The Farm Sanctuary is exactly what it sounds like - a haven for barnyard animals - and it is surely one of the more blessed places on Earth. I was fortunate to spend time with National Shelter Director Susie Coston, a passionate force of dedicated energy, who gave me a tour of their New York location.
The Farm Sanctuary, now in its 24th year, has two locations. The one I visited in Watkins Glen, New York, is a gorgeous 175-acre facility that currently houses 501 animals - each one a victim of cruelty, neglect or sheer bad luck. (This is hard to imagine when you actually meet the animals; I'd never seen a goat or a sheep smile before.) The Sanctuary also has a 300-acre facility in Orland, California - just outside Chico - where the animal population is currently 328.
I first meet Susie Coston in her small office, which she gamely shares with her dogs, Nigel and Ralphie, both rescues. Felix the cat is perched above her computer (another dumpee) and a MooCoo Clock - it chimes cow sounds - reminds her of the time, of which there is never enough. I get a glimpse of her crazy world as she instructs a young employee:
"JD we need to take in this afternoon. Dewey can be picked up. The calves and the goats are not ready, they’ll be ready tomorrow or Friday and we’ll bring the two little calves, the new ones, will be coming home this afternoon too. I have to wait until this afternoon because Dewey’s bloodwork is not back yet ..”
A former teacher, Susie has clearly found her destiny at the Farm Sanctuary, where she's been working diligently for the last decade. As she takes me around the farm, explaining everybody and everything, I'm amazed that she calls every single animal by name (usually in a Southpark voice). More importantly, they clearly know her. I'll never forget the look of sheer squealing joy when two pig friends look up from their mud play and catch sight of her walking down the road with me. Man, those oinkers came running! They knew full well that belly rubs were in store.
We try to focus on the individual and the animal and the sense that it’s a living, breathing creature and it deserves just as much respect as any other, like a dog or a cat, or any other animal that you’d have in your life. And that’s the bottom line. --Susie Coston, National Shelter Director, Farm SanctuarySome excerpts from the interview:
CB: What's the animal breakdown at this facility?
SC: We've got over 60 cattle and just took in a rescue of six baby calves. We took in a rescue a couple weeks before of two calves that had been running loose for weeks in the snow in February, which is horrible.
We've got over 50 goats - just did a rescue: five pregnant mothers from a starvation case and one very active male (laughs) who is being neutered as we speak! The damage is done but he’s at Cornell right now.
We have 20 turkeys, couple hundred chickens of all different breeds - every breed of chicken you can think of. Fifty ducks, 30 geese, 88 sheep...
CB: This is turning into a nursery rhyme.
SC: ...and a partridge in a pear tree! And rabbits. We have 17 rabbits.
CB: All this dumping, neglect and starvation. What do you think the disconnect is for human beings?
SC: I think people have to have a disconnect in some ways. Especially like in a farming situation there has to be a disconnect and you learn that so early on that it’s very difficult to get out of that. Anytime that you put a monetary value on an animal or a person or anything, you’ve turned that into not a living being but a product. You’ve turned it in into something that, that’s not...
CB: A soul?
SC: Yeah, The soul is gone once there’s money involved and I think that’s our biggest problem. Even companion animals, like breeders. They have no issue with backyard breeding. They’re products. There’s constant raids on hoarding situations where there’s hundreds and hundreds of animals that nobody is taking care of … there’s a huge disconnect. That’s one of the reasons we’re here is to reconnect. You have no idea how many hundreds of people come in here every year and say, “I’m never gonna be able to eat meat again because I’ve met them.” Like, they don’t know who they are, they have no idea. And if you’re going to in to a store, you’re just buying meat, that is a huge disconnect because you don’t even know who these animals are. It’s a little bit different with farmers because at least they see them.
