I'm going to be honest, FFA & 4-H animal programs creep me out. Betrayal, lies, misrepresentations are all at the heart of these programs.
Saturday, we welcomed a 5-mos-old Suffolk lamb from a northern California high school FFA program. The student had not been told her lamb would end up at slaughter. Appalled, she sought out the aid of farmers, thinking one would understand this bond, this relationship she formed with the sheep. They didn't, because they could not move beyond the idea of "owner" and "property".
When farmers offered no help, she searched for sanctuaries and found Animal Place. The late-night email said the sheep had until Sunday to find a home. On Saturday, I called up the student and her mom to gather information. The first question I asked was whether the student planned on doing any more animal projects - an emphatic no. After talking with staff, we agreed to bring "Lambie" back to the sanctuary, saving her from the cruel fate of nearly all FFA/4-H animals, slaughter.
There's the betrayal. It stares these children in the face, smiles, wraps its greedy hands around small shoulders and says, this death, this slaughter, this is okay. For months, students have fed, watered, groomed, handled, socialized and, dare I say it, loved these animals. They have gazed into blameless eyes, have nursed sick to health and have been living a lie. When it comes time for the fair, the inevitable auction, children weep for their beloved friends, they cry tears of pain and anger that this animal who they have devoted heart and soul to is slated for death.
Then there is the parental perfidy. Parents see the heartache, know the bond has been formed....and yet. Our society seems to value a cognitive dissonance, a disconnect from empathy and compassion. Parents want their kids to learn responsibility, make connections, but they seem to expect their kids to just "toughen up" and get on with it. Not all parents do this, of course. Lambie's biggest advocate was the student's mother. She refused to acknowledge the teacher's desire to kill Lambie and instead made every effort to follow her daughter's heart.
Schools also play a role. They make deals with local banks to offer loans. These loans pay for the purchase and partial upkeep of the animal. Most students don't have jobs and while creating good credit is a noble thing indeed, the whole concept of a loan sets up the child for failure when s/he wants to save the animal. Now the child has a $2,500 loan to pay off and no money to do so....except the money they get from selling that animal at auction. Some schools purchase the animals outright, maintaining "ownership" rights. Schools tend to be unsupportive of students who want to place their animals in lieu of selling them.
These animal programs are marketed to students as ways to garner "real world experience". In some ways, I guess they do - in the real world, people lie. In other ways, they fail. In the real world, most farmed animals live inside sheds and cages and are slaughtered in high-output processing facilities. Most never see the light of day or roam free. FFA/4-H programs do not emulate how most animals are raised or the scale of production and death. I'm not suggesting they do, either. But there should be duplicity, more honesty.
Little Lambie is lucky. We will place her in an appropriate home or keep her indefinitely at the sanctuary.
We think all children should spend some time with farmed animals, just not in the confines of a farm. Find a sanctuary in your area and encourage kids to visit and, age requirements permitting, volunteer. This is a much better way to learn responsibility and, more importantly, compassion and empathy.
And if you are feeling especially giving after reading this post (and of course you are), please consider a donation to Animal Place so that we may continue doing our life saving work. If you cannot make a monetary donation, check out Willy's wishlist.