Farm Sanctuary: A Haven for Human Visitors

Now I know their names: Fennel, Samantha, Nelson, Clarabell, Joan and many others. Before I knew them by name, however, I knew them by sight. They are some of the handsome, shy, peaceful, curious and proud animals I met during my visits to Farm Sanctuary, located just west of Watkins Glen.

All the animals at Farm Sanctuary have a story of things gone wrong. They have suffered from neglect, abuse, bad luck, indifference, good intentions and institutional cruelty. While none of this is unique, as life is full of stories of things gone wrong and of ills done by humans, Farm Sanctuary is remarkable because the good being done there is proportional to the wrongs committed against these animals.

Nowadays, Fennel, a black rooster, chooses to spend much of his time with the white turkeys. His contrasting size and color make him immediately recognizable, but his distinction is not limited to his appearance. Fennel was shipped through the U.S. mail in a package containing 100 chicks. The package was never picked up. Had it not been for an attentive postal worker, all the birds would have perished. Fennel is one of 55 survivors.

Recently, Samantha was outfitted with a prosthetic left hind leg. Cornell veterinarians, specializing in pain management, identified this exceptional sheep as a candidate for the device because she could not fully extend her left hind leg. Her right hind leg is badly deformed due to joint disease resulting from an infection. Samantha arrived at the farm in November of 2007, one of 20 newborn lambs rescued from grim circumstances by the Ulster County SPCA. Had she received competent care as a lamb, the infection that damaged her leg could have been prevented.

Public tours of the farm start in the People Barn with a brief video history of Farm Sanctuary and factory farm practices. From there, the tours head outside. The first stop is the pasture where the special needs cows are kept. During my first visit, I noticed two Jerseys resting in the field. Not until my third trip did I get to meet Nelson, one of the two cows who intrigued me that first day. Nelson is a large, lovely, inquisitive, and slightly pushy, steer who was headed for the stockyard the first day of his life. Now, he gets to spend the rest of his life at the sanctuary.

Petting zoos might seem an unlikely source of extreme cases of animal neglect, but Clarabell the goat was languishing in one until a 12-year-old girl, Kasia, interceded. After getting Clarabell released from the Upstate petting zoo, Kasia and her family thought they had found her a good permanent home with a farmer; however, Clarabell did not receive care at the farm. By the time Kasia visited, Clarabell’s tendon disease had deteriorated so that she was able to get around only by pulling herself on her knees. Also, she had mange and was malnourished. While waiting for word on Clarabell at a veterinary hospital, Kasia met Farm Sanctuary staff working on another case. Today, Clarabell lives surrounded by sheep; goats are a frisky lot who enjoy butting heads, and roughhousing is not for Clarabell, given her tendon disease. She looks and acts so healthy, that it is hard to imagine that the vets had recommended euthanizing her.

Joan sleeps nestled in hay and curled up with the other pigs. She likes to have her belly rubbed, even while she naps. Her rescue is the result of lucky happenstance. She was discovered, one of two malnourished piglets, during an investigation into allegations of cruelty at a factory farm.

For us in the Finger Lakes, Farm Sanctuary may seem little more than a local attraction mentioned as a possible weekend day-trip destination, but never visited. Nationally, it has much more significance. The Washington Post and New York Times have touched on Farm Sanctuary in two very different articles. The Post focused on it as a vacation destination, an ecotourism attraction, if you will. The Times did an extensive magazine article about Farm Sanctuary’s pivotal role in California’s Proposition 2, a ballot initiative that requires that “by 2015 all farm animals be able to stand up, lie down, turn around and fully extend their limbs.” This past November, the proposition passed by a large majority. Both pieces explore two critical components of the farm’s strategy – educating people by giving them access to farm animals and information about their lives prior to coming to the sanctuary and changing the laws governing the care and treatment of farm animals.

The hours I spent at Farm Sanctuary have convinced me that part of what is so special about the place is the closeness of the relationships between the people who work there and the animals. The humans entrusted with the care of these rescue animals have every reason to be angry. The way farm animals are treated is appalling, and almost all of us participate in the factory farm system. Even when we don’t, even when we go out of our way to get our goods from the family-owned farm, it won’t necessarily ensure no abuse occurs. The staff at the sanctuary knows that horrors still exist even at small, local operations.

The shelter animals have every reason not to trust humans. Human failure of some sort is always at the root of every rescue. Yet, both the humans and the animals at Farm Sanctuary give the rest of us a chance. The people who give tours take a low-key approach (as does the introductory video), though it would be easy (and understandable) for them to overwhelm visitors with terrifying images and stories. They are patient with questions and see in all of us the potential to help change factory farm practices. Although the animals never have to interact with humans, they routinely choose to do so. At Farm Sanctuary, it is the visitors who get a second chance.


by Darcy Binns
When freelance artist Darcy Binns visited Farm Sanctuary, she wanted to draw the animals the minute she met them.