on the Farm with Mayfly, Zoop, Phoebe and Friends
The Satya Interview with Susie Coston
by Derek Goodwin
Juniper. Courtesy of Farm Sanctuary
Phoebe. Courtesy of Farm Sanctuary
When Susie Coston, Farm Sanctuary’s
Shelter Director in Watkins Glen, New York, does her rounds, she’s
invariably greeted and followed around by an entourage of hoofed, clawed,
curious friends. They know and love her; and the feelings are entirely
The Watkins Glen shelter provides lifetime care for more than 700 cows, pigs,
goats, sheep, turkeys and lots of chickens, all rescued from the animal agriculture
industry. In the meadows of upstate New York, Susie Coston makes sure they live
out their lives in peace.
Susie has a talent for conveying the personalities and stories of the critters
in her charge. Catherine Clyne asked Susie Coston to acquaint us with some of
the animals she’s gotten to know.
Tell us about some of your most memorable animal friends. It’d
to get an example of some of the most misunderstood critters, like chickens.
We’ve had hundreds and hundreds of chickens come through here. I think
they are definitely misunderstood. Chickens love to dust- and sun-bathe, they
chase bugs and butterflies. But in a factory, they don’t have a normal
life, they don’t see their mothers. People don’t think chickens have
feelings, but they do. They even mourn the loss of other chickens.
We’ve had many great roosters. Currently we have close to 70. Roosters
are probably the most neglected of all chickens. Like in laying facilities, roosters
are killed—they don’t have any chance of surviving. Hatcheries hatch
a certain number of eggs, the peeps are sexed at birth and the roosters become
One rooster, Mayfly, arrived here from a school hatching project. No mother would
accept him, so we raised him ourselves. He was with someone 24 hours a day because
they’re very vulnerable. He became super-friendly. When he got bigger,
we put him out with some hens and he just turned into a regular rooster. He still
likes us, but he prefers the company of his hens.
We have a migration pattern of hawks that goes over our farm and he goes insane.
Every time he sees a hawk, he makes this really high-pitched cry and chases his
girls into the barn. There are days when they don’t even get to come out—he’s
screaming and running them back in. He’s constantly protecting. Like if
I go in on a health care check and do something to one of the hens he thinks
is wrong, he’s going to go after me—and he knows me! That’s
his protective role. That’s who he is. And they love him. They’re
always with him, they preen him and clean him all the time.
I see this with all of our roosters. The California Shelter has a group of blind
hens and they can’t find the food on their own. The second the food gets
put down, their rooster starts making this call, and they all come running. They’re
territorial, because that’s what they do—they’re supposed to
protect. People misunderstand them completely. They are incredible birds. Most
people don’t get to meet roosters and realize they have these fantastic
personalities. Going to a sanctuary, people can see all these things for themselves.
And how about the hens?
A mother hen is the most protective mother. We just took in some mothers and
their babies from a cockfighting ring and you don’t touch those babies!
The mothers will just land on you, spur and peck you—that’s what
they do. That’s who they are. And they love those babies.
We had a group of peeps come in that one of the hens took in. At night, the babies
are protected underneath the mother and they poke their little heads out. All
the way up until these babies became bigger than her, she’d stretch her
wings as far as they could stretch, trying to hide them. The minute the lights
went out, she was on top of them. And these birds were so much bigger than her—three
of them were huge roosters. [Laughter.]
There’s a goat or two you’ve got a special friendship with.
me about them.
We have two goats with prosthetic legs—Zoop and Juniper. Zoop’s original
name was Soup, but we try to steer away from food names. [Laughter.] We changed
her name to Zoop because she really did know that name.
Juniper was at a farm in upstate New York, with no shelter, no bedding, nothing.
She was just left out in the cold and she lost the top half of her ears and the
back portion of her legs to frostbite. Her feet had basically been eaten away.
Somebody had seen her from a distance because she was basically doing a handstand.
