I Love Moo: Tales From A N.Y. Animal Sanctuary

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 15, 2008

Moo had a little crush on me, and I could all but return his affections.

The brown-haired boy possessed saucer-size eyes, a sturdy build and a sweet disposition. But what really tugged at my heart was his story of survival. The super-friendly bull, who had trailed me through the pasture like a lovelorn teen, had been found tied to a car during his calfhood. He was saved by one animal shelter, then recently relocated to another, Farm Sanctuary near Watkins Glen, N.Y.

Moo is not alone -- here, at the country's largest farm animal-rescue facility, or with his grim history. The safe haven takes in hundreds of farm animals, who, if they could talk, would tell similar stories. There's Morgan, a snow-white rooster discovered in a Brooklyn pet store dyed like an Easter egg; Mayfly, an experiment in a school hatching project; and Winnie, a 500-pound pig who escaped a backyard barbecue (featuring her) in Connecticut. She now is the alpha pig of the pen.

"The biggest thing we want to impress upon people is that animals have their own lives and personalities," said Liz Pichaud, the spirited 23-year-old tour guide who led our six-person group around the property last month. "They are living as they were intended to live."

Farm Sanctuary is more sanctuary than farm. In 1986, Californian Gene Baur (who, ironically, appeared in McDonald's commercials as teenager) and his then-wife founded the grass-roots operation in an effort to expose the dark side of factory farming. Funded in part by selling veggie hot dogs at Grateful Dead shows, the group made its first save in a Pennsylvania stockyard. Hilda the sheep was the sole survivor in a room of doom; she spent the last 11 years of her life grazing greener fields in New York.

Since those pie-eyed hippie days, the organization has expanded at corporate speed. It now runs a 300-acre property in central California and the 175-acre spread in the Finger Lakes region, about 25 miles west of Ithaca, N.Y. (Talks are in the works about opening another center closer to an urban area, such as New York City.)

The Upstate New York facility holds in-depth tours May through October, but those who want more animal face time can overnight at the on-site B&B. Personally, I couldn't wait to rise with the roosters -- specifically, Morgan, Mayfly and the rest of the boys -- and watch Moo jump over the moon.

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Unlike those on working farms, sanctuary animals are on permanent holiday, a retirement with full benefits. Sanctuaries around the country vary between caring for a specific species and taking in anything with zero to four legs. Jungle Friends in Gainesville, Fla., for example, specializes in monkeys, while Rikki's Refuge in Orange, Va., resembles Doctor Dolittle's waiting room.

Farm Sanctuary focuses mainly on barnyard animals, such as goats, pigs, cows, ducks and chickens. The refuge houses about 750 creatures, in addition to 30-odd cats that happened by and never left.

"Animal sanctuaries are a place where abused or ill animals can live out the rest of their lives," said Denise Sproul, executive director of the Animal Rescue Association of America. "Sanctuaries deal with the animals that maybe no one wants to see."

Many of the facilities run daily tours, allowing visitors to greet the animals, learn about the cause and witness firsthand the caretaking efforts. Only a few allow guests to tuck down among the beasts. With its on-site B&B, Animal Sanctuary is a rare bird.

Despite its sumptuous setting and priceless views of lake and land, the Watkins Glen property is hardly glamorous. The three red overnight cabins each contain a pair of bouncy beds that sleep two apiece, framed photos of animals and a wicker lounge set. No TV, phone or iPod docking station. The bathrooms are in a separate building called the People Barn. (At night, to reach the facilities, I had to skirt frogs positioned like kitschy garden sculptures along the path.)

The overnight accommodations, breakfast room/library, small exhibit hall and gift shop crouch on the edge of the property. The real scene takes place on the undulating farmland that nearly nudges the horizon and inside the archetypal red barns, one per species. Most of the animals are kept inside spacious barns and fields, though on rare occasions the turkeys are let out to socialize. (Watch for Sullivan, who behaves like a lap dog.)

"They're like ambassadors of their species," said Adam Weitzenfeld, a 23-year-oldintern from Chicago who was spending three months volunteering here. "Where else can you see a factory farm animal that isn't on your plate?"

No surprise, the breakfasts are vegan.

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The Finger Lakes region is a thick quilt of green patches, with cutouts of deep blue and a crosshatching of spindly grape plants that attract vineyard-hoppers. Farm Sanctuary is about 10 miles from Watkins Glen, but it feels much more isolated. Here, the deer stop and stare at you.

After 5 p.m., the barns are closed to the public, so I spent dusk rambling around the fringes of the property. I walked along the periphery of the cow pasture, crossed over a muddy field (the pigs' playpen?) and landed in front of a chicken enclosure. I watched them peck and claw the dirt, then moved on. Sorry, I don't really connect with chickens.

The sheep, though, were storybook characters, gamboling and baaa-ing as if they were trying out for Little Bo Peep. The 14 ewes had arrived pregnant, and many had recently given birth. One mischievous lamb was so small it squeezed through the gate and appeared before my feet.

Most likely, the lamb would have been safe; there is little traffic along the road and few predators. (An intern eventually showed up to help.) Turkey and deer, however, need to watch their backs. Ironically, Farm Sanctuary borders a recreation area that allows hunting. As I walked to the top of the road to watch the sky turn pastel, I heard gunshots ring out. I hoped the wild fowl were smart enough to take cover.

The farm reopened the next morning at 8, and after a simple breakfast of fruit, pastries and bagels with non-dairy butter and jam, our group met for a private tour. (B&B guests have their own tour at 10 a.m.; public tours follow.)

As we ventured into the cow pasture, sloppy from a previous day's rain, I starting chatting with Mike and Sherry Depsky of Philadelphia. The couple were married here four years ago, and they honeymooned at Best Friends, a sanctuary in Utah. After countless visits, they knew the animals' histories as if they were family members'. "We like the interaction with the animals," said Sherry, who works as a nanny and dog-walker. "We've been on the tour maybe 30 times."

During the hour, Pichaud led us into the tidy structures and explained the plight of each group: ducks and geese destined to become foie gras; rabbits raised for meat; turkeys marked for Thanksgiving dinner. At times, she would point out an animal and tell its story.

"Malcolm and 40 other pigs were abandoned for days in the sun, with no food or water," she explained as we stood amid hogs lounging like fat pashas in hay. "They were found in a triple-decker livestock trailer in D.C." As if on cue, a piglet named Andy waddled over and begged for a belly rub.

Despite the emotional pull, the employees did not proselytize. In the cabins, a welcome note asks guests to refrain from eating animal products while visiting. It was hard, though, to not be moved. So while the other guests headed off to sip grapes at local wineries, I decided to grab a shovel and help out. I was assigned chicken duty. Dirty work, I know, but necessary.

During my stint, I scooped up hay, picked up eggs, threw down new hay and built nests in the hens' cubicles. Sometimes a chicken would inadvertently help, kicking a bit of straw my way. The work was not heroic, but it was satisfying knowing that I was making their lives a bit more comfortable.

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