It’s been a long time, but I’ve finally found time to update my much missed blog. The reason for such a huge gap in updates in June is because my summer was brimming with events, and the events did not stop. Camping, birthdays, a trip to Vancouver (and Seattle, where I had the worlds best vegan donut, Homer Simpson drool), a cruise to Bermuda. All of these things were so fun, and I was glad to go, but I’m happy that autumn is almost here and I can find some peace of mind at home with my rabbits.
My sporadic journeys ended two weekends ago with one final trip: Watkins Glen, New York, for the Farm Animal Care Conference at Farm Sanctuary. I was looking forward to this conference all summer and I can say I am still grinning from the wonderful weekend I had at this event. If I could go again, I would. But once was certainly enough, and the event is well worth your time if you have any interest in learning about farm animal care.
This two day conference is an introduction to those interested in learning what it takes to run a sanctuary, or have any interest in opening a sanctuary. It’s also of interest to those who just want to know, who want to learn, who want to be more involved maybe at their local sanctuary where they volunteer. Just being behind the scenes to listen to the animals stories, what they endured, and what kind of present medical problems they have because of their treatment, was eye opening and educational.
And there is nothing wrong with just knowing about farm animals and their needs, because as a vegan its important to just know. While not as in-depth as I envisioned the conference being, we were given 1-2 hours with each species to go over all information, ask questions, and just have a more in-depth look at the state of the animals, signs from their previous traumatic incidences. It was a reminder to me what insanely disgusting, saddening things they endure.
My own personal interest in originally going to the conference was to someday run a small sanctuary. At first I thought that yes, this is something I definitely want to do. I thought that someday I could work hard and maybe give refuge to a handful of animals at my future home – not a huge operation like Woodstock or Farm Sanctuary, but small, and manageable. Attending this conference helped me realize that this is not a calling to take lightly – its hard, hard work. It requires time, money, energy, even the smallest of animals can be a workload depending on their health and needs. Farm animals, especially those rescued from the industry, are absolutely fragile – mentally, physically, and they are bred in ways that make them incapable of defending themselves, and they are subject to dozens of sicknesses and diseases. Something as simple as their hooves need to be trimmed but they can no longer naturally run them down (same with the tusks of a pig). They need guidance and protection, and unless you’re able to supply them with the care you’d give someone like your dog, then you should refrain from considering having a farm animal rescue.
Are my visions changed? A little. I still want to help, someday I want to, but I realize the conference gave me the tools I need to make an educated decision, one good for me and for the animals, and skills that help me to be a better vegan and volunteer. Steve and I took a realistic step back and thought about what we are capable of – but one thing this conference made us realize is we really, really have a strong inclination towards the well-being of rabbits.
During the rabbit session we found ourselves blurting out information we knew, answering peoples questions, educating other attendees on rabbits. Farm Sanctuary intends to phase out rabbits because they have an outdoor barn for rabbits and found rabbits don’t do well outdoors (this is mostly true), and Susie Coston (farm operations director) said there is a real need for rabbit rescues. This is absolutely true – while all farm animals suffer equally, I cannot think of an animal more abused than a rabbit – there is an industry for rabbit meat, for fur, for pets/entertainment, and experimentation and medical/cosmetic testing. Rabbits are abused in multiple industries and are seen as disposable, as unintelligent, as plain and happy to just sit in a box or hutch all day. I think if we began some kind of effort, it would absolutely begin with rabbits. It’s something we both agree and feel so strongly about.
But as I said I learned so much, I feel fortunate to have such advice before jumping in. Some major themes and points I found especially important, which I’d like to share:
- Have the ability to say no. Many sanctuaries fail because they cannot say no and take on too many animals at a time. It’s hard to say no to all animals that need a new home, but if you do not have the energy, time, staff, resources, to take care of a lot of animals, then you are going to burn out and fail. You should focus on making sure the quality of life is good for the animals you do have, rather than have too many and end up giving them a life that is just as neglectful as their previous life.
- From the beginning, put your absolute best effort in to every possible facet of your sanctuary. Research everything and buy only the best of the things you need: safe heaters, safe medical equipment, the correct kind of barn for each animals, the correct fencing for each species. Don’t do something because its easy, do it because its right, and you will prevent mess-ups later down the road.
- Prepare from the beginning for pests. Build a barn that will prevent a rat population from building up (concrete floor, rat wire in the walls).
- Try to find a local vet who you can work with who has knowledge about farm animals, and build a relationship with them based on respect and trust.
- However in some cases, a vet may not always be right – sometimes if they suggest an animal should be put down, it may not always be for the right reasons. Its important to also use your judgement about if the medical condition can possibly be treated and not just solved by simply putting an animal down.
- Know your state’s laws and what is required. Some animals like chickens require testing for avian flu. Crossing state lines need to be cleared, and animals that come in sick should be quarantined until they have a clean bill of health. Have an extra barn or space for quarantined animals, and wear the proper equipment.
