When he was born, Panda Bob’s mother was too sick to stand. But she bellowed and struggled to get to her feet to nurse her baby. He cried back, yearning for her touch and nourishment, but she couldn’t get up.
Left in the pouring rain at a livestock auction, Errol was crammed into an overcrowded cage to await a brutal death at just six weeks old.
Continually impregnated and then robbed of her young, Ellen was considered too emaciated and sick to be slaughtered. So they decided to just shoot her in the head instead.
Off Highway 80, between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe, California, hidden in the beautiful, rolling hills at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, these and hundreds of seemingly hopeless stories of despair are transformed into stories of love and redemption. It’s a 600 acre wonder. It’s called Animal Place.
Like its clear, simple, and unassuming name, Animal Place is unpretentious, pure and vibrant in its mission and message: Compassion for all life. Animal Place not only rescues abused, sick, injured and neglected farm animals of all types. It also promotes veganism, employs smart and targeted advocacy, and lobbies for legislative change to improve the lives of the animals it can’t save. Through its second location, the 60 acre Rescue Ranch in Vacaville, CA, it has also rescued, rehabilitated and adopted out over 15,000 animals since its inception in 2010.
But, perhaps most important of all, Animal Place educates.
I thought I knew a lot about the plight of farm animals. I’ve been vegan for almost three and a half years, and I have researched, studied and listened to more information that I can recount. I’ve braved the videos and photos on the Internet. I’ve seen Earthlings. I thought I knew.
Then I decided to take a tour of the Animal Place sanctuary in Grass Valley. I was excited. I had wanted to visit the sanctuary for ages, and I finally got my opportunity. My sister, mother and I drove up from Sacramento one morning, and were greeted by one of Animal Place’s Advocacy Interns, Rocky Schwartz.
Rocky is a sweet young woman with a gentle, winning personality. But don’t for one minute think there is anything timid or delicate about this powerhouse for the animals. When passion and compassion meet knowledge and determination, you get Rocky Schwartz.
Rocky took us on a two-hour walk through the vast sanctuary, one of the oldest and largest in the United States. We met cows, pigs, turkeys, chickens, goats, sheep and a burro. We petted a young calf and a very friendly sheep, and learned by doing that turkeys love to be scratched under their wings.
We also saw a veal crate, a gestation crate for breeding sows, and the injuries and illnesses borne by these animals because they are unlucky enough to be born into the farming industry.
Chickens whose tender beaks have been severed without painkillers. Turkeys who have been bred to be so large-breasted that their swollen, painful feet can’t carry their full weight. But then, they were never meant to grow up, were they? They were meant to be killed while they were still babies, and who cares if they suffer with every step they take in their short lives, as long as everyone applauds our delicious Thanksgiving dinner, right? The people at Animal Place care. And they are educating others to care, too.
What I learned on my tour with Rocky is the power of one individual’s story to move the heart.
Sometimes, the problems of the world are so vast that we can’t wrap our brains and hearts around them. Syria, Israel-Palestine, Iraq… They are devastating. But they are so big, they almost make me numb. The Jewish Holocaust is overwhelming to consider. Millions of people, stripped of their dignity and their lives… My brain can hardly grasp it. But one 15 year old girl, her potential, her creativity, her laughter, her life, lost to a callous evil in the world – that, I can grasp, and it goes straight to the heart. That’s why we all remember Anne Frank. Because she put an individual face on a shattering wrong.
The suffering of animals is like that for me. It’s too big. I can’t hold it all, and sometimes it makes me feel helpless. But show me one turkey with swollen feet who can barely walk, one little pig romping and squealing with delight because he can play with the visitors, one sweet calf who just wants to be loved, and I’m galvanized. This is why education is so important to Animal Place. This is why taking a tour there is both a wonderful and an eye opening experience.
Animal Place offers both guided and self-guided tours. They only cost $5. And you get a cookie afterward! A delicious, vegan cookie. You can sign up for their Sanctuary Sweets mailings, which include yummy, cruelty-free dessert recipes, so you can make those delicious vegan cookies yourself. And if you want to be more deeply involved, you can volunteer, attend special events at the sanctuary and become a donor.
I was deeply impressed by the balance that Animal Place has achieved with its tours. The tour itself is a great time. Meeting the animals, learning their stories, and getting to interact with them is pure delight. But Rocky never let us forget the realities that most farm animals face. The physical and emotional scars are evident on some of the residents, and the presence of that gestation crate and veal crate remind visitors of the cruelties of the industry that produced these animals.
The educational component at Animal Place is everywhere you look. Plus, they are expanding the educational offerings at the sanctuary, including the creation of an on-site museum that will be free and open to the public. The Museum of Animal Farming will provide the public “the opportunity to see firsthand the terrifying tools and equipment that are used on farm animals”.
Executive Director Kim Sturla says she wants visitors to enjoy themselves and the animals. However, she also cautions, “We don’t want people to leave Animal Place only thinking about the few happy animals they meet here, and believing everything is fine. We also want them to learn the realities of animal farming.”