You’re basing something on the value that it is for you, monetarily. If there’s no value, that’s how that animal is treated. We just did a rescue with six newborn calves, tied to a tractor and basically just left to die because they’re males and they're dairy cattle and they’re worth nothing because dairy prices are bad because of the economy. Veal prices are down so there’s no veal market right now because crated veal people are starting to be like, "very very bad," so veal is less of a thing than it was five years ago. So these calves are worth absolutely nothing. They are actually costing farmers and so farmers are pissed and they don’t want them. They’re thinking of any possible way to not have them. And you can’t sex them when the mother’s carrying them. They need the mother to be pregnant to produce milk, so if it’s a boy, then that’s what you’ve got.
CB: It’s like the baby chicks.
SC: Exactly like the baby chicks. The boys are killed again for the laying facilities, they’re not for broilers. In foie gras production, they kill the girls. That’s the only (food industry) I know of where they kill the girls because the liver’s not good for foie gras. So, they sex all the baby ducklings at birth and they gas the girls in big garbage bags and they throw them in the trash.
If you can somehow do that to thousands and thousands of animals on a daily basis, there’s something really, really wrong. There’s some BIG disconnect that you’ve allowed yourself to make. And I think that’s part of the problem with our whole society is that we disconnect from everything. We disconnect from what’s happening to children, where’s your chocolate coming from, where’s your coffee coming from. We tend to just disconnect because it makes our lives too hard to connect and we like easy. Everyone does. Which is sad. And there’s a price to pay for that.
People talk about Wal-Mart, like there’s such a higher price for this cheap stuff that you’re getting, it’s the same with everything. It’s the same with especially industrial agriculture. You’re getting cheap eggs. There’s a huge price. Somebody’s paying a huge price. It’s the people that work in those factory farms, it’s the animals that live on those farms, those are huge prices.
CB: The people that live along the water sources there...
SC: Right. Oh, everybody’s paying! So you get your cheap eggs right now but everybody pays. But the ones that pay the most are the animals that have no voice and that’s why we have this place. Because, no, we can’t keep ‘em all, we can’t save them all but we can let people meet them and connect to them and tell them where they came from. And then that connection is amazing what it does. It really is.
CB: I think there’s an awareness going on too ...
SC: Oh, there’s a big food movement right now where people are starting to connect more, and it’s fantastic. I mean, it’s the best thing that could possibly happen. Eventually, when they start seeing them (the animals) a lot more, people aren’t going to be able to do it. I think some people can still and y’know, that’s fine, if that’s what some people can do. But I think there’s a lot of people once they meet those animals, they don’t want to eat them. People don’t realize that when you have chickens, they LOVE you. They follow you around, they’re your chickens, they love being around you. And when you see the personality of a chicken, that you get attached to it, you can’t do it. They’re no different than any other chicken, they're just in a different place. They just lucked out. For some reason, they’re here and not there.
And it’s the same with the calves. We have these newborn calves that jump around and follow you everywhere and they’re needy and loving and kind. And I think that’s where the other disconnect is too though, that these guys are different because they’re here. You can still make a disconnect, like, "I’m not killing them...somebody else is doing it.”
But I think now people are starting to see that "By doing this, you’re causing this.” So, that’s the key thing I think, that we’re trying to get people to see here as well.
At this point, I confess to Susie my dream of Second Chance Ranch, which includes backyard chickens and goats. She is wary. -CB SC: You’re probably gonna hate me for this, but we went after the whole backyard chicken thing just because most people are doing it almost too impulsively. The structures aren’t good, they’re not cleaning up right, the chickens aren’t getting proper care. So, if you’re gonna do backyard chickens, you need to learn how to do them -- learn how to really take care of them.
Backyard chickens right now is such a phenomenon. I have a Google Alert for "urban chickens" and "backyard chickens" and every day there’s at least 10-20 articles. Every single day. Because so many people are doing it, it’s becoming something that I know will spiral out of control. Because in the last two years, we’ve been inundated with calls with probably over a thousand roosters a year, trying to find homes for them ‘cause they’re dumped.