- When caring for an animal, it isn’t worth it to worry or scare them. If they absolutely do not want to be handled or touched because of fear, its safer to let them be. It’s also better for their mental health, because you do not want to make them sick with fear and worry.
And there just more, just so much more. But that’s why I highly recommend attending this conference if it interests you.
There is just so much to say about the conference, what was learned and what was said. Luckily the group provided a very thick packet of all the information that was given. And by the end I had made many friends which, all who are passionate and I’m sure will do great things one day. Overall I would recommend this conference in a heart beat. If you want to see an in-depth look at some things we saw and experienced, click below for more.
I had never been to Farm Sanctuary before, and I was excited, as I had heard so much about it. While it isn’t far from me, its still a four and a half hour drive from my home in New Jersey. Steve and I arrived rather late on Friday to rain, but we set up camp and slept through the calming sounds of the rain falling against the tent (though I didn’t dig the cold at all). We woke up excited for our first day, which started out cold and overcast but soon cleared to sunny and a blue sky.
The first day of the conference consisted of a light breakfast (vegan friendly of course, cranberry muffins, fruit, Larabars and coffee the first morning) and everybody introduced themselves. We were a group of maybe 25-30 people, and everybody had a moving reason for why they were there. One couple already had a sanctuary (Peace Ridge Sanctuary, in Maine), there was a mother-daughter team who had bought property in Tennessee, and a young woman who opened one by Lake Ontario, Asha Sanctuary. Many were in the process, some people had animals already, some just were there to learn like us. People came from Canada, California, Kansas, North Dakota, Florida, Massachusetts, Maine, New Jersey, and one intern was from Australia. Also there was Mike Stura, a local volunteer who can be seen at basically every sanctuary in the New York-New Jersey area. Mike is amazing because he has, with his wife Wendy, rescued many, many animals personally and with his own funds – such well loved sanctuary residents as Mike Jr. at Woodstock Farm, Benjamin at For The Animals, and just recently Mike the calf to name a few. So it was a great group of people, and I was happy to make new friends.
After introductions, Nikki Bollaert gave two presentations, the first on how to start and operate a non-profit organization. The second section involved fundraising for your sanctuary. Both sessions were extremely informative, and it was interesting to finally learn about what it takes to be a non-profit. From this session, I took that you can possibly run a sanctuary either publicly or privately, but being public, a non-profit, you can offer your donations as tax-deductible which is a huge incentive to donors. Private would be a hard route, but its possible.
After the first day’s session, we went to the main Visitor Barn and had a huge, delicious vegan lunch spread. They definitely knew how to feed a group – BBQ tofu, BBQ seitan, potato salad, quinoa salad, and an array of cookies that were quite delicious. During the hour we got to talk to fellow attendees and look through the gift shop. I don’t have photos from the second day’s lunch but it was equally as decadent – a giant veggie/tofu lasagna with salad and an assortment of brownies (!).
After lunch, Susie Coston took over for the rest of the day. Can I take a moment to give some love for this woman? Susie is a literal superhero – she is this tiny woman with a fire-cracker personality that can and has taken a beaten from a steer. For ten years she has worked at the shelter director, and she knows. so. much. I was absolutely astounded by how quickly she talked about each animal, how she knew their slightest illnesses, how level-headed she was, but also passionate as well about being a vegan who works with such sick animals. And she talked to us, thoroughly, for two days worth, answering all of our questions large and small. The woman is a real super vegan.
Now I won’t go into detail about everything I learned, but I will quickly mention what we saw, and some interesting facts. On the first day of animal sessions we started with pigs. We talked about their diets, their feed ( a lot of modern pig feed found at farming stores contains pig products to get them fat), what kind of land they need. We learned that they cannot walk on concrete very well and shouldn’t if avoidable – it isn’t good for their joints and they can slip. We learned about their pecking orders, their habits, their love and need for space and to explore (and not to mention they can smell six feet underground and root up any weak fencing). Susie and Katie also showed us how to properly tie a pig so that they can safely be given medicine and have their teeth trimmed (males must have their lower tusks trimmed). While it was hard to listen to Andy scream when they tied him back, it was not out of pain but our of fear of feeling restricted. After he was released he was calm and playful once more.
Following the pig session, Susie took us to the turkeys and chickens. She spoke briefly about the predator problems that arise from having small defenseless birds like chickens and turkeys, and how important it is to keep rats out from day one. Every night all chickens and turkeys are rounded up and placed back in the barns on elevated perches to keep them as safe as possible. While gorgeous and carefree, chickens and turkeys do need people to look out after them. Turkeys or chickens with specific needs are given color-bands to identify them and give them the proper medicine and medical care.
We were shown how to inspect turkeys and chickens for sicknesses, and if there is fluid build up in their chests, which happens often and must be drained. In the above photo Susie showed us that the turkey’s legs were warm, meaning she was arthritic (a result of carrying too much weight). They can also get bumblefoot, which is a pus filled sac which must be medicated and wrapped. When the females lay eggs, they are collected and fed back to the turkeys and hens which need the extra calcium – often they need to microwave the eggs slightly to give them weight so the de-beaked birds have an easier time picking up the eggs. The farm takes care of both commercial/industry birds and ‘cornish’ breeds, so there are different care methods between the kinds of birds.
