The First and Last Lamb
Part of growing up involves being desensitized to sad and upsetting things. As children we are shielded from sex, violence, drug use, and even certain words through PG, PG 13, and R ratings. Our parents seek to explain the “tough” issues in a way that simplifies and glosses over details that might traumatize us or give us nightmares. Another method is teaching children how the world works early, although it might be painful. Children naturally react strongly to loss, pain, and separation. As you become an adult, some of the tragedy in life becomes easier to bear. As I watched the trailer for a new documentary called The Ghosts in Our Machine, I remembered something I hadn’t thought about in a long time- the 4-H livestock auction at the county fair I attended as a middle schooler.
In the rural area of Ohio I grew up in, most of the kids were in 4-H. In the fall, we showed off the projects we had worked on all summer at the county fair. Many of the projects involved raising an animal that you cared for through out the year and then showed at the fair (maybe even win a ribbon). The inevitable conclusion of the fair was when you would sell your animal at the auction where they are bid on by the pound. If you raise a larger animal, like a cow or pig, you could make hundreds of dollars (and for a country kid that’s a fortune).
Although we had cattle at my parent’s farm, my interests lay in showing horses- the one animal that wasn’t auctioned off for meat. But, a lot of my childhood friends had steers, chickens, goats, rabbits, and sheep. One friend in particular had lamb at the fair, along with her horse. I forget his name now, but the lamb was very tame and docile. Since we got the whole week off school for the fair, a couple of other kids and I decided to watch her sell the sheep at the 4-H auction.
Although everyone knows that ultimately you have to sell your animals and that they will be killed soon after, the reality doesn’t seem to sink in for a lot of kids until they are leading their faithful animals around the ring for the last time. From our seats in the bleachers we could see our friend as she began to cry. Tears streamed down her red cheeks as she grasped the lead rope to her chest. Sitting beside us, her mother sighed, and muttered “Come on, Honey, pull it together.” By this time, the rest of us were crying too.
After the bidding had ended on the sheep, the winning buyer signaled that he wanted to send the sheep straight to the slaughterhouse to be butchered. As she led him out of the ring, my friend was openly sobbing.
After that year, she only showed horses with me and never took another “meat” project. And I would not become a vegetarian for many more years. I wonder now how we were all able to walk away from that without learning anything. As children, we wept for the sheep, wept because we knew it was about to die. The adults said that children need to learn where food comes from, and get over their sentimentality so that they can be the food-producers of the future.
Having compassion and being sensitive to the suffering of other beings is not something we should be made to “grow out of.” We make fun of compassion and empathy for animals, and praise compassion and empathy for other humans. This deeply flawed thinking needs to end for the next phase of our moral evolution to begin. Compassion for all living things should be cherished and encouraged. Standing up for what you know is right, even though it isn’t popular should be revered. This is the core of our humanity.
I did learn a lesson from my friend’s lamb, although it took some time to register. As he was loaded on a truck bound for the slaughterhouse, separated from his family, betrayed by the humans he trusted, I was getting ice cream with my friends to cheer ourselves up. By the time he was killed, we had all forgotten him, almost.