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August 2006
Myth: Farm Animals Have No Personality

Animal Comfort
By Jean Rhode


The Catskill Animal Sanctuary (CAS), a sanctuary for farmed animals and horses, is a place of love. How do I know? I volunteer there, driving as often as I can from my Park Slope urban life.

CAS’s dual mission has been crystal clear from day one: rescue and education. Founder Kathy Stevens presents workshops at schools, universities, learning centers, as well as right on the farm. Through film, readings, dialogue and, most importantly, close experiences with animals, people begin to see farmed animals as more than food. They become living beings.

Throughout the spring and summer months, people come by the busload, and whether or not they kiss a pig—an act Stevens encourages with enthusiasm—they leave changed. We see it over and over again. “The animals are the teachers,” Stevens explains. “I simply provide information about their lives under agribusiness and how what we do to them impacts them, impacts our health, impacts our planet. The animals have the more important job: grabbing hold of people’s hearts.”

Hannah, an older sheep, was found wandering a graveyard in Queens. When she arrived at the sanctuary, she was thin and terrified of humans, even running from an outstretched hand that held a treat. But she fell in love with Rambo, the wise old Jacob sheep. Hannah was simply head over heels, following him around endlessly. He’d hide, standing motionless behind the rabbit barn, undetected by his would-be paramour. But soon enough, Hannah discovered Rambo’s secret spot, and from then on, wherever Rambo was, there was Hannah, the tip of her nose buried in his woolly coat.

Hannah couldn’t help but notice that her beau loved people, seeking them out for massages, treats...even just a friendly word. She’d always stand a few feet back, eyes moving back and forth between human and Rambo, taking everything in.

And then it happened. Hannah allowed a hand to touch her nose. And little by little she’s come around. If you kneel and talk to her gently, you can stroke her face, scratch under her chin, and watch her long white eyelashes begin to close. You can tell her that she’s beautiful and brave, and that she deserves all good things. You can kiss her on her woolly forehead. One wishes for a world like this for all farmed animals.

The sanctuary’s new horse is named Mirage. He is skinny and you can see the bones of his hips. His left hip bothers him and he often moves from left to right shifting his weight. On a bad day he can’t lift his head above his shoulders. He often hangs his head and eats only the hay on the floor of his stall, but at least he’s eating. He gets an anti-inflammatory with his midday feed and his head rises a little higher. We tell him he’s going to get stronger but we don’t know that for sure. We don’t know how old he is or what his real story is, other than he was used as a pawn in the middle of a divorce where the husband starved the horses to get back at the wife.

Mirage has been here almost four months but it still hurts to look at him. His bones seem to stick right through his skin. His eyes are tired. But that’s why we’re here after all, to see the warmth come back for lost sheep, abandoned pigs, and now for Mirage. We whisper to him that he’s a miracle in the making and it opens something in us, the telling and then the seeing, every single time.

The Ducks
It’s raining, cold and absolutely perfect for Sassafras and Succotash—two ducks who walk in the mud puddles in front of the chicken coop, quacking and touching their orange bills. It’s so wet they’ve left their beloved pond, a blue plastic kiddie pool, to explore the mud. Their pond is small but perfect for a blind duck and her seeing-eye pal. Usually they don’t leave the circular perfection of their plastic pool. Their routine is the same all seasons: we open up the stall where they stay overnight, safe from the duck flock in the big pond and duck house, pick up blind Sassafras and put her in the pool while Succotash follows. He scrambles over and they paddle and dip their heads in the clean water, quacking in celebration of the ideal place to swim.

Franklin is the newest resident of CAS. A baby farm pig, the runt of the litter, he was left to starve to death—a typical fate of runts. A kind neighbor, however, saw Franklin and asked to take him. She brought him to CAS where this precocious pig now goes on hikes in the woods every day, sniffs noses with the occasional horse, sheep or goat, and charms visitors. He seems to know even now that one day he’ll be an important ambassador to introduce people to the marvelous personalities of farmed animals. Franklin is a little pig with a big job ahead of him!

An Open Invitation
Visit the barn and smell the hay and fresh manure. Listen to Chester kick his stall door and whine anxiously at feeding time or whenever anyone leaves the kitchen holding anything that looks like a bucket. Help bring Bobo in from the field and sing her favorite song from the days when she was still terrified of leaving her stall. Whisper to her and watch her head turn in response, this old forgotten blind horse with no eyes listening to the feeling behind your every word. Sit with Priscilla the potbelly pig while she eats and grunts and gleams. Stand in the doorway and watch the pigeons fly in formation around the willow trees. Strip off some of the branches and bring them to the goats, their most favorite delicacy. But watch out, Mufasa will also chew the zipper of your jacket and sniff through your hair. Sit on the shaving pile next to Police, no one knows comfort like a big pig. Bring kale to the new chickens, some miniature and brown with intelligent faces. Watch Noel, the Barbados sheep, and her friend Jack in their field. Come smell the damp wool of a Jacob sheep, scratch the horns of a goat and listen to the roosters.

Meet the animals who have the capacity to change your life. I promise, I know.

Jean Rhode is a CAS board member and regularly volunteers there. Visit www.casanctuary.orgfor information on special events including shin digs, vegan cooking classes, lectures, book readings and more.

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