Farm Sanctuary’s Susie Coston on rescue, advocacy and encouraging compassion

Susie Coston and Sonny at Farm SanctuaryIt’s no wonder that Farm Sanctuary National Shelter Director Susie Coston is known as “The Farm Animal Whisperer.” She has two decades’ worth of experience running animal sanctuaries, and in her spare time (ha!), she leads our annual Farm Animal Care Conference and mentors others who have started their own sanctuaries.

She shared her valuable insight into the lives and care of farm animals and what it’s like to work in the animal protection movement in a recent Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything). Here are some of Susie’s most upvoted responses to Reddit member questions (lightly edited for length).

On encouraging others to live a more compassionate lifestyle:

[Be] patient with others and really [reach] out and meet them where they are. If you are a good cook, unlike myself, inviting people for a very delicious vegetarian/vegan meal and just being warm and positive is a good start. … Everyone has a gift — artists, chefs, writers, storytellers, etc. — and using that gift to spread the message is a great way to contribute and encourage others to be more compassionate.

giftquote2On getting along with meat-eaters, despite knowing the plight of farm animals:

I always feel it is somewhat challenging especially when they seem to talk about it more knowing I am vegan than I think they would have if I were not. I feel you have to meet people where they are, however, since I put my parents, for example, through a bit of hell most of my teenage life — so me showing intolerance to them for not believing what I believe would be a bit hypocritical. I also see that by not fighting with them about it — by still loving people and just being who you are — many eventually change — maybe not completely but in some ways. My parents are eating far less meat, for example!

Susie Coston with turkeys at Farm Sanctuary

On people’s misconceptions about farm animals:

I think it is easy to see them differently because the only exposure most people have to farm animals is when they see them in an environment that is not natural — where they are frightened, where they are overcrowded, not receiving individualize care. We see them here being themselves — happy, sad, funny, etc. When they are not frightened they grieve more outwardly, they play, they are just more comfortable being themselves. … I think there is such a misconception about their sentience — especially birds, since they seem to be harder to relate to than mammals. We see birds — especially mothers arriving with babies, who sleep with a wing wrapped around their child to protect them. It is incredible.

birdsquote1On dealing with the stresses that go along with animal rescue:

I and all my staff struggle with depression — it is not constant but it comes in waves. … It is a battle — but the reward on the sanctuary is seeing animals who are so terrified come to life and be the individuals they deserve to be — seeing those personalities come out that were hidden by fear — and that makes it all worthwhile. … It is hard to grieve for animals that others see as food.

Susie Coston with piglets at Farm Sanctuary

On starting a sanctuary:

Start small — and do not think that rescue is the only thing you should be doing. Education with the animals on your shelters will create many more lives saved. With 10 billion annually in the U.S. alone, rescue is not making a dent in the system. Look at sanctuary holistically — we do rescue, education and advocacy. If you fill your sanctuaries with too many animals and have no time to raise funds you cannot afford to give them the individualized attention they need — and that we are saying as an animal rights community that they deserve. Don’t feel you can do it alone either. You want to start slowly enough so that you can afford to have a staff — so you can have people who focus on various aspects. I think what I see the most in sanctuaries who sadly do not succeed or are always putting out fires is that rescues start out strong but then taking care of barns, doing healthcare, raising funds, etc., fall behind and you get in over your head.

On buying farm animals to save them:

We do not purchase animals because we do not want to put money back into the industry that we are trying to stop. There are more than enough animals to rescue and paying for them just gives money for more to be purchased. I have seen this so many times. Egg-laying facilities love to sell their birds for 1-3 dollars apiece, which seems like nothing, but they end up with pickup costs and transport often making no money from the “spent” hens or losing money so that money they make just helps them refill the barns. Buying a calf at auction is the same — it goes right back into enslaving another being. Saving one by giving money to the industry is not really rescue.

veganquoteOn the future of Farm Sanctuary and the animal protection movement:

I think we are at a tipping point — vegan and vegetarian are now in the vocabulary of most people and there are options that just ten years ago there were not. Celebs are eating these diets — gets the word out even more and social media is really allowing people to see what years ago we could not put out anywhere. We could not do ads because the meat and dairy industry would pull their ads if we did. The world is changing and I have hope that in ten years we will see a huge shift in our diets — towards more plant-based. I also think we have to see a shift in farming — which, to be sustainable without large factories, has to be a huge meat reduction.

See a glimpse into Susie’s daily life at Farm Sanctuary:

The Passing of a Prince

“Now cracks a noble heart. Good-night, sweet prince;
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”
William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Prince

By Alexandra Caswell, Acton Shelter Manager

He was typically the first resident to greet you. No matter how hot the day or how harried the Los Angeles freeway traffic, you would be hard-pressed to enter the hacienda-style gates of our Southern California Shelter without stopping to admire, photograph, and approach the ever-charming and always regal Prince.

He thoroughly enjoyed the attention, of course. One of the most outgoing and friendliest goats of his herd, Prince relished human companionship. He loved Sunday tours and was especially patient with children, standing completely still while they threw their arms around him and gently touched his floppy ears and long horns. He even let children inspect his teeth! He was an exemplary ambassador for farm animals.

Prince goat at Farm SanctuaryPrince was not only adored by visitors but also deeply loved by shelter staff. Every day he would open the gate for caregivers at feeding time (sometimes letting his herd mates out!). He knew his name and would come running when a caregiver called him, especially if they had his favorite treats (strawberries, bananas and molasses). He loved the sun and spent most of his days on his big hillside, playing and soaking in the rays. His was a blissful existence.

But recent months were hard on our friend. Prince had caprine arthritic encephalitis (CAE), an incurable retrovirus that is transmitted to newborn goats through their mother’s milk. He was diagnosed in 2013. There is no cure for CAE, but we immediately started Prince on immune-supportive supplements, and eventually pain medications, to give him a fighting chance at a longer, more comfortable life. All of his medications and supplements were hidden in his favorite treats, and he would run up to us enthusiastically when it was treatment time.

Sadly, the CAE advanced much faster than we had expected, rapidly taking its toll on Prince’s knee joints over the last year. In the end, he lost the use of his left leg, and his pain became untreatable. Wishing to spare our friend any suffering, we made the heart-wrenching decision to say goodbye.

Prince goat at Farm SanctuaryIt was only four years ago that we said hello to Prince. Police officers who pulled over a car for speeding found the two-week-old Saanen stuffed in a bag inside. Prince was seized and brought to the San Gabriel Valley Humane Society. From there we welcomed him to the shelter.

Just as that tiny young goat was gently carried in his new caregivers’ arms when he arrived, so was he surrounded and held by his caregivers as our vet gently released him through euthanasia. Prince was unafraid and left us calmly. He will be missed every day, and our very short time with him will be cherished always.

We have so many stories of caring for and befriending this sweetheart. And we know so many of you do, too. Please share your thoughts and memories of Prince in the comments below.

