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For our fourth anniversary, Tom and I drove up to Saugerties, NY, about two hours north of NYC, to visit the Catskill Animal Sanctuary. The sanctuary, a beautiful farm of over 100 acres nestled into a valley, recently converted its old farm house into a comfy Bed and Breakfast, a perfect place to stay.

All of the animals at the sanctuary are rescued farm animals, plus horses as well. They come from abusive owners who starved and neglected them, some escaped from slaughter facilities, others are given up by people who can no longer care for them, some were seized by animal protection officers. The animals on the farm include horses, cows, sheep, pigs, goats, pot-bellied pigs, rabbits, ducks, turkeys, geese and chickens. Over 2,000 have been rescued since 2001, when the sanctuary opened.

This is Noelle with her son Christopher. Noelle is on the right.

Noelle was found on Christmas Eve in 2006, emaciated, running loose on a street in the Bronx, being chased by dogs. She was rescued and brought to the farm. The very next day, she gave birth to a tiny lamb. Not surprisingly, both sheep are terrified of people.

These beautiful little dairy calves, Calvin, Bernard, Emerson and Russell, were so friendly and sweet. They pressed toward us for head rubs and back scratches, one taking my hand in his mouth and licking my fingers.

They played like puppies, scampering around in their pen, head-butting one another. They looked as if they had been drawn by Walt Disney, with enormous wet eyes and soft, caramel-colored coats.

The four calves were rescued together at five days old, right before they were about to be sold to a veal producer. Dairy cows give milk because they’re pregnant, but when they give birth, the babies are taken away immediately so they won’t drink their mother’s milk, which is intended for sale, and mother and baby never see one another again. These babies were four months old when we met them, just at the age at which they would have been slaughtered for veal. Cows can live 20 to 25 years; these rare four will live out their lives in peace.

The sanctuary houses about 30 horses. These lovelies are part of a group of 14 horses who were rescued in the nick of time from an animal hoarder who had let them starve. With some horses hundreds of pounds underweight, they were carefully nursed back to health.

Part of the rehabilitation of these rescued animals is physical: treating malnutrition, infections, parasites, broken bones, overgrown hooves and wounds, providing the best food possible, giving them a soft, warm bed, and a safe place to stretch their legs when they’ve regained their strength.

But perhaps even worse than the physical damage is the psychological damage. It’s astounding that so many of the animals, even those who suffered horrific abuse and cruelty at the hands of humans, are able to trust people again. To accomplish this, the staff and volunteers at the sanctuary work from a central idea: the farm is a place of overwhelming love and kindness. The animals are able to heal in a manner and at a pace that suit themselves. They’re closely watched to determine what they need to be truly happy, and are showered with kisses, pats, hugs, praise and encouragement all along the way. For some, this recovery process can take a matter of weeks or months; for others, years. A few, like Noelle the sheep, recover physically but never psychologically, despite the loving care.

Once the animals are healthy, relaxed, socialized and trust people again, they’re ready to be placed in loving, responsible homes. The sanctuary has placed hundreds of animals with new caretakers. Most animals must be adopted in pairs, so they will have a friend to be with; farm animals are usually part of a herd or flock and don’t like to be alone. For people who don’t have the means to adopt, sponsorship is an option, where you choose an animal, then help cover the cost of his food and care.

This is Amos, a Texas Longhorn, with his best pal, Jesse, a grownup dairy calf.

Jesse has the same gorgeous eyes as his little cousins, the calves we met earlier.

Amos and Jesse were saved as calves as part of a dramatic rescue from the former Catskill Game Farm. A whole group of animal advocates came together to save 207 animals that were being auctioned off when the Game Farm, which also included a petting zoo, closed in 2006.  Unfortunately many of the animals were exotic species and were purchased by “canned hunt” operators, who invite so-called hunters to shoot animals who are enclosed by fences.

Now it’s on to my favorites, the pigs. We were so impressed by the pigs. They have personality in spades. I’d never met one before and I had heard a lot about how smart they are, so I was eager to spend time with them.

