One sweltering day last July, two Shasta County, Calif. sheriff’s deputies struck out on a 500-mile journey, armed with a search warrant. But this was no manhunt.
Law enforcement was hot on the trail of a 4-H goat.
Cedar, as his nine-year-old owner named the young Boer, had been whisked from the Shasta District Fairgrounds by the family to a distant farm after efforts to withdraw him from the auction were denied, prompting fair officials to send sheriffs to seize the alleged stolen property.
The girl and her mother had signed a contract with the fair, knowing the goat would be sold for its meat. It was the project she’d chosen in her 4-H club, a local branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s nationwide youth development program. Still, she wept at the goat’s side when the bidding was over, asking that he not be killed. But the youth livestock rules governing these “terminal sales” defined only one off-ramp: the slaughterhouse.
“It’s really hard to get market animals off fairgrounds property once showing begins,” says Marji Beach, development director at Animal Place, a sanctuary in Grass Valley, Calif. where, every fair season, the requests roll in from children in 4-H and FFA (Future Farmers of America) who want to spare their pigs, cattle, goats and sheep.
A growing number are urban students who have nowhere to take their animal, even if allowed the option.
“On average, we receive around 40 requests a year,” says Beach, most involving market pigs. This fair season, it’s already reached capacity with the larger pigs. “Unfortunately, we can only say yes when we have space.”
The many projects of 4-H
4-Hers don’t have to choose a meat animal project. Fair participation isn’t even required. The nonprofit program, administered by state land-grant universities, offers more than 100 different “learn by doing” projects, with members enrolling in at least one each year.
Living on a farm is optional. Thousands of city slickers lease animals or raise creatures such as mice. On the non-meat menu is everything from tree planting, dance and public speaking to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math education). Animal projects include breeding, fiber, horse showmanship and more.
But 4-H, which is funded by the USDA, state and local governments, as well as corporate donors, is best known for its youth livestock program.
Market-animal projects produce significant, positive effects on 4-H enrollment, according to an analysis by the University of California Cooperative Extension.
The Shasta County fair website puts it this way: “The Junior Livestock Auction is the backbone to the Shasta District Fair as members from the superior Agriculture District 4-H and Future Farmers of America enter and show the animals.”
The top bidder receives meat from the animal, with the proceeds going to the child exhibitor and a small amount to the fair. More than 500 animals sold at the Shasta Fair in 2022 were then loaded onto trucks and hauled away for processing—as Cedar was slated to be.
At this point, the project is over. 4-Hers, depending on how well their club prepared them, have to imagine what happens next.
Adults might consider it fortunate that children don’t have to witness their animals’ slaughter or learn about the frequency of botched deaths, equipment malfunctions and violations of the USDA Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. According to a study by sociologists Leslie Irvine and Colter Ellis at the University of Colorado, 4-Hers “fully recognize this inevitable feature of the livestock project.”
Nevertheless, some students are horrified when they actually reach that goal on auction day.
A federal civil rights lawsuit filed by the family in Shasta County makes an unusual claim alongside its focus on the actions of officials. One argument of attorneys Ryan Gordon and Vanessa Shakib, co-founders of nonprofit Advancing Law for Animals, is that Cedar was seized because his owner “E.L.” expressed a non-agricultural view of him.
E.L. didn’t see “Cedes,” as she called him, as meat.
The 9-year-old had just reached the age allowed by state 4-H rules to pursue a large livestock project. It’s also an age far from decision-making maturity. Studies show cognitive capacity doesn’t reach adult levels until around age 16, and psychosocial maturity continues beyond 18.
Irvine and Colter, the sociology researchers, wanted to explore the so-called caring-killing paradox. Plenty of research has focused on the bonds between children and pets—but not when it comes to a living, bleating 4-H project. “Reproducing Dominion,” their 2010 paper, examines how children learn the belief that certain animals are created for human use, which the authors say is “the most important lesson conveyed in 4-H livestock programs.”
That lesson was no match for the three months E.L. spent raising an adorable baby goat, teaching him to walk on a leash and trust humans, to where he began rushing to greet her.
The researchers interviewed 4-Hers to study the emotional work learned from adult mentors and peers that teaches them to cope with conflicting feelings about their animals. On the path to becoming producers, students leaned on strategies such as not naming their market animals and reminding themselves that auctions help pay for college.
