FFA and 4-H: Teaching Kids to Harden Their Hearts

The school year is winding down and the summer fair circuit is getting under way. And for animals used in 4-H, the National FFA Organization (FFA), and other agricultural programs, the season ahead is unlikely to have a pleasant ending. The animals in these programs are typically destined for one of two heartbreaking fates: to be sold at auction for slaughter or to be used as “breeders” (and likely sent to slaughter later, once they’re no longer profitable). And all the while, these programs teach children the dangerous message that it’s acceptable to send their animal friends—whom they’ve likely cared for and bonded with for months—to violent, terrifying deaths at slaughterhouses.

We know that many young people join FFA or 4-H programs because they’re interested in animals—but the goals of these programs demand that children develop a harmful disconnect from those very animals, and the consequences are detrimental to everyone involved.

Here’s why agriculture programs that use live animals, such as FFA and 4-H, have no place in schools:

They Foster Callousness Toward Living Beings

4-H encourages members to raise animals for “projects.” Even in the beginning stages of these projects, members are instructed to “identify parts of [their] animal and cuts of meat”—desensitizing young people to the fact that these living beings are worth more than their parts. Students learn how to care for the animals during this time, but let’s not forget that they’re being taught to take care of them in a way that will bring in the most profit and win a competition.

Instead of teaching kids that animals are individuals who have unique personalities, needs, and feelings, these programs teach them to view their fellow animals as nothing more than a way to make money. They’re told to celebrate as their friend is auctioned off to the highest bidder. Rather than learning about the ways in which pigs and cows are similar to us, how they care for their young, and how they’re social and smart, kids are encouraged to fatten them up to become bacon or told to turn them into good breeders. In short, they’re forced to harden a piece of their hearts.

Teaching Empathy Is Vital

Children’s natural affinity and respect for animals should never be snuffed out to make room for a cold, uncaring attitude toward the intelligent, social beings they cared for. Teaching kindness is crucial to the health and future of our children. It speaks volumes about a society when its schools encourage children to participate in programs that end with the deaths of animals they’ve befriended and whose trust they actively courted.

TeachKind hears reports of cruelty-to-animals cases involving young people nearly every week. Given the rampant bullying and youth violence in schools as well as the alarming cases of young people abusing animals that regularly appear in the news, it’s vital and timely that a standard of compassion be set in all schools—and that students be taught to understand that violence toward any living being is wrong. This should absolutely include the violence inherent in sending an animal to slaughter.

TeachKind has received reports of numerous violent cruelty cases involving animals who were being used in school agriculture programs. Here are a few that have made headlines in recent years:

  • February 2018/Katy, Texas: Chron.com reported that an FFA student had been accused of dragging a squealing pig by a rope before shooting her in the head with a rifle while on school grounds.
  • February 2017/Delhi, California: MercedSunStar.com reported that a high school student had tortured and killed a pig on the Delhi High School campus. The pig was stabbed, burned, and possibly hanged by the neck with rope, and one other pig was found with a knife wound in his leg. The animals had reportedly been used as part of an FFA project. The suspect was arrested.
  • January 2015/La Villa, Texas: ValleyCentral.com reported that three juveniles had allegedly attacked and tortured about 30 animals—killing one—while vandalizing La Villa Independent School District’s barn. The animals, including pigs, lambs, goats, and a steer, were being used as part of an FFA project. They were reportedly found with large cuts on their bodies, and it’s believed that their food was poisoned. They were also beaten with a steel bat, and one animal’s eyes were gouged out. The juveniles were expected to face charges.
  • April 2014/Santa Clara, California: MercuryNews.com reported that several middle school students had been arrested after allegedly killing a rabbit, a duck, and five chickens during a vandalism spree on the Wilcox High School campus. The animals, who were being used as part of science and food projects at the school, were reportedly tortured, hit, and thrown against walls.

Using animals as “teaching tools” in school projects leaves them vulnerable to abuse, and programs like FFA and 4-H ultimately teach kids the dangerous lesson that animals are nothing more than items that can be bought, sold, and slaughtered.

