By Ashley Frohnert
The viral news story about the 9-year-old girl whose beloved goat, Cedar, was taken from her and killed after she refused to take him to a livestock auction at the Shasta District Fair in California has many people questioning the lessons youth farm programs like 4-H teach young people. Instead of emphasizing that goats are social animals who wag their tails like dogs and form strong bonds with one another, organizations like 4-H insist that certain types of animals are only commodities to be used for food.
I know, because long before I began working for PETA, the world’s largest animal rights organization, I was a 4-H member. I can sympathize with this young girl and all the other children traumatized by the way 4-H expects them to treat animals. To this day, I remember a fellow 4-H participant who was inconsolable after her cherished rabbits won “Best in Meat Pen.”
Growing up in Pittsburgh, I belonged to the Butler Bunni Bunch, the youth arm of the Butler County Rabbit Breeders Association, which puts on rabbit shows and invites people to buy rabbits and “improve your herd.” I was too young to understand that it wasn’t merely an opportunity to spend more time with my rabbits and fawn over cute bunnies. The animals I raised were put on exhibit and judged on their appearance, but other rabbits were put in a “meat pen” category and killed for food. I truly cannot even fathom how I would have felt if my best friend, Snickers, had been auctioned off and killed for someone’s dinner.
Seeing animals on display and sold for slaughter prompted me to go vegan and respect animals as sentient beings instead of seeing them as objects for humans to eat or exploit for entertainment. Children have a natural affinity for animals and realize that all animals, including goats, cows, pigs, chickens and rabbits, who are commonly raised and killed for youth farm organizations, are individuals with personalities, needs and desires of their own.
Kids in 4-H spend countless hours grooming, socializing, showing and bonding with the animals they raise. For example, cows are carefully clipped, pigs are bathed and sheep are taken for walks. I spent hours brushing my rabbits and always ensured that they were in good health. Youngsters learn everything about their animal friends’ personalities, quirks, likes and dislikes.
Then it dawns on them that the animals they’ve befriended face a frightening, violent death because youth farm programs are designed that way. No amount of pleading, as the girl who cared for Cedar found out, changes the animals’ fate. The programs expect children to betray the animals they’ve nurtured and to celebrate when they’re auctioned off for slaughter. The mission seems to be to desensitize kids to this habitual violence. Kids who tend to animals and snuggle with them between showings must watch as their “project” is taken from them, never to be seen again.
Why? No one needs to eat animals, and we’re better off when we don’t. Instead of animal agriculture, 4-H should focus on the ethical activities it promotes, like gardening, the arts and leadership. Children can best help animals, the environment and one another by going vegan and speaking out about animal rights. Valuing animals for who they are, not what they’re financially worth, is a lesson worth learning.
Ashley Frohnert is the director of social media for PETA, 2154 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90026; www.PETA.org.