Meet Panda, the newest resident of Grass Valley’s Animal Place farmed animal sanctuary.
The nearly 1-year-old steer is still getting used to his new surroundings, a far cry from what seemed to be his fate.
Panda had survived severe burns to his head, neck, shoulders and back, only to face the possibility of being slaughtered following a livestock auction.
The steer began life as a Future Farmers of America project at Paso Robles High School. Student Dylan Wilkinson housed and cared for the steer at the agriculture barn on school grounds.
In October 2013, 23-year-old Garrett Kaplan, a Paso Robles resident, allegedly entered the barn, doused the young steer with kerosene and set him on fire, according to Paso Robles Police Department reports.
After a months-long investigation, Kaplan was arrested in late May on charges of felony animal cruelty in connection with the case. He recently pleaded not guilty in a San Luis Obispo County courtroom, according to the Paso Robles Daily News.
With community support and donations from the Paso Robles area, Panda began to heal — so much so that Wilkinson decided to go ahead with plans to send the steer to the junior livestock auction at the California Mid-State Fair in Paso Robles, which ended its 12-day run on Sunday.
The fair classifies these livestock auctions as terminal market shows.
According to the 2014 State Rules for California Fairs, “If the fair requires a terminal sale…, exhibitors and their parents or guardians agree that upon entry into market competition and qualification by the market judge, the animal(s) will be sold and processed.”
The decision to spare Panda from auction came after a Ventura County woman offered Wilkinson $10,000 to place the steer with a sanctuary, according to KCBX, a Central Coast public radio station. Wilkinson and his family agreed to the terms and Panda was soon headed for Animal Place in Grass Valley.
“It’s not the way we wanted it to happen,” said Animal Place Executive Director Kim Sturla. “We don’t do things that way, but he is here now.”
Bonding with Panda
Now nine months later, Panda continues the healing process. Open sores on his back remain, as well as damage to his ears, hair loss and scarring in his left eye.
According to Sturla, Panda was checked by a general practice veterinarian soon after his arrival at Animal Place, and may need to be seen by a veterinary ophthalmologist to discover the extent of the damage to his eye.
One thing Panda has not lost, however, is his trust in people. He interacts easily with his new caregivers, following them around, seeking a well-placed scratch and plenty of attention.
Panda’s affection for people most likely began early on because of the care he received from Wilkinson.
“FFA and all ag educators are committed to humane treatment and stewardship of animals,” said Kristy Meyer, communications manager for the national FFA organization. “We provide guidance that shows proper care and raising of animals.”
The bond between the teen and the steer was clear to Animal Place staff when they arrived in Paso Robles to transport Panda to his new sanctuary home.
“It was painful for me to watch his relationship with that kid. (Panda) followed him everywhere. He did it without hesitation. He trusted him. I have no doubt he would have followed him directly into the slaughter gate (at the livestock auction),” said Sturla.
‘Compassion into action’
“Empathy leads to compassion, which leads to putting compassion into action,” said Sturla.
Raising animals, forming relationships with them, and then sending them to slaughter “does the opposite,” she said.
“There is nothing more wonderful to teach a child than empathy,” she said. “Why would you want to squelch it?”
Sturla uses a species switch approach to provide a different perspective when explaining her views on the treatment of farmed animals.
“Would it be different if it was a dog?” she said. “If you developed a relationship with a dog and cared for it knowing that you would have it euthanized ... would it be different?
“People often say it is different because we don’t eat dogs. We don’t have to eat any animals. You can walk into (a grocery store) and find all kinds of beautiful, delicious food” to eat instead.
Sturla said she would like to be able to offer an alternative program at Animal Place, where students would be able to get the same experience and education without the same outcome for the animals.
“FFA receives state money to teach the kids. I would like the same opportunity to present them with an alternative,” she said.
The Agricultural Career Technical Education Incentive Grant program provides matching funds for public school districts meeting state-approved program standards in ag education. California’s 2014-15 budget set aside $4.1 million for that purpose.
“We encourage respectful and fact-based decisions on all sides of any type of issue. Education is very important to us and we want (FFA members) to feel they are well-educated before making any decisions,” Meyer said.
Sturla questions the relevance of the education FFA students receive today.
“FFA doesn’t teach students about how farming is done. It is all factory farms now, except for a few small farms,” she said.
According to FFA’s website, part of their mission is to develop potential for an agriculture-related career by providing a quality education to its member in a wide variety of programs.
“There are over 300 types of agriculture, from aquaculture to turf management. We prepare (our members) for different aspects of agriculture and the diversity they will face in their lifetimes,” Meyer said.
“Agriculture … touches all of our lives so we try to present all the different facets and how they can become involved,” she added.
What’s ahead for Panda
The friendly steer will continue to settle into his new life. In about two weeks after the quarantine period has ended, he will most likely be introduced to the sanctuary’s other two young steers, Mortimer and Panda Bob, according to Sturla.
“I bet he is going to be thrilled to be around other cows for the first time since he was a baby calf,” she said.
Eventually, the three will be integrated into the adult herd.
To contact Staff Writer Kim Midboe, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4251. She is a volunteer at Animal Place.