Elizabeth Reflects on Her 4-H Experience and Her Path to Becoming Vegan

Bred Fed Veal Show

A youngster shows her animal during the Bred & Fed Veal Show. Photo courtesy of
ramonasentinel.com

Elizabeth shares her powerful story of transformation, from growing up in a small farming family with strong ties to the local 4-H club to becoming a vegan as a young adult. Her view of animals has taken a 180 degree turn.

My earliest memories of growing up on the farm are of me as a toddler playing with the goats. The nannies (mother goats), so protective of their kids, would butt me around. My family milked the goats for years, until they got tired of doing that and decided to enter them in 4-H shows instead. My older brothers were involved in 4-H, and even though I was still too young to join, I would go to their meetings.

I remember going every year to the county fair and watching my brothers lead our show goats around inside a tent, with judges watching them. The judges looked for things like the posture of the exhibitors, and where the exhibitors stood. Since I was not really interested, I usually went down to the arts and crafts building, where lots of artwork was on display.

We never brought our goats to meat auctions, though my dad occasionally sold some of them directly to a Mexican man who wanted to slaughter them for some sort of tradition in his family. One experience I remember that made me cry was when I had become attached to one of the younger baby goats who, I believe, we had bottle fed. When my brother sold him off (I’m not sure whether for meat or just to someone who wanted a goat for their farm) I cried for an hour in my room, with my mom comforting me and yelling at my brother for breaking my heart.

Years later, when I was old enough to join 4-H, my dad would force me to go to the meetings. Not only did I find them boring, I wasn’t even interested in working with the goats. My dad bought me the typical 4-H outfit for fairs, which was so ugly: a white buttoned-up shirt, khaki pants, and leather farm boots. None of it looked flattering on me.

Every year we loaded up my show goats in the back of a trailer and hauled them up to the fairgrounds. Many of the goats became travel sick and had bouts of diarrhea every time we did this. When we arrived, we were assigned a boarding unit for each goat — basically a small, bare cubicle, which left the goats with nothing to do. If you left the top hatch open, people walking by enjoyed seeing all the different goats. The goats had to stay cooped up in these stalls for several days until they were scheduled to be shown. During this time, I usually walked around and looked at the other animals — the chickens in their small cages and the cows in a musty and humid barn.

On show day, my dad made me shave some of the goats, which I dreaded. First came the hard job of getting the goats from their cubicles into the grooming stall. Many of our goats were timid, perhaps because I hadn’t spent enough time with them, so they were afraid of humans. The promise of food didn’t entice all of them. So I had to tie a rope around their necks and drag them. They physically resisted and bleated in alarm. The worst part was the choking sounds they made. My dad usually trimmed their hooves because he didn’t want me to get kicked.

When it was time for me to lead my goats to the show ring along with all the other 4-H members and goats enrolled in the competition, some of the goats panicked. I remember all too well one of our goats escaping my grip. I had a hold on her collar, but she was stronger than I was and started to drag me out of the ring. I finally let go and someone grabbed her. It was embarrassing. We usually brought the more human-friendly goats, though, and I even won first place with them a few times.

Several years into doing goat shows, I began playing a lot of the Harvest Moon game, and my dad occasionally watched me play. He noticed that the population in my Harvest Moon cow barn was growing. So he asked me if I wanted to raise a baby cow and then sell him for meat to get some money. I said, “Sure.” So my dad went to our next-door neighbor, who breeds cattle, and got a baby male cow from him.

This baby was adorable. We named him Bobo. We gave him his own pen, isolated from the goats, with access to a barn and a small area of grass to graze on. I filled up a milk pail for him twice a day. He was so excited to see me and the milk that I had to pour it into his pail from outside the fence to prevent him from pushing and spilling the milk. Despite these interactions, I still was not that interested in farm animals, so I didn’t spend as much time with Bobo as was expected of a 4-H member raising a cow to show.

