by Serena Kenna
How many children get to grow up swimming in a river and playing with animals after school every day?” asks Kathy Stevens, founder of the Saugerties, NY– based Catskill Animal Sanctuary.
Kathy grew up on a horse farm in Virginia and experienced a childhood she describes as “magical.” After a decade as a high school English teacher in the Northeast, she was offered the principalship of a charter high school. But to the consternation of family and friends, Kathy turned the opportunity down and took the first of many leaps of faith to start Catskill Animal Sanctuary. “It is absolutely the best thing I’ve ever done,” Kathy says with a wide smile.
Catskill Animal Sanctuary celebrates its 15th year this year. In that short time, it has become not only one of the world’s leading havens for farm animals in urgent need of rescue, but also a thriving educational hub designed to empower visitors to consider plant-based eating. In other words, Catskill Animal Sanctuary is the embodiment of Kathy’s two passions: a love for animals, and belief in education as a tool for transformation.
Back in 2003, with the help of a generous supporter, Kathy and cofounder Jesse Moore purchased a large parcel of land that needed quite a bit of work in order to house hundreds of animals. (Their first 18 months were spent “getting our ducks in a row” on a small farm, the use of which was generously donated by a kind Kerhonkson resident.) At the new property, one large barn “in pretty rough shape” existed. As interest in the work of Catskill Animal Sanctuary grew, the property grew, as Kathy describes, “one barn, one road, one pasture at a time.” Today, the 110-acre Sanctuary comprises seven large barns for cows and horses; seven for goats, sheep and pigs; and “probably over a dozen” smaller, well-insulated buildings for turkeys, chickens, rabbits and ducks. The “people spaces” include a beautiful renovated guesthouse, a Welcome Center, a large classroom, and offices. Most of the pastures are large and gently rolling, and a beautiful pond sur- rounded by 30 willow trees graces the center of the property. As you drive down the winding hill to this bucolic sanctuary, you have the feeling you are on sacred ground.
Many of the animals lucky enough to find their way to Catskill Animal Sanctuary come from animal hoarders: mentally ill people who compulsively collect animals but are unable to care for them. People who discover these hoarders call the authorities—either their local SPCA or the police—who in turn call Catskill Animal Sanctuary for assistance.
CAS also saves unfortunate victims of what Kathy calls “random acts of callousness,” the most succinct definition being horrible things done to animals by callous humans. Kathy says, “We’ve accepted over fifty small animals found in dumpsters, a box of chickens left behind at the post office, a chicken found in a mailbox and two pigs tied to a post outside a pet store.” Many animals come from the farming industry: lucky escapees from transportation trucks or slaughterhouses. Sometimes, a farmer will take pity on a special-needs animal, like the blind cow Helen who lived at Catskill Animal Sanctuary for many years. “The farmer killed thousands of cows each year, but for some reason had a soft spot for the little one born blind,” Kathy explains. Occasionally, the happiest of all possibilities happens: a farmer has a change of heart. Kathy says that increasing num- bers of farmers are waking up to the truth that the animals they raise to feed humans are “no different in the ways that count than our dogs, our cats.” They are, one by one, deciding to grow vegetables instead of animals. Typically, most of the remaining flock or herd are sent to slaughter, but a few, like Sanctuary pigs Mario and Audrey and young steer Benjamin, find their way to happily ever after. Still others arrive when animal industries, like petting zoos or the former Catskill Game Farm, close down.
What struck me during my tour of the Sanctuary was the deep affection displayed by animals most of us never think about (or if we do think about them, it’s usually about how to prepare their bodies for dinner, as in baked, broiled or fried). I met Peabody, a rooster who when picked up and held exhibited the love and affection typically seen in dogs. He kissed and nuzzled Kathy as though he were her child. I met a sheep, Noelle, who was pregnant when she was acquired on Christmas Eve and gave birth to Christopher on Christmas morning. I met Buddy, an elderly blind horse whose family could no longer care for him. CAS took him in, and after many months of rehabilitation, he became a loving, happy member of the family who can bring even the most stalwart to tears. I met Amelia the pig who is as happy as a…well, happy as a pig in mud. Amos and Jesse are two steers rescued from the Catskill Game Farm. Despite their massive horns, they are gentle, loving, very big animals who love to be touched, groomed, and who give anyone who will allow it a kiss with their scratchy tongues. I was treated to a tremendous cuteness overload by Lonnie, Loretta and Lulu, newborn kids of a goat named Jacqueline, recently rescued from a “chamber of horrors” along with 26 others. I could not peel myself away from these prancing, jumping balls of fluff.
There are literally several hundred rescue stories at CAS, but to give them the justice they deserve, they must be experienced in person. The large number of free-range animals is certainly memorable: one doesn’t expect, for example, to be greeted in the parking lot by a friendly turkey, or to have a lovable goat accompany her tour. It isn’t all moonlight and roses, however. Many of the animals from the farming industry are freakishly large, manipulated to garner as much meat as possible from a single animal. Reggie the pig, for example, weighs close to 1,000 pounds and has a great deal of difficulty moving. Many Sanctuary chickens weigh over 15 pounds and suffer symptoms identical to those of morbidly obese humans: debilitating joint pain and circulatory, respiratory and mobility issues.