The person pulled over and got some pictures and called the SPCA. Her bones were
so sharp that when she put her back feet down on the ground they penetrated the
Ohh, poor baby!
Yeah, she was in excruciating pain. That’s why she was walking on her front
legs, she adapted to get where she needed to go. When we got her she was terrified
of everybody. She would try to get away from you and back into the corner. We
took her to Cornell for surgery and they smoothed out the bones. We had to do
wraps on her every day, and after two weeks she started to trust us. But the
way her back was situated with her legs, being shorter, her spine was going to
eventually just break down—her body couldn’t be in this awkward position
forever. So we called a horse prostheticist. He made a back leg for her and it
straightened out her back. Now she just zips around and has a great time.
Just about a month later, Zoop came in. The tendons were destroyed in her front
legs. They did surgery on one leg, which had healed. The other leg didn’t
and it had to be amputated. They made a prosthesis for her as well. She loves
her prosthetic leg. She uses it to scratch and everything else. She pokes everybody
with it; she’s a riot.
|Zoop. Photo by JoAnne McArthur
Is she the one who rears up and flings herself head-first, crashing into you,
Yeah—with that little leg in the air. She’s very playful. She moved
in with Juniper. Now we can’t separate them. They’re always together
and they will be forever. So they’re doing great and we love them.
So how about some cows?
The best cow story I have, is the one that almost crushed me.
We’re going to cry aren’t we?
Possibly. We had this beautiful Holstein named Phoebe. There was a big rescue,
a starvation case, where we saved 25 female Holsteins and Jerseys from a dairy.
They were skin and bones—emaciated. They had been kept in manure up past
their knees, so they were in really bad shape. Phoebe, one of the older ones,
had drooping udders and she’d been milked a lot. She also had osteomyelitis,
which is an infection in the bone in her hocks, her upper legs. Years later she
got really bad and couldn’t keep up with the main herd. So we moved her
and a couple other cows in with the sheep—our special needs herd.
At the same time, we had a sheep named David, a really old man who was really
sick. He was in the process of dying and had to be on medication all the time.
Phoebe adopted him, like he was her baby. She spent every waking and sleeping
minute with this sheep. She licked him and cleaned him, slept with him, curled
up with him. When we tried to get to him for medication, she threw her head
at us. One time we had to do a flushing treatment on him for an open sore and
to move him to a different pen because she wouldn’t let us see him. She
would smash her head into the gate until we were done, to get him back. And the
second she got him back you would have thought it was the reunion of the century,
she’s licking and licking him, herding him over to the corner so she can
block him. It was the most incredible thing. They were completely inseparable,
and he loved her equally. He loved for her to lick him; he’d just spend
hours standing there, while she’s licking him off the ground with her tongue,
basically. They just loved each other so much. But then… he died.
I opened up that barn and he was dead. I went over to him and Phoebe was trying
to get him up—she’s just nudging him and nudging him. And I’m
trying to see what’s going on and she’s throwing her head at me
away from him! We went through this whole process and had to move her
out of the barn so I could get him. She went nuts. She bellowed for four hours
walking back and forth trying to find him. I had to bring the body back, so
she could see him. She still kept trying and trying to get him up. And I couldn’t
console her. We finally had to take him away again and buried him. And for three
days she looked for him. When she stopped trying to find him, she’d just
sit there and bellow. It had to be the most depressing thing. She never was
the same, ever.
And then she died, about four months later. They’re actually buried beside
each other. They’re together hopefully somewhere. I always dream that
They have the ability to feel that deep pain we feel. And it’s not like
she can talk about it. People still function when they’re in excruciating
mental pain. What’s the difference? Obviously it affected her. She never
was the same. She went off her food for a long time and she wouldn’t
get up. She was depressed. But people refuse to give those emotions to these
or think they forgot all about it, but you don’t know if they
forgot. Like, I go on through my day, then all of a sudden get a flash of something
hideous that I’m never going to get over. I mean, that’s how life
is. We don’t know if they have those flashes because they don’t
talk about it.