After all, Prince was someone, not something.

Disaster on the Highway

By Susie Coston, National Shelter Director

On the night of June 8, a semi-trailer truck crashed through a guardrail and tumbled down a ravine near Xenia, Ohio. On board the trailer were 2,200 piglets.

Between 300 and 400 of the piglets were killed on impact or so badly injured that they later had to be humanely euthanized by responders. Approximately 1,500 of the survivors were quickly captured and brought to a nearby fairground to be held until a second truck arrived the next morning to bring them to their original destination. That left an unknown number of piglets loose somewhere in the surrounding woods.

The Search

Farm Sanctuary was alerted to the accident the night it happened. National Farm Animal Placement Coordinator Alicia Pell immediately began contacting local authorities for information and to offer Farm Sanctuary’s help. She eventually learned that no one had kept an accurate count of the fatalities or of the live piglets who had been picked up by the trucking company. This meant no one knew how many piglets had disappeared into the woods. One estimate by local authorities put the number at 200.

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The Ohio Department of Natural Resources (OHDNR) took charge of the search. The trucking company had relinquished custody of any remaining piglets after it picked up those at the fairground, counting the missing ones as an economic loss. The OHDNR informed us that any survivors would be free to go to sanctuary. With that assurance, we mobilized a rescue team.

The team arrived in Ohio the second morning after the crash. Five staff members had driven from our New York Shelter with a trailer, traveling all night to arrive as soon as possible; meanwhile, Alicia and a staff member from the Southern California shelter had flown in from the L.A. area. The team spent the next two days searching in coordination with the OHDNR and a number of volunteers who showed up to help.

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After two days of searching, the rescue team had found no piglets. The search area was vast, and the forest was dense with undergrowth. Searchers could have walked within a few feet of a piglet and not seen him or her. Nonetheless, we concluded that the guess of 200 loose piglets was likely incorrect; the OHDNR estimates that there might be a dozen at most. We also concluded that the only effective way to find any survivors would be through a comprehensive search similar to the kind mobilized for human children missing in the woods, with dozens or more people combing the search area simultaneously. The authorities would not or could not launch such a search with their own manpower and would not allow such large numbers of volunteers into the area.

Considering the hopeless odds of success, our team regretfully decided to depart so that staff could return to their duties at our shelters. We have the OHDNR’s assurance that they will call us if any piglets are found, and Alicia has been in contact with the agency almost daily since the crash. There have been some reported piglet sightings but no confirmed appearances.

The Life and Death of an Industry Pig

The piglets in that overturned trailer were on their way from a nursery to a finishing farm, the penultimate stop on the short but harrowing journey of a pig raised for meat.

In the pork industry, a pig’s life begins at a breeding/gestation facility, where sows are confined in gestation crates barely larger than their bodies as they endure a grueling cycle of insemination and pregnancy. Moved to equally cramped farrowing crates just before delivery, sows give birth to litters of 8 to 20 piglets, who are immediately shifted to an adjacent pen to nurse from their mother through the bars of the crate. Practically immobilized, the sow is unable to provide the affection and care that she longs to give her piglets.

Pig factory farm investigation. Spain, 2011

After two to three weeks of nursing, the piglets are moved to a nursing barn, which may be at the same facility or at a different one. They live in this building for another four to eight weeks, denied access to the outdoors as well as bedding or anything to occupy their sharp minds. They do have a little space to move around, a small luxury soon to be revoked.

After the nursery, piglets are moved to a growing/finishing operation, which may be hundreds of miles away. Here they are kept until they are five to six months old, growing rapidly. They are allotted about eight square feet of floor space each in shared pens, and as they grow bigger, their pens become increasingly cramped. For these highly intelligent, sensitive, and social animals, the stress and monotony of intense confinement are literally maddening.

When the pigs have reached a market weight of 250 to 275 pounds, they are considered “finished” and endure another transport: to the slaughterhouse, where they have been preceded by gestation sows who are “spent” after three to five litters, who have failed to breed during their first estrous, or who have produced small litters.

Learn more about the lives of gestation sows and pig intelligence.

Accident Survivors

With the suffering of pigs and other farm animals largely hidden from view in giant industrial buildings, transport incidents are some of the very few occasions when factory farm animals are seen by the public. As dreadful as these accidents are, they have allowed us to rescue animals who would otherwise have been slaughtered within a few days or months.

Pig factory farm investigation. Spain, 2011

Among the many animals we have welcomed to our shelters in the wake of transport accidents are the 60 chickens who fell out of a transport truck headed to a Brooklyn live market this Memorial Day and the 87 chickens who survived a similar accident on the Staten Island Expressway last year.

Then there’s Jay, burned horribly when a transport truck carrying him and more than 30 other cattle to slaughter crashed into another vehicle and burst into flames.

The Toll of Transport

A Farm Sanctuary investigation of media reports between 2000 and 2006 concluded that tens of thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands) of farm animals are killed by transport accidents yearly. This estimate was based on a limited sample since not all accidents are reported in the media. No precise numbers could be found because no federal agency or industry group tracks this information.

Additionally, no federal or state agency places limits on how densely farm animals may be loaded in transport vehicles or requires any special training or certification for those who transport them. In the absence of regulations, the industry defaults to its modus operandi: more, bigger, denser, faster. Dozens or even hundreds of animals are packed onto trailers with no regard for their safety. Boxes of cereal are shipped with greater care.

The toll of these transports goes beyond roadway accidents. Under federal regulations, farm animals may be transported for up to 28 consecutive hours without being offloaded to eat and drink, and a number of loopholes can push that limit to 36 hours or beyond (the rule also excludes poultry animals, who have no legal protections at all during transport). Lacking any kind of climate control, the trailers expose their passengers to extreme heat or cold. To make matters worse, many animals begin transport already weak and sick from their months or years in production. The effects of transport listed by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) include stress, heat stroke, dehydration, bloat, trampling, suffocation, and heart failure. Even excluding accidents, transport is responsible for a significant number of industry deaths before reaching a commercial processing plant. Pig processors alone anticipate a one percent loss for each transport according to a 2009 Iowa State University study of 2 million pigs. For every truckload of 2,000 pigs shipped to slaughter, agribusinesses accept that 20 won’t survive the journey. It’s the cost of doing business.

Tragedies of Scale

The reason that hundreds of pigs died in Xenia is that there were more than 2,000 pigs in the trailer. The scale of mortality in these accidents reflects the scale of the animal agriculture industry and each of its components. Animals are raised, transported, and slaughtered by the thousands in the name of efficiency.

Ostensibly, these industry operations have become so massive in order to make use of “economies of scale,” cost advantages gleaned from exploiting animals in large numbers. Whatever economic advantages this model provides, it also guarantees tragedies of scale, from the hundreds of piglets killed in Xenia by a single transport accident to the millions of chickens purposefully suffocated to death in a single facility in Iowa this spring in attempt to stem the spread of avian influenza.