Eventually, to prep for his showing, my dad had me lead Bobo around our farm on a leash. He did not enjoy that very much. He was definitely a free spirit. I was intimidated by him. As I walked him, he would occasionally leap forward and kick up his powerful legs. I was afraid he’d knock me over or hurt me. Other times Bobo wouldn’t budge, so my dad told me to hit him with a stick on the butt, which usually charged him forward. It also scared the crap out of me, because even though Bobo was a baby, he was still pretty big and powerful. My dad didn’t care that I was afraid of Bobo. He made me walk him around the farm.

I remember Bobo would look longingly into the adjacent field at our goats. He seemed so lonely that we finally put him in with the goats. Though the goats weren’t too fond of him at first, they got used to him eventually. Still, I think they remained a bit afraid of Bobo’s size in relation to theirs.

Fast forward to show day with Bobo. Here I was in my ugly outfit again! When it was my turn to show him off in the auction, Bobo resisted being led to the ring. Once we arrived, he saw all the people, became terrified, and refused to budge. Obviously my walking Bobo around our farm had accomplished very little. An older 4-H member stepped in and asked me if I needed some help. I said, “Yeah.” She said that he was just being a “butt.” She took more control of him and led him around the ring. No one was bidding on him. Dead silence ensued.

After that, I recall one day my dad telling me about someone who was willing to take my cow and have him slaughtered. So we did just that. We took Bobo back home for a while to enjoy the last of his days. I did not know where he was going or who was taking him away. But I do remember that I felt compelled to sit on my front steps looking out at him and wondering if I was doing the right thing.

This would also be the last year of my 4-H experience. My dad was getting a bit tired of filling out all the paperwork and doing much of the work that I was supposed to be doing.

I remember the day we had Bobo for dinner. My dad cooked up his flesh, and I actually ate it. But I felt kind of sick afterward — not mentally or emotionally, but physically.

In 8th grade, I found a good friend who introduced me to the horrors of animal testing. I admired her a lot, so I felt compelled to listen to her. I went on the internet and looked up more information. What I saw mortified me. I couldn’t believe such cruelty existed — all for cosmetic or medicinal reasons. I remember I went into a tantrum and was a crying mess for hours. Later I came across videos of slaughterhouses, and as I watched them, my heart broke into a million pieces. I don’t know why I, someone who had not too long ago sent her cow to slaughter, was now shocked that innocent beings were being tortured and murdered. Seems kind of ironic. Maybe it was because I never saw the actual slaughter?

These feelings were definitely powerful for me. I decided to tell my parents that I wanted to go vegan. I asked them to pick me up some soy milk the next day. They were not having it, and they freaked out. My dad said he was afraid I wouldn’t let him make crab omelets for me. When he did make one for me the next morning, he wouldn’t let me leave the table until I ate it.

At age 13, I felt I had no choice but to do just what my parents said. So for two years I tried to push everything I had seen in those videos to the back of my mind. Then the subject came back up again when I was 15. I just felt like I couldn’t contribute to the abuse and killing anymore, and I knew I couldn’t give up without a fight. So I pleaded with my parents, did a ton of research on vegan health, printed it out, and also wrote a heartfelt letter to my parents, explaining why I wanted to do this.

My mom was in tears, because she was terrified for my health. She wanted me to just go vegetarian; she thought I’d shrivel up and die if I went vegan. I told her I couldn’t just stop eating meat, since that would mean ignoring the plight of the dairy cows and the egg-laying hens in the factory farms. She said it was that or nothing. So I cried, too, and eventually agreed that I’d go only vegetarian. It worked out better than I expected, as I had my parents buy me vegan food. They thought it was only a phase.

So far, I’ve been a vegan for three years. I now know I will never go back to my old ways. My “veganiversary” comes around every Thanksgiving Day. I still don’t really want to take care of the farm animals, but I now respect them and their right to be free from exploitation. My dad now has some chickens. People ask my why I don’t eat their eggs, since they are the happiest chickens on earth, free-range and all. I simply tell them that their eggs aren’t mine to take.

