Sunday, September 16, 2007

Visit to the Farm Sanctuary

Suddenly, and unexpectedly, I’m a vegetarian again. Here’s how it happened.

On July 6, 2007, The New York Times ran a story called "Where the City's Runaways Roam Free" which recounted the happy tale of Lucky Lady, a sheep that escaped from a Bronx slaughterhouse and was sent to live out the rest of her natural life at the Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, New York. My husband and I had been trying to decide where to spend a short August vacation. The Times article inspired us to choose the Finger Lakes region of western New York State, a five-hour drive from Manhattan.

On August 20 we visited the Farm Sanctuary. We joined the tour group congregated in the People Barn, the large building on the left below. First we watched a short video explaining the work of Farm Sanctuary and some background about the conditions of modern-day animal husbandry. Afterwards, our guide led us up the hill to the animal barns.

In the cow barn we saw Queenie, who escaped from a NYC slaughterhouse in 2003 and according to our guide “remains feisty to this day.” Indeed, I couldn’t get a picture of her face!

Next we went into a pasture beside the barn to visit the “special needs” cows – a herd of 12-15 cows with an assortment of problems. Some were deaf or partially blind; some had anxiety conditions induced by human mistreatment or by aggressive cows in former herds. Other cows had no real problems of their own but had formed a bond with a special-needs cow and had remained affiliated with that group. In this picture my husband (in the foreground) is looking at three special-needs cows. The one in the middle is mostly blind.

I never really thought about that fact that cows must be pregnant or new mothers in order to give milk, nor did I know that dairy cows give birth every year. To maximize their milk yield, they are artificially inseminated after giving birth. Dairy cows are milked during seven months of their nine-month pregnancies. Calves are taken from their mothers two days after they are born - sometimes even sooner - so the milk can once again be collected for human consumption.

Some of the male calves are destined to become veal. They live their short, miserable lives in very small pens where they can’t turn around or lie down comfortably. Instead of healthy mother's milk, veal calves are fed a special liquid diet designed to keep them in a near-anemic state so that their meat after slaughter will have the desired pale pink color.

Moving on, we visited the sheep and goat barn. Sheep and goats and one cow, actually. This particular cow was harrassed by the other cows, so she decided to move in with the sheep who accepted her as one of their herd. By the way, that's Lucky Lady buddying up to the cow. Being "the new kid on the block" - or in the barn, as it were - perhaps she thought it advantageous to have a very large friend.

We learned that sheep are bred to produce more wool than is natural, so they suffer more than the other animals on hot days. The wooly sheep below was particularly friendly.

The goats were separated into two groups – the frisky youngsters and the arthritic seniors. I didn’t pet this young fellow, but isn’t he a good looking? I think he knows it, don't you?

In the pig barn, we learned that pigs also form social groups of four or five within the larger herd. They arrange their straw so they can sleep with their group. They are very sedentary and sleep about 60% of the time. Pigs are also very clean by nature. In sharp contrast to hog barns that you can smell from the highway long before you see them, this barn had little or no odor.

That's me above, petting a very large old fellow. The youngsters below were about one-third his size. We nicknamed them “the three little pigs.”

When we visited the chicken and turkey barns, we learned how these birds are debeaked and have toes cut off - without anesthesia - to keep them from hurting themselves when the frustration of being crammed into way-too-small spaces inspires aggressive behavior. Did you know that turkeys bred for food have white feathers because brown feathers leave a mark on the skin when plucked? The proud male turkey below is trying to attract the attention of the females on the other side of the fence. Although he was busy, he didn’t mind being petted and his feathers were amazingly soft.

It was fun to see the variety of chickens and roosters. There was one chicken that looked like it had poofy hair and bangs! I didn’t get his picture though. Chickens move fast and are VERY hard to photograph. The geese move slower, so I was able to get a picture of them near their pond.

The rabbit pen contained about 18 rabbits who had not been bred for food; they had been neglected pets. Not any more.

This last picture was taken from the vantage point of the animal barns, looking down at the People Barn where the tour started. The three small buildings in the center of the picture are the bed-and-breakfast cabins in which I had hoped we could stay. If you’re interested, call early as they fill up long before summer comes!

Iwas overwhelmed to realize how humans have genetically altered farm animals to increase profits. Chickens, turkeys, and pigs have foot and hip problems if they live to old age because their frames are not able to support their very large bodies. Thanks to hormones, dairy cows now produce 250-300 gallons of milk a week as opposed to the 30-50 gallons they formerly produced. As a result, they suffer painful udder infections and other maladies which required them to receive regular doses of antibiotics. Our guide told us that 50% of the pharmaceuticals produced in this country are used on farm animals, to make them grow larger and faster and to keep them healthy despite sickening living conditions.

Humans also suffer from modern factory farming methods. Farm workers also suffer lung diseases from breathing bad air in crowded and poorly ventilated barns, and huge factory farming pollutes the soil and drinking water. It is really very wrong, all of it. And there is so little public awareness of how unhealthy factory farming is - for us, for the animals, and for the earth.

After our morning on the farm, my husband and I went back to the town of Watkins Glen for lunch. Reading the menu, I thought about the special-needs cows, the pigs who smiled as they slept and rolled over to have their bellies petted, and the chickens whose freedom allowed them to run too fast to be photographed – and then I ordered a lovely salad topped with Portobello mushrooms.

I thought my reaction would lessen as the days passed, but it's nearly a month since our visit to the Farm Sanctuary and so far I still have no desire to eat meat. I guess that makes me a vegetarian (again).

© 2007, Linda Mason Hood
Truffles, Turtles & Tunes Copyright Statement


The Irishman said...

Wonderful web blog!! I happened upon it when I did a search for other "blogs" and "bloggers" that had an interest in traditional Irish music.
Anyway...just wanted to say hi and "well done"!
PS...I have some good links to traditional (Irish) music on my site which is:
Best to you!!

John Nevin said...


I should have guessed you were a vegetarian, a Mennonite, and more. I am glad I took the time to look at your blog.

You are doing outstanding things. God Bless you.

John Nevin