Saturday, November 22, 2008

Question from the Audience: Questioning the Lessons of 4-H

A question from Tina D. in Sacramento, CA:
Q: I've had seven rabbits in my life and would have considered myself knowledgeable until my 8-year old nephew came home from school the other day with an application to 4-H club.
Logan wants to show Holland Lops or English Spots (he hasn't decided). Except for the rabbits I had as a kid, all of mine have been adopted from shelters so I know nothing about breeding rabbits for this program. The 4-H says that Logan cannot show a spayed rabbit (how stupid it that!), so I would like to know what to look out for when helping him pick showable rabbits.

A: Although this blog primarily deals with house rabbits kept for companionship, I think this question deserves some attention so that everyone can be aware of the nature and beliefs of this widespread organization. While many 4-H programs are great opportunities for children to learn intimately about new subjects, expand their creativity and develop a sense of responsibility, I have some qualms with the organization's approach to animals. I will here on out focus on the rabbit program, which I believe ultimately sends faulty messages to children.

4-H rabbits can be raised for exhibition or for the meat and fur pen. The meat and fur pen is an altogether different matter and I'm sure everyone can guess exactly how I feel about it. Rabbit exhibition, while less obviously so, is also troubling. As someone with vast personal experience with rabbits, I can tell you that being in a show is one of the least respectful things you can do to a rabbit. Rabbits are prey animals, and as such are very uncomfortable and scared in new environments, surrounded by many people, animals, loud noises, children, etc. The showing life is highly stressful, and a rabbit can easily have a heart attack and die simply from shock or fear; therefore the situation is quite a bit more serious for the rabbit than one might think. Furthermore, the rabbit exhibition encourages a view of animals as objects, instead of living, breathing, thinking, feeling, sensitive beings. Respecting a rabbit includes treating them like the sentient beings that they are and not subjecting them to unnecessary stress or restraint simply for our aesthetic pleasures.

My second misgiving relates to the organization's barring of spayed and neutered rabbits in exhibition. You are completely right when you classified this rule as "stupid." Altering rabbits is a huge part of getting a handle on the pet overpopulation problem, not to mention the positive health and behavioral impacts that come along with it. Additionally, 4-H discourages adoption and instead promotes rabbit breeders and pet stores, which profit from abusive animal breeding facilities. In an age where approximately four million healthy animals are euthanized each year, and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of rabbits are waiting in shelters across the country, it is not only socially irresponsible of such an influential organization to support these principles, but it also reinforces these misguided lessons to our children. 4-H purports to teach children about responsibility, yet they really miss the big picture on this issue.

I encourage you to seize this critical opportunity to talk to your nephew about the true meaning of compassion, responsibility and pet ownership. Tell him that having a pet should be a mutually beneficial arrangement—he can have all the pleasure of owning a rabbit while simultaneously saving that rabbit's life; tell him that true responsibility means respecting our companion animals by allowing them to live happily and peacefully; tell him that social responsibility requires we look at the greater picture of the epidemic of animal overpopulation which forces overburdened shelters to euthanize regularly. Your nephew will gather a much more valuable lesson by learning about adoption, spaying and neutering, compassion and respect, instead of following the 4-H principles. You and your nephew could refuse to participate in the 4-H club, whereby acknowledging the flawed ideologies of the organization. Alternatively, you could practice your right to "civil disobedience" by adopting from a shelter and trying to show a fixed rabbit. This small protest may get other 4-H participants and community members thinking and raise awareness about these issues.

Be strong and good luck!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Just as a side note here: my daughters both show rabbits in 4H and one of the leaders in our area actively encourages the kids to spay or neuter their rabbits if there are no plans to breed them. She educates the kids about overpopulation and insists that the kids treat their rabbits (and everyone else's) with care, respect, and kindness. Yes, there are kids who raise meat rabbits in our area; that's their choice, I suppose, and there are certainly lessons to be learned from that. But our experience has been that the 4H leaders emphasize responsibility and education in the rabbit program. It probably varies from place to place and we just happen to be lucky in our leadership.