E.L., who was to receive almost $900 for her goat’s meat, just wanted Cedar back. That aligns with the study’s finding that auctions are harder for younger members aged 13 and under. Their empathy for their animals has all along been encouraged. Good care makes for good meat.
The 4-H literature instructs students to touch animals often, which prepares them for showing, and to learn all about their preferences and personalities.
All the touching, brushing and mapping of favorite scratch-spots and quirks is similar to that with a pet. And it occurs within a culture increasingly aware of animal emotions compared to when 4-H began more than a century ago.
The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act passed in 1958. Flash forward to 2015 when a Gallup poll found a third of Americans want animals to have the same rights as people. In a 2019 Gallup poll, nearly one in four were eating less meat. And, in 2023, the Supreme Court upheld California’s landmark farmed animal protection law.
In 4-H literature, the organization that began with a desire to modernize farming claims its message of youth development doesn’t change, “but the methods that drive the program forward often need to change with the times.”
Irvine says that these days it’s far less common for 4-Hers to be taking over the farm, needing to learn the realities of raising meat animals. In 2010, only 11 percent of 4-Hers lived on farms. So is the terminal auction essential?
“It does seem like it’s time for 4-H to change, both because of what we know about animals and because its members increasingly don’t come from agricultural backgrounds,” says Irvine.
“The contracts should also allow kids to change their minds, especially the younger ones.”
Rules are rules
It’s the fair that sets the auction rules, serving up contracts that 4-Hers and parents sign. Each county fair in California can make its own rules, so long as they don’t conflict with those of the state. 4-H has no oversight of fairs.
“County fairs and livestock auctions are learning experiences we prepare our members to participate in,” says Lynn Schmitt-McQuitty, Calif.’s Statewide 4-H director. The program’s volunteers and professionals work closely with youth in livestock projects, she says, helping them choose what best suits their goals—whether market, breeding or showmanship.
“Please know this incident does not reflect the values of the University of California 4-H youth development program,” she says of the fiasco over Cedar.
But strict rules for terminal sales are common around the country. The Shasta Fair’s rules allow for “no exceptions.” State rules prohibit live animal pick-up by buyers, except by the transportation provided by the fair to the slaughterhouse. How enforceable those rules are is now up for debate.
In January 2023, a Florida couple who won a pig they planned to rescue were told they could only have its meat. Why? The answers varied from state rules protecting animal enterprise to 4-Hers having raised the animals for the food chain.
Nor is Cedar’s case the first lawsuit ever filed after a student changed their mind.
Five years ago, songwriter Diane Warren won a lamb for a boy at an auction in Santa Barbara County. The fair refused to let it go home alive. Warren hired Advancing Law for Animals, which helped free the lamb.
The attorneys made an argument they are using again in the pending federal case, and it concerns a right minors can already exercise.
“This case preserves the legal status quo,” says Shakib. “Minors in California can disaffirm contracts, including contracts with 4-H.”
Children can break contracts because the law has long considered them incapable of fully understanding what they’ve signed.
Despite E.L.’s painful experience, she still wants to pursue animal husbandry education. If the attorneys prevail, local officials will acknowledge her right to opt out of any 4-H livestock auction she enters. While the state’s rules have seen revisions for 2023, including the recommendation of a pre-auction “intent to sell” list for children and parents to sign and clearer definitions of terminal and non-terminal auctions, there’s no mention of any such option.
In some states, there’s no need for it.
North Dakota fairs no longer hold kill auctions. In Minnesota, due to changing market demands and trends in consumer purchasing, there’s been a shift to premium auctions where animals are sold but typically go home with the student, who still receives most of the proceeds.
“I have been working with MN 4-H for a number of years and during that time I do not know of any required terminal shows,” Sharon Davis, University of Minnesota 4-H Extension director of animal science, said in an email. “4-H shows in Minnesota are non-terminal, allowing for youth to continue to learn and grow with their projects.”
The officials who had Cedar plucked from sanctuary and returned him to the fairgrounds to be slaughtered claimed to be bound by rules. Perhaps greater awareness of these other options, along with the wave of support for E.L.’s “non-agricultural” view of Cedar, will bring more choice to the rules around kill auctions.