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One Hundred Children and a Zoo

Posted by tinako on April 30, 2010

I had an interesting experience today.  A leader of my city’s local vegetarian society, Carol, asked for volunteers to join her in a program at our city’s zoo, and I signed up for the first two hours.  Neither Carol nor I likes zoos, but this was an amazing opportunity.  Not only was the society going to be able to table inside the zoo for two days, but for the first two hours there would be groups of middle-schoolers stopping by our table for 15-minute periods, a captive audience.  I asked her if she had ever had an opportunity like this before, and she said no.  We only had a day to prepare, but the theme of the event was “Our Fragile World,” so we came up with some things to tie in to that. In order to appeal to this age group, I visited Farm Sanctuary’s teacher education materials online.  I really liked their idea for comparing the myth of happy farm animals to reality.  I suggested to Carol that if we could break that myth for these kids, that would be really something.

I volunteer in my kids’ school libraries, and I see the farm animal books they have, particularly in the K-2 building.  Of course the fiction books are all happy happy, but even the non-fiction books are fiction.  90% of farm animals live on factory farms; all the animals in the books are living  on the other 10%, but you’d never know that.  It’s not that I want kindergarteners exposed to books about slaughterhouses, but if the real treatment of farm animals is that unpleasant, let’s just skip it altogether rather than lie to them.  The collection of misleading books makes me squirm, but what really made me tear my hair out one time I was in there, was a teacher came in and asked for a stack of books on farm animals, because she was going to do a unit.  I groaned.  Kids trust their teachers, and this teacher was going to actively teach this fairy tale as a fact to a room full of receptive kids.  “Here’s the farmer picking the egg out of the nest.  That’s where your eggs come from, children.”

So the zoo event was this morning.  I have not been to this zoo in over thirty years, and I was chagrined to see it has not changed from what I remember.  The first thing I saw when I went in was a concrete block building with essentially a chain-link dog-run attached, with about a half dozen pheasants of some sort in it.

We were stationed on the other side of this building, in front of the monkeys and apes.  The lemur’s cage behind us was typical of the other primates’ cells.  Theirs was about 15′ square and 18′ high, with three cinderblock walls, a bare concrete floor, and chain-link front wall and ceiling.  They had a metal “tree” in there, and also running through were several large dead limbs and ropes and hammocks.  They had a concrete water bowl.  There was one, one living plant in there.  I am not making this up: in the middle of the cage, in a black plastic 2-gallon nursery pot, was growing a weedy plant, about 12″ high.

My friends who enjoy the zoo here may wish to skip this paragraph, since I’m going to express a strong opinion I usually keep to myself.  I have no knowledge about how well these animals are cared for.  They may get better health care than me.  They probably eat better than I do.  The people who work there are probably dedicated, caring professionals.  But how are these dismal cells better than a prison?  I can think of several ways they are worse.  What did they do to deserve this?  What gives us the right?  The fact that they are better off here than in a factory farm, research lab, circus, or dead, is a very low standard of comparison, and no excuse.  It made me very sad.  There are worse zoos, I know that, zoos where the animals are not cared for.  But a city our size is apparently still not capable of supporting a zoo in which wild animals can at least live in a facsimile of a natural setting.  That fact isn’t a disgrace for our city, but this zoo is.

I had to turn my back on the lemurs and do my best with the opportunity I had with these kids.  Carol got us started by asking the kids why they think somebody might become a vegetarian.  This was a great way to get the kids talking and involved.  Carol noticed that in all five groups, the first thing they answered was “caring about animals.”  She made sure to bring up health and the environment, which most groups did not think of on their own, and then I took over for a few minutes.

Minerva Louise

Charlotte's Web

I brought two books, Minerva Louise Goes to School and Charlotte’s Web.  I showed a picture from each (shown here) which portrayed stereotypical farm scenes.  I told the kids I liked the books and thought they had a lot to teach us, but that they weren’t too great at portraying the reality of farm animal life.  I said that unfortunately, most farm animals had not lived on farms like these for 50-60 years.

I had so little time, I had to focus on one animal, and chose egg-laying hens because I had a couple of good pictures and could say what I knew quickly.  I had timed myself and for some reason it took me longer to talk about pigs.

Battery Cages

So I showed them this photo and said: This is a typical, modern egg farm, and the eggs they bought at the store probably came from a place like this, and there were farms like this nearby.  There are probably 200,000 chickens in this one barn, and probably 5-6 more buildings like this on the farm.  It’s mostly dark, totally deafening, and the smell is unbelievable.  With cages stacked three-high, the chickens’ waste falls down onto those below, and then down into the basement where the manure piles up.  The kids were stunned.  They didn’t seem traumatized as I talked, but I heard gasps every time I showed this first photo.

Battery Cage Hens

Next I showed them this close-up photo, I gestured to show the size of the cage, about the size of a filing drawer, and said that the seven chickens in there were put in when they were young, and the door would not be opened for a year, when they would be removed and sent for slaughter.  Sometimes they would be starved for two weeks to reset their systems, and then those that survived would lay for a second year.  I explained that the food, water, and egg removal were all automatic, so people seldom came through.  I said that both these photos showed industry standard practices and that nothing I described was against the law.  Jaws dropped at that.

I said I was showing them these photos because it was difficult to understand how Minerva Louise’s or Wilbur’s farm could cause environmental destruction, but when you saw these pictures you could see that it is a factory.

Illegal deforestation for soybeans, Brazil

I went on from there to show this graphic, Livestock’s High Energy Costs (left, click to enlarge).  It shows the energy and greenhouse gas comparisons between calorically equivalent plant and meat foods.  Very dramatic.  I mentioned that livestock was the single biggest contributor to greenhouse gases, larger than all transport combined.  One group wanted to know more about that, and I had brought along the display I did a couple years ago on the subject.  I showed them photos of rainforest that had been destroyed to plant soybeans, not for tofu, but for livestock feed.  You can see my essay, “A Disregarded Truth,” for more.

Gestation Crates - Sows spend almost all of their 3-4 years in these.

This same group was interested in pigs, so I showed them two photos on my display showing crowding of pigs in a pen, and sows in gestation crates.  Their teacher in particular was very shocked and moved by all the photos.  We agreed that it was grotesque that the chickens were like sentient cogs in a horrible machine.

Carol took over again at this point and explained a graphic showing how wasteful meat is; I think she said land that will feed one omnivore will feed 12-16 vegetarians.  Then she passed around some brochures she wanted them to take home, and then we answered questions.

Some groups were quieter than others, but all had questions.  Some asked the typical questions, how do you get your protein, won’t they overpopulate if we don’t eat them, etc., but all groups expressed their disapproval of these conditions.  We didn’t want to just make the kids sad and send them home feeling awful, but on the other hand we didn’t want to be telling them what to do – they need to think it over and come to their own conclusions, though the conclusion was pretty obvious – eat fewer animal products.  We kept things matter-of-fact and upbeat, and I hope we were able to pass on our positive vibe to them.  We expressed how much we liked being vegan, how much variety we ate, etc.

I had worried that this age group, 6th-8th graders, would be so wrapped up in peer issues and themselves that they wouldn’t care what these vegan geek moms had to say.  If there’s one nice thing about speaking out against factory farms, it’s that it sells itself.  It’s impossible to ignore when it’s in front of you.  One boy asked me if I was getting paid.  I told him no, the chickens couldn’t speak for themselves so I was there to do it for them.  If you know anything about modern egg production, you know that I really held back, and that those photos are totally tame.  Just this little glimpse of their hell was enough to bother ordinary people.

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