The story of Cedar the goat, seized by Shasta County, California, sheriff’s deputies from the sobbing nine-year-old girl who raised him, sharply focuses competing views of animals. Cedar’s passage from a county fair to a community barbeque garnered reactions that depended on whether you regard the goat as a stolen family pet or as livestock destined for slaughter.

Cedar was raised in 4-H, a youth program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Over a year, kids bring commercial breeds of cattle, pigs, goats and sheep to healthy market weights, culminating in the showing of the animals at a county fair and their auction for slaughter.

Every year, thousands of kids across the country raise animals in this way. But Cedar’s sad story illustrates a culture clash between those of us who raise livestock and those of us who know animals only as pets.

In Cedar’s case, his young caretaker tearfully decided she did not want him to be slaughtered. After offering to buy back Cedar from fair authorities, the girl’s mother took the goat. Shasta District Fair authorities considered this grand theft and enlisted law enforcement to reclaim their property. Using tactics that are now the subject of a lawsuit filed by nonprofit law firm Advancing Law for Animals, deputies located Cedar at a farm 200 miles away, confiscated him and reportedly delivered him to slaughter.

Today, less than half of 4-H members live on farms. The lessons of its livestock programs may challenge those who don’t raise the animals that end up on the butcher’s counter. Raising an animal in 4-H requires that young members agree to sell the animal for slaughter and keep that agreement despite its emotional difficulty. Thus, caring for an animal that will become meat requires developing psychological skills that surpass feeding, vaccinating, shoveling manure and trimming hooves.

At the University of Colorado Boulder, sociologist Colter Ellis and I interviewed kids in 4-H soon after they acquired their animals and during the auction. They described their commitment to feeding and handling their animals and gaining their trust. To a point, their relationships with their animals were like those with pets. But unlike with pets, the kids knew that their animals would be loaded onto trucks after the auction. Although we expected to hear about sadness and loss, we instead learned how the kids coped with those difficult emotions. Like sociologist Rhoda Wilkie found in studying people who raise livestock, we saw that the 4-H members had to become both “empathetic carers” and “economic producers.” From peers and adult leaders, members learned to regard the lambs, pigs and other animals they raised as “market animals” rather than as pets. They saw that only the youngest kids cried when their animals were sold, and the older members emulated those with more experience who managed their emotions and reaped the financial benefits of the auction.

Children learn the norms associated with feeling and expressing emotion through “emotional socialization,” seen elsewhere in settings involving harm to animals. For example, in studying children’s involvement in animal dissection in science classes, Dorian Solot and Arnold Arluke found that “faculty, parents, older students, and mass media provide models and expectations for how they should manage their feelings.” Because dissection is a rite of passage into many scientific and medical careers, managing anxiety or squeamishness influences whether students follow those paths. Similarly, as a rite of passage into the culture of livestock production, the 4-H program requires distinctive emotional skills. One girl conveyed this well when she said, “I used to cry, but I knew all along what they were raised for.”

The most important lesson conveyed in 4-H livestock programs, albeit an implicit one, concerns what it takes to maintain dominion over animals, or the belief that animals exist to serve human needs. Although the term “dominion” does not appear in any 4-H statements, some members clearly believed their actions were divinely authorized. For example, when we asked a girl how she felt about selling her pigs, she said, “I think about how, in the Bible, God gave us animals for food.” In this view, slaughter is not cruelty but necessity. If people want to eat meat, someone must raise the animals. However, as 4-H members increasingly come far removed from a farming heritage, its lessons can seem cruel to those who know animals mainly as pets.

In Cedar’s story, the seemingly heavy-handed methods by the sheriff’s office to reclaim him require justification. Setting aside other duties, they drove hundreds of miles to confiscate a goat. That’s especially puzzling considering the family’s willingness to reimburse the fair and the buyer’s decision to waive his rights to Cedar. But law enforcement can be better understood, if imperfectly, through the lens of the inconsistency between the legal and perceived status of farmed animals. Because they are commodities, farmed animals are legally considered property.  Of course, owners also come to know the animals as more than mere “things.” The animals become “sentient commodities,” temporarily pets or friends but nevertheless destined for sale and slaughter.

Cedar’s owner and her mother knew what they had signed up for. The fair’s livestock auction agreement states in bold text, “This is a terminal sale—No exceptions!” When the girl and her mother tried to pull Cedar out of the auction, fair authorities stood by the rules. In a June 28 e-mail, the fair’s CEO claimed that making an exception would only teach kids “that they do not have to abide by the rules that are set up for all participants.” But surely it would have been better to teach this child about the power of compassion by allowing her to opt out of the auction—before it was too late. Perhaps future contracts will allow some flexibility, especially for minors, with the understanding that their relationships with their animals evolve, and some will decide not to send their friends to slaughter. If 4-H aims to benefit all members, it will need to adapt to changing attitudes toward animals.

The court will decide whether Cedar was a market animal or a stolen pet that met a tragic end. But another question lies at the heart of this story: What is the price of our dominion over animals? The broken heart of Cedar’s caretaker illuminates what it takes to bring meat to people’s tables. It requires that those who raise livestock learn to do the taxing emotional and ethical work of hardening their feelings and navigating the shifting status of their animals. And because they do, those of us who eat meat can avoid it.

The story of Cedar the goat reveals the ambivalence with which we regard animals. Animals can be either commodities or beloved pets, but they cannot be both. Their fate depends on time and place. Unfortunately, Cedar was in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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