How “Market Animal Projects” Harm Both Animals and Children
It is a warm summer day at the fairgrounds. The scents of funnel cake and kettle corn combined with the unmistakable “barnyard” smell combine to create an oddly nostalgic atmosphere. Joyful screams and cheers can be heard from ferris wheels and roller coasters in the distance.
A little girl, blonde and covered with freckles, is cheered on by enthusiastic friends and family members as she steps into the show ring with her Holstein calf. The two make an adorable pair. At just a few months old, the black and white spotted animal is nearly as tall as she is; yet, she has full control over the animal. The calf knows and trusts her. Although the stress of the loud and busy auction causes him to foam at the mouth, he listens well, just as she has trained him to do. She shares his anxiety in the ring, and she smiles nervously as she asks the calf to stand still and lift his head high for the judges.
The bidding begins, and the audience roars with applause when the calf sells for a high price. Her hard work has paid off.
But as she exits the ring, her giant grin fades fast. Tears begin to roll as she cradles the head of the calf she has come to love. The audience’s attention is now on the next child and calf who have since entered the ring, but the little girl’s focus is entirely on her animal. Older kids on the sidelines attempt to comfort her, but the tears keep coming.
The realization has set in that an irreversible decision has been made: one that will cost her friend his life.
This was a real scene I witnessed at an FFA/4H auction at a popular Southern California summer fair. Sadly, scenes like this are far from uncommon at fairgrounds across the country.
The Future Farmers of America and 4H programs teach children about careers in animal agriculture. During these projects, children pick a species they would like to raise. Animals include rabbits, chickens, turkeys, pigs, calves, cows, lambs and goats.
They raise the animal onsite at their school, and put a great deal of time into working with the animal to prepare them for showing. Pigs are trained to be guided with a crop whip or cane, and sheep, goats and cows are trained to walk on a halter and lead rope. These animals often have names and are sometimes viewed as companions as well as “livestock”.
The housing and care provided to these animals tends to be subpar compared to sanctuary standards. Limited space at schools often leads to animals living in barren concrete stalls. Like animals on farms, they are typically denied individualized veterinary care.
The emphasis in these programs is on raising animals efficiently for slaughter, not in caring for them as individuals. Still, kids spend countless hours working with their project animals, and often form strong bonds.
Despite all of this, the end goal of every “market animal project” is for the animal to be shown, auctioned off, and slaughtered.
Sadly, for kids raised in agricultural families, this may come as second nature. But for kids inexperienced in farm life, the end result can be devastating and downright traumatic.
For many years, I visited my local fair to offer these children another option for their animals. Every year, I came across kids in the same situation. Living in urban areas forced them between a rock and a hard place at the end of their projects. Even if they had changed their mind, they did not have the space to bring their animal home and save their life. Children in this situation often feel trapped and helpless. They are horrified by the idea of their animal friend being killed, but unable to secure an alternative.
In my experience, children who could not bear the thought of their animals going to slaughter were pressured by their instructors and ridiculed by their peers. These children were deemed “overly emotional” and faced humiliation for caring too deeply.
Peer pressure combined with a lack of options causes students to make decisions they may later regret.
One teenage boy I will never forget was pointed out by a group of his peers after I asked them if anyone would be interested in sending their animals to sanctuary. “That guy over there is probably the only one who’d be interested in that,” one sixteen or seventeen year old boy told me as he held back laughter. He and his friends smirked and turned their eyes to the boy, of a similar age range, who was the only student in the show barn sitting with his animal. It was evident that he was somewhat of an outcast among his “friends” here, guilty of nothing more than showing too much empathy. Teenage cliques can be brutal, especially on boys expected to be stoic and lacking in emotion.
When I asked him about his cow and told him I could offer her sanctuary, he began to choke up. His instructor had told him it wouldn’t be possible to find his cow a home where she would be safe from slaughter. With the fair ending in a matter of days, he had already found a private buyer.
Papers had been signed, and there was no going back. He wasn’t aware that sanctuaries even existed for farmed animals, and was near tears upon learning this. He had spent every day of the fair laying with his cow, brushing her, cherishing her in her final days.
This was his first and last time participating in the FFA.
Sadly, this is the culture that students who become attached to their “project” animals are faced with. Pressured by both their peers and adults and unaware of the resources that exist to help them and their animals, these compassionate children are forced into making a decision that may cause lasting trauma.
Some quit and are left with painful memories. Others are desensitized by the experience and return the following year, this time being careful not to “get attached”.
More worrying yet is the “out of sight, out of mind” culture when it comes to the actual slaughter of the project animals. Students are rarely required to be present for the killing itself. Most often, animals are trucked out of the fairgrounds en masse to meet their fate while the students return home. A young girl once confessed to me that her instructor advised her to walk away when the slaughter company loaded her pig so that she would not have to witness the harsh treatment of the animal she had grown to love. The students are allowed to walk away from the animals’ suffering when the animals have no escape.
In a matter of moments these animals enter a world of confusion and fear, separated from the humans they had learned to trust.
Rather than teaching youth to be merciful and kind to vulnerable and innocent animals, these programs normalize betrayal.
Weeks or months of bonding is exchanged for dollars and cents, and kids are taught to “toughen up” rather than listening to their gut instincts. Those who attempt to take a stand for their animals have their feelings mocked and are treated as outliers.
As a resource for caring children and teenagers unaware of what options exist for them, Animal Place started the Free for Life campaign. This program works tirelessly to find permanent sanctuary for animals spared from slaughter in the FFA and 4H programs. We only ask for the promise that students will never again raise a project animal.
This program not only spares empathetic children from experiencing trauma, it provides innocent animals with refuge from a gruesome fate. The Free for Life campaign was started under the belief that we should encourage values such as empathy and mercy in children. Rather than “toughening up” children for a harsh world, we should raise children to be kind enough to create a gentler world.
As summer begins, FFA/4H projects are in full swing. We want to remind children and parents alike that there is no such thing as being “too kind”. In fact, having the courage to take a stand for what you believe in is something to be admired, not something to be mocked and ridiculed. Showing too much kindness is rarely something that people regret. The same cannot be said of the decision to condemn an animal to slaughter.
If you or someone you know is having second thoughts about sending a project animal to slaughter, visit our campaign website at freeforlife.org. We will do everything in our power to provide you with the resources you need to secure safety for your animal friend.
Written by Chelsea Pinkham