But the ultimate tragedy is not that so many suffer and die from the side effects of the system; it’s that so many suffer and die by design. Billions of animals are raised in torturous confinement and brutally slaughtered at a young age purposefully, to make money from consumers. The accident in Xenia is a mere glimpse of the staggering death toll exacted by the standard American diet and those who profit from it.

Loss and Hope

At this point, it is unlikely that any additional piglets from the accident will be found. We want to thank everyone who helped on the ground and everyone who reached out to express their support, sharing our hope and sadness for these young animals. Like the search for the Xenia piglets, the fight for farm animals can seem daunting. There’s such a large area to cover, such a dense tangle of economic and political interests to impede our progress. But in this larger effort, there are no limits on the number of people who can join and help. Friends, your hope is strong, and so are your voices. Together, we can end the larger tragedy.

Thanks to our generous supporters, we have been able to respond to so many rescues over the years and rescue and rehome thousands. If you aren’t already a member of Farm Sanctuary, won’t you consider joining so you can be part of this amazing community of compassion? A compassionate world begins with you.

The Bird is the Word

By Susie Coston, National Shelter Director

The end of spring has found us all aflutter at the New York Shelter, where we’ve welcomed more than 70 new feathered friends.

Reba and Willie
These two geese came to us from a private property in the Rochester area, where they were shut inside a small pen in a barn. In January, the property owner had obtained them from the local dog warden, who had found the geese as strays. What could have been a respite turned briefly into a nightmare for the pair: the woman is a suspected hoarder who has been reported to her local SPCA in the past. A friend of hers found out about Reba and Willie and called us, anxious to remove them from their miserable living situation. Fortunately, we were able to negotiate the release of the pair. At our shelter, they will have plenty of space to wander, graze, and swim, like all geese deserve to do.

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Willie on the left, and Reba on the right, swimming with new friends.

Ace and Ventura
Around the same time, we learned of another goose in need. Ace had been living on a property in western New York for 15 to 20 years. He had once been a member of a flock, but all of his friends had been killed by predators. The property owner’s daughter and her aunt feared Ace would be next, so the aunt reached out to us. We gladly offered Ace a safe home at our shelter.

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Ace

Geese are sensitive animals who form deep bonds with their mates and friends. Having witnessed the deaths of his companions, this poor guy was so distressed that he became neurotic and pulled out all his chest feathers. The feathers are now starting to grow back, but Ace is still frightened and has a great deal of emotional healing ahead of him. Finding him a friend to help him feel safe again has been a priority, but all of our residents are clearly paired up and bonded with other geese.

As luck would have it, however, we just welcomed another old goose to the shelter. Ventura had been living at the Humane Society of Greater Rochester’s Lollypop Farm since her caregiver passed away seven years ago. Though other geese also lived at the shelter, none would have anything to do with Ventura. Knowing how important companionship is for geese, Lollypop staff began seeking a new home where this lonely goose might be able to make friends. We offered to take her in, hoping that she and Ace could give each other the camaraderie that both needed so much. We introduced them, and they were soon smitten with each other.

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Ventura and Ace

Cricket
Cricket came to us through the intervention of Farm Sanctuary member Jillian Booth. While at a farmer’s market, Jillian came across a vendor selling chicks. One chick was having trouble walking due to deformed legs, a condition not unusual for these delicate young animals. While still in their eggs, commercially raised chicks are typically kept in incubators instead of in the care of their mothers. Any slight malfunction or error in the incubation process, or often congenital conditions, can cause deformities.

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Baby Cricket

When Jillian inquired about the struggling chick, she was told that the baby was a “dud.” The vendor acknowledged that the chick would die and professed not to care. This indifference to, and even expectation of, the death of weak or special-needs animals can be found across the spectrum of animal agriculture, from large industrial facilities to seemingly homey small operations like this farmer’s market booth.

Jillian, however, would not accept the death of this little chicken whose life had just begun. She expressed her concern and, since the chick would not have sold, the vendor simply gave the baby to her. Jillian then got in touch with Farm Sanctuary, and we welcomed Cricket to the shelter, where we are now working on correcting Cricket’s leg problems.

Like most babies, chicks need companionship and become upset when they’re left alone. Because Cricket has no mother or siblings here, caregiver Abbie Rogers has been taking this youngster home with her at night and spending time with Cricket out in her garden, where the chick is now learning to walk and explore on slowly improving legs.

Bronwyn
Bronwyn was found running loose on the streets of Brooklyn. A “broiler” type chicken, the young “peep” had likely escaped from one of the area live markets, storefront slaughterhouses where animals are killed and sold onsite. Bronwyn was caught by a teenager, and a family friend kept the peep at her apartment awaiting avian influenza test results before transport to sanctuary.

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Bronwyn

Bronwyn arrived unable to stand due to septic joints. Since broiler chickens, who grow so quickly, can have trouble recovering from leg problems, we knew we needed to act fast. We started Bronwyn on antibiotics and pain medication and began using a sling to keep this youngster from spending too much time on the ground. To our relief, Bronwyn did recover and is doing much better now, running around with a pure zest for life.

Baby Turkeys
Over the years, many a group of baby turkeys has been left on our doorstep, saved from the factory farming industry by some anonymous rescuer. It happened again this spring, and when our live-in caregivers saw a light come on at our Rescue Barn, they discovered a box of eleven baby turkeys there.

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The baby turkeys safe and sound.

Like the others we’ve welcomed, these babies had suffered de-beaking, an industry procedure in which the sensitive upper beak tip is amputated in order to curb fighting among stressed birds in overcrowded industrial facilities. Also like others rescued from the often filthy conditions of turkey factories, these three- to six-week-old newcomers were dirty, and some were sneezing. Already, however, they are feeling better — and ready to overrun the shelter!

Transport Accident Survivors
Our biggest wave of newcomers this season consisted of 60 chickens rescued by New York City Animal Care and Control (AC&C). Fifty-nine of these birds, colored “broiler” chickens likely raised at a farm in Pennsylvania or upstate New York, were headed to a city live market when the crates in which they were packed fell off the back of a transport truck. Such accidents are common since farm animals are transported with less care than is typically afforded to boxes of cereal. Last year, we rescued 87 chickens from a similar incident. Just as we arrived at the AC&C facility to pick up these accident survivors, someone dropped off a male industrial broiler chicken who likely escaped from a city live market.

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Sassy McCoy received treatment at our Melrose Small Animal Hospital.

Busy Days
With all these arrivals, our staff has been working hard to treat and rehabilitate newcomers while also continuing to provide individualized care to our incumbent residents and keep all shelter operations running smoothly. The work of rescue and sheltering is unpredictable, characterized by sudden, unexpected surges of activity. It demands a great deal from our staff, but no matter what, they rise to the challenge.

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Each animal receives individual care at Farm Sanctuary.

