were you born in a barn1

According to an article in Wednesday's Yukon News, Humane Society Yukon is making plans to build a shelter for abused and neglected livestock.

According to an article in Wednesday’s Yukon News, Humane Society Yukon is making plans to build a shelter for abused and neglected livestock. At an estimated construction cost of $350,000, and with a yearly operations and maintenance budget of $500,000, the shelter will consist of a barn with 10 stalls for “horses, cows, sheep and other livestock,” and 10 kennels to house some of the current pet shelter’s overflow problem.

Is there a creche on your lawn, a Mary and Joseph picture book on your coffee-table, a Nativity Christmas card on your mantle? If so, turn to them for a moment and spare a thought for the humble barn-born. I speak not of the select few who shed their straw-smirched beginnings and go on to stellar careers as the sons of major deities, but of the common horde who never leave their bucolic starting place, the sheep, the donkey, the cow, and the lowly pig – though for some reason, you never seem to see a pig, lowly or otherwise, in a Nativity scene.

Entrenched as certain barn animals are in the Christmas tradition, they have never achieved the sanctified status of pets. Despite being the first companions to enter the holy consciousness of the baby Jesus when first He opened His little nose, the sheep, the cow and the goat commonly end their lives by being slaughtered and – sensitive vegans might want to skip this part – eaten. In contrast the dog and the cat, unmentioned in the Gospels, are kept alive by heroic intervention long past any pretense of usefulness, then ceremoniously buried in the back yard with a little wooden cross marked “Tigger.”

Though devoid of logical explanation, our cultural predisposition to separate pets from livestock is as deep and entrenched as the sentiment that keeps pigs out of creches, and it’s going to present some questions for the Humane Society as it goes about the day-to-day running of its proposed livestock shelter. It’s one thing to double-bunk the inmates at the downtown shelter because your no-kill policy is causing overcrowding, but try it with chickens, rescued or not, and next thing you know PETA will be protesting in the streets of Whitehorse (though probably not nude, given the climate, sorry).

The no-kill policy at the Mae Bachur Animal Shelter extends, of course, to adoptions. Take, for instance, the case of Trevor, the Shepherd-Rottie abuse victim from Whitehorse who bit the landlord (duh, Trevor), got the death sentence, then made the national papers when he hired a lawyer and took it to court. The dog won his appeal in Yukon Supreme Court, and had his sentence commuted to life, either at the shelter or on tight parole. It would not be permissible under current rules for some exasperated ratepayer to adopt Trevor for the express purpose of taking him home and sticking his head in the gas oven.

So how would this rule apply to, say, pigs? Once a pig is housed at the new livestock shelter, would an applicant for adoption have to sign a no-kill agreement? There are not a lot of openings around town these days for pet pigs of the nonpygmy variety. Adoptions may be slow. Rescued beef cattle, turkeys and meat goats may face similar challenges.

Now, all of this might come to nothing. Perhaps Yukon farmers will prove to be so responsible, and so few, that there will be no need to overcrowd the livestock shelter. A steer, for instance, only lives around 20 years, so if no more than two neglected or abused steers are confiscated every year, those 10 stalls will do nicely, and I’m sure the taxpayers will agree it would be half a million bucks a year well spent.

The alternative, to waive the no-kill policy for edible animals, might cause problems of another nature. Who will decide which animals are sacrosanct, and which are food? Will there be a register, codified for ethnic variations? What about abused livestock that become dangerous? Does a bull bison with attitude get the Trevor treatment? Do volunteers come down each day to take the neglected stallion for walkies?

After the register is created, what will separate the culturally sanctified animals from those on the adopt-and-eat program? Unless there’s a physical barrier, what’s to prevent confusion among customers for whom the 40 or so dogs and cats in those 10 kennels look a lot like the meat section of the local market back home?

The News article did hint at a third solution, not a very fancy one, a bit on the economical side for some tastes, but one that would address the overcrowding issue, at least as regards animals of the edible variety. If you want to house neglected or abused farm animals, give them to farmers whose animals aren’t abused or neglected. There may be no room at the inn, but there’s always a spare stall in a barn somewhere.

Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.