Historian Hilda Kean notes that throughout the 1800’s in Britain, a great deal of printed information about the "proper treatment of animals" became increasingly available. While adults were informed by the Zoological Society’s gazetteer, the formation of the London Mechanics’ Institution, and the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge’s weeklyPenny Magazine, a growing number of publications became intentionally aimed at pet-keeping children. By the 1970’s, there were hundreds of titles such as Domestic Pets: Their Habits and Management. Along with the predictable stress on the welfarist doctrine of "caring" for animals, many writers reinforce a "humans on top" dominionist message. For example, Mary Wollstonecraft’s Original Stories (full of advice for children and servants) contained the following: "Let your superior endowments ward off the evils they cannot foresee." An investigation of current messages about humans and nonhumans in cultural products aimed at children reveals that little has changed.
Baa Baa Lambs, Talking Cows and Wise Old Bears.
Apart from having pet animals around the house, much of a child’s early information about nonhuman animals derives from the representations of them in books designed to be read by - or with - parents. Of course, it might be expected that an increasing amount of even very young children’s access to information in the West takes other forms, such as via the TV and now the internet. In terms of the actual face-to-face interaction between parents and children, the latter are effectively subjected to parental interpretations during explanations of topics they read about or see together. Therefore, if parents interact with children using books about other animals, and if they explain to their children events in television programmes, they may inevitably become the influential primary definers of the situations in question. They may watch the "animal documentaries" on television which are overwhelmingly concerned with wild and undomesticated animals, or with pet animals in shows such as Rolf Harris’ welfarist-orientated, RSPCA-advertising,Animal Hospital. However, the lives and deaths of many hundreds of millions of farmed animals are largely unseen by the television audience that physically digests their body parts, which may go some way to explain the horrified public reaction to the unusually extensive daily news coverage of visible animal deaths in the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak in Britain.
If "farm animals" are largely absent from television coverage, the same generalised comment cannot be said of children’s "early-reading books." Here, it is quite conventional to find the depiction of farms with typical "stock" animals such as cows, sheep, pigs, cart horses and chickens, as well as sheepdogs and the farm "mouser." In many books the entire narrative concerns events on farms apparently containing a host of nonhuman animals - but no human ones at all. Quite often, such stories seem to lack any direct evidence of human habitation, or human interest in the farm business, or in any of the events and adventures that take place. Often, entire societies of nonhuman animals populate these places, with an apparent emphasis on the decision-making autonomy of the animals concerned and little suggestion, especially in books designed for the younger child, that any current or future human utilisation of animal "resources" takes place. For example, if cows are milked in stories which actually feature human "farmers," it is implied ~or openly stated~ that the milk is for the benefit of all the other animals on the farm.
Quite obviously, any suggestion of animal harm in such publications is generally out of the question until the near-teen market is taken into consideration. The remarkable aspect about books featuring nonhumans, then, is not the absence of farmed animals but the virtual absence of reality about their lives. Of course, as said, there are publications showing farms "complete" with generally male animal enslavers and their smiling wives. These present a slightly more realistic view of "farm life." From an animal welfare point of view, these particular children’s stories rarely show anything other than an ideal-typical depiction of nonhuman animals and the peaceful and joyful relationships that they have with kindly humans. While television documentaries about wild animals - and to a much lesser extent, the pet shows - attempt to portray the "nature red in tooth and claw" experience of some animals, the depiction of the genuine life experiences of farmed animals is systematically sanitised in many children’s books.
For example, the picture 1994 book, Stories from Mudpuddle Farm by Morpurgo and Rayner, written for children "who are just beginning to enjoy reading," introduces readers to Jigger, the "almost-always-sensible" sheepdog, Mossop the cat, Captain the horse, Frederick the cockerel, Farmer Rafferty, Penelope the hen, Upside and Down the ducks, and Auntie Grace and Primrose the dairy cows. Farmer Rafferty himself is described as "usually a kind man with smiling eyes" who evidently enjoys a friendly social contract and a constructive working relationship with all the other animals. On Mudpuddle Farm, each and everyone has a job to do and old-smiley Rafferty tells the various animals: "You look after me, and I’ll look after you." Many of the nonhumans are shown living happily in their family groups, looking after their offspring, another common theme in such publications.
The cosy consensus is maintained as the entirely free-range hens agree to lay eggs for the farmer, while the ever-smiling cows "let down their milk for him." However, if readers were in any doubt, a few pages on they learn that the human animal is actually a little more equal than the others when Farmer Rafferty loses his temper after finding mice on the farm. He asks after the whereabouts of the cat in "a nasty raspy voice" he kept for "special occasions."
The simplest books about animals, such as the Ladybird "toddler talkabout" series, appear designed to encourage children to count and make approximate noises of different types of nonhuman animal. In I Like Farm Animals, published by Ladybird in 1998, a farm is depicted complete with the seemingly obligatory smiling animal enslaver and the happily grinning animals. All the various animals are pictured together, often with their young. Of course, there is not a single cage in sight. In fact, readers are told that the different animals have their own "homes" in which they live. Of course, few would ever expect to see a single battery hen cage, or a veal crate for calves, or a pig farrowing crate in these publications for the very young, yet to talk of such animals having "homes" is nothing less than highly misleading.