Following turkey and chicken care, we went on to rabbits, which I don’t have a photo of, but we were again shown how to hold rabbits and what works best for them. Farm Sanctuary is phasing out rabbits because they don’t thrive outdoors (rabbits contract many illnesses from being outside). All the rabbits kept in the barn at the sanctuary are domestic, and they often contract these sicknesses due to lack of resistance or defense. A funny story Susie told was that of all the animals on the farm, everyone was afraid of a small dwarf rabbit that would jump out and scared anyone who walked in (they named the rabbit “Monty” like from Monty Python).
After the first day, one attendee, Katya, was gracious and kind enough to invite everyone over for dinner at her lovely home five minutes down the road. We had a wonderful time snacking on hummus, daal and coconut curry, salads, strawberry cake and cookies. The next day was beautiful and the sky was bright and blue. We attended the morning sessions (with a great bagel spread), where Susie gave a presentation on farm animal sicknesses and how to spot them. While graphic, it was extremely informative to visualize what should be watched for on all animals. Michelle Weffner then gave a presentation on the importance of shelter education, from tours to internships to community events.
Following lunch, Susie took us to a pasture dedicated to elderly cows to talk about cow care. We got to meet Mike the Calf, who was absolutely gorgeous, sweet natured, and looked healthy and strong. As you can see above, Mike went immediately up to him and gave him a good back rub.
Everyone gave him lots of love. We also met Thunder, who because of his 3-ton weight cannot walk much. It’s hard to keep the weight off of him because of the way he was bred, which is to keep weight on and continually growing. Beneath his thick body though you knew he was just a gentle soul. It was a nice cow love fest for a good fifteen minutes throughout that field.
Following the love fest, Susie and Katie showed us how to gather up a cow and isolate her to give her medication. Cows do not like being separated from their herd, and its better to do this with a group rather than separate one cow, because they may become scared which is dangerous for both the animal and you. There are ways of tying a cow but they couldn’t get a handle on the worried girl, so they showed us what they call a cow ‘shoot.’
The very last corridor keeps the cow safely stable so you can administer shots. A cow’s skin is many inches deep, and unless you have them restrained it will be hard to get a big needle through their skin. While Susie and Katie showed us how to do this, one of the cows from the herd came walking up, mooing like crazy because they were worried about their friend.
Following cows, Susie spoke to us about goats and sheep. As ruminants, goats and sheep require a lot of land so they can change pastures every few months. The land where they eat must be tested for poisonous plants before they can be introduced, and also for a certain kind of bug that exists in the humid climate of the northeast. I adore goats and sheep, I find them to be really unique animals. They’re playful, they have bright shooting-star like personalities, they are outright affectionate.
One of my favorite moments of the weekend was watching Susie call down the entire flock from up on their pasture. They slowly came down until it turned into a running marathon. Can you see the long line stretching back? They have a lot of space for a lot of sheep and goats. After watching this, Susie showed us how to safely tie up a goat so they can be inspected and have their hoofs trimmed. We also were shown how to lay a sheep back in a special hammock so they can have their hoofs trimmed. It was, frankly, adorable to see a sheep laying back in a hammock having her hoofs trimmed.
Lastly we talked about Ducks and Geese. Ducks and Geese have personalities, and they can fight off a predator if they are mad enough, but the sanctuary still puts every last one inside at night to keep them safe. Its important to provide them with a body of water, because they spend a great deal of time playing around and cleaning themselves. While a lake is ideal a pool can also work, but it needs to be cleaned and kept from being frozen (its recommended they stay out of the water during winter because they may drown under ice). Ducks and geese have similar illnesses to chickens and turkeys – bumblefoot, arthritis, worms. One major thing I noticed is they really, really do not like to be handled. Susie said its best to leave a duck alone if they just do not want to be picked up, it isn’t worth stressing him or her out if they are sick.
After our last animal session, we got to meet Arri, the sanctuary’s newest rescued calf at their newly built Small Animal Hospital. He was so tiny, but he was joyous, doing little skips and curious to meet everyone. We then stopped by the equipment to learn about the different kinds of trucks, tractors, and other things needed. It was a lot to take in – just so many little things needed on a day to day basis.
I would summarize a lot of the conference as such – a lot to take in. But it was a beginning, and a beginning is a great, great start. I’m very unsure what the future holds for us, but I do know that I learned more than I did before, and I hope to use that information to be a better volunteer, a more educated vegan, and have a more defined perspective on what it means to exist as a farm animal, or to be someone who works at a sanctuary day in and day out. I hope to do more, maybe even one day intern somewhere but with a job its hard. For now I am happy to help out, and continue to learn more and never stop learning more. It’s the best thing you can do for these animals – know their stories, know their health, their livelihoods, their little intricacies. Just learn, take in this information, and hopefully carry it with you for others to someday know as well.