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Fair Week

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.

cherylmaddoxWith 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.

6 comments to Fair Week

  • Alex Pastor
    Beautiful <3
  • Valerie Traina
    Thank you for publishing this piece. I would like to share it on Facebook.
  • Growing up in rural southwestern Oklahoma and attending a ‘consolidated’ rural school virtually required participation in (early on) 4H and (later on) FFA (which was boys only in my years of public schooling). I stumbled into a “project” my junior year of raising a pig for the fair. I can still barely think about this experience much less write about it. But…I will…if for no other reason than to voice my solidarity with your avoidance and sorrow. And to bear witness.

    He was a good being, this pig I “raised”. We went for walks together, we played together, he loved tummy rubs. I went into some deranged and numb place and took him to the fair and sold him to his death and it hurts even to write this. I never forgot him or my betrayal of him and I still, over 50 years later, think of him. That betrayal and abandonment of him remains, for me, as one of…if not the most…despicable and horrid things I’ve ever done. That wounding of myself (not even considering that his life was stolen in the doing of it) is just as raw and just as deep now, these many years later, as it was then. He didn’t deserve such disregard…but it was done to him by me. And it diminished me permanently…and killed him.

    “Fairs” are places of horror and betrayal and I’ve only been to one since that time. And I thought of him when I looked in the eyes of the pigs that were there and I apologized to them. But saying apologies does not change the unspeakable awfulness of a “fair”.

    That “fair” changed me (and killed my pig friend), that “fair” wasn’t fair for anyone. The best thing I can say about me in reference to those sad things is that I never did it again. That next year in school, I quit FFA…which was unheard of there in those times. The FFA teacher hounded me throughout the year about my quitting. Looking back, I can see that it made him look bad, that I had quit FFA and he did not like it and he harried me many many times. It was an unpleasant last year of school…but I was not dead…but the pig friend I betrayed was dead.

    Fairs are one of the many ways we transform betrayal and death and awfulness into occasions of celebration and fun. And innocent lives are snuffed out because of them…and we make ourselves, our children, into monsters and we tell ourselves that it is good. And then we wonder why so many things seem bad.

    It was good that I quit FFA, it would have been ever so much better if I had not done an awful denial of a friend and a betrayal of both him and of myself. I failed him and I failed me and “fairs” are places where children are taught to betray and fail their friends and to betray and fail themselves. No, they are not places of fairness at all.

    Thanks for writing this Cheryl.

  • Marcia Mueller
    Such an excellent description of the dark side of “fairs.” I can only imagine the regret and sadness that the author must feel, even after all the years, about the fate of her pig. I wish many, many people could read this and really think about it.
  • pattrice
    Cheryl, I’m so glad you wrote this. Vegan Elder, I’m so glad you shared your story too. What I want is for both of you, along with anybody else who grew up in a rural area and/or participated in 4-H or FFA (which stands for Future Farmers of America, for those not in the know) to think about what we all might do to intervene in this kind of cojoined child and animal abuse.

    What seems to me most awful is that 4-H and FFA do have plant-based projects, but that children who are drawn to animals probably are most likely to be drawn to their projects involving animals — which then teach those children to suppress their empathy for animals and to become more callous about killing.

    Some of those children grow up to be parents who then, either forgetting their own tears or convinced that it is necessary to “toughen up,” put their own children into the program, thereby carrying the trauma into the next generation.

    Just as with any other kind of social change, if we want to transform our rural economies and cultures, we will need to figure out how to stop the intergenerational transmission of hurtful ideas and practices.

    And, as with any other kind of cultural change, pressure from the outside will be less effective than pressure from within. So… I REALLY want to know what people who grew up in those communities think about how we could extend solidarity to the animal-loving children in those communities, so that they will not have to suffer the trauma of the last two days of fair week.

  • CQ
    Dear Cheryl and veganelder,

    My heart goes out to both of you and to your dear cow and pig friends — and to all the 4H and FFA “products.” I say “products” because these organizations commodify not only the innocent nonhumans babies, but the innocent human children, too.

    Being forced to kill animals with one’s own hands is what mind-control victims are made to do; it permits their hearts to harden and their minds to “turn off,” so to speak. And it prepares them to do any cruel and gory act they are “ordered” by their “handlers” to do throughout their lifetimes.

    One way out of this oppression and repressed guilt and sorrow might be to listen to the little voice inside assuring us that our innate love for all beings (ourselves included) is stronger, deeper, more powerful and more permanent than any and all acts we committed when we were not in our “right mind.”

    Pure love, such as the kind expressed daily at VINE sanctuary, can wash away all tears of regret and guilt and shame and sorrow.

    I understand why your gentle heart cannot (and wouldn’t want to) forget your special friend, veganelder. And yet I sense that the love you feel for that pig and for all creatures outweighs all other feelings to the contrary. May your joy in their goodness (and your own goodness) be a reminder that love (and its attendant peace) cannot EVER be taken from you by anyone. Love is indelible, eternal. Love lasts. Love — and Love alone — is Life.

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