There's nothing quite like kids and animals together. On many weekday mornings this fall, I am farmer Bill at West Rock's Educational Farm in New Haven. I get to show visiting students the animals in the barnyard and experience their joy. What a great job! Most of the visitors have been kindergarten, first or second grade students from New Haven. We've had more than a thousand visit so far. But I've also given tours to New Haven high school students, Bridgeport fifth graders, some home-schooled children and private school classes from the suburbs.
Here's the picture. Nestled between a metal maintenance shed and a bit of woods at the back of the West Rock Nature Center is the fenced-in barnyard. It's about 30 feet by 50 feet, and has been built over the years by high school students studying ecology and the environment, and the New Haven Ecology Project. The barnyard residents include: Angelica the Nubian goat and Beatrice the lamb, both born the same day last winter on a farm in Glastonbury, three giant bronze turkeys (raised here from day-old babies), Howard the duck and his three female companions (Howard's the one with the curl at the end of his tail), an aloof goose, five laying hens, a gentle banty rooster with feathers on his feet, two dozen young barred rock chickens, TLC the "attack" rabbit, and some baby rabbits. Then there's 20 to 30 children, several adults, and me to help the visitors and the animals have a rewarding experience. This is not difficult. Most of the kids take to the animals like a, well, like a duck to water. We all have an exciting time. The baby rabbits are the most popular, both with tough high school boys and with five year olds. The young animals need to be treated with care and respect, and they must be held so they feel secure. The kids catch on quickly. Actually, the animals calm them down.
It's both astounding and a powerful example of the need for more of this kind of education, that one day I had two children unable to tell me what kind of animal the lamb I was holding a foot or so away from them was. Other students can't tell a chicken from a turkey, or think that the goat is a dog.
There is intense interest in the fresh eggs, and in the differences between eggs to eat and the eggs that become baby chicks. Even many of the adults don't understand that hens don't need a rooster in order to lay an egg. The male is needed only to fertilize it, just as it is with humans.
Mostly, the children connect the eggs in the nest box with hatching to make baby chicks rather than with the eggs they eat. This is sadly ironic because in today's world, a machine is the mother for almost all chickens.
These children have wonderfully diverse backgrounds. Many of them have strong connections to the land and small-scale food production. In one class, there were children whose relatives have farms in Poland, Jamaica and Guyana. Many of the Hispanic children seem to have a kind of natural grace in handling the animals. I was amazed that some big teenaged boys were more afraid of touching the turkey than most kindergarten students are.
A group of second and third graders from an innovative private school visited and cleaned out the pens where the animals spend their nights. What energy and enthusiasm these students had as they composted the bedding to provide fertility for the gardens.
The children and teachers understand and accept that several of the turkeys will have a major role in Thanksgiving dinner, and that the young male chickens will provide the makings of a fine soup and a good dinner.
If we are going to eat meat, an animal must die. This brutal fact makes us appreciate the relationship with the females of the species, our goat, lamb and hens, who will live for many years, producing milk, wool, eggs and babies as well as manure for the gardens. This is the basic farm economy.
The rapidly emerging reality for most farm animals today, however, is a short life in very large scale confinement facilities, with steady doses of drugs and hormones. Amazingly and unfortunately, many of the same elements may be the future reality for too many of these children.
As the electronic images on television, computer and game screens become more prevalent larger part of reality for these students at home and at school, they seem to hunger for and appreciate real experiences.
It seems like it'd be good for the animals and the children to work toward a more humane and local, ecologically-based food system.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
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