Many children play with toys that evoke the bucolic life on a farm. And many will likely visit a small local farm, where animals have space and access to sunlight and the outdoors. But most kids are probably not aware that, for the vast majority of farmed animals, life is anything but happy.
Consider the life of a chicken trapped on a factory farm. If she is one of the 9 billion chickens who suffer and die on US factory farms for their meat, she is committed to a life of unending misery, fed an unnatural diet to spur abnormally rapid and painful growth. Perhaps she is one of the 26 to 30 percent of chickens raised for their meat who can’t even walk normally because their skeletons are not able to support their rapidly growing bodies. She will live an average of just 42 days. If she is one of more than 300 million chickens raised in factory farms every year for their eggs, most of her beak was cut off with a scalding hot blade when she was just hours or days old. As a hen, she lives her entire life in a tiny wire “battery” cage, with up to 10 other hens. She may be sick or injured, but she will receive no medical care. She is forced to live alongside dead and dying cagemates. After about two years of this unimaginable suffering, she is considered “spent,” and sent to a slaughterhouse. After her brief life, she must endure a terrible death as she is stunned in an electrified water bath before her throat is slit. (There is no law requiring chickens to be rendered unconscious before slaughter.)
Consider also the life of a mother pig trapped on a factory farm, where she is confined to a gestation crate barely larger than her own body. She is unable to turn around or even lie down comfortably for almost her entire life. Once she gives birth, she is impregnated again, in a cruel cycle that goes on for up to four years before she is killed for her meat. Her piglets are ripped from her when they are just 10 days old, and their tails cut off and their teeth clipped. Her sons have their testicles ripped out without any anesthesia or painkillers.
These are the brutal realities for millions of animals trapped on factory farms. But how do parents and teachers address these realities of our broken and inhumane food system with children? Journalist, editor and author Leslie Crawford has answered that call with two books published by Stone Pier Press, an environmental publishing house with a focus on food and sustainability. The first, Sprig the Rescue Pig, tells the story of a factory farm pig who escapes the truck bringing him to a slaughterhouse, before being rescued by a young girl and her family, who show him love and kindness. The second, Gwen the Rescue Hen, published this month, is about a chicken who escapes from an egg factory farm and is rescued by a young boy who decides to make her — and some of her fellow escapees — a part of his family. Both books include special sections filled with fascinating facts about pigs and chickens to help educate kids and adults about how incredible pigs and chickens really are.
In telling these heartwarming tales of resilience, compassion and love, Crawford avoids the more brutal realities of factory farming, showing simply that these farms are extremely unhappy places for such intelligent and emotional beings. She focuses instead on how truly wonderful these overlooked and poorly treated animals are — that they’re way more than just bacon and nuggets.
In this interview, Crawford discusses what inspired her to write these books, what messages she wanted to convey to kids and parents, and what it’s like living with chickens (and pigeons and a bearded dragon).
Reynard Loki: Your 13-year-old daughter Molly is an animal lover, and it was through her that you got interested in writing about animals. Tell us a little bit about Molly, how she fell in love with animals and how she helped get you to write about them.
Leslie Crawford: From the age of four, she was a fierce defender of pigeons, chasing away the little kids who chased away the pigeons. A couple years ago, she asked if we could adopt rescue King pigeons since she had learned about the organization Palomacy, which saves racing, homing and King pigeons who can’t survive in the wild. (Many are the “doves” they release at ceremonies. Others escape from factory farming for squab. And others from racing pigeons.) I have six chickens and so was already more bird-minded … [so] I impulsively said yes … I’m a pretty impulsive person, which is why we now have four pigeons who live in an aviary right outside of our kitchen. Sometimes they fly into the kitchen. Yes, it’s weird. Well, I don’t see it as weird, but friends tell me they think it is.
Gwen the Rescue Hen is your second book about farm animals published by Stone Pier Press, following Sprig the Rescue Pig. As you developed these books, did you find inspiration from other children’s books?
Absolutely. I also have a 21-year-old son, and so for 21 years, have been reading children’s books. It’s a particular art — children’s books — and not at all obvious to get the language right and tap into the mind of a child without being condescending or cutesy. My inspirations were Roald Dahl, E.B. White (who, of course, authored the ultimate pig book, Charlotte’s Web), Margaret Wise Brown, Louis Sachar. My ideal children’s book is honest and funny and a bit strange. I don’t think Gwen or Sprig is strange, though. We were mostly trying to help children and their parents to really see these remarkable animals. I identified a superpower that each animal has. For pigs, I chose their extraordinary sense of smell and for chickens, their remarkable vision. Pigs smell better and more than we do — they can smell truffles three feet underground. Similarly, chickens have Technicolor vision and are more alert to detail and movement than we are. These, of course, are survival techniques so they can find food (bugs!) and avoid danger.
The illustrations by Sonja Stangl are really great. How did you connect with her, and what attracted you to her work and style?
Stone Pier Press did an online audition, and after studying more than 100 portfolios, we chose Sonja. Her drawings, and her Sprig, were so beautiful, with an almost old-fashioned sensibility. She has a soft spot for farm animals and knows how to communicate this with kids and parents. She also has a great sense of story, which we drew on to craft the book.
Gwen the Rescue Hen is brand-new and available this month. How has the reception been for Sprig the Rescue Pig?
Fantastic. There are so many kids’ books about animals, but not many about animals in which we are inviting the reader to really get a sense of what it’s like to be a pig and to be a chicken. Animals at the mercy of a big industrialized system who are afraid and confused because they don’t know our language — as I write about in Sprig — and are smart enough to figure out that something is very wrong.