To complicate matters this spring, all the incoming birds who had not been tested for avian influenza (AI) prior to arrival had to be kept under strict quarantine. As we’ve reported, an epidemic of high-pathogenic avian influenza has swept through portions of the western and midwestern U.S. in recent months. Though no outbreaks have yet occurred in the eastern U.S., we’re taking every precaution to keep the birds here safe from this devastating disease. That means comprehensive isolation of untested new birds, with staff donning special iso gear and using foot baths whenever passing between these populations and the rest of the shelter. Though they make providing care more arduous, these measures are worth it to guard the safety of our residents. Thankfully, the majority of incoming individuals and groups have now tested negative for AI. We are still awaiting results from the group of 60 from New York City.

The transport accident that brought us those 60 chickens occurred on the Thursday before Memorial Day, and we spent the holiday weekend checking each chicken from head to toe; administering antibiotics and pain medications; cleaning, debriding, treating, and wrapping wounds; and stabilizing fractures. Some birds required trips to Cornell University Hospital for Animals, including three who received surgery: Rosalie Lightening, who needed her fractured femur repaired, and Memphis Belle and Sassy McCoy, who each had a wing so badly damaged it had to be amputated. All three surgery patients are recovering nicely in our Melrose Small Animal Hospital and quickly warming up to their human caregivers. Several other chickens have smashed and broken toes, some of which may need to be amputated as well. For flock members with wounds, fractures, and other ailments, daily checks and treatments are ongoing.

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Shelter staff in iso gear providing wraps and treatment to rescued chickens.

Despite their injuries and the fear that lingers from their harsh early lives, these chickens are beginning to settle in. They are happy birds and take such comfort in each other’s companionship. After so much stress and uncertainty, they are finally safe to enjoy friendship, rest, and the outdoors — probably for the very first time in their lives. In place of the slaughter that awaited them, they are now on the cusp of a spectacular summer.

Common Plight
Most of the birds we rescued this spring faced misery and the threat of death. Whether these hardships beset them at a private residence, at a farmer’s market, on a factory farm, or during transport, these birds were imperiled by a pervasive view of farm animals as objects for use rather than individuals worthy of protection.

The prevalence of this misconception is a necessary condition for the existence of the animal-agriculture industry. As the diverse backgrounds of our rescued animals illustrate, however, the consequences of this attitude play out not only in the crowded production facility or on the slaughterhouse kill floor but also throughout our society — downtown, down the street, next door. As long as animals are exploited for the food we eat, the suffering they endure will always hit close to home .

Cincinnati Freedom: The Legendary Slaughterhouse Escape Artist

“Escaped Cow Still on the Loose!”; “The World’s Fastest Cow!”; “Cow Becomes Local Hero!”; “Cow to Get Key to the City!” These are just a few of the news headlines that a snow white Charolais cow inspired in 2002 when she took a courageous leap of faith, cleared a 6-foot-high fence at a Cincinnati, Ohio slaughterhouse, and engaged citizens in a dramatic 11-day chase that gained national attention and still has people talking today.

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As she resisted capture time and again, staying hidden in a park where she foraged and rested when she could, the courageous cow demonstrated an unbendable will, and her tremendous fight for survival resonated with the public. By the time of her capture, she had won the hearts of so many that calls for mercy poured into the city from all over the country. In the end, it was a plea from renowned artist Peter Max that brought the brave bovine safely to our New York Shelter, where she was named Cincinnati Freedom and given the liberty she always deserved.

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Though one of our most elusive residents, choosing the company of cattle over people, Cinci nonetheless received countless visitors through the years, each one eager to catch a glimpse of the valiant cow they followed in the news. While sanctuary guests were unable to touch her, everyone who saw her was affected by Cinci all the same, as even her posture and gaze spoke of the intense life force burning within her and an acute awareness of the special place she inhabited in the world. Most were awed in Cinci’s presence, as she was a living testament to the desire for life we — human or animal — all share.

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Cinci’s effect on members of the cattle herd was equally profound. Forming a natural bond with other famous slaughterhouse escapees who came to the shelter before and after her (including Queenie, Annie Dodge, and Maxine), Cinci traveled with her strong, faithful female companions as an inseparable unit — the members of which moved gracefully and intuitively together as if all were of one body and one mind. But her spirit breathed life into the entire cattle herd, as well. While Cinci preferred that we humans keep a respectful distance, she connected with every cow and steer, treating each of them with the utmost tenderness and love.

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Cinci with Molly and Cocoa.

The adoration and devotion the herd felt for Cinci in return was never more apparent than when she, after six years of living among dear friends at the sanctuary, suddenly lost use of her back legs and became immobile. As we anxiously awaited results of veterinary diagnostics, Cinci’s friends, Maxine and Robin, stayed by her side – and remained there constantly through that first difficult night. The next morning, we received the tragic news that Cinci had spinal cancer, a terminal illness that often progresses quickly in cattle and only becomes apparent when the size of the tumor increases and causes sudden pressure on the animal’s spine. With heavy hearts, we also learned that this cancer could not be kept at bay.

When it came time to say goodbye to Cinci, the herd gathered close around her. One of the eldest steers, Kevin, stepped forward to lick her face, while Iris, an older female, licked her back, soothing and keeping her calm up until she took her final breath. After our beautiful girl passed, every member of the herd approached to say goodbye, each one sharing with Cinci one last moment of affection. Though heartbreaking, the herd’s mourning ritual was also beautiful and comforting, as there was no doubt that Cinci not only lived, but also died knowing that she was cherished by all.

Cinci Freedom

The brilliant light that radiated from Cinci burned out too soon, leaving a void that won’t be easily filled. Though it is difficult to reconcile the loss of one who lived so passionately, we are heartened by the lessons she taught all of us while she was alive. Most of all, we are grateful for the life Cinci led when courage and compassion set her free, allowing her not only to live, but to love with all her heart and be loved so fully in return.

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6 Awww-Inspiring Ways Farm-Animal Moms Show Affection for Their Babies

By Susie Coston, National Shelter Director

sponsor a momMost people take for granted the similarity between animal mothers and their human counterparts. Farm Sanctuary recognizes the importance of the maternal bond and has for decades afforded dozens of farm-animal mothers with the unique opportunity to care for their babies for the first time in their lives. Here are some of my favorite family-bonding tales from our shelters.

1) Pigs

Mother pigs raised in sanctuary remain with their children for their lifetime and continue the same maternal care even when their adult offspring have grown up. These moms are known for making large nest like beds for sleeping, protecting them from danger and enduring respect and love from their babies even as they age.

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Portia, Nikki, Chuck, Honey, and Ellen.

Examples from our shelters: Nikki still to this day makes straw nests for her offspring. Her babies, some the same size as her and her son about 200 pounds larger, nestle as close as they can to their mother. On occasions when Nikki has had to leave for medical treatments, she can look forward to a welcome-home celebration from her daughters, who run around her and playfully bump her while barking to express joy.

