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I Participated in 4-H as a Kid. Here’s What I Actually Learned.

I’m standing outside a large metal barn in the middle of winter, snow falling around me. The brisk wind burns my face. Ill prepared for the weather, I shiver in my old muck boots. Only moments later, I’m able to ignore the below-freezing temperature and acknowledge what’s in front of me: eight small piglets, just old enough to leave their mother, trembling and searching for warmth.

For now, the only warmth they can find is in my small, weak arms. 

My sister and I braved this excruciating weather to purchase several pigs for the local 4-H fair. Once we picked out our piglets, we carefully placed them in a large dog crate in the back of my mom’s car. The entire way home, we discussed which names perfectly fit their personalities. When we arrived, we carried our new piglets to a bedding area and let them rest for the night.

At the time, I could recall no better feeling.

In later years, the result of this annual trip was the same, but the experience was different. When I first got involved in 4-H, each animal had a name. I fed my piglets marshmallows and found my favorite napping spot: cuddled up next to them in a bed of hay. It didn’t occur to me that I was sleeping next to an animal twice my size, only that they were just like the companion animals who slept in my bed each night. 

By the time I reached my teens, I no longer found myself comforting these pigs, regardless of how strongly they desired it. I cared more about the “payout” than the life at stake, and I treated my friends and family just as callously, never asking myself if these attitudes were connected.

Looking back, I see how I went from a compassionate young girl to an unkind young woman. It was difficult to lose the animals I cared for, and I did anything I could to preserve my sanity. 

I went from empathetic to apathetic in the blink of an eye.

I started scolding my sister if she showed even an ounce of remorse, as 4-H leaders had once done to me. 

Children involved in this program were viewed as pawns, bringing hope to the industry that younger generations would help big agriculture grow more efficient and prosperous. 

I spent many years of my life repeating the painful cycle of buying, raising, and selling animals.

Unlike many 4-H kids, I didn’t grow up with farmed animals. Many of the people I “competed” against were destined to become farmers and had been raised with a lack of empathy for farmed animals. And I was conditioned through 4-H to lose my empathy.

I still remember a few of my first experiences in this program. I recall learning about growth hormones that allow pigs to grow 200 pounds in under six months and how to slaughter a rabbit—though I cuddled with my companion rabbit at home. I recall being mocked for refusing to eat a pork tenderloin only minutes after walking my pig onto a truck bound for the slaughterhouse. But as a 4-H leader told me, “There is no place for weakness in animal agriculture.” 

These experiences have stuck with me throughout my life. I’ve repressed many of my worst memories. They don’t come to mind until I see a slaughter truck overturned on the highway or a new undercover investigation released. 

And when the memories do emerge, the pain is crippling.

I spent much of my childhood hating myself for feeling even slight remorse or sadness. I now see how I had changed to become the type of person the animal agriculture industry wanted me to be: complacent. 

After many years of self-reflection, I realize that we are naturally empathetic. The meat, dairy, and egg industries profit off consumers’ lack of compassion and knowledge—and I was one of the victims. Studies suggest that modern Western society does not promote empathy development in children. We see this reflected in our broken food system, which exploits both people and animals. 

I recently visited Kanda Farm Sanctuary, a small pig sanctuary in rural Indiana. As I greeted the residents, I had an overwhelming feeling of hope. As a child, I never knew there was an alternative to sending my pigs to slaughter. I heard stories of how children just like me sought compassion and put programs like 4-H behind them.

I began my life feeling compassion toward animals. In fact, my love for animals was one of the reasons I got involved in 4-H. But I later realized that it normalized the atrocities in the industry. 

I rediscovered the compassion I once knew and became an advocate for the 99 percent of farmed animals raised in industrialized facilities. 

During my rediscovery, something became painfully clear: As long as programs like 4-H exist, our children’s natural compassion will be threatened, and the kinder world we envision will be harder to build. We must nurture kindness in our children by investing in humane education programs, adopting animals in need, and showing those we love that compassion begins on our plates.