Okay, I fibbed again. I had every intention of bringing the pics and tales of the amazing animals at the Farm Sanctuary your way, and I got distracted by the 2012 Animal Rights Conference that took place in DC this past weekend (which was grand – post forthcoming). I also apologize in advance that this post is so long, but there are videos of baby animals, so I think that makes up for it, right? And, fair warning: I use choice language and lots of parentheticals here. This ain’t unusual, especially if you know me personally, and that’s just how we roll over here at The Little Foxes. Now, without further ado, I bring you the ever-holy, super kick ass Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, NY.
Let me just say that you simply must go to this place sometime (or, better yet, many times) before you die. Like other great sanctuaries, it’s inspiring, mind-blowing, peaceful, and an all-around positive and perfect experience. It’s also the granddaddy of farm animal sanctuaries, so there’s an impressive history of activism, advocacy, and courage at a time when there were few other sanctuaries like it. Recommended read: Gene Baur’s, founder of Farm Sanctuary, book.
We rolled up to the Sanctuary around dusk to a gorgeous sunset over the pastures. The bed and breakfast here is composed of impeccable little cabins that literally open up to rolling grass and animals right out your front door. Playful and friendly barn cats, frogs, and other wonderful individuals greet you whenever you step outside of your door. At night, it’s quiet and dark – a real luxury for city folk – and you hear beautiful night-chirping crickets and gorgeous bird songs and animals by day. Not to belabor the milieu, but just being at this place is a both a rest and a feast for the senses (if such a thing is possible…which it is).
Upon waking, you can enjoy a tasty vegan brunch with fellow B&Bers, and mosey around the farm until your tour starts. You can see animals all over the place without going on a tour, but the tours, given by experienced and spirited guides, allow you to go in to the pens and pastures, which means lots of opportunities for incredible hands-on encounters with the animals (if they’re interested, that is), and those encounters range from a little pet here and there to a full-blown hugging and snuggling (which is fucking life-changing for the converted and non-converted alike).
First up, we saw the goats. My goodness, where to start about these sweeties? Smart, sensitive, curious, slightly rascally, and friendly. I’ve never been up close with a goat before and this little one was following us around most of the day. I adore her.
We also saw them rocking this rather Charlie’s Angels-esque formation when we entered their pasture:
To imagine that many of these goats were rescued from live markets (and post-escape were found wandering NYC, no less) and backyard butcher operations blows my mind. Not because I don’t know these things happen, but because the goats were so social and affectionate. Really goes to show that whomever kills these animals, especially in a time when we simply don’t need to, are freaking out of their gourds and have really lost their sense of right and wrong. MFA recently did an undercover investigation of a backyard butcher, who is now pending criminal animal cruelty charges. What they uncovered will astonish and sicken you. Thankfully, many of the animals are safe and at Sanctuaries, like the sweeties we saw.
Pigs are natural heart stealers. There’s just something so squishy and fantastic about piglets especially. But, I was most fascinated by and in awe of the adult pigs. I was taken aback by how large they were. Of course I was – you would’ve been, too. Farmed pigs are bred to be large because people like bacon and pulled pork and all that crap, and a lot of it. A bigger pig naturally produces more meat, and we never really see them this large because once they’re fattened, off to slaughter they go (sadly, they are bred to grow so rapidly that their lives, in addition to being a living hell, aren’t very long). Because they’re also bred to have unnaturally white meat for our tastes, their skin has little pigment and gets easily sunburned, which is inconvenient for an animal that naturally likes to bathe in mud and lounge in the warm sun. Lucky Sanctuary interns have the task of rubbing the sows and pigs down with sunblock daily to ensure they don’t get too lobstery. What I was also taken aback by was how many had holes in their ears from factory farm tags (where they’re merely a number), no testicles (they’re ripped out at birth), and their tails docked (also done to piglets with dull clippers and no pain relief). Many mother sows had difficulty adjusting to life outside of the gestation crates (ya know, a live of…movement), and the abrasions to mark that awful existence. But despite all of these horrific conditions pre-Sanctuary, the pigs were social, smart, inquisitive, and fucking delightful. The biggest takeaway for me, and this was a seriously stirring one, was how very human their eyes are. Behind those delightfully fluttery lashes are eyes that will literally bore in to your soul (in a good way).