Books for slightly older children predictably have more complicated narratives. For example, in Nubbins and theTractor, published in 1980, the horse in the story is presented as human property, which correspondents with the actual status of most horses. Indeed, when the animal is threatened with being replaced by a newly-purchased tractor, his salvation is based on the possible transfer of his ownership from farmer to son. The boy learns that his father is intent on selling the newly-redundant horse and appeals to him: "Don’t sell Old Nubbins!" Although the boy declares that he and Nubbins are "friends," he demands ownership of the horse: "Give him to me, and he and I will help you with the work." When the new tractor breaks down, Nubbins is shown to be quite over the moon at the prospect of being strapped back into his old harness and he blissfully sets off for a day of "hard work." Eventually the boy gets the official ownership of the horse and the book ends with both owner and owned pictured apparently deliriously happy about their master-slave relationship.
If parents want a break from book reading, they can purchase children’s videos such as Fourways Farm, made in 1997 for Channel 4 Television and narrated by popular actor and radio personality Martin Jarvis. Here, in several stories written for children up to seven years of age, another community of co-operative animals are to be found. All co-operative with the exception of three "bad rats" who are stereotypically depicted as scheming "gangsters" who ideologically declare: "We don’t do nice things, we’re rats." However, all the other residents are demonstrably "nice;" the cow, the horse, the duck, the dog, the cat and (another stereotype and slightly less than nice) the typically "greedy pig." All the animals, the title song tells viewers, ‘say hello to the morning sun’, and they all have "food to eat." InFourways Farm, there is no human cruelty to nonhuman animals and no actual "farming" seems to takes place at all: in fact, no humans are ever seen in the video or interfere in the happy-ending adventures of the nonhuman characters.
Once children have digested the message that farms are idyllic places for nonhumans and, although animals are legal property who may be bought, sold or passed from one generation to another, they understand that this status tends to somehow benefit the nonhuman individuals in question. They are perhaps now ready and prepared to play the 1984 Fisher-Price distributed board game for 5-10 year olds, Market Day, which (according to the box) is "a fun-filled game for young children, collecting horses, cows, pigs and sheep from the market":
Each farmer races around the board collecting voucher cards for the animals he
needs to complete his farm. When he has enough for a horse, a cow, a pig
or a sheep he can buy that animal next time he goes to the market.
However ~and with a little justification~ the game is described to be just like "real farming" and, therefore, "things can go wrong" for the market-bound farmers. However, there is unsurprisingly no mention of BSE, nor swine fever, nor foot and mouth disease in the context of the players’ potential animal farming "problems." Rather, the difficulties encountered are somewhat less serious: tractors fail to work, pigs sometimes escape and some naughty sheep jump over farm fences. What might be the "end product" of such animal farms, or the "final destination" of the animals collected by each player is not explained or explored. Animal welfarism hardly ceases in proclaiming, as it was daily reaffirmed in the 2001 foot and mouth "tragedy," that farming nonhuman animals is ultimately about "caring" for them on farms. When animal enslavers cannot carry out their "caring" vocation and, even worse, when they see their animals killed and burnt, they weep buckets full of tears (at least when television cameras are recording), presumably never ever having bothered to take a look inside any abattoir they deliver to - or even an oven containing their Sunday roast. If Market Day holds to any remnant of reality, it too downplays the fact that nonhumans end up dead at the hands of human beings.
For pre- and just-teen girls, a brightly-coloured monthly magazine, Animals and You, is available from D.C. Thomson publishers. In the manner of a bright and bubbly "pop" music publication, the December 2000 edition of Animals andYou (No. 75) features cute "pet pin-ups," games and puzzles, and articles about television programmes such asAnimal Hospital and organisations such as the National Canine Defence League. Apart from the emphasis on pet animals such as domesticated cats and dogs, wild animals such as polar bears, snow monkeys and Arctic foxes are featured in the magazine. In the 38 pages of Animals and You, only one oblique reference appeared in relation to farmed animals in a quiz article entitled, "How much do you love Christmas?" However, the feature cannot be described as concerning farm animal care, let alone any notion of animal rights: in a multi-choice question about "your perfect Christmas dinner," readers are asked to tick one of the following boxes:
- Chocolate, sweeties and more chocolate!;
- It’s got to be turkey and stuffing, and a cosy snuggle with your pet for afters!; or
- Party food - mini-sausage rolls, pizza - yum!
For reasons discussed above, the ideology of animal welfarism suggests that there is no fundamental contradiction in a publication about "caring" for domesticated animals, while being interested in wild ones, and assuming that pigs and turkeys are "for eating" (this is the December issue after all, what greater justification could be required?)
In relation to the human treatment of pigs, the hit Hollywood feature film Babe, based on the children’s story by Dick King-Smith, is often credited with causing quite a stir from an "animal rights" point of view. Babe tells the tale of the pig who grew up to behave and think like a sheep dog. Although absent from King-Smith’s original book, the film and video versions include a scene in which the talented "sheep-pig" is told in no uncertain terms about what happens to pigs ordinarily (as Animals and You might have it, they could end their days as party food - "yum!") Babe learns of the plight of his close, dead - and probably eaten - relatives. The ideological message of the Hollywood rewrite is bluntly revealed when the nonhuman star of the movie, initially extremely so upset that he runs away from the farmer, eventually returns "home" since his loyalty to "the Boss" must ultimately be seen to outweigh the deadly deed the latter had done to Babe’s entire family. Since there appears to be no firm evidence that sales in "pig meat" suffered to any serious extent due to the film’s release, perhaps the most enduring legacy of the movie, on an ideological level at the least, will be to reinforce the prevailing human "masters on top" social understanding of human relations with other sentient beings.