2) Cows

A sanctuary setting affords cows a unique opportunity to form deep bonds with their children. They are allowed to nurse their calves for as long as they wish – even when they are larger than their mother! We witness this beautiful psychological bond between mother and child daily within the herd of families who arrived together. Babies, even as adults, stay close to mom for protection, but as they grow and age, this bond deepens in the form of companionship. Mother cows groom their calves for hours and as they reach adulthood spend hours grooming each other. They too form lifelong bonds even within a larger herd structure.

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Nutmeg with his mom, Betsy.

Examples from our shelters: Honey and Betsy were both very sweet and docile when they first arrived, but with the birth of Betsy’s son Nutmeg, both girls became a little sassy, running caregivers out of the pasture in the evening when they would call the cattle in for the night.

And I’ll never forget our 2004 rescue of a herd of 26 starving, pregnant cows. The friendliest mother actually turned on me shortly after her calf was born when we attempted to snap a photo. I was left with a black eye and crushed equipment!

3) Chickens

Chickens make amazing mothers and although we do not allow breeding at our sanctuaries we have had mothers arrive with babies. Mother hens are so protective of their children that you often cannot see the chicks when you first arrive in the barn. Moms puff up and hide their babies beneath them to ensure that not one single chick is taken from their brood. Even as their children grow, mothers shield them under their wings at night safeguarding them from harm. Chicks cannot get wet and mothers cover them in the rain.

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June and her peeps.

Mother chickens have such incredible maternal instincts that they will look out for or even take on the children of other mothers when duty calls. We have seen this in cases where multiple mothers come in with chicks of varying ages and sizes that are clearly not all from the same clutch. They often take them on and nurture them like they would their own children.

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June and her babies.

Examples from our shelters: At a farm where I was visiting years ago to pick up birds I saw a mother hen run straight at a large cat who was stalking her babies. The cat thankfully ran off as mom made contact and lots of noise. They will sacrifice themselves to protect their offspring.

Here, we have witnessed mother hens vocalize to their babies as soon as they spot an aerial predator. They’ve even sounded the alarm on pigeons flying too low over the farm. In response, babies run directly to mother hen for cover.

And we witnessed our own example of hens hiding chicks when we took in chickens from a cockfighting ring that included breeding mothers and chicks. We had to pick up the mothers to ensure their chicks were accounted for (and get pecked at by their moms). One mother would not let us near her when the babies were under her and was so upset we used food to coax her to at least stand so we could count if there were more than two feet beneath her.

4) Sheep

Sheep mothers have a specific language they only use with their children, a deep guttural call that tells them to come back quickly or to beware of intruders. The call they make is very distinct and their lamb in a sea of lambs can recognize the voice of his or her mother. Curious lambs cause moms to go into a panic and they are often seen running through the pastures literally screaming for their babies until they find them. The lambs too have distinct calls and whenever they talk mom quickly responds. Sheep are flock animals and are very family-oriented and stay with their families – moms, dads, and siblings for life when allowed to in a sanctuary setting.

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Tracey and Louise with their lambs Hazelton, Reubie, and Summer.

Examples from our shelters: When Louise was giving birth, her mother Tracey – who gave birth to Hazelton ten days prior – was separated from her so that she could have privacy with her new lamb. Still, Louise talked to Tracey the entire time she was in labor and Tracey called back to her. We put them together within a few days since they seemed too stressed. Louise was also producing limited milk but had twins, and Tracey allowed them to nurse from her.

5) Goats

Goats are super moms and have amazing lifelong relationships with their kids in the sanctuary setting. We have groups of goats who still sleep side by side – even wrapping their necks around each other – with their now full-grown kids. Left to their own devices they will stay with them for life. Goats also recognize their offspring and family even after periods of separation.

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Lizzie, Zuzu, Otto, Goodwin, and Marjorie.

Examples from our shelters: We have taken in rescued goats that were split up from goats who went to other sanctuaries and homes —and in a few cases they have come back to us— and immediately reconnect with their original family members even within a larger herd. We also had a goat named Juno whose baby crawled under a fence and ended up in a pig area and then panicked when he could not get back with mom. The fence was too tall for her to go over and she could not fit under so she threw herself over and over into the fence trying to get to him. We heard her panicked screams and came down to put them together, and her son Sebastian immediately started nursing. She would have done anything to get to him.

We also have a goat named Lizzie, who is elderly and has horrible arthritis. She requires regular treatments and her sons, ZuZu and Otto, go along with her. The three still sleep together. Her sons are much larger than her now, but forever loyal to mom.

6) Ducks & Geese

Ducks and geese moms are fiercely protective of their hatchlings as well and will chase away larger waterfowl and anyone who attempts to come near their children. They make elaborate feathered nests to lay their eggs. That said, our ducks are not allowed to breed.

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Examples from our shelters: We count our birds each night, and so you can imagine our concern when we realized we had a female duck who disappeared. We looked everywhere and could not find her. We feared she’d gotten out or, worse, was killed by a fox or other predator. Then one day – a month after our failed search – she popped out of a muskrat hole in the pond and behind her were six tiny ducklings. It took us hours to catch her; we waited for her to exit the pond and bring the family into the barn. She hissed and ran at other ducks and geese in the flock. When we finally got her to settle down, we were able to whisk her and her ducklings off to our health-care area where they could be safe from harm. And of course, mom kept the little ones hidden beneath her wings.

What You Need to Know about Avian Flu

By Susie Coston, National Shelter Director

Three states — Minnesota, Wisconsin and now Iowa– have proclaimed a state of emergency, with millions of commercial birds believed to be infected by avian influenza. The death count is multiplying by the day and it’s estimated we’ll see 20 million birds destroyed overall as a result of the worst bird flu outbreak to strike the U.S. since the 1980s. Here’s what you need to know about this disease.

Chickens raised for slaughter

What is avian influenza?
Avian influenza (AI), or bird flu, refers to a number of viruses that infect birds. The viruses are classified as either low pathogenicity (LPAI), which causes a relatively mild illness, or high pathogenicity (HPAI), and results in severe illness.

Beginning in December 2014, HPAI was found in ducks in the Pacific Northwest, marking the first time in years that it had been detected in the U.S. Since then, multiple HPAI strains have infected flocks of domestic birds in multiple states. Strains H5N8 and H5N1 infected flocks on the West Coast, where the disease now appears to be dying down somewhat due to hot, dry conditions. Strain H5N2 is currently raging through the Midwest and making its way east.

The CDC reports that the strains of AI currently active in the U.S. pose a very low risk to humans. Among birds, however, they are highly contagious and in most cases fatal.

Where has AI spread?

Note

Note: Detected refers to non-commercial findings. Estimates as of May 1, 2015.

As NPR reports, Minnesota has been hit hardest, with close to 50 flocks affected, but the disease has struck many other states as well.