We also had the great luck of going up to the Sanctuary’s clinic and happening upon Julia and her piglets. If you don’t know Julia’s story, you can read it here.
Her situation, sadly, is not unique, but her circumstances are stirring. Despite all of the very recent and horrific abuse, and the large bruises still on her body, she is gentle and well adjusted, and one hell of a mother. Anyone who defends gestation crates (Some crotch goblins in the pork industry have the nerve to call them “individual maternity pens.” LOLz.) by telling you that mother sows actually need and like to be immobilized during pregnancy and separated from their babies because they will eat or harm them, is full of bull. Mother sows are fantastic parents, especially in the right and natural circumstances. It’s just when you stick them the Auschwitzes (As Jewish author Isaac Bashevis Singer stated, “In relation to [animals], all people are Nazis; for the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka.”) that are factory farms their whole lives, abuse them, and deprive them of their children, that they understandably go stir crazy and lose it. And here’s some food-for-thought (pun intended) – THIS is what Christensen Farms, one of the largest pork producers in the country, think of their sows:
The fat selfish bitches we saw at the Sanctuary were more like this – Sleeping, dreaming, and twitching like pups after an exhausting day of play. Sooooo SELFISH, guys.
(BTW, you should totally click on these headers. This blog does a great job of outlining these animals’ lives and true natures in a beautiful and moving way)
In sheer size, the cows will blow your mind. Some are 2,000 pounds, like the gentle black giant, Thunder. Again, they’re bred to be big so we can have more meat to eat. That sucks, doesn’t it? After coming face to face with both dairy and beef cattle at the Sanctuary, I can see why so many Sanctuaries give their cows spiritual names like Bodhi and Buddha, and why entire countries hold them (at least in principle, not always in practice) in such high esteem. Cows have a very palpable patience about them. I don’t want to over-simplify or generalize their character, but there is a gentleness and wisdom to a creature who can easily crush you just by rolling over, but opts to sit peacefully and stare at you, batting its lashes and swatting flies with its beautiful ears. We could learn something from their forgiving and fine nature. I could’ve hung out with the cows all day – they like to chill.
And because we all love baby animals, we had the good fortune of running into a calf. A calf who was born to a very abused dairy cow mother (aren’t they all, though. Sheesh). Under normal circumstances, this lovebird would’ve been taken from his mother at birth, never allowed to nuzzle her or drink her milk (which, like human babies and their mothers’ milk, is so necessary to healthy growth and development), and shipped off immediately to live (a very short) life in a veal crate. Yes, folks, the dairy industry is the entire reason the veal industry exists. The dairy industry has to keep the lady cows prego so they produce milk to make our Carnation Instant Breakfasts, cream cheese, sharp cheddar, etc. As with any pregnancy, not all of the offspring are females (who are also taken immediately from their moms and get enslaved by the same vicious cycle of impregnation and milking), so the boy calves, virtually worthless to dairies, become our veal.
After rough transport, they live up to 6 short months in crates so small they cannot turn around, with chains around their necks. They are never able to move properly, and that’s the way the farmers like it, because, like any living creature, activity builds muscle…and muscle means tougher meat. So, when we compliment the chef that the veal scaloppini was “oh so tender!,” what we really should be thinking is, “Wow, this baby calf must’ve never moved at all.” because that’s actually what’s going on. The saddest part about this (it’s all sad, really) is that these mothers and calves mourn for each other. Mothers low and cry for days and days, and baby calves, instinctively looking for something to suckle for nourishment, are often found attempting to suckle on the bars of their stalls (let’s not even get in to how some depraved ranchers take advantage of this infant rooting in sicko ways and abuse these poor calves – cruelty begets depravity). I am not a mother, but I can only imagine the terrible feeling of loss and helplessness when you’ve incubated a life only to have it taken away from you to certain death (which these animals know, because they have super spidey senses and are very intuitive and smart). If you’re still unconvinced that these mothers miss their young and vice versa, watch THIS vid that tugs at the heartstrings.
