The 200-year-old house was empty when I arrived on a recent Friday afternoon. Other guests trickled in after dark, and like me, they were here for the quaint lodging, morning yoga under the pine trees and a workshop on vegan smoothies.
As groovy as that sounds, it should be noted that the Catskill Animal Sanctuary in Saugerties, New York, was not built to accommodate the granola needs of humans. Founded 10 years ago by former schoolteacher Kathy Stevens, it’s a haven for rescued farm animals, most of them saved from slaughterhouses, hoarders and other miserable conditions.
“We bought a junkyard and we had to convert a junkyard into a working farm,” Stevens told me. The farm has grown to 110 acres with an expanded mission. Besides emergency rescue, the sanctuary educates the public on the devastating impact of agribusiness on animals, human health and the environment.
Signs inform visitors that pigs on factory farms live in gestation crates “barely bigger than their bodies.” Male chicks are “gassed, crushed, or incinerated“ because they aren’t needed to produce eggs.
“For humanity to move toward a plant-based diet is more than just a good idea,” Stevens said. “In my view it has become a necessity.”
Like a lot of environmentalists, Stevens doesn’t take a sanguine view of the future, assuming business-as-usual continues apace.
“I can envision a few generations from now people walking around in gas masks,” she said. “Those of us who haven’t been swept out to sea, anyway.”
Stevens isn’t as pessimistic as she sounds. Yet she knows the meat industry is a major contributor of greenhouse gases, a destroyer of rainforests and a massive squanderer of natural resources. Stevens gets the message out with the farm’s education program, in her books (“Animal Camp” was updated and re-released in May), a blog on the Huffington Post, and with speaking engagements at schools.
Walking around the farm, I’m struck by the animals’ eagerness to greet, nuzzle or chatter with human visitors. This is not in anticipation of a handout (feeding the animals isn’t allowed), but because these creatures have been taught to believe they are peers, deserving of respect and dignity.
A gregarious turkey couple greets me from behind the fence of their spacious pen. The hen hangs back but the tom comes right up to mischievously tug at the hem of my shorts.
Nearby, a recently rescued tribe of goats has already learned to meet-and-greet from their enclosure. Enjoying a graze on a paddock hillside, four calves are clustered together like a happy family. They were brought here from a dairy, where they were about to become “bob veal,” the youngest of beef flesh.
Some backstories have become lore. A few years ago a goat found running loose in the Bronx was brought to the farm on Christmas Eve. She was emaciated, bloodied and, unbeknownst to her new benefactors, pregnant. They named her Noel, and her lucky son -- now gamboling happily on the grounds -- Christopher.
Stevens got misty-eyed when she spoke of the 2,500 or so living things that her farm has saved, but she understands that those lucky few are a symptom of a much larger problem.
“In terms of the others that we don’t see,” she said, referring to the abattoirs, cruel cages and short lives of misery attendant upon Big Agriculture, “the billions that are being tortured right now -- that’s about changing hearts and minds and diets.”
To that end the sanctuary has a “Compassionate Cuisine” program, led by chef Linda Soper-Kolton, trained at the Natural Gourmet Institute for Health & Culinary Arts in New York.
In the morning her kitchen was all aroma. There was freshly baked bread, breakfast bars made from sweet potatoes, oats and almonds, and a tofu scramble with swiss chard and squash grown on the grounds. Yogurt, of all things, is verboten here, unless it’s made from coconut milk. The hardest part of the meal was saving some room for yoga.
The sanctuary experience won’t convert everyone to veganism, but it should get people at least thinking about the consequences of their food choices. The deeply compassionate can donate or adopt a farm animal at the sanctuary website: http://casanctuary.org/.
(Mike Di Paola writes on preservation and the environment for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Laurie Muchnick on books and Manuela Hoelterhoff on music.