Animals As Individuals: A Visit to the Farm Sanctuary in California

BlogHer Original Post

After visiting the Farm Sanctuary in New York earlier this year, I made a point to visit their California facility... purely for research, of course. Much like it's Eastern counterpart, the western FS is a blessed place, where farm animals once slated for slaughter or facing a life of cruel neglect become individuals with personalities. There, at last, they find peace... and many butt rubs.

I scooped up my BlogHer colleague and pal, Beth Terry, and we headed to the tiny town of Orland, about 2.5 hrs. north of Oakland. And there, of course, we fell in love again and again. We met up with Leanne Cronquist, the California Shelter Manager, who kindly showed us around the 300-acre property and made personal introductions -- no small feat as the shelter currently houses 380 animals.

Residents include: 100 sheep, 31 cattle, 27 goats, 18 geese, 18 ducks (including one with testicular cancer), 17 pigs, 17 turkeys, five donkeys, three rabbits and about 144 chickens, including roosters. Now living happily on the sanctuary's golden meadows, each animal comes with their own sad story or near-death experience.

We came across a herd of wild sheep, mostly rescues from Santa Cruz Island. Evidently, The Nature Conservancy is on a mission to restore the channel islands to their original sheep-less habitat, so they've ended up here. Unlike most of the residents here at FS, these sheep are not used to humans and keep their distance. Says Leanne, "We respect the fact that they’d rather be with their herd than be with us.”

This statement essentially sums the Farm Sanctuary philosophy -- to offer a place where animals originally raised for humans can now live free from human harassment. 'You don't want to be pals with mankind? No problem. Here's a giant grazing field. You want a head scratch or a butt rub? Here ya go, pal. Whatever you want, that's what you get.'  It's like the Barnyard Ritz Carlton and yes, I'm a tad envious.

Next, we come upon some wild donkeys that had been rounded up in Death Valley by Bureau of Land Management (BLM), part of their standard efforts at controlling the wild burro/equine populations. A shy, almost-white-but-mostly-grey donkey blinked at us. "Quartz has been with us a while now," said Leanne. "We've got some domesticated donkeys too."

With regards to how many 'new' animals the FS receives every year, Leanne says it fluctuates wildly. "Sometimes we’ll get large rescues of chickens (40-80) and sometimes we get big animals. It all depends on what our current population is, if we have iso-space." (When a new animal arrives, they must be isolated to make sure they're healthy before integrating them with the current population.) "Some years we’ll do 50-80, sometimes we’ll do 150-200. It varies so much."

As for how the animals get to the sanctuary, the back stories are just as varied. There's Melvin, a super sweet Angora goat, who was existing as a "neglected lawn mower" in somebody's yard. Ultimately, a caring neighbor noticed that the entire back end of his beautiful white coat was stained and soaked with urine. A call was made and he lives here now. (Many are brought to the sanctuary by Animal Control officers who occasionally end up with a goat or pig instead of a cat or dog.)

There's Harrison (in the first photo, with Beth), a massive, cuddly steer who was found as a baby, nearly dead in a field. Blossom, a newly arrived pig, had escaped from a farm and was found on a Red Bluff couple's lawn. Indigo, the gorgeous black-and-white hen rescued from a meth lab ….. And so on.

But the best story -- and not an uncommon one -- might be that of Lilly the pig who launched herself off a truck headed for the slaughterhouse. Amazing but true, Lilly is the not the first animal to make a break for freedom. In fact, the New York facility has several such cases, the late Cincinnati Freedom, probably being the most famous.

"And definitely you can tell that that’s their personality because you know that something sparked them to say, ‘I need to get out of here. I want to go.’ Lilly’s pretty calm but Mateo (a steer who had also willfully escaped a gruesome fate) was still a little wary about people - he still had that flighty personality. You can just tell that there is something about them."

--Leanne Cronquist, Shelter Manager, Farm Sanctuary-California

Like many animal sanctuaries, FS is a non-profit organization that runs on donations, dedication and sheer passion. Leanne says they get about 40 visitors a week who tour the facility and soak up educational signs posted around the property. An example:

"Most pigs raised in the United States are killed at just 6 months of age - when they weigh around 240 pounds. Despite their young age, pigs commonly suffer from ulcers, respiratory disorders, plus foot and leg maladies which are brought on by inhumane factory farm conditions."

Still, Leanne said it is worth noting that the Farm Sanctuary is most definitely NOT a petting zoo. "The idea is to let the animals do what they want to do naturally and to not 'force' any relationships with humans," she said.

"In other words, in a petting zoo, the animals are technically 'working' whereas here, they are absolutely retired," I said.

"Right! That's exactly it."

Beth asked about their stance on animal consumption and Leanne confirmed that they heartily promote a vegan lifestyle. In their site statement, FS also goes on to support science behind 'in-vitro meat', animal tissue grown in a test tube for human consumption:

"Current research suggests that animals need not be killed in the development process of in vitro meat. The production of in vitro meat begins by taking a muscle biopsy from a living farm animal and proliferating the isolated stem cells in a nutrient-rich medium. Given these developments, Farm Sanctuary is hopeful that further development of this technology, ideally using animal-free media to scale, could save billions of lives every year."

--Farm Sanctuary website, under "Position Statements"

While slightly creepy, I do appreciate their acknowledgement that people are still going to want to eat meat. In any case, the FS has looked into the future and blessed an option which scares the bejesus out of me but, in all likelihood, may reduce suffering. Another post for another day …

(Coincidentally, I just viewed Episode 2 [Season 1] of Better Off Ted which features the creation of test tube meat, lovingly referred to as "Meat Blobby." )

Our tour featured a very happy time spent in the turkey pen with Harley, Reese, Jordan and Peyton. I'd always heard how nasty turkeys can be but these guys just wanted to hang out. Some of them had been cruelly de-toed -- evidence from their days in 'the industry.' (Not to mention related ligament problems.) Still, they didn't seem to hold a grudge and were thrilled with any kind of attention.

As we watched a hen joyfully take a dirt bath, I asked Leanne if she ever felt anything like gratitude from the animals. Her response was telling:  "That's funny. I've never thought about it that way before. I don't think about them thanking us but rather, us thanking them." Clearly, Leanne is the right human for the job. Later, she likened the relationship to parenthood:

"It's a lot like having kids. Sometimes it's frustrating, sometimes they are annoying, sometimes amusing but always, there's the love. Ultimately, you just want them to be happy."

To view more photos from our visit to the Farm Sanctuary in California, go here (mine) and here (Beth's).


BlogHer Contributing Editor, Animal & Wildlife Concerns, Proprietor, ClizBiz


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