Animals Are Worth More Than Their Parts

Just like the cats and dogs we share our homes with, pigs, cows, chickens, and other animals are sensitive, thinking individuals who value their lives and feel pain, fear, joy, and love. They’re terrified by the sights and smells of the slaughterhouse and don’t want to die. Animals killed for food endure horrifying deaths—and to teach children otherwise is misleading and irresponsible.

In slaughterhouses, chickens’ fragile legs are slammed into metal shackles and they’re hung upside down before workers slit their throats. Pigs are dumped into tanks of scalding-hot water—often while they’re still alive because of improper stunning—and cows are hoisted upside down by the hind legs and dismembered, sometimes while they’re fully conscious.

Animals don’t belong to us, and they value their lives and families just as we value ours. A culture in which the manipulation, exploitation, and slaughter of animals is standard practice is one that views them as possessions, products, and commodities instead of individuals who experience feelings, belong to families, and form friendships. Widespread institutionalized violence will continue as long as humans view living, feeling animals as objects and poison children’s minds to think the same. Schools should be teaching students to be more aware of and sensitive to the needs of others, not to turn a blind eye simply because they’re told to do so.

If You Love Animals, You Don’t Sell Them to Be Killed

When students join the FFA or 4-H, not all of them realize that the animals they’ll spend months caring for and bonding with will eventually be sold into an exploitative industry. We’ve heard from numerous students who were absolutely heartbroken to find out that the animals they’d grown to know and love would be sold to be killed. Here are the stories of two students who refused to turn their backs on the animals they’d befriended:

  • Alena Hidalgo of Pearland, Texas, spent months getting to know Gizmo, the pig she purchased through the FFA. It didn’t take long for the two to bond as Alena played with Gizmo and cared for him every day. She saw him as the unique, sentient, intelligent being he was—not as food or a “product” to make money from. So when the time came to send Gizmo to slaughter, Alena knew that she had to do everything in her power to save him.
    She raised her voice and fought for weeks. Along with her friend Kayree, Alena not only persuaded her school to let her send Gizmo to a local sanctuary but also fought for the life of another pig named Kurtis (who, unfortunately, was sent to slaughter by another student). At the sanctuary, Gizmo is able to spend his days living freely, with no risk of being slaughtered. As for Alena, she decided to go vegan and quit the FFA.
  • Bruno Barba of Fullerton, California, joined the FFA program at his high school and bought a young pig from a feedlot, naming her Lola. He learned how to take care of her—feeding her, cleaning her living area, and walking her, all according to FFA’s plan. But as time passed and Bruno got to know Lola’s unique, loving personality, he became anxious about her fate. The pivotal moment came when he saw student-hired butchers slaughtering the cows he’d come to know over the last few months. He realized that the animals deserved better, and he couldn’t betray Lola, who he felt would follow him anywhere—even unknowingly to a bloody, painful slaughter.

    Instead of sending Lola to a butcher or dooming her to life in a concrete pen, Bruno found her a new home at Farm Sanctuary in New York, where she can grow old with other pigs and play in the grass and mud. Neither Bruno nor his awesome mom could look at meat, dairy “products,” or eggs as “food” again, so they made the switch to a cruelty-free diet.

There’s No Excuse to Abuse Animals for Our Own Gain

Everything that you read above? It doesn’t have to be that way. No one needs to eat animals. Promoting a vegan diet is the more sustainable, humane, and compassionate choice. 4-H, FFA, and other agricultural programs could easily stop their cruel practices and focus instead on some of the ethical things that they already promote, like gardening, expressive arts, and leadership programs. Why support an unsustainable, cruel, and dangerous industry when there are so many useful, ethical, and sustainable skills that these groups could teach young people instead?

TeachKind

It’s vital to teach kids to respect animals for the interesting sentient beings they are instead of focusing on how they can be of use to humans. Students should be taught to stand up for others who need help—not to stand by quietly as a living being they’ve grown to love is sent to be killed.

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 Ingrid E. Newkirk

“Almost all of us grew up eating meat, wearing leather, and going to circuses and zoos. We never considered the impact of these actions on the animals involved. For whatever reason, you are now asking the question: Why should animals have rights?” READ MORE

— Ingrid E. Newkirk, PETA President and co-author of Animalkind