Clearly, it is often difficult to decide which animals can be accepted into the safety and embrace of Catskill Animal Sanctuary. The organization’s mantra is “to do the greatest good for the greatest number,” but doing so actually means recognizing its limitations. “Animal sanctuaries always have to be fully aware of their capacity,” Kathy explains. “A single large rescue can increase a sanctuary’s residents by ten, twenty, or even fifty percent. Do we have the room? Do we have the staff and volunteers to care for them? Can we quarantine a large number of animals? Do we have the financial ability to, for example, increase our hay bill by the thousands to accommodate these new rescues?” These are the questions sanctuaries have to ask themselves. Those that don’t often fold, and others like Catskill Animal Sanctuary are left to take in the animals that failed rescues can no longer care for.
Catskill Animal Sanctuary also recognizes a more significant limitation of their work. As Kathy says, “I can’t remember who said it first, but everyone in our movement says it now: ‘We can’t rescue our way out of this problem.’ There will always be an infinitely greater number of animals in urgent need of help than there are sanctuaries to help them. Unless and until there is a shift in human consciousness—a shift that says animals have the same right to live and pursue happiness as we humans do—sanctuaries will only be helping the fortunate few…the ones lucky enough to find us.”
I asked Kathy if she thought humans were ready for this message. She believes that we are. “I believe people are inherently kind,” she says. “If we didn’t believe in people’s goodness and in their capacity to change, we couldn’t do this work. We have to appeal to basic human kindness.”
But she also believes that the challenge for places like Catskill Animal Sanctuary lies in how the message is delivered. To that end, one of the Sanctuary’s main strategies is “to lead with love: to expose people to the truth that in the ways that truly matter, we are all the same.” Their tours are a kind of love fest, with visitors’ hearts opening to the animals who call CAS home. “People simply don’t expect ducks or pigs or cows to seek out human affection, and give affection right back. People see with their own eyes how ten chickens are every bit as unique as ten dogs or ten humans,” Kathy explains. “Once this happens, once our visitors ‘feel’ the animals, then delivering the bigger message in a loving way becomes easier.”
And the bigger message is that we shouldn’t eat animals. Plain and simple. We have been brainwashed by the farming industry to see them as “meat” rather than as individuals who want their lives as much as we want ours. We justify that it is somehow okay to torture billions of them, every year, from birth to death. And we don’t need their flesh to be healthy. In fact, the growing consensus is that plant-based eating is far healthier for humans. Beyond their suffering and the devastating impact on human health, our addiction to animal products is also the leading cause of environmental ills from global warming to water pollution to deforestation. “We’re out of time,” Kathy says gently. “We’ve got to own that we’re the cause of these frightening problems, and if we want the planet as we know it to exist for our children, we simply must eat in a way that causes the least harm.” And that way, Kathy believes, is veganism. “Did you know,” Stevens asks, “that it takes fifteen to twenty times more natural resources more water, more land, more energy—to feed a meat eater than it does to feed a plant-based eater?”
The Catskill Animal Sanctuary message, while urgent, is not heavy-handed. Indeed, a quick Internet search reveals words like love, inspiration, compassion and joy associated with all of its programming. Camp Kindness, for example, is a week-long summer program offered for children 8 to 14 years of age “that fosters compassion towards all living beings.” The day camp features hands-on experiences in pampering, feeding and grooming animals—age-appropriate lessons about farm animals and about the choices children can make in their own lives to be a voice for animals. Kids assist in making their own vegan lunches. The three July sessions fill “very quickly”; registration is now open at www.casanctuary.org.
Another popular program is Compassionate Cuisine, which features a daily blog with recipes, weekend cooking demonstrations (during the April–October tour season only) and vegan cooking classes offered in the Homestead, the Sanctuary’s 200-year-old inn. According to the program director, “Chef Linda,” the courses vary widely. “We want to offer classes for folks who really don’t know where to begin, and classes for those who might already be vegetarian or vegan and want to improve their skills. And,” she adds, “each class offers a lot of tips…like how to shop to save money, and how to prep to save time.” Classes also fill quickly, so reserve your spot online.
Speaking of the Homestead: it is a fully renovated pre–Civil War residence turned eco-friendly bed-and-breakfast where guests can spend a weekend (or a week!) hiking, exploring all that the Hudson Valley offers, indulging in delicious vegan cuisine, taking cooking classes and experiencing decadent breakfasts lovingly prepared by innkeeper Erica Ritter and Sanctuary tours with Kathy and crew. The inn is a beautifully appointed space boasting both three-room and full-apartment-sized suites; guests come from around the world.
As a vegan and animal activist, this assignment was very near and dear to my heart. My visit to Catskill Animal Sanctuary not only reinforced all that I already knew, but also taught me some critical things of which I was unaware. Regardless of your lifestyle choices, you simply must visit Catskill Animal Sanctuary. Tours are held on Saturdays and Sundays from April through October. The humans will welcome you with warm smiles; the animals, with hearts larger than you dreamed possible. You will come away a very different person than when you entered.
CAS is completely funded through donations, tours, animal sponsorships, grants, merchandise (on their website and in their retail store)—including Kathy’s two books, Where the Blind Horse Sings and Animal Camp—and Homestead bookings.
Catskill Animal Sanctuary is literally a port in the storm. Please log on to www.casanctuary.org to discover all the ways to get involved in their mission. Enjoy getaways and amazing vegan cuisine at the Homestead, check out the special events and classes offered, visit (often!) when they open, volunteer with your colleagues for a work party, enrich the lives of your children by enrolling them in Camp Kindness. What better way to spend your time and money than helping an organization with a vision of a peaceful, compassionate and healthy planet realize its dream…for us, for our children, for the animals and for our future on Earth.