Friends or Food

The Debate on 4-H

By Charlotte Wall


4-H stands for “head, heart, hands, health.” It is the nation’s largest youth development organization that is aimed at teaching kids responsibility and citizenship through experimental learning programs administered by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). 4-H programs include animal-rearing projects, which involve raising and selling livestock. In 4-H, these typically involve youths between the ages of nine and 18 purchasing and caring for animals for up to a year and then selling them at county fair auctions. According to some, there should be a fifth H for “hatred” due to the alleged irony of rearing animals only to sell them at a price per pound.

Many outsiders imagine 4-H clubs as organizations devoted to nurturing sows, adorable children winning blue ribbons and future farmers grooming pristine pigs for show. Others view 4-H as a cold and calculating system designed “to desensitize children to the suffering of animals,” an accusation originating from multiple online posts, such as Eatocracy, an offshoot opinion website of CNN.

Colorado College student Laurel Howe says, “4-H is a great organization [that allows rural participants] to get outside town with opportunities such as having a pig at the county fair, conferences with friends from around the state…public speaking contests…and summer exchange programs.” Howe was involved in 4-H for 10 years and speaks about her experiences in the program with great enthusiasm. She says that she can honestly thank 4-H for the person she is today “because of the opportunities, learning experiences, and people [she met].”

In 2010, the University of Colorado conducted a study on the emotional burdens of 4-H livestock programs on participating youths. The study specifically looked at children’s ability to cope with the emotional and moral conflicts in 4-H. Participants frequently self-identify as animal lovers. However, participants who raise livestock must quickly learn coping skills as they approach the “caring-killing paradox,” which includes the act of selling for slaughter the healthy animals they have cared for and protected.

Some see the act of participants raising market animals (animals raised to be sold as meat) as reprehensible and disturbing because 4-H literature recommends participants “begin touching [their animals] as soon as possible” and that it is “important to spend time with the [animals] in [their] pen every day.” Also included: “Touch the [animals] as often as possible. This can include brushing, scratching, rubbing, etc…” Colorado College student McKenzie Millard raised market lambs every summer with 4-H for six years. She remembers raising the lambs during a time she simultaneously had a pet dog, three show rabbits for breeding, three horses and two cats. Millard recalls treating each one of these animals with love and compassion.

Although Millard remembers the first year she gave up her raised market lambs as emotionally tough, over the years she realized she “gave them a good life and raised them humanely and kindly for their whole lives.” The University of Colorado study found certain coping strategies and an intense contradiction in learning to bond with an animal only created for slaughter. In particular, researchers found two common coping strategies employed. The first is cognitive emotion work, which entails disregarding feelings, not becoming attached and viewing animals as mere “market animals.” The second strategy is redemption which implies justifying “raising then killing” as a means to save money for college and future expenses (even buying next year’s animals).

In order to remain unattached to the animals, participants undergo active emotion work while rearing the animals. This entails redefining feelings for the animals and making specific efforts to not view the animals as pets. The other distancing strategies include refraining from naming market animals, avoiding sentimentalizing them and consciously realizing the difference between people and animals destined for slaughter.

Ultimately, the study reveals the equivocal nature of 4-H: members both care deeply about the livelihood of their animals and support the animals’ fate as food.

This attitude towards animals is elemental to 4-H society. Just as 4-H participants view their livestock as “market animals,” some label certain animals as “pets,” others as “lab animals” and still others as “wild animals.” For example, a dog in one setting becomes a beloved family member, and in another, such as a racetrack, a dog becomes a “racing machine.” In the study, 4-H participants explain these animals were “created” for the market. From this, researchers suggest the “market animal” label behaves as the “lab animal” and “companion animal” labels do for other species. Animals are defined in terms of human use.

Because Millard was raised in a ranch-centered community, she has a deep understanding of “the respectful relationship that ranchers have with their livestock.” She acknowledges that her family lived a life where “every animal owned wasn’t just a pet, but also had a specific job/purpose” in their lives. To explain, she uses the examples of how barn cats kept the mice out of the barn and selling rabbits helped support her family’s livelihood. Likewise, the purpose of raising her 4-H lambs was to give the lambs “good, easy lives,” so they could then be sold to also contribute to her family’s well-being.

How we feel about an animal and how we treat it turns out to have less to do with what kind of animal it is and more to do with what our perception of it is. Imagine the following situation: you are a guest at an exquisite dinner party. The party host, your friend, ambles from the kitchen with a pot of rich, thick stew. You help yourself to a generous serving and after eating several spoonfuls of tender meat and stewed vegetables, you ask your friend for the recipe.

“You start with four pounds of German Shepherd,” your friend remarks, “heavily-marinated, and add a hint of…” German Shepherd? You most likely freeze mid-bite as you consider your friend’s words—the meat between your teeth came from a dog?

Now, let’s pretend your friend says they were kidding. The meat is not actually German Shepherd, but is beef. Do you still feel repulsed? Chances are, although the food is the exact same as it was at the beginning of the meal, you still have residual discomfort aboutthe beef stew.

We believe it is appropriate to eat cows, but not dogs. Therefore, we perceive cows as edible and dogs as inedible. This process is cyclical—beliefs lead to actions and actions reinforce beliefs. For this reason, the more frequently we don’t eat dogs, and do eat cows, the more frequently we reinforce the belief that dogs are inedible while cows are edible. When confronted with beef, we most likely skip the perceptual process that connects the meat in the bowl to the living animal.

This is the stance of many involved in 4-H. Although it is hard to say good-bye to project animals, participants acknowledge these beings were raised to become meat. The mission of 4-H livestock projects is to help people understand the value of animals to human life. Thinking back to her years in 4-H, Laurel Howe admits that the only downside she can think of was the paperwork some projects involved. However, if paperwork is the biggest complaint made by 4-H participants, maybe 4-H is a benevolent organization after all. Perhaps instead of “hatred” as the fifth “H,” presented by critics who claim 4-H desensitizes participants to slaughtering their animal friends, “humanity” should be the fifth “H.”