Wherever the virus is found, USDA and state officials kill the entire flock in order to contain the disease. The standard culling method is to fill the housing buildings with a water-based foam that suffocates the birds to death.

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) designates this method as an appropriate means of “mass depopulation,” defined as “methods by which large numbers of animals must be destroyed quickly and efficiently with as much consideration given to the welfare of the animals as practicable, but where the circumstances and tasks facing those doing the depopulation are understood to be extenuating.” This endorsement tells you much less about the type of death delivered by the foam — which is undoubtedly horrid — than it does about the abysmal standards of welfare that pass as acceptable in an industry predicated on mass confinement and slaughter. By raising birds in groups of tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, or millions, producers create conditions in which humane euthanasia, or humane treatment of any sort for that matter, is impossible. The circumstances are “extenuating” by design.

In the U.S., more than 15.1 million domestic birds have been killed due to AI detections since the beginning of March 2015. Here’s a state-by-state breakdown of reported detections and cullings:

Minnesota: As of April 27, the virus has been detected in at least 46 turkey farms, and at least 2.7 million turkeys have been killed. The virus also has been detected in a facility raising chickens for meat and a laying hen facility, resulting in a total of over 500,000 chickens in Minnesota being killed. Additionally 150 turkeys belonging to a backyard flock were killed.

Iowa: There have been eight detections resulting in a total of almost 10 million deaths. At two turkey farms, a total of 61,000 turkeys were killed. At each of two egg facilities, 3.8 million hens were killed, and at another three egg facilities and a pullet farm a total of 2.3 million chickens were killed.

Wisconsin: There have been eight detections. At two egg facilities, a total of 980,000 chickens were killed. At five turkey facilities, 467,500 turkeys were killed. In a backyard flock, 40 mixed-breed chickens were killed.

South Dakota: AI was detected at six turkey farms, and 285,000 turkeys were killed.

North Dakota: AI was detected at two turkey farms. At the two facilities, 109,000 turkeys were killed. An additional 2,000 chickens also were killed at one of the facilities.

Arkansas: AI was detected at one turkey farm, where 40,000 turkeys were killed.

Missouri: AI was detected at two turkey farms, where 52,000 turkeys were killed.

Kansas: A low pathogenic strain of AI was detected in a commercial poultry facility in Kansas. The species and total number of birds affected were not released. An unknown number of ducks and chickens in a backyard flock also were killed.

California: There have been five detections including two wild ducks. At two turkey farms, 206,000 turkeys were killed (at one of these facilities, only a low-pathogenicity strain was found; nonetheless all of the facilities’ turkeys were killed). At one “broiler” chicken and duck facility, 114,000 birds were killed.

In addition to the states listed above, AI has been detected in the following states in wild migratory waterfowl, captive wild birds (such as falcons), and/or backyard flocks:

Idaho
Kansas
Montana
Nevada
New Mexico
Oregon
Utah
Washington
Wyoming

AI has also been found in Ontario and in British Columbia, where it was first detected in December 2014, before we were tracking the spread of the disease. The total number of birds affected at turkey and chicken facilities in British Columbia is reported to have been 250,000. In Ontario, the virus has been found in two turkey facilities and one facility raising chickens for meat with a total of 52,800 turkeys killed and 27,000 chickens killed.

Please check our Farm Animal Adoption Network (FAAN) Facebook page for updates. We continue to track new outbreaks. The disease is still spreading. This is an epidemic.

How has AI spread?
AI is spread in two ways: 1) directly from bird to bird, and 2) through contact with the manure of an infected bird. AI can be spread by equipment, vehicles, clothing, and other materials that have come into contact with the manure of infected birds. This includes, for instance, the shoes of someone who has walked by a lake where infected ducks have left droppings. (Additionally, some researchers have speculated that strong winds blowing infected debris into animal housing may have contributed to the broad reach of HPAI in Minnesota; however, biosecurity failures are still believed to be the primary cause of the Minnesota outbreak.)

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The spread of the virus has been linked to wild migratory birds, especially ducks and geese. Typically asymptomatic, these birds are able to carry the disease from area to area and shed it in their droppings. In domestic birds, especially turkeys, HPAI induces a ghastly and highly lethal disease.

Why have so many birds died?
While the migrations of wild birds help account for the broad geographical reach of this epidemic, it is industrial farming practices that account for the staggering mortality. The reason 3.8 million birds fell victim to AI in a single Iowa facility is because there were 3.8 million birds in a single facility.

Keeping large numbers of animals together, especially in the intensely crowded conditions characteristic of factory farms, leaves those animals highly vulnerable to disease. (In fact, these conditions may even create breeding grounds for new strains of diseases. Learn more about factory farming and disease.)

Battery Cages

Ironically, factory farm proponents have long cited biosecurity as a justification for keeping large numbers of animals confined in buildings with no outdoor access. As we’ve seen in this epidemic, biosecurity at these facilities is failing, and the confinement practices that ostensibly enable tight biosecurity are instead dooming millions of birds to disease and culling.

What is Farm Sanctuary doing to protect its shelter birds?
California
When HPAI appeared in California, we took immediate action to protect the birds at our shelters in Orland and Acton. We suspended visitor access to bird areas and instituted a “no birds in, no birds out” policy at both shelters. This means, unfortunately, that we cannot perform any bird rescues involving these locations while the HPAI risk remains high.

We have isolated our shelter birds from contaminants using tight-weave shade tarps, which keep wild fowl out of our bird areas and also prevent their feces from dropping into those areas as they fly over. We have also had to close off our ponds to the birds — ponds are the areas that pose the greatest risk of infection from wild waterfowl, who often land on open water to swim and eat.

All staff members at these shelters must now don special ISO gear and use foot baths when entering any bird area, and they are advised to change into different shoes upon entering the shelter in general from the outside, as an extra precaution. Additionally, all staff members are trained to identify signs of disease, both in our resident birds and in any wild birds in the area.

New York
As yet there have been no reported cases of HPAI east of Wisconsin, but it has reportedly been found in wild birds and/or backyard flocks. That said, the disease could spread further as waterfowl continue their spring migrations. We are following the movement of the disease closely and remain in constant contact with our vets. Currently, we are working with our avian vet at Cornell to review and update our AI protocols.

The Watkins Glen shelter has a large population of chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese belonging to many distinct flocks that must be kept separate. Implementing the strict biosecurity measures necessary to protect them all from AI would be a massive effort. We want to allow the birds to have a semblance of the life they enjoy at our sanctuaries while still being safe from this disease.

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We are dedicated to maintaining the strictest biosecurity at all of our shelters in the path of HPAI. These measures are crucial not only to safeguard our birds from disease but also to avoid giving the USDA any grounds for demanding that our shelter birds be culled if the epidemic continues to spread, worsen, or spread to other species.

