This past weekend Julian and I had the privilege of spending four days at an animal sanctuary in Woodstock, New York. This year marked a few milestones for us – our 5-year wedding anniversary, we both turned 40, I joined Julian and went vegan – and we wanted to do something special to celebrate. We decided on Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary because it was co-founded by Jenny Brown and her book, The Lucky Ones, was one of the first books I’d ever read about farm animals after deciding to try a plant-based diet. A friend bought it for me and it was only after reading it that I really understood what a sanctuary was. It’s not a zoo (petting or otherwise), it’s not an aquarium and it’s not a museum where animals are on display for the amusement and study of human visitors. A sanctuary is a safe and sacred refuge where animals get to live out their lives in peace, liberated and free from the threat of slaughter, confinement, forced breeding and the general misery of factory farms. Their only “job” is to live as they were meant to, roaming the grounds while foraging for food, sleeping, playing, and getting some well-deserved nuzzles from fellow animals and humans. A sanctuary is their home and I felt very different walking those grounds: I was there for them and not the other way around.
We met all kinds of animals: chickens, turkeys, bunnies, cows, sheep, goats, calves, pigs and ducks. All of these animals had been rescued from factory farms, human abandonment and/or slaughterhouses. Many still bore the tell-tale signs of their history, like the turkeys who are genetically modified so their flesh appears paler and therefore more “desirable” to consumers, their bred-white feathers casting shadows over their clipped feet, bulbous and round from the scar tissue that has since formed in place. All of the turkeys I met had been de-beaked as well, a painful procedure they are subjected to on factory farms shortly after birth (due to the stress of confinement and over-crowding, birds will peck and claw at each other – as anyone would in those conditions – so rather than changing their surroundings to stop this behaviour, their anatomy is altered instead by cutting their toes and beaks, all without anesthetic).
We had a chance to visit the sanctuary infirmary as well and there was a female “layer” chicken staying there (“layer” is an industry term for chickens used strictly for their eggs then slaughtered once they no longer produce) who displayed the signs of having lived in a battery cage, feathers rubbed raw to the point where her fragile wing bones were exposed. But she was free now, never to experience that hell again or to be made into a food item for some ignorant consumer. As I watched her walk around and perch up on a ledge to look out the window, I wished there were some way I could reassure her that she was safe and was now free to look out the window any time she liked.
Yet despite all the misery these animals had experienced at the hands of humans, they still approached us. They still looked us in the eye and allowed us to come close to them. They still gave us a chance to enter their space when, given our history with animals, they have every reason to flee in terror from anything even resembling human form.
I also met Miss Piggy, who was found on the side of a road in North Carolina, her docked tail indicative of factory farming practices (pig’s tails are cut off and their teeth are clipped as babies for the same reasons that turkeys are mutilated), a red stripe on her back showing that she was destined for slaughter.
I met Fawn, a calf taken from her mother at a dairy farm shortly after birth, both front legs badly injured when she fell onto the concrete floor of a factory farm. She was rescued and after having her bandages changed one day by the caring staff at the sanctuary, she allowed me to stroke her neck gently as she fell asleep.
I met Dylan, a now full-grown cow rescued as a baby from a veal farm in 2005. One day away from being auctioned off and found tied to a post lying in his own feces, a couple advocated on his behalf and convinced the person in charge of the dairy farm to give him up. He is now 2,000 pounds of pure awesome!
I had the pleasure to meet turkeys for the first time in my life. They are truly a misrepresented animal. They are full of personality and charm with just a hint of smart-assery. They have very interesting vocalizations and I had no idea what a turkey even sounded like prior to our visit (spoiler: it’s not “Gobble, Gobble”).
Despite the obvious joy this past weekend brought me, it didn’t make me necessarily want to run away and work at an animal sanctuary. In fact, being among the 300 plus animals at the farm made me all the more resolute to speak up for the billions that will never, ever get that chance. They will never feel the natural earth beneath their feet, they will never experience a gentle touch from a human during their short, miserable lives. In fact, en route to Woodstock, we drove through Lowville, New York, and passed a factory farm. Unmistakable in its appearance, Marks Farms was nothing but acres and acres of grey, windowless sheds with not a sign of life from anywhere – human or animal. There were no fields for grazing, no workers hauling bales of hay for the animals – nothing. It screamed industry: lifeless, soulless, detached. But I know had I stopped the car and made it past the front entrance without getting thrown off the property, I would only have to open the door a crack to one of those sheds and the smell of ammonia and feces would hit me like a stone and the sounds of panic and fear amongst the thousands of cramped animals would be forever etched in my mind.
Now that I’ve met “food” animals in person, I am more convinced than ever that they were not put on this earth for that purpose. In fact, the idea of breeding, fattening and slaughtering animals for profit and taste seems even more absurd to me than before, if that’s even possible. It is simply not right, what we’re doing. It’s not right that only a handful of farm animals get to be happy, loved and properly cared for. It’s not right that we’ve come to think of animal cruelty as abhorrent – or even possible – only when it happens to cats and dogs. We need to be better than this. Our recent trip to Woodstock Sanctuary reminded me that humans are capable of doing so and it also showed me that the animals might just be willing to forgive us if we gave them half a chance.