When I showed up the first time for an interview I do so unannounced. I arrive at 10am for the ‘running of the goats’ a signal that the day has begun as the goats stampede down to their enclosure where they will spend the day being gawked over by onlookers and being the objects of much attention and pets.
I get the chance to talk with one worker there who is very friendly and welcoming, but is clearly concerned about my intent. I explain I am an animal activist and want to talk about the Children’s Farm from a critical perspective and explain that that means asking some tough questions. Naturally, I am directed to contact those who run the Farm and set up an interview with them at a later date. Everyone is very eager to tell me how wonderful the animals are treated and how much they are loved. I spent a bit of time taking pictures and getting a feel for the place. I won’t lie, it felt good to be around other animals; however, I can’t ignore how objectified and how uncomfortable some of them, particularly Buttercup, the miniature horse, seem around all the people staring and reaching for them.
I do get a response from the Children’s Farm staff quickly after emailing them with some basic questions. I learn that the goats are bred onsite and are adopted out to local hobby farms. In terms of my concerns about them ensuring the safety of these animals they report there is an application form and that each adopter is met in person. Many of the other animals such as the pigs, rabbits, some guinea pigs and chickens, the turkeys and some ducks are rescues from various sources or are abandoned at the farm. Sheep are boarded at the farm, while it is open, for local farms and the miniature horse, donkeys, and alpacas are brought from local breeders. All the food, housing, and care for these animals is paid for through donations.
One of my question is what the purpose of the Beacon Hill Children’s Farm is and their response is expectedly anthropocentric; ‘The Beacon Hill Children’s Farm aims to provide all children (and adults) with the opportunity to meet and interact with animals they may not see in their day to day lives. We hope to instill a lifelong respect of all living things in every person who walks through our gate.”
Clearly I have my apprehensions about this mission statement of sorts. While I do not doubt that the volunteers who run the farm have the best intentions of the animals in mind in their actions, the first line of their position is very telling of the reality. Their intent, as stated, is to “provide all children and adults with the opportunity to meet and interact with animals…” this is about providing entertainment and engagement for humans, not about educating or improving the conditions of the animals they care for. While I am an advocate for the importance of a bodily engagement and appreciation of other animals, I advocate for this with the emphasis it be on non-coerced terms. Keeping and breeding animals to be viewed and touched is no more educational than any other zoo where the gaze of humans objectifies the restrained animals as their own natural and expressive tendencies are denied or controlled so they may be presented in a more congenial manner for onlookers to enjoy.
They also state they “hope to instill a lifelong respect of all living things in every person who walks through our gate.” When I consider this statement I have to reflect on my own experience. I loved going to the Children’s Farm as a child and I would have said like many children that I loved the animals. Even as a young adult I would say I was an “animal lover” without really thinking about what that meant. I still ate meat and dairy, wore leather, and went to the Children’s Farm to enjoy the presence of the other animals. However, I cannot call any of those activities respect for other animals in the sense that I think they mean. Nobody told me about where the meat I ate came from or how dairy was produced. There was no class in school about where bacon came from or how the flesh and blood of other animals was being used in much of the clothing I wore. Seeing other animals in this ‘happy farm’ setting was the same as seeing them anywhere else where they are being exploited daily.
When the Children’s Farm closes most of the animals go to a farm in Metchosin over the winter months, while the sheep and mice are returned to their usual ‘owners.’ This leaves the farm as a refuge for the peacocks of Beacon Hill Park more than anything. This space is seemingly underutilized and barren while the rest of the park regenerates from the constant barrage of tourists that find their way into every crevice and home of its many animal inhabitants. It is no longer a farm in any sense and it could not be called a sanctuary, and I could not imagine one in such a busy and constantly invaded spot where it is located.
I asked the BC Children’s Farm for a follow-up interview in person to answer some of the more difficult and critical questions that came to mind as I returned to this place of my youth. They declined. There was not a specific reason given, I showed up on the day and time arranged and was told that an interview would not be granted anymore. I told them that my intent was not to be malicious, but to bring forward questions that a concerned animal advocacy community had every year the Children’s Farm opened. It was an opportunity for them to tell their side and answer the questions on their own terms, and they passed on it. I can only guess out of fear.
So, what is the BC Children’s Farm then? It is not a farm in any traditional sense as it does not produce anything except for more lives to be handed out in a world overrun with animals in need. It is not a sanctuary as the animals are in no way protected from the interests of people, but are exploited in the interest of “educating” people as to what other animals look like behind a fence, but not out of reach. It is more of a side-show that comes to town and invites people to be entertained while the entertainment must perform. Imagine if the goats didn’t run or all stood out of reach of people’s hands. Would they have a safe space to retreat to? Or would they be pushed back into the ring to be touched? While it is true that many of them are mild mannered and don’t appear to mind the attention at a cursory glance, one must also remember for many this is the only life they have ever known. Being the objects of the human gaze and moulded to its design, their individuality has suffered the indignation of our interests and it is doubtful this could ever be returned to them fully.
Learning to respect and appreciate other animals will not come from their exploitation and confinement so that we can engage with them directly. There is no majesty or anything awe-inspiring about a creature that is confined to miniscule and foreign landscapes for us to simply stare upon behind bars or fences then move on to the next, ticking off our animal bingo card as we go. However, this kind of captivity does create an ill-informed sense of comfort in the decisions thousands of visitors make every day when they eat meat and dairy products. If this is the only exposure someone has to the settings ‘farm’ animals are raised on then I’m sure people will think they are all treated well, disregarding the systemic process that gets that happy, affable creature onto their plate or in their glass. Learning to touch one animal nicely in no way ensures the next won’t be abused and killed to serve the same person’s interest in another capacity.
Therefore, if the Children’s Farm is not willing to explain the real life consequences of farm life on other animals, I believe they are failing to educate the public in any meaningful way and the public gains no greater capacity to make informed decisions about their dietary choices. Furthermore, if they are not willing to educate visitors on the consequences of breeding animals for show, clothing, or profit they are not informing the children and adults that pay their admission donation what they are supporting with their money. It would seem that for the Children’s Farm to obtain its goals it needs to remove the non-human animals and create a collaborative space with animal advocacy groups to educate and inform the public about the violence their daily decisions entails and positive alternatives to those behaviours. This would be a much more progressive and substantial contribution to the community than what currently exists at the ‘petting zoo.’
A History of the Beacon Hill Park: Lots of great historical information on the zoo through the years.