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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

What a girl’s goat teaches us about our food

By Nicholas Kristof

This is the story of a 9-year-old girl and the goat she loved. But it’s also the story of hard hearts and broken hearts, of county fairs and lost innocence. Finally, because of the political power of America’s agribusiness and meat industries, it is the story of a dead goat.

Last April, a mom in Shasta County, California, named Jessica Long purchased a young goat for her daughter’s project in 4-H, the youth organization. The girl, whom we’ll call by her first initial, E., because the case is in litigation, named her goat Cedar.

Every day, E. fed Cedar and practiced showing him for the county fair in June. They bonded: Soon Cedar was running to the gate to greet E., and Long says that her daughter walked around with Cedar as if he were a pet dog.

E. showed Cedar at the Shasta District Fair, but the fair required 4-H members to hand over meat animals at the end of the fair for slaughter. On the last evening of the fair, E. sat in the pen on the straw beside Cedar, sobbing, as she tried to say farewell. A video taken that evening shows the girl embracing Cedar, petting him and seeming to kiss his forehead, as he nuzzles her.

Long couldn’t bear her daughter’s sorrow, so she and E. walked away with Cedar and drove him to a site in far-off Sonoma County for safekeeping.

Fair executives were displeased. They insisted that Cedar must be slaughtered.

“The fair industry is set up to teach our youth responsibility and for the future generations of ranchers and farmers to learn the process and effort it takes to raise quality meat,” Melanie Silva, the CEO of the fair, emailed Long.

The fair reportedly accused Long of committing a felony by stealing a goat that her daughter no longer owned; Long argues that ownership never passed to anyone else, so Cedar was always E.’s.

So the fair apparently brought in the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office, which obligingly dispatched two deputies to make a 500-mile round-trip drive to seize Cedar. When E. learned that her pet had been taken and slaughtered, she ran to her bed, pulled the covers over her head and wept. It’s a story reminiscent of E.B. White’s classic “Charlotte’s Web,” although with a conclusion still more heartbreaking.

Long’s lawsuit argues that the sheriff’s deputies wrongly seized the family’s goat and then apparently handed it over to fair authorities. In their response to the lawsuit, the county and the sheriff’s office acknowledge that the deputies “drove to Sonoma County to retrieve a goat” and claim that “no warrant was necessary to retrieve Cedar at the Sonoma Farm as they had consent from the property owner.” The county declined to comment further, citing the suit.

I am astonished that the best use of Shasta County taxpayers’ money was to dispatch two deputies on a full day’s journey not to fight crime or addiction (fentanyl overdose deaths quintupled in Shasta County in 2021, the last year for which there is data) but to ensure the slaughter of a girl’s pet goat.

This story moved me because I had goats on our family farm when I was roughly E.’s age, and later I showed sheep in 4-H and FFA at county and state fairs in Oregon (4-H and FFA are, incidentally, two of the best youth organizations in America). Perhaps because we had a herd of sheep, I never grew attached to any one of them as a “pet,” but I certainly recognized their personalities and grew fond of some of them.

Cedar is also a reminder that the bright line we draw between farm animals and our pet dogs and cats is an arbitrary one. When I raised pigs, I found them to have stronger personalities than many humans. And our geese! Geese mate for life and are devoted and supportive partners, making them among the most admirable of two-legged creatures.

So I no longer eat meat, for I remember too many sheep, goats, pigs and geese who were family friends. It’s the same reason I don’t eat beagles.

This is the truth that industrial agriculture tries to hide. We accept the slaughter of livestock and poultry, sometimes inflicting great cruelty, because the animals are an unfamiliar and undifferentiated mass, “beasts” raised in barns. That is the veil that E. pierced when she fell in love not with a cat, dog or guinea pig, but with Cedar.

Factory farming, perhaps particularly of hogs and poultry, is extraordinarily efficient and sometimes painfully ugly. It thrives because it operates behind a veil of secrecy, enforced by “ag gag laws” that criminalize the taking of undercover video on factory farms. Abuse one animal, and you can be charged with a felony; abuse 1 million, and you have a business model.

E. is shy, but she mustered a quote for me: “If they knew Cedar the way I knew Cedar, they wouldn’t have done that.”

She may be right — not only about Cedar but about society as a whole and its consumption of abused animals.

Future generations may look back at our age and wonder in astonishment at how we pamper our dogs yet brutalize farm animals. By seeing her beloved Cedar as more than cuts of meat, E. may have been ahead of her time.

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