If you go to AgWay right now, and you say, "I want 10 hens," they’re gonna give you what they think are hens and three of them are probably roosters. Most of these places that allow these backyard chickens, don’t allow roosters so then you have to get rid of these three roosters -- where you gonna take ‘em? So people dump ‘em everywhere.
SC: I’ve got chickens here that have been here for 10 years, layer hens from factory farms. I have a 10-year-old that’s out here that we got in 2,000 from Buckeye Eggs. She no longer lays eggs. She’ll probably live longer now because once they’re out of production, they’re actually healthier because their bodies just get so depleted from laying eggs. So, she was a big egg producer but now she doesn’t and she’ll live out the rest of her life here. And that’s the key thing with our adopters is, it doesn’t matter if they’re laying eggs or not and what they do with the eggs is up to them. We don’t let them sell; they’re not allowed to use them for commercial use. But if they use them for themselves, that’s fine. But they also have to provide for that chicken for the rest of that chicken’s life.As I mentioned, even though Farm Sanctuary is a truly happy place, each animal has a horrific backstory. Like the time Susie got a call from the postal service. -CB SC: It’s the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen. This was six years ago, and I still have most of these chickens which is so funny, but on the box it said: “50 Jersey Giant White Hens, 50 Jersey Giant Black Hens.” The postal guy had gotten the box but it was COD and the guy that was supposed to pick it up denied the package.
Inside the box, the chicks were actually dying ‘cause it was really hot in the summer so the guy called the local SPCA ‘cause he was supposed to send it back to the hatchery -- they would’ve all died. So, by the time the SPCA could get to them just a few hours later, half of them were dead. So half of the hundred were dead and of the 50, 27 were roosters. But what we found out by doing a little research was that they use the roosters as packing material. So the roosters are on the outside of the box and the hens are on the inside.Later, I meet one of the "packing material" roosters, Plantain, as he is being groomed and generally fussed over by one of his hens. He's a lot more handsome than a handful of Styrofoam peanuts, no question about it. -CB Susie admits that it's an "emotional job" that requires a strong backbone and unwavering desire to help these creatures:
SC: We have to have a staff that’s very trained because we constantly have some kind of emergency. Any time you take in a rescued animal, it’s sick. We don’t take in healthy animals, unfortunately. (Laughs.) We don’t go and take them from the 4-H kids who are showing them at the fair! They usually come packed with lice and full of parasites and diarrhea -- it’s awesome! Half-dead. The calves we actually had to carry because they couldn’t even walk they were so limp.
CB: How many animals do you take in a year?
SC: It depends on the year. One year we took in a thousand but we do a lot of placement. Not last year but the year before, we took in over 500. And it depends on what rescues come up. So we just did the Iowa pig rescue not last year but the year before so we had like 65 pigs come in and some of them were pregnant so by the end we had 80 pigs. And then that same year we took in a few hundred chickens and we took in all sorts of other creatures. We took in 16 sheep and 14 were pregnant...
CB: So, what’s the average?
SC: Well, 300-500 a year. And we place 200-300 a year. And we have a lot of older residents; we have about 14 cows in their 20s. We have about 10-15 goats in their mid-to-late teens, same with the sheep. So we have a lot of older animals that have been here their whole life.
That’s one of the biggest challenges here, too, because most of the vets that work with these animals don’t normally work with elderly animals because they’re dead ... nobody has 20-year-old cattle. Or 10-year-old pigs. Goats sometimes, because some people have pet goats. We have trouble getting diagnostics that are correct. Cornell learns a lot from these animals, they really do.
SC: We do things that nobody else would do, obviously, for them. Like we’ll do an $800 surgery on a chicken that, to them, is worth $5 so they don’t understand it necessarily, but they do it. Each department sees us a little bit differently. Exotics doesn’t have as big a rotation so we’ve known those doctors. The whole time I’ve been here, I’ve been working with the same doctors so we have a great relationship.
But the Large Animals turns over a lot so every time there are new doctors it’s like starting over and trying to explain, "No, we really don’t want to put them down. We actually want to try to do this. We actually will pay that money to fix that leg."