Farmers have a strong economic incentive to protect their flocks, but for us this is personal. We know each turkey, each chicken, each duck, and each goose at our shelters as an individual with a name and a personality. They are our friends. The millions of deaths resulting from HPAI, like the billions of deaths resulting from the consumption of meat and eggs each year, are catastrophic. But HPAI also represents a catastrophe for each individual bird: the ultimate devastation of losing one’s life. To us, the cause of each bird in our care is urgent and worthy of our very best efforts.

What Can I Do to Protect My Birds from AI?
We’ll say it again: This is an epidemic. Proper biosecurity is crucial for the protection of your own backyard flock and the birds in your area. If you care for any birds such as turkeys, chickens, ducks, or geese, please stay updated on the spread of the disease and be prepared to implement quarantine measures if it nears your area. You can check our FAAN Facebook page for the latest on AI outbreaks.

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Read more on AI from the USDA.

* According to the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), birds infected with AI may exhibit one or more of the following symptoms:

  • sudden death without clinical signs
  • lack of energy and appetite
  • decreased egg production
  • soft-shelled or misshapen eggs
  • swelling of the head, eyelids, comb, wattles, and hocks
  • purple discoloration of wattles, combs, and legs
  • nasal discharge
  • coughing and sneezing
  • lack of coordination
  • diarrhea

How can I help?

Donate now-blogWe’ve already incurred costs from securing our California shelters against avian influenza. If the disease nears our New York Shelter, the expense of protecting our birds there will be much greater. With your help, we can keep them safe. Please donate now.

The Indomitable Gloria

By Susie Coston, National Shelter Director

The Indomitable Gloria

At Farm Sanctuary, we strive to help people understand that every animal is a unique individual. In Gloria’s case, “unique individual” was an understatement.

Gloria was a goat who thought she was a human. She was as joyful as a kid and as cantankerous as an old fogie. She played gleefully with friends but always kept them in their place. She possessed eccentric insecurities and uncommon strength of spirit. It’s been almost a year since Gloria passed away, but we’re still celebrating her life at the shelter.

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Trouble at the Racetrack

For the first eight years of her life, Gloria was kept tied up at a horseracing track outside Chicago. Such facilities sometimes keep goats in the belief that their presence calms high-strung racehorses. The goats are seen merely as tools to enhance the performance of their equine companions, and their own needs are often egregiously neglected.

Eventually, Gloria came to the attention of animal advocate Carrie Gobernatz. Carrie had been working to aid the many feral and stray cats, as well as dogs, chickens, geese, and other abandoned animals, struggling to survive on the racetrack’s backside. One day, Carrie came across Gloria in one of the barns. Gloria was tied up on a rope so short she couldn’t lie down, and she had no food or water. Her udders were huge and had sores on them. She clearly needed immediate veterinary attention.

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“I was very angry,” recalls Carrie. “To think that vets walked right by her every day to care for the many horses in this barn owned by a very wealthy racehorse owner made me sick.” Carrie immediately lengthened Gloria’s tether, set down straw bedding for her, and brought her fresh food and water. The next day, she confronted Gloria’s “owner” about his neglect. He refused to relinquish Gloria, but Carrie persisted, finding a vet and getting an estimate on treatment for the udders. When the quote of $500 for veterinary care came back, the “owner” changed his tune and agreed to hand Gloria over to Carrie.

Carrie contacted Farm Sanctuary, and we immediately sent a rescue team from our New York Shelter in Watkins Glen. “I was so happy for Gloria, and right before she got on the van to leave, I took that last photo of her with me,” says Carrie, who continued to visit the racetrack daily to help the animals there. After seven years of feeding, spay/neuter work, adoption projects, media outreach, and campaigning, not to mention being kicked off the racetrack more than once, Carrie finally succeeded in getting the racetrack owner to take responsibility for the suffering animals on the backside. The racetrack recently held its first fundraiser for its resident stray and feral cats.

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Photo credit: Jo-Ann McArthur

 

Operation Second Chance

When Farm Sanctuary’s rescue team came for Gloria, we found her in rough shape. Her face and ears had been rubbed bald, and her hooves were long and brittle. The most obvious sign of neglect was the condition of her udders, which dragged on the ground and tripped her whenever she tried to take even a single step. The world she had known for eight years had been cramped, monotonous, and unhealthy. But hope had arrived.

Donate now-blogAt Cornell University Hospital for Animals, a team of vets performed a mastectomy, removing the 19-pound udders from Gloria’s 126-pound body. She recovered well from the operation, and the next day she was able to return to the Rescue and Rehabilitation Center of our New York Shelter. Gloria must have felt like she had acquired not only a new home but also a whole new body. For the first time in years, she could walk without tripping over her own udders. And for the first time in her life, she could walk wherever she wanted.

Gloria’s friend Carrie was among those celebrating her transformation. “I loved the Youtube video you did of Gloria’s rescue and was terribly happy to see her living like a goat should,” she says.

The Humanga

Gloria had been confined and neglected for her whole life, but she was strong. Far from breaking her spirit, the hardship at the racetrack had made her tough and sassy. And she was ready to really live at last. She quickly went from walking to running, bucking, and playing. She loved to play and roughhouse with her human companions, standing up for a head-butting session or bumping her head into a leg only to hold it there.

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One thing she definitely did not want was to be around other goats. In fact, she was scared of them. Each time we tried to leave her with other goats, she cried out as if to say, “There’s been a mistake! I’m a human, not a goat!” We nicknamed her “Humanga,” because she was part human, part goat. When she was with people, she wasn’t scared of anything.

We eventually moved Gloria into a pen in the goat barn, so she could see the other goats but didn’t have to live among them yet. We left her door open, so she could roam the shelter. The open space daunted her at first, but soon she realized that the shelter was her playground. Then there was no stopping her. She made a point to visit the farm assistants and stir up trouble while they were trying to clean the barns. We’d get calls over the radio requesting that the Humanga be escorted somewhere less disruptive. She was very special to everyone she knew — a favorite of our caregivers and farm assistants as well as our many visitors — for her unique and powerful personality.

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While Gloria kept residence in her private pen in the sheep barn, two little goats named Jake and Peanut started squeezing under the gate to visit her. Perhaps because they were so young and so small, Gloria didn’t seem to mind. In fact, she grew fond of them.

She also developed a soft spot for the elderly and eventually joined a herd of geriatric goat ladies — at the age of ten, she fit right in. They became her family, and she adored them, forming especially close friendships first with Juniper and, after Juniper passed away, with Dotty.

A Very Good Run

During Gloria’s initial visits to the hospital after her rescue, vets had not only removed her udders but also diagnosed her with uterine cancer. They removed the uterus as well, but the cancer had already metastasized. Treatment would not have eliminated the cancer and would likely have decreased the length and quality of Gloria’s life. We decided instead to just let her live and have has much happiness as she could.

