The most common question I get as a vegan is why; why am I vegan? Regardless of the very real environmental benefits and health benefits of adhering to a vegan lifestyle, I am vegan for animals - a "compassionate vegan", as it's sometimes referred. I've loved animals since I was a child (like most children) and for Christmas one year, probably after reading Charlotte's Web, I even asked "Santa" to let me become a vegetarian (among other slightly embarrassing requests). This wasn't granted and slowly I lost my animal ethics footing until a couple of decades later when Chris and I made the choice to go vegan.
Once I became vegan I started learning more about animal rights and the many organizations around the world working hard to promote veganism and kindness towards animals. Organizations like Farm Sanctuary, which have rescued and protected thousands of factory farmed animals from torture, abuse, neglect, and death to live the remainder of their lives in peace. I'd made a few monetary donations to Farm Sanctuary and had recently adopted a rooster as a birthday gift for my sister so I was eager to visit the sanctuary in person.
Finally, a few warm Sunday mornings ago, Chris, Caroline, and I drove to LA to visit Animal Acres , which is the Southern California branch of Farm Sanctuary. There is also a Farm Sanctuary in Northern California and the original is in New York (there are many other animal sanctuaries throughout the US, just do a quick online search and you're sure to find one nearby).
*Trigger warning for sensitive readers. The following information, especially found in the links, can be really disturbing. But in order to effectuate change I think it is important, and fair, to know what the animals we eat go through when they are treated as commodities.* Our tour of the shelter began with the pigs. All the pigs were in their barn, cooling off from the heat of the sun. I learned that pigs that are raised and bred in factory farms (millions of them) tend to have really pale skin since they are rarely exposed to sunlight, so the pigs at the sanctuary have to be lathered all over with sunscreen every morning. I already knew that pigs are intelligent (smarter than many dogs, cats, and three-year olds) but I didn't know that they are actually very clean animals, too. Sure, they roll around in mud but that's to help them cool off. In terms of potty-training, if given the space, their nature is to go away to use the bathroom in private and leave their surroundings clean. Apparently they do very well in domestic settings, although most people don't have the resources to care for a pig at home. Check out Esther The Wonder Pig for really adorable videos and photos of one amazing couple that does care for a pig as a pet. Esther's story has gone viral and is making people think twice before extolling the virtues of bacon. Also, pigs love belly rubs.
Neighbors to the pigs are the cows, who were all too busy eating to pay any attention to us. One of the cows there was rescued from a stockyard kill pile, which is literally what it sounds like, and has recuperated very nicely at the sanctuary, as do the majority of animals that are lucky to be found. There are really touching rescue stories here. Cows are unique, collaborative, and humble animals who especially thrive in community with each other. They have feelings and emotions, just like we do. In factory farms they experience tremendous sadness and depression due to all the misery they experience, and not just the cows killed for meat. During our tour I learned that the number one reason that Farm Sanctuary is an advocate for veganism over vegetarianism is because consuming dairy still allows for the slaughter of cows, especially baby calves. Since cows need to remain pregnant in order to produce milk they are always being impregnated (thanks to the appallingly named "rape rack") and when they give birth their babies are immediately torn from them and left in tiny crates to be sold as veal. So, unfortunately, consuming dairy, although lesser of an evil, is still really bad for the sweet, smart cattle.
After the cows we crossed through the courtyard to see the goats and sheep and on our way encountered this very vocal young girl, Bear (named after Alicia Silverstone's son). Bear was just a newborn when she was discovered all alone in an old barn, her umbilical cord still attached and completely infected, facing certain death. Since then the little lamb has been given medical care and affection and has grown stronger, although she needs to remain isolated from her ruminant friends until her immune system is ready for company. She is just one of the many, many animal babies abandoned without remorse or eaten for their tender flesh. Luckily for her, she was given a second chance at life.