So, it’s trying to change the mind of somebody who sees them as a product, and you are going to spend more than their value. And so that’s a big challenge. But Cornell is great. Diagnostically, we couldn’t live with out them. The surgeries they do -- could not live without them. Emergency care is second to none. They’re a very well trained staff. Their facilities are insane! I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. They can do anything. They can X-ray our 3,000 pound steer. They have things that we’ll never have here -- that we need. And they work with us and understand what we want.On the full tour I met so many interesting characters, like Bing and Bessie, a geese couple that has been together 25 years and was among the Sanctuary's very first rescues back in 1986. Then there was Plantain, one of the "packing material" roosters. Cash, the super cool sheep. Chico, Dorothy, Coco, Joey, Freckles, Clarabelle, Bernice, Agnes, Danny, Sprinkles, Joan Jett (a black rocker pig), Twitchy the sneaky chicken, Mardi Gras, a cockfighting ring survivor who came in half-dead from the Bronx ... the list was endless and the stories were heartbreaking.
But my heart was definitely stolen by Gloria, the happiest hermaphrodite goat a humble human could ever meet. Bearing both lady and boy bits (Cornell is doing a paper on her/him), Gloria likes to greet you with a playful head bump. His/her smiling goat face now greets me every morning as my laptop wallpaper.
Okay, so maybe I fell in love with Moo, too. But if you've ever had a giant cow put her black fuzzy head in your lap, then you know what I mean. There was one guy, however, who really made me think -- Marino, the turkey with facial paralysis. -CBSC: He came in like that. Most likely from trauma, someone probably smacked him around a little bit. He was from a cruelty case. We took in 80 at one time, and we placed everybody but him and a couple of others that are in here.
In the wild, he’d weigh 15 pounds, not 35. He was made to become a meat bird; he’s not a wild turkey. For a turkey, he’s way too heavy. They can’t perch up, they can’t fly, they can’t do anything real turkeys do. Nothing even remotely close.
CB: I've never seen such an ideal metaphor for obesity in America.
SC: Oh, and the broilers actually worse. The broilers are six pounds when they are 42 days old. That’s the birds that everybody uses for meat, that’s what KFC uses. The day they die, they are still peeping but they are ready to be slaughtered because they gained weight so fast. We feed our broilers a quarter cup of food twice a day, never more. The males go up to 18 pounds. Chickens should not weigh 18 pounds. Ever.
CB: It’s just really messing with Nature in a hardcore way.
SC: Oh, it’s horrible, It’s like science fiction project. It reminds of an X Files episode where they’ve totally screwed with these animals and then they wonder why these children are getting so large. It’s like you’re doing something to them at a genetic base. You’re doing something that’s manipulating who they are. They’re nothing like what they’re supposed to be. They can’t roost. Turkeys roost in the highest trees in the wild, they can’t even roost. We have to put bales up so they can at least be off the ground at night.
As we wind down the tour and head back to her office, passing the turkey house, I ask Susie what's next for the Farm Sanctuary. - CB SC: We’re doing strategic planning right now, which is awesome. Getting shelters closer to the city is a big one. Getting closer to Los Angeles and New York would be first, because you reach more people and that’s one of the things that we want to bring this a little bit closer because it is hard, it’s like five hours away.
This place is very unique in that you have whole herd and whole flock. It’s not like a small sanctuary where it’s more like a petting zoo but it’s more expansive ... it’s a big sanctuary. It’s beautiful. And it allows people to kind of go into the animals' environment instead of us bringing them and squeezing them into a small environment. That’s what everyone here likes about Farm Sanctuary ... what we do is kinda big.
They need to run and be happy and be free, and it’s what makes this place special. They have all this free space where nothing bad happens to them and they are very well cared for. Right, Marino?
Marino: Gobble, gobble!
BlogHer Contributing Editor, Animal & Wildlife Concerns, Proprietor, ClizBiz
(All 201 photos from my visit to the New York Farm Sanctuary can be found here.)
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