie owner. It's so complicated, and I just hope that I can keep making the right decision throughout my life.