As the month of July comes to a close I find myself avoiding my newsfeed on social media sites. Not for all of the “gore” that so many animal activist friends post. I have never been a fan of graphic depictions of violence as an educational tool, but I can always scroll past or hide photos. The reason for my avoidance goes much further back, all the way back to my childhood. The last week in July is the week of my hometown county fair.
I grew up on a farm. From spring to fall, the days were filled with hay, straw and farming hundreds of acres of corn, soybeans and wheat. There was also a herd of cows, kept first on a friend’s farm and then in our own backyard. The year I turned six, my brother started in 4-H and three years later, I followed suit. That pattern encompassed much of the following 12 years. I started out taking rabbits. They were my pets. My parents saw them as safe, easy and they came home with us at the end of the week. Then came my first steer.
With few exceptions, the animals that 4-H and FFA members take to the fair represent months of spending hours every day with the lamb, steer, or calf. There is a bond that happens while you try to teach them to walk with you, stand for brushing, and learn that loud noises aren’t horribly scary. In the case of steers, we often had them for 8 months or more. Lambs and pigs can be with the student for 4 months or more and, in the case of our FFA, sometimes the lambs were born in your barn. We kept records on how much they were eating and when any medical treatments were done. We stood by in the barn and talked to them to keep them calm for a veterinary exam.
Then, the last week in July, we loaded them on a trailer before sunrise to transport them to the fairgrounds before the heat of the day. The steers were led to their spots in the long barns, halters secured and water buckets tied so they couldn’t be dumped. Each morning they were walked at dawn while the fairgrounds were still quiet, rinsed off, pens cleaned and put back before the visitors showed up. On the day of the show, hours of brushing and primping went into each steer for their 15 minutes in the show ring. Dozens of men stood at the gates, around the barns and in the ring ready to step in and help should a poor steer become spooked and bolt for freedom. Unfortunately, with a gravel pit on one side and a highway on the other, “freedom” never turned out to be truly free.
The last days of the fair were our designated “sale” days. The times were posted, sale orders announced, and one by one the barns would be emptied. Those last two days every year were always the worst. I think that every person concerned with the right of non-human animals has cringed when they see the animal transport trucks on the road.
Every year for nine years, I put my friends on one of those trucks. Then, I had to go find my mom who was watching the sale to find out who the buyer was and thank them. In nine years, I don’t think I ever did it without tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat.
I have been asked over the years why I did it every year. Why I never refused. I’m not sure I can ever make someone understand but here’s a go at it: I hated those last two days of the fair and the week following when my brother would tease that we were likely eating my friend every time we went out to eat. I loved the rest of the time. I loved standing in the pastures and talking to my friends. I often kept a book in the barn and would sit out and read with them. I didn’t know that I could refuse, and I’m not sure what would have happened if I had. My parents were more startled by the fact that I became vegetarian than by the fact that I was gay. The way of life was and is a big deal there and expectations are hard to escape.
I have only been back to the fair once since that last sale day. I saw it differently when I went back, even though that was still years before I became vegetarian. Now, I see the pictures that high school classmates post of their kids at the fair and the memories come back. The days in the pasture to the excitement, the pride of a job well done… and those last two horrible days.
Cheryl joined the VINE crew as a full-time animal caregiver in 2010 and has since become an integral member of our multispecies community, now coordinating many of our on-site activities. When not using her veterinary technician training to give check-ups or coming up with ingenious uses for salvaged materials, she delights the rest of the staff with samples of her home-made seitan and vegan cheese. If you’re not sure where to find her, check the back pasture, where she might be talking with her friends.
Photo Credits: Cheryl with Maddox — Selena Salfen; Cheryl brushing Norman — Christiane Bailey.