Thursday, July 29, 2010

Life and Death - on the Farm and at the Fair

This week, police shot and killed what they described as a "rampaging" cow at the California State Fair.  The cow had been brought to the fair as part of the animal birthing exhibit operated by the UC Davis Vet School.  UCD has offered the livestock nursery exhibit for about 30 years.  The cow apparently panicked and escaped from her handlers to run through the fairgrounds.  After she was surrounded, she panicked again and knocked over a police officer.  The decision to shoot her was made to protect fair employees (the fair hadn't opened yet, so there were no members of the public on the fairgrounds at the time).

Understandably, the incident has generated a debate about the livestock nursery exhibit and about fair security's handling of the situation.  Those who oppose any use of animals or animal products have seized on the incident to further condemn what they see as the exploitation of animals.  Others have spoken out against exhibiting animals while they are giving birth.  On the other hand, the local paper has carried quotes from fair-goers stating that "humans are more important than animals," which apparently justifies shooting the cow.

I find the issue to be less black-and-white than the news media and activists would have us believe.  I think the birth of an animal is one of the most miraculous events I've ever witnessed (besides, of course, the birth of my own daughters).  Lambing season is my favorite time of year, and I feel privileged to participate in this annual renewal.  One of the realities of caring for livestock, however, is that I have to deal with the death of an animal from time to time - sometimes during the birthing process itself.  While I don't enjoy this aspect of my livelihood, it is part of the work that I must do.

I have also seen animals get panicked.  A panicked cow can be quite frightening, especially for someone who is not used to being around livestock.  Our responsibility as caretakers of these animals is to stay calm and to try to de-escalate the stress on the animal.  Even for an experienced handler, this can be difficult.  For someone who only sees large animals in a setting like the fair, this can be next to impossible.  I don't know firsthand what happened at the fair, but I can imagine that the police were ill-equipped to de-escalate the situation.

This debate can be a healthy discussion if we can move beyond the black-and-white arguments about animal "rights" and public safety.  A fellow sheep producer and friend, Al Medvitz, once said that we make the mistake in this country of believing that death is the opposite of health.  I think the livestock nursery offers the public a chance to observe and participate in the miracle of new life.  I hope that this incident gives fairgoers and fair staff a chance to learn more about animal care and behavior as well.

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