Out calf friend was so playful and reminded me so much of a puppy. He was pressing his head in to my hand, giving kisses with his tongue, and even jumping up on his hind legs excitedly when he saw us. He was darling, just like all the animals at the Sanctuary, and his innocence in the face of such tremendous adversity really touched me.
Imagine having one day a year where virtually everyone in a country comes to kill and eat you and all of your brethren, and it’s considered completely okay? It’s a terrifying thought (way scarier than that Miami Zombie face eating incident, and that was scary), and it’s reality for sensitive and awesome turkeys. We had the wonderful opportunity to hang out with some lady turkeys and my goodness, they were just fantastic. They reminded me a bit of the cast of the Golden Girls, whom I adore (RIP, Bea Arthur), with their wise, critical, expectant little faces. When I was first becoming vegetarian, like most people, I didn’t think much about the plight of poultry (I hate that word, but that’s the industry term), but they are, just in volume, the most abused animals on the planet, especially chickens. While every little bit helps, I really like Victoria Moran’s rumination on going veg. In Main Street Vegan, her newest book, she states that she wishes she could go back in time (which is a ways back for a 20+ year vegan) and start with eliminating chicken first because, from a suffering reduction perspective (since chickens make up about 8B of the 10B+ animals killed each year in the US alone for food. 8 FREAKING BILLION), she could’ve spared more lives starting with chicken and fish, as opposed to phasing those out last, as most aspiring veggies do. I wish I had done the same, and I encourage anyone who sees poultry as a formidable alternative to consuming larger land animals to visit with a chicken or turkey (or duck or goose, etc). They are some of the smartest mammer-jammers out there. Many studies show that birds are smarter than human toddlers, understand math equations, and enjoy and can even make music with instruments (which is more than I can say for most of us Guitar Hero playing posers, myself included). Anyway, let’s talk turkey…
Upon entering the pen, Antoinette, a beautiful white turkey presented herself. She was making sing-songy noises and clucks, and set herself down right in front of us. Our great tour guide told us that she wanted to be pet. We knelt down and noticed that some of the other turkeys around her were missing half of their top beaks. Debeaking is standard industry practice in the poultry biz. Because birds are kept in such crazy cramped confinements (think of living on a CTA bus, during rush hour, when it’s 108 degrees and the A/C is broken, standing and cramped against 300 people, all of whom have the most noxious BO in the world, for your entire life…but a million times worse) without any grass to peck and graze at, they lose their minds and peck at whatever will satisfy their natural need. This often means they peck at their cages, each other, and themselves. It’s terribly sad, and instead of providing these birds with real room to roam (alas, “free range” is just a word that means nothing) and enjoy as they physiologically and psychologically need, poultry farmers just cut off their beaks with a hot blade (and no anesthetic). It’s all fun and games, kids, until you LOSE YOUR FUCKING NOSE. Imagine that. Awful. And in spite of all that, this beautiful gal trusted us and wanted us to pet her.
Putting your hand on a bird, feeling its breath under its delicate bones and downy feathers is an indescribable experience. Andy, a little nervous about being pecked, knelt down by Antoinette, and at the tour guide’s urging, began massaging under her wings. As Andy’s hand disappeared under her feathers (geeze, this is starting to sound a bit like a steamy novel…), you could see her close her eyes in relaxation. Her more frantic clucks turned to a little song that expressed, unquestionably, that she was happy. When Andy stopped petting her, she looked at him much like Sofia would look at Blanche when she sashayed in and said something off-color. The stare was so pointedly pissed off that Andy continued to oblige the missus, naturally.
There were many other animals at the Sanctuary, including rabbits, ducks, geese, sheep, and I think even some donkeys and horses, but we didn’t get up close and personal with them (next time!). All preaching aside, this was an incredible visit and a truly holy place. Anyone, especially children, would have the best time on earth at the Sanctuary. If you’re considering a vacation that is restful, positive, and a beautiful experience, I highly recommend this place for omnivores and devout veggies alike. The primary take away here is that these animals are individuals, with incredible personalities and capacities for love, intellect, forgiveness, and empathy. As an adult, you rarely experience the pure wonder you used to when you were a child. Farm Sanctuary is totally wonderment inducing.