They have this mothering instinct, that’s who they are. And they’ve
had baby after baby after baby. I mean, Phoebe’s reaction to us doing
anything to David was: don’t touch my baby! And how many did she have before that?
Tell us about pigs.
They’re very protective of each other. They are a family. When we do monthly
checks on them—cut teeth, trim hooves, etc.—we have to separate them
because they’re very vocal, and all the other pigs react and go after you.
Especially with a baby, if that baby makes a single screaming, scared sound,
every one of those pigs is up and biting the gate. No one from the industry has
ever said this to me, but I think that’s part of the reason why they separate
them. Yes, they fight because they’re very territorial, but they’re
not going to let you mess with them. You can’t come in and do something
that’s going to upset the rest of the herd.
They have all these different vocalizations that have so much meaning. They
have a greeting where they open their mouth, and move side to side and are
ha ha!” They do it to people they like and to each other. They’re
just very kind, loving animals. I think we make them out to be vicious or dangerous
because it makes it easier for people to then say they’re not like us.
And they are like us. I cannot even fathom how they survive in farrowing and
gestation crates. It just makes me sick. We have a group that came from a factory,
and I won’t put them in the separation pen because they’re terrified,
their whole body goes into full tremor mode. So we just do their checks outside
of the pen and rub their bellies.
A wild pig, kept in captivity, will live 14-15 years; factory pigs don’t
live as long, the average seems to be six to nine years. They’re made to
become so big so fast. Their joints just can’t take it. Their growth plates
crack because they grow too fast. They’re slaughtered at six months—they’re
still babies. They have so many health issues, just like the broilers and turkeys.
Tell us about the Washington, DC pig rescue.
In 2000, a three-tiered truck with 167 pigs pulled over and the guy basically
went out and got drunk and left the pigs. The truck was confiscated and taken
to Poplar Springs [Sanctuary] in Maryland. I was working at a pig sanctuary
at the time, so we came to help unload the truck. It took us two days to get
pigs off because there was no ramp—we had to build ramps. They were absolutely
terrified to come out of the truck. When they did come out, they were eating
the dirt—they’d never been around dirt. They had never walked outside.
They didn’t know how to drink water out of a tub, so they just jumped in
it—it was unbelievable! They had these gigantic rear ends—because…it’s
ham—and really short legs. They all had huge swollen joints and almost
all of them were walking on their knees. A couple with broken legs had to be
put down immediately.
We took as many off as we could without ramps, but they were terrified and
moving. So everybody went back to build ramps. Leaving that truck behind and
seeing those eyes looking out, that was probably the hardest thing I had ever
done. I was mortified. They looked so scared.
And to know them now, it’s like night and day. Those pigs blossomed the
second they were allowed to live. They’re friendly, chatty, goofy. They
swim in the pond, they make giant mud holes. To see what they had to go through
and the fear in those eyes, and to know how intelligent they are, that is one
of the hardest things. They all react to the same things, they feel fear—I
felt their fear. We close ourselves off so much to not see that. Even if they
are treated well, all the way through their life, to die the way those animals
die, to go through a slaughter line and be around pigs that you’ve been
next to, and you vocalize with, to go through all that fear… what a heinous,
Just watching them be able to thrive here is the only thing that keeps me going.
I don’t know how people can stay in this movement without having that.
We get to see them when they come in and they are just devastated and terrified
and they don’t trust you, they don’t know you. Sometimes it’s
within a month—I’m not kidding—and they’re totally different
animals. They trust you completely and they’re happy and they appreciate
absolutely everything you do for them. It’s just amazing. I wish more
people would come out to all the great sanctuaries that we have and really
I think the most mind-blowing thing is their capacity to trust and forgive.
crazy—people will say it’s because they forget. But they don’t.
It’s that they forgive.
Yes, it is forgive. They don’t forget. They remember.
To visit the critters at Farm Sanctuary or learn more, contact www.farmsanctuary.orgor (607) 583-2225.
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