Farm Sanctuary. When you say the words, it’s rock solid. It’s the baseline and standard for farmed animal rescues everywhere, thanks to Gene Baur and an army of dedicated volunteers. Founded in 1986, Farm Sanctuary is the largest animal rescue in North America. There are three locations, one in New York State and two in California. Our journey starts at the east coast farm, just outside of Watkins Glen, New York.
Yep, it’s our first video/photo combo on this blog! We’ve visited Farm Sanctuary three times, and all the images on this post are from a past visit, not when we went last week. But it looks the same – the rolling fields, the cheerful red barns and the perfectly happy critters.
Just before you arrive at the NY Farm Sanctuary, you wonder if you’ve taken a wrong turn. You find yourself winding back an unpaved road. Yes, there are signs… but still, you don’t think it could possibly be the place. And just when you are about to give up and call the visitor center, there is a break in the forest and you see the lush green pastures and bright barns. You’re there!
Inside the People’s Barn you’ll find a number of displays about the residents of the sanctuary, as well as a real battery cage, veal crate and gestation crate. There’s also a large gift shop with clothes, books, food and drink, as well as toys and goodies for children. In the gift shop, you also pick up your ticket for the tour.
On this visit, we had a super tour guide named Ben. He was well-spoken and great at answering tough questions. Maybe we are naive, but thought only vegans, vegetarians and animal-lovers would visit a place like Farm Sanctuary. On our tour there was a cattle farmer, and he was set on arguing almost every point Ben made. Lucky for the animals, Ben was not rattled and had calm, factual answers for each comment made. We were impressed.
The first stop on our tour was a cow pasture. It was the closest I had been to a cow until that point, and their calm, gentle nature was a beautiful thing to witness. There are about 50 cattle living at the New York farm currently. Ben told us that cows can live to 25 or 30 years old, but most are killed by age 4 when they are in the factory farm system as beef or dairy cows. That day, we met cows named Kirsty, Sammuel, Meg, Frankie and Thunder. Each was a sweetheart.
No one wants to admit they play favorites. But let’s be honest – there’s always a favorite. And for me, the favorite is goats. I’m not sure I can explain why. Is it their wiley nature, the joker-esque smiles, the ability to eat anything, the way they climb? Maybe all of the above. Maybe I was a goat in a past life. Who knows. But I just adore goats, and the goats at Farm Sanctuary were no exception. Yes, that is me, snuggling a goat.
A large number of goats make their home at the New York farm. Many were dairy goats. Others were rescued from live markets, where people go to select the living animal they wish to have slaughtered for a meal. Ben explained that though many Americans don’t think of goats as usual meat, that they are used heavily for goat cheese, which has gained popularity and are commonly eaten in many ethnic cuisines, such as Jamaican and Middle Eastern.
Next we met some chicks. There were loads of ’em, walking all around. Ben told us that of the 9 billion animals killed for food in US annually, 8 billion are chickens and the average chicken in the food-system has a 42 day life span. Considering that chickens can live to be 7 to ten years old, that’s pretty shocking. Of that number of chickens, many millions are male baby chicks in the egg industry. They have no use and many are tossed – alive – in trash bags and dumpsters, or worse – ground up while still alive and made into feed for other animals.
The chickens and roosters at Farm Sanctuary got lucky. They are living their lives out in peace. They get to truly free range, they can scratch at the Earth, run and play and roost. You can see by their beautiful feathers and bright eyes that they are healthy and serene.
Though we’ve both seen plenty of wild turkeys (for serious, not the kind on the liquor bottle label), Farm Sanctuary was the first place we met turkeys rescued from the factory farm system. As you can see, the Dirty Hippie took a particular liking to Antionette.
Tour guide Ben explained that turkeys bred for food are always all white (wild turkeys are colorful or brown), because it’s considered more appetizing for consumers if there is no pigment in their skin. Also, factory farms trim off turkeys’ beaks and toes, because when in confinement, they become stressed and peak/scratch at each other. This is common practice and is done with no pain killer or follow-up vet treatment. Basically, imagine someone cutting off your toenails and the first bones of your toes, as well as the tip of your nose – with no pain killers. These mutilations have been found to shorten the lives of turkeys and are quite painful, as both the beaks and toes have nerve endings.
And yet, the rescued turkeys we met – despite the fact they were treated terribly by humans before – were friendly and happy to see the folks on the tour. Many walked up and wanted to be fed and petted. We were amazed at the turkeys’ general feeling of trust towards everyone in our group. It was encouraging to witness their contentment and know they were in safe place, where they were well cared for and loved.
The last stop we made on the New York Farm Sanctuary tour was a pig barn. And what a way to go out with a bang! These critters were fun, funny and super outgoing. Several wanted belly rubs and just laid right down to wait for the massage to begin.
Ben explained that pigs aren’t really dirty, like people always say. Pigs mud-bathe to keep cool in the summer heat, as they don’t sweat. Also, pigs can get sunburned, so the coating of mud can protect them from an uncomfortable scorch. While it’s well known that pigs are highly intelligent, we learned that they are smarter than dogs, and can perform better playing video games that young human children.
This is barely a scratch into the surface of the facility at Farm Sanctuary. There were also sheep pastures and barns, areas with rabbits, and a large enclosure with ducks and geese, that also included a pond.
A lovely garden is planted as well, around the grave of Hilda. She was the first rescue made by Gene Baur: he was at a stockyard in Lancaster PA and saw a sheep on the dead pile that was still moving. With his companions, Baur picked her up and took her to a vet, assuming she would need to be put down, but with some simple fluids, Hilda the sheep was revived and perfectly healthy. Hilda lived with Baur on Farm Sanctuary for 11 years until she passed of old age. Her grave is a tranquil place, well-tended with flowers and a stone marker. Clearly Hilda knew love and was blessed to have Baur pull her from the stockyard all those years ago. When she lifted her head towards him, she inspired a chain of actions that has since saved the lives of thousands more animals – both by actual rescue and by inciting other people to stop consuming animals.
The sign you see as you come and go from Farm Sanctuary in New York sums up beautifully…
And – Want to know something incredible? Gene Baur got this whole thing going by selling veggie hot dogs from a van. No joke. What that means to me is – that if you set your mind to doing something good in this world, and you keep at it, amazing things are possible. Look at the smile on that pig’s face. I think what she’s saying is something like… thank you.
To visit Farm Sanctuary in New York, plan your trip between May and October. Tours are not given over the winter. Be sure to check their hours and available tour times online. The farm is located at 3150 Aikens Rd., Watkins Glen, NY 14891. Their number for tour info is 607-583-2225. Can’t make it to the farm but still want to help the mission of Farm Sanctuary? You can adopt an animal, buy shirts and gifts online, or just donate funds.