Down on the Farm
time: 7:52 a.m.
date: April 13, 1984
location: A couch in a farmhouse just outside the village of Saint Paris, Ohio
I suppose it only makes sense that I would someday found an international animal-rights organization, given that I was delivered by a veterinarian.
My mother, Joyce, had been planning a home birth, but on the early spring morning she woke up with excruciating contractions, the midwife wasn’t around. As Mom panted and pushed her way through labor, it became clear that, ready or not, I was about to make my appearance. My dad, Mark, determined problem solver that he is, immediately took the shoelaces out of Mom’s new tennis shoes and sterilized a pair of scissors, ready to ligate and cut my umbilical cord. He later found out that Mom already had a sterile kit at the ready.
When the midwife finally arrived, my father decided to step aside and let her finish the work. Instead, he began filming the birth. A far better veterinarian than he was a director, Dad stood in front of the camera during most of the action. The greenish-hued recording contains many excellent shots of his back.
The small, hundred-year-old farmhouse where I was born was like many others in west-central Ohio: two stories tall, with a wraparound porch and wooden clapboards covered in chipping, eggshell-colored paint surrounded by massive oak trees. The farm and its white barns still stand today. So do my relatives—within a twenty-mile radius, you can find more than thirty Runkles.
My family had already been living in the area for many generations, farming corn, soybeans, wheat, and hay. Our history as farmers dates back to sometime in the 1820s, shortly after Ohio became a state. The descendants of German and Irish immigrants, we arrived in covered wagons. Joseph Parke, my paternal great-great-great-great-grandfather, kept a handwritten diary chronicling his journey from New Jersey to Ohio with his wife, Hannah, and their children. The journal details the often-treacherous travel (anywhere from fifteen to thirty miles a day), typical expenses (33 cents to $1.70 a day), and the wildlife they encountered. Dangers abounded. One evening, Joseph wrote: “Here our little boy got a corn grain up his nose but received no injury.” It’s because of Joseph that I know the exact date my father’s ancestors arrived after crossing the Ohio River from Pennsylvania: Monday, May 22, 1820.
Joseph and his family ultimately settled in Troy, Ohio, and raised farm animals. He eventually sold the farm and retired soon after, but the story of farming in our family continued across the next two centuries. The Runkle farm in Sidney, Ohio, where my dad grew up, has been in his family for at least five generations. My dad’s mother’s family, the Cochlins, were also farmers, who worked land in nearby Wapakoneta that they had owned for more than a century.
Grandma Donna is the family historian. Her ability to recall childhood memories in eerily clear detail is remarkable. She tells tales of feeding the chickens and milking the cows, and then playing with the pigs and watching them eat “slop.”
While my grandma grew up eating meat, she had a connection with the animals her family raised. The animals on the Cochlin farm had names. They were allowed to roam, run, play, and just be animals. When the end came, it came quickly. They were killed right there on the farm in the fastest way anyone knew: with a shot to the head by a good marksman. Few people could do the job right, so it was a very marketable skill. Similarly, chickens were killed by placing them on a solid chopping block and quickly decapitating them with a razor-sharp corn cutter.
When my grandma was growing up in the early 1900s, she and her family took care of sick animals by cradling them in their arms and bottle-feeding them. Sometimes a mother sheep would birth more lambs than she could nurse, or one lamb would be too small to reach her mother’s milk. My grandma’s family would take these lambs into the house and stay up all night to care for them. Unlike today’s factory-farmed cows who are milked relentlessly and live for only a few short years, my grandma’s cows were milked gently by hand and lived well for many years. They were given names like Molly and Nell. The pigs were never confined indoors in tiny cages. They were allowed to roam along with the cattle, and piglets followed their mothers wherever they went. The pigs were given names, too. As my grandma recalls, “They loved to be rubbed and petted.”
When my grandmother was a sophomore in high school, she met the love of her life, my grandfather Don. Introduced by friends at a high school basketball game, they were soon engaged. After they married, Grandma moved to the Sidney hog farm, where my paternal grandfather’s family had been living for many decades.
My grandparents, too, showed respect for the animals they raised. Although the pigs were all bred for slaughter, the family took good care of them until that very last day. For example, soon after Grandma Donna arrived, my great-grandfather Emmett decided to remodel the farm. Emmett, who’d worked full-time on the farm since leaving sixth grade, said that no matter what other farmers might be doing, he would never use farrowing crates—tiny metal stalls in which the pigs couldn’t even turn around. “They’re too hard on the sows,” my grandma recalls him saying. Emmett took great pride in his sows. He wanted them to live good lives before they died. Eighty years ago, the concept of industrialized animal agriculture was just beginning to emerge, and my great-grandfather didn’t like it.
Nowadays, factory farms account for almost all farm animals raised and slaughtered in the United States. These industrial facilities in which animals are treated as mere cogs in a machine are nothing like my grandma’s farm. The roots of this industrial, factory-farm system can be traced to World War I, when the federal government was guaranteeing generous prices for crops and animal products to support the war effort. Whatever farmers could produce, the government would buy. In response, farmers borrowed heavily by mortgaging their farms, bought more land and animals, and produced as much food as possible. These farms prospered for a short while, but when the war ended, so did the government’s price guarantees. The price of corn dropped by nearly 80 percent, and beef prices dropped by 50 percent. Then, just as farmers were clawing their way back, the stock market crashed. The price of food dropped so low that many farms were abandoned and snatched up by the banks. The old model of food production was quickly insufficient. Producers had to make food plentiful and affordable, and they had to do it with a smaller workforce. This led to fewer but much larger mechanized farms. Much, much larger. Despite producing more food today, the agriculture industry’s share of the workforce has shrunk 80 percent over the past sixty years.
