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June/July 2007
Down on the Farm with Mayfly, Zoop, Phoebe and Friends
The Satya Interview with Susie Coston

Mayfly. Photo 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 mutual.

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 be great 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 packing materials.

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. Tell 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 skin.

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, playing?
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 had 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 like get 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 straight, 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 are.

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 animals 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 absolutely 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 like “Ha 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 the 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 weren’t 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, cruel death.

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 connect with these animals.

I think the most mind-blowing thing is their capacity to trust and forgive. It’s 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.