Whenever a violent or traumatic event takes place at a school or there is a sudden death of a fellow classmate, grief counsellors are often brought in to help students cope with the loss. Not many people would argue with the importance of providing young people with a safe place to talk or cry or process what they have seen, heard or felt as a result of an unexpected loss in so familiar a place as their school.
The other night I watched the one-hour documentary, “The Emotional World of Farm Animals”, a simple but beautiful film that corresponds with Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson’s equally beautiful book, The Pig Who Sang to the Moon. The book and documentary are 10 years old and the film was made while the author was in the process of researching the book.
The author narrates the film as well and in his words: “One element of my research in this book has remained unresolved in my mind and that is the organized school programs that allow school children to spend months raising farm animals, naming them like a companion animal, caring for them everyday, exhibiting them with all due pride then, just like that – giving them up for slaughter.”
He interviews one high school student who went through just such a program in San Jose, California. With her rapid-fire speech interspersed with “like” every few words and her punk rock bracelets and mesh gloves sneaking into frame from time to time, she is (or was at the time) unmistakably teenaged. Here’s how she describes her experience in the program:
“This is how they say it, when you meet your first animal, this is how they tell you: ‘You always cry on your first animal but you get used to it.'” She pauses. “You get used to it. I’m like, what do you mean by that, you know, you get used to it? Okay, you get used to the fact that something you got attached to for months is taken away from you and killed, I mean, how are you supposed to get used to that? I couldn’t get used to it.”
She then goes on to tell the story of her first animal, a gorgeous black steer she named Ferdinand:
“I had him for 10 months and it was everyday I was out there.” At this point, her voice breaks and she has to stop talking. Deep sadness crosses her face and she chokes back a few tears before wiping her eyes and continuing: “It would have been easier if there was a plan for him to be slaughtered from the start but he wasn’t supposed to be so it kind of, like….came out of nowhere.”
She goes on to describe how she would get up early every morning to go and feed and tend to Ferdinand each day before school, then again at lunch and after school. She admits that, at first, she even thought, “What am I doing with a cow? This is so stupid, right?” She goes on: “It was a steer, and it’s like, I thought it was going to be easy and he turned into like, seriously….a big puppy. I would call him and he would come over to me and he’d put his nose in his halter for me and….when I went to visit him while they had him at the fair, I went over there and I called his name and his little ear turned up and he turned around and started mooing. And I started crying and everyone was like, ‘Oh there she goes again.'”
As I watched this young girl, almost as if she were coming of age before my eyes, there was no doubt of the depth of her love and affection for Ferdinand or of the depth of her grief when she found out he had been slaughtered. And yet, there were no counsellors provided for her to talk to or someone to express her grief to even though her loss had occurred as part of a school program. Had Ferdinand been a classmate or a teacher in human form, no one would dare say, “Oh, there she goes again” if she cried at seeing them. Is the term “loved ones” limited to humans and household pets? Grief, by definition, is the response to a loss of someone or something that we have become attached to. Grief, no matter who or what has been lost, is still grief, especially for the person experiencing it. The loss of a life will cause tremendous pain to the person who was attached to that life, more so if that death was a violent and unexpected one. So why is counselling and extended support typically only made available to those grieving a certain species? Why is a person expected to “get used to” the repeated loss of an animal when we would never ask them to do the same for a human? Taking it one step further, what if Ferdinand were a dog? Would her grief be treated differently? I wonder.