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From  Issue
10 February 2002
Loving Her To Death

By Michelle Rivera - [email protected]

I saw a most disturbing photo in the newspaper yesterday. It did not depict a case of animal cruelty, but a graphic depiction of the animal/human bond. The photo showed a beautiful young pig named Tanc. Her sweet face was pressed against the bars of her cage as she lovingly regarded the object of her affection, a 10-year-old boy. The boy sat cross-legged on the floor facing Tanc, gazing into her eyes with a sad, defeated expression. He looked like he had just lost his best friend, or was about to.

The caption on the photo revealed this sobering story: The child had raised Tanc from a mere piglet. He had carefully recorded everything she ate and documented her weight gain from week to week. Now, he had brought her to the fair to be sold at auction. He was saying good-bye, as thousands of 4-H kids had done before him.

As a humane educator, I spend my days teaching children about the animal/human bond; about the covenant we made with animals when we domesticated them; about how we have broken that covenant by mistreating animals, exploiting them, and euthanizing them out of convenience. I present them with videos of puppy mills, dogfighting and domestic violence involving animals in an effort to help them to understand that our society has become increasingly intolerant of animal abuse. I spend hours teaching that empathy and compassion for animals fosters a more compassionate citizen of the earth, thereby making a more compassionate society.

But how do I compete with the message that the 4-H club sends? Take this precious life, nurture her, love her, see to her every need. Bond with her and maybe even teach her things, like the sound of your friendly voice, and to come when she is called. Then, at the height of your friendship and unity, deliver her into the hands of slaughter and turn the page. Don’t feel sad, don’t mourn her, just move on.

I would be interested to know what psychologists think about this sequence of events. What are we teaching our children when we allow them to be responsible for a life and then take away that life in the name of capitalism? Is there a mixed message here? On the one hand we teach about love and respect, on the other we tell them to invalidate those feelings on a certain date -- when the fair comes to town. As adults and educators we are always telling children to express their feelings, rely on their own instinct, do what you think is right, not what others tell you to do. But those in the 4-H are telling them to also deny those feelings, that what is right is to slaughter your friend no matter what YOU feel about it, and to be strong --- this is the way things are. This is why she was raised, this is the end result of all your love and affection, your dedication and responsibility. Ignore the fact that she feels pain, ignore the emotional attachment and bond that the two of you have cultivated. In short -- ignore your feelings -- we certainly are.

I suppose that the 4-H would argue that these children understand from the beginning that the animals are being raised for food and that this fact makes it ok. Or maybe that they are teaching the kids that the ham sandwich they consumed at lunch was once a pig like Tanc. I understand that rationale, I just don’t believe we have to take a life to make the point. Anyone who has ever seen the movie Babe understands the link between the real live animal and the slab of bacon. And the fact that an animal is “raised for food” is of little consolation to the animal herself who must suffer the pain of being torn from the boy she has come to love and trust.

So here’s my question: How do I teach students that pit bull fighting is wrong, immoral and illegal, unethical and abhorrent, but tricking an animal into loving you, trusting you and living only for the moments she can be with you when all along you know you are going to betray her is not only all right, but may win you a ribbon at the fair?

Editors note: Larry Kaufman, Professional Pet Loss Counselor and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with a private practice in West Palm Beach, Florida, had the following comments about the above article:

"From a psychological point of view, one core issue involved in this topic is adults’ lack or inability to empathize or identify with both a non-human being (animal) and their child/children. Animals are thought of and treated as things – inanimate objects. Animals are not viewed as having the broad range of feelings and cognitive capacities that they actually have. And human children’s distress, preferences, conflicts, and doubts, and their entire mourning process over the loss of their “pet,” is enormously minimized, rationalized, or hardly even considered at all. This kind of treatment of children by adults will, in my opinion, leave lasting emotional scars on sensitive children.

Many children who belong to and participate in 4-H clubs are probably being traumatized each year as a result of their activities with the club. Who presently is speaking up for the rights of these children? How ironic it is that in our society we pay so much attention to so many other types of child abuse, but when it come to children’s relationships with animals we have such a blind spot!

I have a question to ask of the parents of 4-H participants: What kinds of feelings would you have if you knew that your healthy and loyal dog or cat, one you had lovingly raised and nurtured, would soon be killed so that it could be eaten?

The 4-H Club is so called from the aim of the organization to “improve head, heart, hands, and health.” I see that the original aim of the organization has, in part, become perverted. I view the 4-H Club, despite its good intentions, as messing with kids’ heads, breaking their hearts, tying their hands, and damaging their mental health. According to the book "Human Animal Bond and Grief" by Lagoni Butler Hetts (Colorado State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital publications)

"..........A good example of attachment ..... are the relationships that that children who belong to 4-H Clubs form with the animals whom they raise. A significant number of clients and veterinarians have told us how painful it was for them or for children they know to sell or put up for slaughter the calves, lambs, or goats whom they had raised and for whom they had cared while participating in 4-H some reported that their feelings were either discouraged or ignore."

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