We got an especially warm reception from parents who are vegetarians and vegans because there are very few [children’s] books about the plight of these animals. But the bonus section on cool things to know about pigs seems to captivate everyone. (We also include one about chickens in Gwen.) Most people have no idea how smart, affectionate and curious these animals are, and they seem to like finding out. As for Gwen, the early reviews are great…. Of course, I used my own flock of six hens as inspiration.
What was the most surprising thing you’ve learned about pigs and chickens in writing these books?
For pigs, how astonishingly smart they are. Their IQ, by some measures, is the same as or above a three-year-old child’s and dogs. In fact, they are among the smartest animals, up there with chimpanzees and dolphins. With that intelligence comes a particular emotional intelligence that is evidenced by their curiosity and sensitivity. Like dogs, they like to be scratched. They cuddle, play fetch, come when called, have been taught to paint and play video games.
As for chickens, I thought I knew everything, but I learned much more. They have remarkable eyesight and can see colors and detail that we can’t. I learned that their earlobes (yes, they have them) indicate the color of their shells. They can add, subtract and recognize shapes. This is interesting since people think they are so stupid, but they have really good memories, especially for other chickens and the people they like. I already knew what strong, individual personalities they have. My [chicken] Alice B. Toklas is sassy and curious, Fullerton is skittish and shy, Jasmine is a little irritable. James is sweet but dim. In contrast to their idyllic life in my San Francisco backyard, researching Gwen, I learned much more about how farm animals by the millions, even billions, are treated, which is in the most brutal, horrific and filthy way.
I learned even more what I already knew — that they are creatures with the wide range of feelings and perceptions that, while not all like humans, are remarkable in their own right and for that reason are worthy of our empathy and respect as fellow creatures on the planet.
Have you found that there is a need for books about farm animals for children? How would kids normally learn about what’s happening to animals on factory farms?
Well, most people — adults and kids — don’t know what is really happening on factory farms. As for teaching kids, it’s a fine line because factory farming is such a brutal system. Just as learning about that is almost too much for most adults, it absolutely is way too much for kids. So we chose to teach more about the animals themselves, the rare few that get to leave that system and live a full life as a pig at a sanctuary or a chicken in a boy’s backyard. My hope is that as people become even a little more aware about factory farming, they will see the damage factory farming is doing — to animals, yes, but also to the environment, the climate and our health. Once you start putting these pieces together, those can collectively become reasons to make more of us change the way we eat.
Have you found that kids are receptive to learning about factory farms and what happens to animals inside them?
This is a delicate subject. It’s so horrifying, and no one wants to give their children nightmares. With our books, the goal is to inspire conversations about where our food comes from — not by using fear or guilt, but by drawing on our compassion.
What would you tell parents who want to avoid purchasing meat produced in factory farms, or parents who are considering switching their families’ diets to more plant-based eating?
I’d tell them they are helping not only the planet but themselves and their children by encouraging them to eat more fruits, vegetables and grains. Factory farming heats up our planet, pollutes waterways and air, and eats up land used to grow the grain that feeds livestock — and lots of water too. It also hurts the people who live near and work at [the farms]. Even if a family isn’t vegetarian or vegan, just reducing the amount of meat and dairy we eat can make a difference, and there are so many good plant-based options these days, with many more coming to market every week.
Consumers are becoming more aware of the horrors inside factory farms. Consumer sentiment has helped push many food corporations to upgrade their animal welfare policies. Are you hopeful for the future of animals raised for food?
For so many years [Americans] were focused on efficiency. Now more people are recognizing the dangers factory farming has created for our world. One result is the surge in support for clean meat technology and the development of more tasty plant-based alternatives. There’s also a new and growing awareness of the difference eating less meat can make.
What are the most important takeaways you’d like kids and parents to get from Gwen the Rescue Hen and Sprig the Rescue Pig?
That chickens and pigs deserve, as we do, to live a good life. That we recognize them as fellow creatures sharing the planet, not just products for our consumption.
In addition to your two children, you live with six chickens, four foster pigeons and a bearded dragon lizard. What have you and your kids learned from living with these animals? Do you get eggs from your chickens? I’ve heard that chickens make great pets; is it true?
Yes, two children (Gideon and Molly), six chickens (Jasmine, Fullerton, James T. Baxter, Matilda, Summer and Alice B. Toklas), four foster pigeons (Guru, Paix, Marco and Ajax) and Georgia, the bearded dragon. When you live with any animal, you step more into their worlds, their weird way of being that is so different than ours and so interesting. You see how pigeons court and groom each other and that they parent, the males and females sitting on the eggs in equal time, and how chickens know to go into their coop at dusk and take care of each other. You realize that it’s not all about us humans!
And yes, chickens are wonderful pets. Very low-maintenance and so entertaining. I love sitting with them in the morning, petting them, feeding them grapes and safflower seeds. They are funny and happy, or so they seem to me. Just watching a chicken sitting in the dust in the afternoon sun is entertaining.
I do eat their eggs but am less and less inclined to do so. Maybe because they are my pets. I give a lot of eggs to friends. While most of my adult life I’ve been a roller coaster vegetarian, I’m no longer on that ride. I am a committed vegetarian, trying to be a vegan….
Is there another book in the works for this series? What’s next for you?
We are focusing on getting Sprig and Gwen more out into the world. We’ve talked about other animals. We’ll see. I have talked about McDow the Rescue Cow with Clare Ellis, the publisher of Stone Pier Press (who had the inspiration to do these children’s books as a way to reach children and parents). But for now, we just want these two books to get into the hands of many happy families.