Like most little girls, my stepdaughter loves animals. She joined a local 4-H club when she was 9, solely because "cows are cool." Now that the fall 4-H animal auctions are upon us, I can't help but remember Bonnie's first "assignment"--a beautiful cow named Dana with long lashes and ears as soft as velvet. We all grew to love Dana, but none more so than Bonnie, who spent hours grooming her and walking her on a lead.
I had misgivings about Bonnie's decision to join 4-H: Unlike an unsuspecting 9-year-old, I knew the ultimate fate of the cows and other animals used in this program.
My fears were realized a couple years into the program when Bonnie learned that Meredith, another one of "her" cows, who was sick and unable to reproduce, had been sold to slaughter for a mere $75. To see such a deep bond so ruthlessly broken was a painful and eye-opening lesson for Bonnie. Her club leader was genuinely puzzled--and irked--by Bonnie's tears, dismissing her as "sentimental."
Dana, Meredith, Kath, Elise, Lola. They all had names, personalities and quirks. None was like the others except in one critical way. Like all cows used to provide milk for human consumption, these cows were treated as breeding machines and were artificially impregnated again and again.
Their babies--bellowing and terrified--were removed from them within hours of their births. The mothers were inconsolable, and the babies wide-eyed and quaking. The calves were desperate to latch onto visitors' fingers--anything to suckle. But instead of being nourished by their mothers' milk--which went to supermarket dairy cases--the calves were fed a vile powdered nutritional supplement. In a barn full of cows, the frantic calls of mothers and babies became a symphony of suffering.
What does it say about society's mindset when children are encouraged to participate in a program that ultimately means the death of an animal they've befriended and whose trust they actively courted--or when we dismiss a child's heartbreak at losing a beloved animal friend as weakness? The animals in 4-H programs are destined for one of two fates: They are either sold at auction for slaughter or are used as breeders for future "projects."
Unfortunately, 4-H provides a mere snapshot of how we systematically desensitize ourselves to the origins of the chops, steaks and wings that we put in our mouths. If most kind people actually stopped to think about it, they'd balk at eating the body parts of an animal who has lived and died in misery. But we take great pains to hide what happens in feedlots and on factory farms. We close our eyes and refuse to hear about the cows, pigs and chickens who are jammed into stalls and cages barely bigger than their bodies and who will never breathe fresh air or see the light of day. Bonnie was admonished for taking her PETA water bottle to fairs and was told to stop.
Bonnie went vegetarian after making the connection that all cows like Dana and Meredith end up on a plate. She hasn't eaten meat since. She knows that she can't save all the cows who are used as milk machines on dairy factory farms, but she continues in 4-H because she wants to make life comfortable for at least one cow every year. But that's little consolation for the billions of other animals raised for food who will never know a kind word or a gentle touch.