Picture this: there’s a petting zoo in a parking lot on a cool fall day, with all the baby animals to snuggle a child could ever want. There are ducklings to hold, sheep who want to sniff at your hand, a tiny goats who make the sweetest sounds. How can a child resist this opportunity to bond with the creatures we share our planet with? After a kid is given the chance to meet an actual kid, he’s then invited to participate in a bacon eating contest. Sound peculiar? Disturbing, even? It happened a year and a half ago in the parking lot of a Lucky’s supermarket in Columbus, Ohio. After being encouraged to meet a crew of animals provided by Bring the Farm to You, a pro-farming outreach group, children could then compete in a contest to eat as much slaughtered flesh as they could stomach.
Every day, children are taught to simultaneously love animals while being indoctrinated into meat eating culture by aggressive desensitization tactics. When we talk about vegan education, we can’t continue to let youth fall by the wayside. I approached many major vegan organizations inquiring about their youth programming, and I was told the same thing over and over again: that children were not a priority, and they weren’t yet interested in providing an important educational resource to North American youth. For far too many movement leaders, it’s believed that children are unimportant, and best educated on the topic at home. A few exceptions described some in-school educational programs they provided, but this was an alarming minority.
Do you know who has youth programming down to a science? Farmers. Activists were in an uproar over a thirteen year old girl who raised a blind steer named Oatmeal, only to send him to slaughter. What is remarkable is how this story is entirely unremarkable. Future Farmers of America might sound like a joke to those who didn’t grow up around it, but every year, thousands of children are made to lovingly spend long months raising an animal, and to end the relationship by bringing it to a local or state fair to be auctioned off and sent to die for the almighty dinner table.
The idea is that this builds grit. I’m not sure that grit is the right word, but it certainly builds something, and prepares youth for a violent outlook. If their hearts are broken enough times as they say goodbye to an animal, surely they will grow into an adult who sees life just for what it is. It is a brutal program that serves to literally breed farmers who take no issue with raising large populations of animals for killing. While typical meat eaters can choose to ignore what goes on to produce animal products, the methodology for raising the killers themselves is one that consists of emotionally abusing children until they finally break.
Away from the farm and into schools, programs continue to exist with unprecedented consequences. Chick hatching in elementary school classrooms is seen as a brilliant way to expose kids to life, death, and the inevitability of saying goodbye to something (more like someone) they love. My question is, why do baby chicks have to be dragged into those conversations and big picture lessons? Those concepts are undoubtedly important for any human to learn, but to do it by shipping a bunch of eggs to a classroom, incubating them, and then having the hatched babies sent off to a farm is atrocious. A well meaning teacher may choose to turn the babies over to an animal sanctuary or a local shelter, but all this results in is additional and completely unnecessary stress being put on a sanctuary, and more often than not in a shelter, euthanasia because there is no shortage or access to chickens. They simply don’t get adopted. The flippancy behind the business of it all is disturbing, and perhaps teaches children a little more about passing off responsibility than it does about the “circle of life.”
In a typical American family, children are raised to be kind and love animals, as this is a typical trait in a growing child anyways. Pet adoption is seen as an important way to help animals in distress, and to teach children how to be empathetic and caring towards other beings. It is not explained to them that the food on their plates and the drink in their cups comes from the exploitation of other animals that are not unlike those companions. We are delighted by viral videos of youth children refusing to eat meat and making compassionate connections to where the meat came from, yet most children aren’t even given the opportunity to think through the process to begin with. Raising a vegan child is said to be “forcing beliefs,” but what in the world is raising an omnivorous child if not that, with a heaping spoonful of violence at the very top?
The silver lining in this massive problem is that there is a solution, and that solution is developing ways to communicate veganism to youth in creative, hands-on ways. Organizations such as TeenVGN and Youth Empowered Action provide year-round social networking and summer camping programs to teenagers who want to strengthen their vegan resolve and become better peer ambassadors. VegYouth is a school club network founded by a sixteen year old who saw that adults weren’t going to provide much help to vegan youth.
While programs catering to teenagers and youth adults are crucial, education needs to start sooner, not after a short lifetime of desensitization. Animal exploitation culture and its advocates are sneaky and insidious in their actions, and the only way to fight an ugly trend is to extend our movement to be more inclusive of youth, and communicate a kinder alternative to them more effectively.