I think a lot about what I did back in 4-H, how I basically treated those animals as commodities instead of sentient beings. While I wasn’t unnecessarily cruel to them, I do remember getting some first insights into their feelings. In those days of my youth, I chased one of the more human-friendly goats up on top of the climbing toy. She was too afraid to jump, so she turned around to face me as I came up on her and let out a resounding bleat. I could see in her eyes that she was pleading for me to stop. I felt like she spoke to my soul, so I did stop. I don’t know why it didn’t click with me then to respect all animals more, to not show them like they are objects, and to not send them off to slaughter. I think society’s acceptance and approval of raising, showing, and slaughtering animals must have reinforced in me that they were “just animals.”

I also think about how I dragged all those terrified goats into the grooming stalls at the shows. I think about the sound of their choking and their attempts to escape. I remember their babies and the joy of those little ones as they entered the world. They didn’t just walk around; they hopped and skipped with glee around the field. They would even bounce on top of their parents.

And I remember my adorable, sweet cow Bobo. He was always happy to see us. Whenever he saw us outside he’d run up to the fence for kisses and licks. I can’t believe what I sentenced him to.

Whenever I go back to the fair grounds with my dad, it seems like such a grotesque place. Sure, the fair looks like a happy event, with children running around and many animals to see and people asking to come inside the pens to see the animals. But underlying this is a horrible prejudice toward and exploitation of sentient beings.

Not too long ago I went to the fair with my dad and we came upon a live auction. My heart stopped, and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. The image of leading Bobo around that loop of death was so clear in my mind. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to stop the auction, but I knew the 50 people there wouldn’t let me do that. I felt awful — and still feel awful — for not having done something, anything.

These fairs and shows and auctions are run by adults who believe they are doing a good thing in teaching their kids how to be farmers. But I think it’s awful that we children are learning to see animals as property and possessions. Even though we are taught to take good care of our animal property, at the end of the day we willingly send innocent sentient beings to slaughter. When we show the animals, it’s never for their own sake. We show their bodies, but never their inner worth as unique individuals with thoughts and feelings, with families and friends, and with a will to live that’s just as strong as ours.

The best I can do now is to tell people that I actually went through the process of exploiting these animals myself, and that eventually I changed when I followed what my heart knew was right.

Recently, I found an online group called 269 Life (www.269life.com) that takes the liberation of animals seriously. Its members are from all over the world. Some members gets tattooed with the numbers 269, which represents the tag of a real veal calf. This tattoo unites the members in solidarity with all animals everywhere. I plan to get my tattoo soon. When I do, I will wear it with pride.

About Robert Grillo

Robert Grillo is the founder and director of Free from Harm, a non profit animal rescue, education and advocacy organization. Robert is the author of over 500 articles on Free from Harm and is particularly interested in the advocacy of chickens and turkeys who collectively represent 99% of the animals exploited for food. He shares his life with a flock of rescued hens and a rescued homing pigeon. You can email Robert at robert@freefromharm.org. And you can find him on Google+ and Twitter.

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3 comments

  1. A very good reason to become vegan. The whole farm scene of raising animals and selling them off for slaughter is revolting. Allowing kids to take care of animals, letting them become attached to the living creatures they are, and then selling the animals to be killed I would call a form of child abuse. Even for the kids who learned not to care, it is a desensitizing experience that prepares them for continuing the same circle of birth and then death by slaughter. The whole idea of living creatures being born for no other reason than being killed is a sad commentary on humanity..

  2. I believe in Animal Welfare in all of its facets, including educating the buying public worldwide about animal abuse. I also believe that we should (at the same time) be working toward having our Law-makers Legislate animal welfare into Law – with serious jail terms & heavy financial penalties against all those who knowingly bring unnecessary pain &/or suffering to any creature under their jurisdiction.

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