Like those veal crates. Long before I became vegan, I stopped eating veal, because I heard about those crates, and about the abuses of the veal industry. But for years I still ate cheese and butter, and still used milk in my coffee. Then I learned that the veal industry wouldn’t exist without the dairy industry. What else are they going to do with all of the unwanted calves produced every year to keep milk, cheese and butter in America’s refrigerators? Why do we assume that cows are the only mammals on the planet who just lactate all the time, even if they don’t have a baby? Newsflash: they don’t. They have to be kept constantly pregnant, which breaks down their bones, joints and muscles, and they have to be constantly robbed of their babies, which breaks down their hearts. After all, if the baby gets the milk, there’s none for us. So the baby is killed at birth, or dragged off to market to be killed, or sold for veal. Oh, and the dairy cow is also slaughtered when her milk production starts to taper off, at age four or five – less than a quarter of her natural life.
These kinds of hidden abuses in the industry are unknown to much of the public. Rocky explained them in a firm but gentle way, balancing the need to educate with the desire to make the tour a pleasant experience.
Sturla explained to me that the Intern Residential Program at Animal place, where Rocky worked, is one of her favorite accomplishments. Approximately four to seven interns at a time live on the sanctuary grounds for two to three months. “The talented young folks that come through continually amaze me,” says Sturla with obvious pride and gratitude. “They work four days per week at the sanctuary, and one day per week they have an enrichment day, where they go offsite to the Capitol for advocacy, or to a stockyard for education, or various other activities. And it’s an international program, with participants from Israel, Poland, Canada, and other countries, as well as the US.”
Rocky has done three internships at Animal Place. I’m not surprised. She is a dynamo.
Every animal you meet at Animal Place has a story, and your tour guide will share many of their stories with you. You’ll discover these animals as individuals with not only different stories, but unique and specific personalities, likes and dislikes, best friends, favorite toys and favorite treats (bring seedless grapes for the chickens, but cut them in half to avoid choking hazards).
And what about those three lucky souls I mentioned at the beginning of this article?
Panda Bob, the young calf whose mum was too sick to nurse him, has a new best friend, Mortimer. Panda Bob’s mother was too sick – too neglected – to survive. Luckily for Panda Bob, he and his mother had been brought to Animal Place’s veterinarian, who eased his mother’s suffering and took good care of her young calf. Now, Panda Bob lives with Mortimer at the sanctuary and beguiles visitors with his sweet disposition and adorable panda face. The drought has made feeding all the grazing animals a real challenge this year. In lieu of their usual grassy fields, the bovines are going through $50 per day in hay, so all donations are greatly appreciated.
Errol is the type of chicken who is typically killed at just six weeks for his or her flesh. He and his friends were crammed into a small cage and left in the pouring rain at a livestock auction to wait for someone to buy them and kill them. But, luckily for them, the worst was over when no one bought them that day, and instead, they got to come to Animal Place. Now, they take dust baths, frolic in the sun, and hang around with their turkey buddies.
Ellen the dairy goat’s story is perhaps the saddest of the three. Though Rocky’s heart is so huge that there is room in it for every animal at the sanctuary, it was clear that there is a special, private place in that big, compassionate heart that is reserved for Ellen. Because Ellen was so special to her, I’d like you to hear her story in Rocky’s words:
“We believe Ellen began her life on a dairy farm. There, she was repeatedly impregnated and endured the anguish of having her newborns taken away from her, all so that humans could sell and consume her milk.
When she became emaciated, the farm brought her to a “livestock” auction. She was sold to a slaughterhouse where people come to pick out the live animals they want slaughtered onsite. Yet, she was too thin for slaughter and so sick she couldn’t even walk, so the slaughterhouse decided to shoot her in the head instead.
Officer Todd Stosuy of Santa Cruz County Animal Services stepped in just in the nick of time and brought Ellen to sanctuary at Animal Place. It was soon discovered that despite being incredibly thin, Ellen was pregnant with twins! She gave birth in November of 2012 and it was the first time her newborns were not taken away from her.
Ellen got to experience motherhood for the first time and was very protective of her sons. Yet, Ellen was still sick and ultimately had to be euthanized about a year after her rescue. Her story reminds me both that the unnecessary suffering humans inflict on the animals we exploit for food is not just physical, but emotional as well, and also that it happens regardless of the size of the farm.”
It was wonderful to meet all of the residents of Animal Place, including Panda Bob, Errol, and Ellen’s babies. It was great to play with the baby pigs and feed grapes to the chickens, and look into the eyes of a gentle cow. It was downright blissful to feel a sheep lean into my leg and close its eyes as I gave it a nice back scratch. But I couldn’t help but remember, they are the lucky ones. Meanwhile, 140 billion others aren’t so lucky. 140 billion others suffer and die each year throughout the world.
It’s too big, isn’t it? So remember Panda Bob. Remember Errol. Remember Ellen.
All photos are courtesy of Animal Place