We had one of the hardest days we’ve had in a long time several months ago. We said goodbye to a best friend, someone who helped our son learn that he was bigger and braver than he ever thought he could be. Someone who helped him understand that even though you are small, you can do great things. She was patient with him, kind and calm. When he was a second year 4-Her, she was perfect for him during a time when he questioned if he had what it took to show cattle.
We had a life lesson that hurt. But then again, don’t most life lessons hurt? They probably wouldn’t be called lessons if there wasn’t a little sting to them. This one though, it hurt more than usual. We learned what I think a growing number of American’s struggle to grasp, that we raise livestock for a purpose. They provide us food, whether it be directly or indirectly. Do we care for them? Oh yes. Do some of them become a pet? Certainly. Do we want the best quality of life for them? Without a doubt. But in the end, even when we have a special animal that has made a mark on a young man’s life, we raise cattle to do a job. And when their job is complete, we sell them and we harvest them. In this case, a show heifer that was very special to Memphis hurt herself badly enough she could not be put back into production and she was sold. And it was difficult. There were tears and there was worry that somehow he had caused her issues. And then there was the startling reality that, despite the hope this day would never come, it happened. And in the end, even when we really care for an animal they do die. That the work we do in ranching is not easy work. We put hours and hours into keeping animals nurtured. We grow attached. We consider them special. But they do serve a purpose beyond a show ring, barn or pasture.
Animals are not people. We want them to be. PETA and other animal rights activists will tell us they are. We assign human qualities to them and cartoons and movies make us believe they can be people. But they aren’t people. Do animals feel pain, yes. Do each of them have habits and certain things they like and dislike, most definitely. They deserve to be cared for and to know the routine of a day. They deserve to not be beaten and left for dead. But they are animals. And they serve a purpose. Livestock play a role in our ecosystem. They forage, help eat things nothing else will. Allow us to grow food on land that won’t support crops. They give us meat, milk, and eggs. In our house we talk about this a lot. Both of my children know where their food comes from and both understand that we raise beef cattle for the end product of meat. But it is one thing to have cattle you don’t grow attached to serve that purpose. It’s an entirely different thing when an animal you’ve grown attached to serves that purpose.
I won’t sugar coat it. There are no heroics around the fact that the goodbye was hard. Heck, it might even make you question if growing attached is worth it. But in the end, I will tell you for our family it is worth it. Life and death both teach us many things. They teach us to value each day. They help us to understand our role as agriculturalists and care takers. They make us grateful for our work, no matter how hard it can sometimes be.