Rabbit Advocacy Animal Matters


4-H member recounts experience and impact on her life

by Monica Engebretson Source: Animal Issues, Volume 33 Number 2, Summer 2002


One of the most common and enduring symbols associated with state and local fairs is the 4-H clover. (The four H’s of 4-H stand for Head for clear thinking, Heart for greater loyalty, Hands for larger service, Health for better living.) 4-H is the youth education branch of the Cooperative Extension Service, a program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and more than 6.8 million kids belong to 4-H. While the 4-H program offers many activities or “projects,” ranging from photography to foreign exchange, 4-H is perhaps best known for its livestock programs.

As a young girl API staffer Monica Engebretson raised pigs as a part of the 4-H livestock program. Each year she looked forward to the fun of bringing home a new baby piglet to name, feed, bathe, walk, and play with. As summer approached, anticipation of the county fair grew with dreams of winning in the showmanship competition or having her pig declared “Grand Champion” and all the attention and praise that would come with those accomplishments. This excitement however, was always tempered with the reality of another integral part of fair time — the auction.

Tears are plentiful at 4-H livestock auctions. Although kids are coached not to cry while in the auction ring it is terribly difficult to hold back the tears as buyers shout out offers to buy your friend by the pound. Monica usually held it together during the auction then broke down after leaving the ring. The night after the auction her friends and she would sit cherishing their last moments with their pigs and discuss grandiose plans to save their lives before the livestock trucks arrived to take them to slaughter. Their plans were always futile. When the trucks arrived they watched the handlers load up the animals, cringing every time the electrical prod was used to move the pigs along. One year a pig escaped from the loading dock and they all jumped up and down and cheered, “Go pig!” and were angrily ordered out of the area by the handlers. The following year no kids were allowed to watch the loading procedure.

Monica loved her pigs and she loved giving them the very best possible care. However, in the end they were forced onto a crowded loading truck and after what may have been several hours without food or water they arrived at the slaughterhouse to wait a week or more in crowded pens frightened, stressed, and confused before finally being slaughtered. The loss of each pig who had become a beloved companion was extremely painful. The pain she felt differed from the pain of loss from a cat or dog because this pain was combined with the guilt she felt for having sent her friend off to die and from having profited from it.

For a while she justified her participation in the project by reasoning that since people were going to eat animals anyway, at least her pigs and most of the animals raised by 4-H’ers were given much better care than those raised on factory farms. But at age 16 — two years after becoming a vegetarian — it occurred to her that no matter how the animal was raised the killing was unnecessary. She quit the livestock program.

It is hard to say what long-term impact 4-H livestock programs have on the children who participate in them. At least three girls who raised pigs in Monica’s 4-H club (Monica included) gave up all meat and are still vegetarians to this day. However, it is suspected that while most former 4-H’ers know firsthand that farm animals are sentient beings with personalities and interests, they still eat them and probably even purchase meat that comes from animals raised on factory farms. This is probably also true of most people who visit the livestock areas of local and state fairs. What they learn about farm animals does very little to help the animals.

There are many wonderful 4-H programs that do not center around raising animals for slaughter. In addition to the livestock program, Monica participated in sewing, gardening, horsemanship, summer camp planning and counseling, foreign exchange, community service, and leadership. There are also guide dog training, woodworking, arts and crafts, cooking, and photography programs. These programs leave children with feelings of accomplishment and pride not pain and guilt.

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