It’s a change my dad saw unfold. He was born and grew up on the same farm and attended the same grade school as his mother. Whereas she had traveled to class via horse and buggy, he got to ride a bus. The Runkle farm had milk cows, pigs, and chickens, as well as numerous cats and dogs. All summer throughout his school years, Dad worked on the farm with his father and grandfather. Back then, family farms like ours were small—about 80 to 160 acres—with two or three tractors, each generating less than 50 horsepower. Today most such farms comprise closer to 2,000 to 5,000 acres and are tended by a phalanx of 200- to 300-horsepower tractors. Land back then was worth about $100 to $200 an acre. Now it goes for $85,000 an acre or more. Consolidation was already under way when my dad was growing up, however. Every few weeks, he and Grandpa used to go to the farm auctions, where farmers who were going under sold their land and equipment at a discount.
Dad’s favorite part of farm life was the animals. As soon as he was old enough to walk, he’d hurry over to the stables to spend as much time as he could with the ponies. When he was only about six, he brought a sick lamb into the house and cared for him day and night for weeks. When he was ten, he had an Arabian mare, Ginger. She was so tall that to get on her back, he had to climb up her front leg.
Dad understood and loved animals, and they loved him right back. It was no surprise to anyone that he decided to become a veterinarian. After two years of college, he applied to and was accepted at the Ohio State University School of Veterinary Medicine.
My mom, Joyce June Summers, grew up a hundred miles northwest of my dad, in Shelby, Ohio. She, too, adored animals and found solace in their gentle, loyal company. Her first pet was a dog, Spot, but as she grew, so did her family of animals. There was Tiny the cat, Joy the goat, Cleo the ferret, Tippy the raccoon, and Deba the skunk. Mom’s pride and joy, however, was Star the horse, a lean fellow with dark red hair punctuated by a white, star-shaped patch of hair at the center of his forehead. I owe my life to Star. Without him, my mom probably would not have met my dad.
While Dad was in vet school, he started a horseback-riding program for summer camps and placed an ad in the school newspaper for an instructor. One of the applicants was Joyce, an elementary school teacher who had previously taught riding at a Girl Scout camp. He hired her.
After a couple of years in the job, she wanted to do what Dad did—haul horses to camp and help to manage the program. Dad told her that if she bought a truck, she could do just that. So she purchased a 1979 Chevy three-quarter-ton pickup, Dad got her a trailer, and they started working together. They fell in love, married, and moved Mom onto our family farm.
With these two as parents, my fate was sealed.
If you were to look at photographs of me as a kid, you might think I was actually raised by animals. Sure, there are a few pictures of me with my parents, but there are plenty more of me beside a cat, dog, frog, or horse. From the moment I was allowed outdoors by myself, I sought out every creature I could find—looking under rocks for crawdads, searching small ponds for minnows, combing the fields for toads to chase. If a baby bird fell out of a nest, I’d bring her home in a box and nurse her back to health with an eyedropper. If feral cats were wandering about, I’d befriend them, rescue them, and find someone to adopt them. Sometimes my older sister, Lana, and I would hear mewing in the barns and discover a litter of feral kittens buried deep in the hay. We would dig them out and get them adopted as well. Of course, we kept some of them, such as Benjamin, a gray-and-white tabby who was part of our family for fifteen years.
But the most significant relationship I had with an animal was with a sweet rat named Caesar.
Caesar was born in a small shed beside a big red barn and a bright yellow house next door to ours. My parents rented the house to a couple named Gene and Sylvia—hardworking, outgoing folks who bred rats, mice, guinea pigs, and beautiful white rabbits for sale to local research labs and universities. I remember wire cages stacked on top of one another, the smell of ammonia, and dead animals lying in the corners of cages, their live companions huddling next to them. Looking back, I’m appalled by what I now understand was happening across the cornfields from our family farm. All of these creatures were destined for the same short, grim life of being fed chemicals, drowned, shocked, or starved in the name of “science.”
One afternoon in 1990, when I was six years old, I went over to Gene and Sylvia’s with my mom to collect the monthly rent check. Sylvia knew of my deep love for animals, so she decided to show me one of the smaller sheds where the rats were being raised. Reaching into one of the cages, she grabbed a rat by his tail, hoisting him into the air. I watched as his little legs stretched out in panic as he tried desperately to grasp for something to hold on to. Sylvia lowered him into my waiting arms and told me he was a Siamese rat. His markings were exactly the same as those of the widely loved Siamese cat. His coat was a pure, glistening white, and the fur around his nose a soft gray. His emotive eyes were big and black. He looked regal, so I named him Caesar.
“Do you want to take him home?” Sylvia asked.
I was ecstatic. “Mom, can I please?”
“He’s a big responsibility,” she said. “You’ll have to take very good care of him.”
“Yes, I know, Mom. Of course I will.”
Caesar found a loving home with my family. Plucked from his cage and granted amnesty, he was one of the lucky ones. I later learned that the going price for one of Sylvia’s rats was a mere dollar.
For the next two and a half years, Caesar was my constant companion, sitting on my shoulder as I walked around the house, the star of my photo shoots as I learned to work a camera. He knew his name and came running whenever I called it. He was smart and gentle. We had a true bond.
I was so proud of him. When friends would come to visit, I’d take them to my room to meet Caesar. But most would shriek in disgust, “Ewww, a rat!” Otherwise calm and rational adults would become frightened children at the mere sight of Caesar. They’d quickly turn a cold shoulder. Gasp. Avert their gaze.
I couldn’t understand. They didn’t know Caesar as I did. They were judging him for what he was, not who he was. I was coming to understand that, when it comes to the desire for freedom, companionship, and respect, all animals are alike. The different treatments and fates we impose on our fellow creatures aren’t about them but about us.