My first hint that the Danes are generally not sentimental about animals came last year during our first Farm Week at my sons’ combined forest kindergarten and day care.
At the beginning of the week, I picked up my younger son—who was 2½ years old at the time—from the vuggestue (a day care center for infants and toddlers up to age 3) after his midday nap. He was groggy from sleep and enjoying an afternoon snack.
“We had a chicken in the vuggestue today,” the teacher told me, “because it is Farm Week.” Oh wow! A chicken! I imagined a chicken walking around in the back garden, pecking at the ground, eating insects and grass, perhaps enjoying some table scraps the children had saved from their lunch, and having an overall very exciting time as the children ran after it, each trying their best to catch the terrified bird despite being counseled by the teachers to let the poor thing be.
“Ah, how nice! Was the chicken in a cage, or did she roam around the garden?”
“Oh no, it was a butchered chicken,” she informed me with a big smile.
For a moment I wondered if I had misunderstood. Isn’t Farm Week about petting cute animals and sitting in tractors?
“Okay,” I said. And then to clarify, I asked, “You mean the chicken was dead, without feathers?
Like before you cook it?”
“Yes, yes. We passed it around and the children looked very closely at it. Finn thought it was very funny.”
Sure enough, the “look what we did today” photos posted on the parents’ web portal later that day showed tiny children passing around pieces of raw chicken meat and my son laughing hysterically as he poked at a chicken thigh. It should be noted by those of you who are freaking out due to raw chicken’s association with salmonella that in Denmark salmonella in chickens is next to nonexistent due to stringent regulations and an eradication program that the nation undertook 20 years ago. Why don’t we do it in America? I have no idea. But I digress …
The next day the children visited sheep at the farm next door, several of which had recently given birth to some adorable lambs. Each child took a turn petting the sheep and their babies. Now this was an approach to children and farms that felt familiar to me as an American. Ah yes, Farm Week! Cute furry baby animals! (Let’s never discuss what we ACTUALLY intend to do with them beyond cutting their hair and making sweaters with the wool.)
Day three was the most memorable. As usual, I arrived to pick up my son after his nap. The teacher sat down next to my son, who was eating some bread and fruit at the table, and asked, “Finn, can you tell your mom who came to visit us today?”
Oh wow! A pig came to visit the vuggestue! How fun! I imagined a pig rooting around on the little playground behind the building, a merry band of children gathering boisterously around it, following its every move and giggling with delight as the pig sniffed and explored the swings and sandboxes.
I was excited. “A PIG? Okay! Wow! Was he on the big playground or small?”
The teacher smiled and explained to me in a friendly tone, “Oh no, it wasn’t alive—it was a dead pig. We had its head, its tail, its heart, and a hoof for the children to look at and touch.”
I paused a moment as I processed the information. I couldn’t imagine something like this happening in the U.S. without parents totally flipping their lids over the thought of their kids touching dead animal parts and literally staring a dead pig in the face.
“Finn thought it was SO funny,” she told me. “He laughed and laughed.”
”Oh my …” (The “look what we did today” photos from that day are AMAZING, by the way.)
My thoughts immediately went to my older son, who is a vegetarian by his own choice and whose group was also participating in Farm Week. He loves animals and hates the thought of killing one for its meat. Yikes, he must have hated that, I thought. I prepared myself for a long, intense debrief on the matter of the dead pig after school.
On the drive home, I nonchalantly said to my older son, “So … I heard there was a pig head at school today.”
“Yeah, it was a dead pig head. It wasn’t my favorite. The teacher opened the pig’s mouth and blood spilled all over him. He had to change his shirt.”
“Wow. I bet that was unpleasant.”
“Well, it wasn’t my favorite, but I don’t know. It was weird when the blood went everywhere. But I guess that’s what farms are for, right?”
And that was it. He wasn’t traumatized in the least. And he seemed to already have a firmer grasp on the actual purpose of farms than most adult Americans do.
It took me four days to figure out that when Danish children learn about farms, they learn about where food comes from, not where cute cuddly animals live (although those come with the territory sometimes). When I picked up my younger son on the last day, I was told that a calf had visited the vuggestue. This time I knew which question to ask first. Cautiously, I ventured, “Was it … alive?”
The teacher laughed. “Oh yes, he was very much alive. The children lined up and each had the chance to pet him. He was very sweet. Finn was a little bit scared, actually.”