Why sanctuary matters
Coming up on September 20, the Mid-Hudson Vegetarian Society will
present an evening of comedy with Dan Piraro, benefiting Woodstock Farm
Animal Sanctuary. In June, we provided the food concession at Catskill
Animal Sanctuary’s annual Shin Dig. Page one of this edition of
Vegetarian Viewpoints features a touching article by Cheri Ezell-Vandersluis,
director of Maple Farm Sanctuary. So it seems the Veg Society is highly
involved with the farm animal sanctuary movement.
Many of us find farm animal sanctuaries compelling and, we hope,
others who have not yet chosen a veg diet will also find them so.
Every life matters
Some of the attraction and purpose of sanctuary is readily apparent.
For those of us who have chosen to advocate for the life, relative
liberty and happiness of farm animals, sanctuaries provide a place where
each life matters. When at a sanctuary, it is clear that this is a
living truth, every single day.
At Woodstock FAS, staff member Amber Plaut lovingly straps a
prosthetic limb on to Albie, a three-legged goat. At CAS, a million
tears were shed recently for Police, a half-ton gentleman pig whose
euthanasia was recently compelled by age, decreasing mobility and
increasing chronic pain. At every sanctuary, chicken feet are
painstakingly wrapped by caregivers to stave off the ubiquitous effects
of the crippling weight heaped upon “broiler” birds through the genetic
shenanigans of animal agribusiness.
a sanctuary, this all seems normal; routine work done with a modest dash
of compassion. All ordinary, reasonable gestures of care for animals
whose lives and comfort matter. When the tending of that chicken’s foot
is compared to her likely treatment as a food animal, one mere object
among billions, then the care seems a revolutionary departure from a
cruel norm. It is, indeed, a revolutionary reverence for life.
Many people involved in sanctuary work refer to the lucky few animals
who make it to a sanctuary as ambassadors whose saved lives publicly
demonstrate the character, emotion and intelligence that is also present
in the billions of land animals who, out of public view, are mutilated,
sexually assaulted, confined, terrorized and killed for mere food
products. As vegans, we know that all that suffering is completely
needless as plant-based diets are not just more compassionate but are
more healthful and environmentally sustainable.
Not every sanctuary engages in the ambassador activity. Specifically,
I am thinking of a splendid porcine sanctuary, the Tusk and Bristle,
which does not encourage visitors and yet is hog heaven for its lucky
For many years now, thousands of people who have traveled to Watkins
Glen, NY, to visit Farm Sanctuary, the first, largest and still
exemplary farm animal sanctuary.
Once while at Farm Sanctuary, I was visiting with some young piglets
who had been rescued, near starvation, from the frozen fields of a
free-range pig farm in a harsh January. I remember watching a little pig
pick up a prized, round rock, take off at a run, try to convince a
littermate he had something especially dear. When his chum didn’t
respond to the rock game, the piglet snooted his fellow in the hams and
ran off, prompting a game of chase. The game would have felt the same
were it any pair of puppies or human pre-schoolers.
In the years following, more fine sanctuaries continue to open expand
and engage more visitors. Woodstock FAS and CAS each welcome dozens of
weekend visitors. Some are already vegetarian or vegan. For these, a
sanctuary visit is a good heart-warming reminder of why we eat what we
eat. Many visitors to sanctuaries are eating the standard American diet
and may have come from lunch at McDonald’s just before coming face to
face with a steer. For folks like these, a sanctuary may provide the
first occasion to look into the oh-so-human eyes of a pig, to see photos
or video of slaughterhouses, or to learn of the environmental
devastation wrought by animal agriculture. Many may not ever change
their dinner ingredient choices, but at least for a few hours, they saw
their food animals as individuals and (despite inaction) will not forget
them. Some may promptly choose a compassionate diet. Some may do so
later, when more information, reflection, or persuasion comes their way.
We never know altogether who, how many, or how much change is
prompted by the animal ambassadors, but there is a steady stream of
transformational calls, letters and emails often including: “I just
visited your sanctuary for the first time … moved to tears never knew …
changed my life … thank you.”
The new Underground Railroad
This may be a more subtle aspect of the sanctuary movement. It is
certainly less frequently spoken about, but I believe this may
ultimately be the most important impact of sanctuaries. Thinking back to
the time of legal human slavery in the U.S., there were many white
literate free people who thought little about slaves and the system of
agriculture predominant in the South. There were some who felt the
system needed reforms, like greater freedom of movement, restraint on
corporal punishment. There were others, few at first and thought of as
radical, who called for abolition based on a fundamental ethical
opposition to slavery. As we know, the radical few, the abolitionists,
eventually became the political majority in the North, which ultimately
led to emancipation.
So our society stands today with regards to the relationship between
humans and non-human animals. Many people think little about systems of
animal food production. Some well-meaning folks think eliminating a few
abuses, like battery cages, and encouraging less wretched treatment of
animals through consuming free-range, “Certified Humane”, or grass-fed
products are sufficient reforms. A few, the vegans, are fundamentally
and ethically apposed to the enslavement of animals for food and other
The Underground Railroad played a vital role in the societal shift
toward the abolition of slavery. It did so by bringing a small handful
of individual freed slaves into the wider society of free individuals.
This activity grew to engage more and more mainstream, educated white
people; in today’s terms the mainstream middle class.
Similarly, as the farm animal sanctuary movement develops, more and
more mainstream middle class people are being engaged in a contemporary
farm animal underground railroad. As more people become volunteers,
members, or just repeat visitors to farm sanctuaries, familiarity with
the new Underground Railroad is becoming commonplace.
Every time a sanctuary volunteer or dedicated member mentions their
activity to a friend or neighbor the idea becomes that much less a
radical ideal posited by so-called animal rights nuts and that much more
an ordinary interest engaged in on say, every Wednesday afternoon or
Saturday morning by perfectly ordinary, responsible people. I look
forward to an ever-growing number of people saying, “No, I don’t eat
chickens, but I sometimes help rescue them.”
As a result of eating the standard American diet until I became
vegetarian at age 25, then finally graduating to vegan at 39, I was
personally responsible for enslavement and killing of at least 2,000
animals (excluding marine animals whom we can’t even figure out how to
count in this kind of thing). I was raised to believe I was an animal
lover, yet I realized I had done unimaginable harm to thousands of them.
Over those meat eating years there were perhaps a couple hundred dogs,
cats parrots and horses whom I had befriended or in some way aided (I
did some parrot and dog rescue/rehab and other animal care work). I had
200 animal friends who I knew by name and into whose eye I had looked.
On the other hand there were 2,000 nameless, faceless, voiceless animals
to whom I had done the ultimate harm.
I was compelled, in some way, to try to make amends. I began at Farm
Sanctuary where I worked with Gene Baur to develop the Veg for Life
campaign. Later I would volunteer and then join the happily underpaid,
overworked and keenly dedicated staff of Catskill Animal Sanctuary.
Sometimes, work there was a job, but when the days stretched to 12 or
more hours, the work weeks to 12 or more straight days, I felt like I
was way past job and well onto making progress on this atonement
project. Atonement, however, is never more than a back burner thought.
Foremost are the 300 newly rescued broiler chickens in a suddenly
guano-layered barn in need of cleaning with meds to administer and more
feet to wrap.
I’ve gone on to lend an occasional hand at Woodstock FAS, too. There
are always fences to mend, sometimes barns to build.
I will always wish I could do more, but I am proud to do all I can
for the sanctuaries. I know this sentiment is widespread among the
members of Mid-Hudson Veg. We understand sanctuary matters.
-Jim Van Alstine, President
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