Bridges of Respect: Balancing Perspectives

Christine Coughlin at a Bridges of Respect presentation
Long-time Bridges of Respect volunteer presenter Christy Coughlin at Blaine High School

Our humane education program, Bridges of Respect, has reached over 800 students so far this year. The program conveys values of respect and compassion for animals. Class time usually allows us about an hour with the students. We showcase a variety of plant-based foods. We also share the stories of our personal transitions to vegetarianism, the pitfalls and the benefits of a plant-based diet, the availability of plant-based foods, and resources for change.

The presentations we offer cover a variety of animal protection topics. Students participate in the presentation, taste vegan food samples, and sometimes take notes for a test or other assignment. We’ve recently received our first presentation request for the fall semester, and it’s from an Animal Management class at Blaine High School.

We first started working with this class last spring. The course explores small animal care and career opportunities. It also has a rights and welfare section that talks extensively about animals that are farmed, vivisected, and hunted. More specifically, it highlights how those practices benefit humanity. When we sat down with the teacher, he told us that he thought that the textbook and lesson plans are very biased in favor of those industries. He was stuck with it though and wanted us to provide another viewpoint. Looking through the materials, we could see what he meant. The textbook would approach each topic with a poorly constructed depiction of the animal rights position in a paragraph or two, and then spend the remaining eight paragraphs defending the use of animals. It also didn’t take long for the animal protectionist to be painted with a broad brush stroke — credited with sabotage, property damage, and even terrorism.

Photos in the textbook were provided courtesy of the Farmer’s Exchange, the American Farm Bureau Federation, Agriscience, and the Utah Agricultural Experiment Station and represented animal agriculture in the best possible light. The photo depicting veal production, for example, didn’t show a calf immobilized and chained by the neck in a wooden stall, as is the case for most calves in the industry. Instead, they were pictured in outdoor pens with sunshine and a mountainscape. The caption reads: ”Veal calves are kept in individual stalls so they can receive individual attention. Disease is kept to a minimum and farmers are able to feed and care for the calves more efficiently. The economic welfare of the farmers depends on the proper care and treatment of their animals.”

Another photo shows hens in battery cages. These cages are one of the most restrictive of all housing methods used by factory farms. As many as a dozen birds are crammed in a wire cage that measures less than the width of one bird’s wing span, but there was no mention of this in the textbook. Here is their description of battery cages: “Laying hens are kept in cages under controlled environments that increase the efficiency of the laying operation. Each hen receives adequate feed and water. Eggs, a valuable part of the diet for many Americans, are available at affordable prices because of the efficiency of these operations.” Though it is true that these intensive farming operations produce cheap eggs, the other statements are suspect, especially in light of many undercover investigations that reveal otherwise.

The textbook also tells impressionable students that: “Farming in the United States is not controlled by large corporations. Of the 2.2 million farms in the United States, 97 percent are family-owned and operated; only 7,000 are non-family-controlled operations.” Their source for these numbers was dated 1988 and fails to mention that the three percent of farms that aren’t small family farms are in fact factory farms and contain the vast majority of animals raised for food.

The teacher wasn’t really sure where to go from there, what to say or which videos to use. He wanted to show a more balanced perspective, and that’s where we came in.

The teacher allotted time for us to provide three presentations for his students. We shifted the focus to a more moderate view of animal protection with examples of peaceful activism, community building, and personal growth. We also presented a detailed overview of the ways in which animals need our help most. No less than a dozen students, about half of them, hung around after class to speak with the presenters about how to get involved, eat more plant-based foods, find cruelty-free products, and more. We played a variety of films for students, including the Mercy for Animals’ eye-opening expose “Farm to Fridge,” clips from Peaceable Kingdom, a documentary about the Farm Sanctuary, and a 20/20 Special titled “Almost Human” that focuses on a chimp named Booee who knows sign language but was sold to a lab. We also gave the teacher a Discovery documentary that discusses the emotions of animals. The film, titled Why Dogs Smile and Chimpanzees Cry, resonates powerfully with students. We frequently use clips from it in middle and high schools.

The teacher even has us rewriting some of the handouts to reflect animal protection in a fair light. These handouts are already in use, counteracting the decades-long presence of industry-produced resources designed to protect profits and stifle progress for animals. In this way, they serve the same purpose as the dangerous ag-gag laws aimed at censoring documentation of routine practices in factory farms and slaughterhouses.

The teacher now refers to Bridges of Respect as an important part of his curriculum. We’ve appreciated the opportunity to meet with these students at Blaine High School for more than three hours and are looking forward to meeting the new students in the fall. To make informed choices, students need all of the information. From what I’ve seen, students appreciate honesty and will often look for ways to help when they recognize that there is a need. They will make decisions that reflect their values and ultimately make a difference for animals.

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