Bear's soon-to-be companions were all lounging under the shade when we approached (all except the little brown goat a few photos back that reminded us of Kaya, who also enjoys sun bathing). The goats and sheep at Farm Sanctuary have all arrived there through various means - found tied up at abandoned locations, live market escapees wandering the streets, sick animals spared by good Samaritans at live auctions, or rescued from backyard butchers - and always in deplorable, inhumane condition. But the sanctuary is testament that with love and proper care, rehabilitation is possible and animals that were once on the brink of death are now enjoying a life of comfort (which, apparently, just means a lot of napping). The only animal that wasn't too busy napping to greet us was Prince, pictured above with the giant horns. He is known as the ambassador of the sanctuary because of his outgoing personality and the readiness with which he greets all of "his" guests. It is just another of the many indications that farm animals are intelligent, sentient beings which should be treated more like beloved pets rather than disposable goods.
The final stop of the tour was at the coops of the chickens, roosters, and turkeys, which are the majority of residents at all Farm Sanctuary locations because they make up the majority of animals killed by modern industrial factory farming: 9 billion in the US every year, not including the hundreds of millions of male chicks that are slaughtered upon hatching since they are considered useless due to their inability to lay eggs. This fall into the same vegetarian conundrum as consuming diary since eating eggs is just as bad for poultry even if they're not being killed for their flesh. Winged farm animals seem to receive the least pity from the public because it is assumed that they aren't very bright. Having had a chicken as a pet for many years when we lived in Miami, I know that's not true. They, and turkeys, are complex social creatures with the ability to feel pain, love, and compassion towards each other. They have distinctive personalities. They form tight relationships that last a lifetime. They delay gratification. They understand abstract concepts. And even if they didn't exhibit any of those tendencies, they still deserve to be treated with some kind of dignity simply for being alive. No living being should be subjected to the cruelties of factory farming.
After the tour we were able to spend some time with our sponsored rooster, Dorian. Dorian is a backyard flock survivor that was found in an LA animal shelter after whoever purchased him as a chick realized he wasn't a she. We fed him and the rest of the birds in the coop sunflower seeds, his favorite. It felt great to be able to see and hold our little adopted friend, even though he was more interested in being near his flock of hens to make sure the other roosters didn't butt in on his romance. Ultimately Dorian's jealous tendencies were forgotten due to a turkey that stole the show and our hearts. Turkey Lurkey, pictured above, face covered with her lunch, is a heritage turkey that was brought to Farm Sanctuary after someone raised her as a chick for Thanksgiving dinner and then couldn't go through with killing her. After spending a few minutes with Turkey Lurkey it's obvious why someone decided to spare her life - she is so sweet and gentle. She likes to lurk up right behind you and waits patiently in hopes that you'll rub her ticklish spot, the flesh right under her wings. Then she goes into a blissful, adorable trance during which her body lowers down (like a little spaceship landing, as my sister says), her eyes glaze over, and her beak opens slightly. Swoon! I'm so happy that she didn't end up on someone's plate.
While I recommend that everyone visit Farm Sanctuary it is important to know that there is an agenda, it is not a petting zoo. During the tour you absolutely do get to meet and pet lots of really sweet animals but you will also be listening to a detailed presentation by the tour guide about the many injustices that farm animals face as well as the impact that consuming animal products has on the environment and on health; far more than I wrote about on this post. The message from Farm Sanctuary is clear: adopting a vegan (or, at least, vegetarian) lifestyle is crucial. After all this if I still haven't convinced you to try a vegan diet, or if you just need something uplifting and cute after reading this heavy information, maybe this video will help. As always, thanks for reading!
*I know this post is long and that there are a lot of links but I hope you've clicked on at least one and will come back and click on the rest in time. I realize it may sound preachy and that the information is hard to read (shit, it's hard to write, it took me several days) but I believe it's so important and I feel so passionate about it. It's totally okay to take it in bits and pieces. And if you ever have any questions about going vegan please don't hesitate to ask, I promise there will be no judgment on my part. *