Meet Nadine and Peggy Sue, taking a snooze in their snug little barn. Talk about mellow! A small group of us came into their stalls to scratch their bellies, and what bellies they were! They sighed happily, shimmied a little to get our hands to the right spots, and snoozed on.

Nadine and Peggy Sue were rescued from a supposed sanctuary in Vermont that was actually run by an animal hoarder who was starving and shooting some animals while sending others to slaughter. The hoarder’s whole goat herd came to the farm as well.

Here’s Nadine napping away. Since the only pig I’d ever encountered was Wilbur in “Charlotte’s Web,” I thought all pigs were small, pink and hairless. Wrong! They have thick, bristly coats, come in all sorts of colors and patterns, and are clean, curious and opinionated.

Pigs are highly social and extremely intelligent. They are among the quickest animals to learn, at times surpassing chimpanzees. They can figure out how to open and close gates and cages, can herd sheep and can learn how to play video games with joysticks. They’re also easily bored. No, I’m not making this up!

This is Roscoe. He had a bit of a drooling issue going on that day. What a big boy.

Look at the size of this girl!

Pigs who are bred for factory farms are gigantic. They’re genetically manipulated to grow as big as possible as quickly as possible, but since they’re slaughtered as adolescents at six months, they don’t usually live to adulthood. Rescued pigs can live over ten years, weigh over a thousand pounds and have all kinds of joint problems because their bodies aren’t meant to carry this unnatural weight.

Amelia was the smallest, and my favorite pig. Here she is in the foreground, rooting in her field with a friend. She’s clearly clever, her enthusiasm infectious, and if pigs can smile, she’s a smiler. When we first met her in her barn, she came straight over to say hello, quietly grunting, and I scratched her head and back. The next day as we walked past her field, she and her friend saw us and both trotted over oink-oink-oinking their hellos, enjoyed a head scratch, then headed back into the field.

Pigs who live in factory farms are never allowed outside. They live their lives squished into cages on bare concrete or metal slat floors in huge warehouses, so they can’t root or perform any natural functions. A rooting pig is a happy pig.

I don’t know the name of Amelia’s friend, but she sure is one big mama.

Here’s a link to a sweet little video of Amelia greeting one of her caretakers at the sanctuary. Amelia was rescued from an animal hoarder who was breeding pit bulls. It was thought that she was intended as bait in the training of the dogs.

It was a wonderful visit, a thrill to connect with all of these beautiful creatures. At the same time, it was so disturbing. I’ve been vegan for only one year, vegetarian for two years before that. I used to eat these animals, these engaging, expressive animals? It’s a shock to discover their individuality and personality, although I don’t know why. If the dogs and cats I know each have a distinct personality, why wouldn’t all animals? And if I wouldn’t eat a dog or a cat, why would I eat these beauties? As we made our way around the farm, I became more and more appalled that I’d never thought to ask myself these basic questions for most of my life.

Here’s Amelia’s friend again, checking us out.

After our visit, I thought that if we could all meet a pig like Amelia who went out of her way to say hello, or a rooster like Jailbird who nestled happily into my arms, or a goat like Arthur who leaned up against my leg because he’d like a little more attention, please, or a dairy calf like Russell who gently licked my fingers, most of us would change the way we view these animals and we’d change the way we eat. And maybe we’d think twice about drinking their milk if we all knew what happens to those little baby calves who never have a chance to know their own mothers.

We don’t need to eat animal products to thrive. If we can lead happy and healthy lives while sparing farm animals from lives full of pain and suffering, well… why wouldn’t we?

This is Alex, a staff member and our guide. Jesse likes to lick his head.

Here’s a link to the Catskill Animal Sanctuary. The owner and founder, Kathy Stevens, has written two books about the animals she has rescued, “Where The Blind Horse Sings” and “Animal Camp,” both full of incredible stories of rescued animals who were deeply damaged yet, with much love and patience, were able to flourish again. I recommend reading them with a big box of tissues at your side.

A couple of closing thoughts:

“May our daily choices be a reflection of our deepest values, and may we use our voices to speak for those who need us most, those who have no voice, those who have no choice. It’s up to each one of us to create the world we want to live in; if not you, who? If not now, when?” Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, author, speaker and educator

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead, anthropologist