Three curious Canada geese swoop low over the Macomber Farm and Education Center and splash to a noisy landing in the pond -- honk-honking as if to ask: "What's going on here now?"
These geese have reason to be perplexed. For generations the birds have fed on corn spread out for them here at what was once Raceland, the 46-acre estate of late Boston financier George R. Macomber. But the site was recently converted into what may be the only facility of its kind, to explore an issue rarely presented to the public: humane treatment for farm animals.
A "goose's eye" view reveals that in place of Mr. Macomber's private steeplechase and racetrack is a brand new farm, so manicured and perfect in every detail that it looks like a child's play set of handsome barns, freshly erected fences, grazing horses, mooing cattle, and crowing roosters. In every barn and winding path, school children squeal with delight at the animals they are seeing and petting -- often for the first time.
Macomber Farm is the dream of David S. Claflin, president of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA). The land was bequeathed by Mr. Macomber -- a 38-year trustee of the non-profit, non-tax supported society. But it has taken the MSPCA five years and $7 million in private contributions to put together this unique learning center, designed to show how farm animals can be raised efficiently in an atmosphere of warmth, serenity, and loving care.
Why farmm animals? Because the MSPCA believes that today -- unlike earlier eras when food animals were grown on private farms -- this is the class of animal which is suffering the most from human abuse. The principal culprit: "factory farming."
This relatively new method of mass-producing food and fiber products from animals treats sentient creatures as if they were unfeeling bio-machines. Lifelong confinement completely restricts their normal movements, social interaction, and natural way of life.
Nancy Ann Payton, the MSPCA's humane issues analyst, says "If we were keeping dogs and cats in the same condition that we are keeping calves, swine, chickens and all these food animals, the public would be appalled, the outcry would be tremendous. We would have laws to protect them as we have laws to protect pets and zoo animals."
But, she says, few consumers have any idea of how animals that eventually wind up on the dinner table are treated while alive.
For example, Miss Payton reports that to satisfy the gourmet trade's demand for "white" (extremely tender) veal, in most factory farms calves are confined in stalls measuring 1 foot 10 inches wide by 4 feet 6 inches long, to prevent them from exercising and developing muscles. Similarly, 90 percent of all chickens are raised in layered cages so crowded that three or four must share a space no larger than a folded daily newspaper. Kept indoors, they never see the light of the sun.
It is against this background of mistreatment that Macomber Farm was established. According to Macomber's director, Robert A. Johnson, the farm's impact can be compared to "hitting the public over the head with a velvet hammer , to attract its attention and to kindle a spark of interest in and appreciation of farm animals -- and concern for their welfare."
At Macomber, every animal is clean and in perfect condition -- unafraid, contented, playful, showing forth the kind consideration it is receiving. Each candidate has been carefully "interviewed" to make sure it is friendly enough to enter public life at the farm. And each of the six animal barns has been designed to provide maximum comfort for the different species.
Macomber's large staff of well-trained young tour guides has already dubbed one barn the "Horse Hilton." Amenities include: box stalls large enough to move around and lie down in; a special shower stall for hosing down; plenty of good ventilation, plus a fire alarm system. And windows so horses can look out at the landscape. Meanwhile, goats can cavort on their own manmade hill. And dairy cows take delight in the latest equipment in their gleaming milking parlor.
Pigs -- often mistakenly thought to be naturally dirty -- are understood at Macomber to be smart and clean. When they roll in mud it is only to cool their bristly hides, because they have no sweat glands. Here a sprinkler system eliminates that need by protecting them from the heat. there are even toys to play with. When piglets want water, they push a valve with their tiny snouts to release water into their drinking trough.
The animals are the stars of this barnyard -- but every performer needs an audience. Since Macomber opened early in May, several thousand school children have arrived by the busload helping to fill this role. Every exhibit in each of the eight barns invites visitors to play games in order to learn facts about farm creatures.
At one exhibit, you can pretend to be a horse. Feel for yourself what it's like to stride with a horse's gait, or strain to pull a miniature milk wagon along a track. Then put on a fiberoptic sight mask and learn that a horse sees in almost a complete circle, but nothing at all directly in front of him.
Is your sense of smell as acute as that of a pi? Try sniffing your way out of a scent maze -- hogs are masters at it.
In every animal barn, computer games -- played by pushing keys -- flash slow-motion drawings of animals onto a screen, ask questions, and give answers.
While having fun, children begin to get the idea. They crowd around this reporter's tape recorder: "I learned that animals need shelter, that they like being with their own species, and that they help people survive, like cows give milk," says one third-grader.
Chimes in another: "I learned that animals used to be wild a long time ago and now they aren't wild, and so we have to take care of them."
That is precisely the message Macomber Farm is intended to convey. "What we have got to get across to the public," says Miss Payton, "is that if you are going to eat and use animal products, you have to take responsibility to insure that they are raised, maintained, and killed in the most humane conditions possible."
As the trend towards factory farming in America intensifies, concern about the conditions it creates is also rising among humane groups. MSPCA and its sister organization, the American Humane Education Society (whose headquarters are also at the farm) are in the vanguard.
Miss Payton says the public's current attitide is that it is all right to treat farm animals differently from pets and zoo residents, because they are sources of food. "But that makes them second-or third-class animals. We feel that a calf is just as deserving as a dog in a kennel."
As a first step, the public must be informed and sensitized to what the humane community regards as the six basic rights of farm animals -- freedom to turn around, get up, lie down, stretch their limbs, groom themselves, and enjoy the companionship of their own kind. Until awareness grows, Miss Payton says lobbyists cannot bring effective pressure upon lawmakers to introduce humane legislation. One Massachusetts legislator expressed a common viewpoint by exclaiming, "Don't even talk to me about chickens?"
At present, MSPCA reports "there are no federal laws that regulate the treatment of farm animals during the rearing process." Most states, including Massachusetts, have anticruelty statutes. Yet in this state, as in most others, such laws do not specifically protect farm animals.
With the help of Macomber Farm and other projects, MSPCA hopes eventually to win clear legal rights for livestock. AS Miss Payton writes in Animal, the MSPCA magazine:
"Humane societies have avoided the intensive-farming issue, citing a myriad of rationalizations for not actively opposing this blatant cruelty. It is about time we changed our perspective. Instead of thinking of reasons why not to act, let us concentrate on the one reason why we must act -- the animals are suffering!"