The cancer spread very slowly, leaving Gloria several years to do just that. And they were good years. Gloria had fun. She made friends. She made a home. The self that had endured quietly within her during the years of her confinement — the Humanga, the lovable, indomitable force — came out to play. And she played until her very last day. Gloria was indeed someone, not something.

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Three Piglets, a Thousand Miles, and a New Chapter

By Susie Coston, National Shelter Director

This is the story of Gabby, Xena, and Hercules, three little piglets who escaped the fate of one hundred million pigs slaughtered annually. They additionally escaped the lot of other pigs who are more intensely confined for breeding each year.

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Gabby, Xena, and Hercules’ collective story could have followed the typical course. That version goes like this: Three piglets and their two siblings were born on a ranch. At the ranch — as at any facility, large or small, where animals are raised for meat, milk, eggs, or fibers — the animals were valued only in terms of the profits they would yield, and individualized healthcare wasn’t offered. Thus, when it happened that the piglets’ mother “dried up” and was unable to nurse them, the rancher did nothing to help. Keeping the piglets alive would have cost more time and money than he felt they were worth. All five piglets died of starvation. Versions of this story unfold at farms and ranches and industrial pork facilities all over the country, all the time. But that’s not how this story goes.

Instead, the piglets’ plight was discovered by a woman named Darci Feigel, who worked hard for three weeks attempting to nurse the five of them back to health. Sadly, two of the piglets were too far gone and, despite Darci’s best efforts, they passed away. The remaining three, however, rallied. These little piglets now had a chance to live and a caring rescuer on their side.

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Darci knew she wouldn’t have space for three grown farm pigs at her small sanctuary. Searching for a permanent home, she got in touch with Farm Sanctuary. Though we didn’t have room for any new pigs at our own shelters, we were able to find placement through our network. Pasado’s Safe Haven in Monroe, WA, offered lifelong sanctuary to all three piglets.

We’ve transported many pigs over our years of rescue work (and seem to be on a roll), so we knew just what to do to help these piglets along. We guided Darci through the process of obtaining Certificates of Veterinary Inspection, which are necessary for transporting pigs across state lines. When the piglets were ready to go, National Placement Coordinator Alicia Pell drove up from our shelter in Acton, CA, to chauffeur the VIPs north to Pasado’s.

After picking up the trio from Darci, Alicia traveled on to our shelter in Orland, CA, where she and her passengers spent the night. The next day, she drove the 12 hours to Pasado’s, where Gabby, Xena, and Hercules were unloaded into their own room at the shelter’s Healing Center.

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On the way, Alicia got to know this trio a little. Xena is somewhat timid and shy. Hercules, the biggest, and the only boy, was a little bossy with his sisters when it came to sharing the solid food they received in addition to their bottles. Gabby, the smallest of the three, is a feisty and hungry gal. During bottle feedings, she demanded to be fed first.

These are just the first sketches of the rich personalities and complex relationships these pigs will grow into as they establish themselves in their new home. They have so much living and discovering ahead.

The story of these three piglets could have ended abruptly and painfully on a California ranch, extinguished as a rancher with only the bottom line on his mind ignored their dwindling lives. Instead their story stretched all the way up the coast, bringing together a string of rescuers, creating new connections and enriching old ones. Now there will be so much more to their stories, so many more experiences and much more time to enjoy them.

The story of Gabby, Xena, and Hercules is just beginning. We’re a part of it, and so are Darci, and Pasado’s Safe Haven, and all the people who will meet these pigs there. And you.

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Farm Sanctuary runs the largest rescue and refuge network in North America. It is a network of caregivers and physical resources that connects animals with help and homes. And it is also a network of concern — of witness — that connects their journey with thousands of readers. Through this community of rescuers, adopters, and supporters, we give new life not only to their animals but also to their stories, which have the power to help so many more. You are part of this network. You help us give life to these stories. Please pass them on.

Twilight of the Flock

By Susie Coston, National Shelter Director

The “Santa Cruz sheep” of our Northern California Shelter belong to a lineage that was once at home on California’s Santa Cruz Island, roaming its hills and valleys 24,000 sheep strong. Today, there are no sheep on the island. Aside from a small population raised by mainland heritage breeders, the flock members at our shelter are probably the last surviving descendents of the island sheep.

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Island Dawn

Sheep arrived on Santa Cruz Island in the 1800s, brought by ranchers. As the island’s ranching industry waxed and waned over the ensuing decades, escaped and abandoned sheep formed a feral population, which evolved into a tough, independent new breed.

By the 1980s, sheep ranching had declined substantially on Santa Cruz Island. One remaining ranching family, the Gherinis, retained 10 percent ownership of the island. The other 90 percent had been acquired in 1978 by the Nature Conservancy (TNC). Regarding the feral sheep as an invasive species, the Conservancy began a program of eradication.

Dark Days

TNC’s violent campaign included funding aerial shootings of the sheep and shipping groups to the mainland for slaughter. In 1984, the Gherinis opted to make a profit out of killing the sheep as well. They leased their remaining ranch lands to an “adventure” club, whose members hunted the sheep still living in the area.

In 1997, as they prepared to sell their land on the island, the Gherinis decided to kill off all the remaining sheep there. TNC and the National Park Service (NPS) agreed to help by organizing a hunt. It looked like the end for the Santa Cruz sheep, who had survived on their own, and weathered the lethal harassment of their human neighbors, for at least 70 years.

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Refuge on the Mainland

Friends on the mainland, however, were ready to put up a fight. When TNC and NPS announced they were going to kill the sheep, the local humane agency and area citizens joined with Farm Sanctuary to stop the cruel hunt. We offered to take hundreds of the animals and launch a national rescue and adoption effort to place as many sheep as possible into safe, loving homes. After immense public pressure and media attention, the Gherini family agreed to release 200 of the sheep to Farm Sanctuary, and we welcomed this flock to our shelter in Orland, CA.

That was 18 years ago, and they have been good years for these sheep. Most remained stalwartly independent and wary of humans, and we left them to enjoy their pasture largely undisturbed, intervening only when they needed us. During the dry season, when grazing was sparse, we provided hay. When a sheep was sick or injured, we gave them care, and as the flock became older and more vulnerable to predators, we began shepherding them in from the hills at night. Some of the bolder sheep, and the few who arrived as lambs, became friendly with us. For the most part, however, they continued life much as they had on the island, roving our stunning hill pastures everyday. Only, here they were safe from persecution.

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Old Age

The hardy Santa Cruz sheep remained strong and healthy for many years. Eventually, however, those years caught up to them. We have now lost most of the flock to old age. As we mourn these departed members of our shelter family, and with them the gradual ending of an era, we are also doing more than ever for the surviving flock mates, who now require geriatric care.

We monitor these venerable sheep closely, with an eye to maintaining their comfort and mobility. Most of them are blind and experience mild to severe arthritis; about a third of the flock receives pain medication. Many have few to no teeth left, and we give these sheep a special mash of soaked feed that’s easy for them to eat. Because the Santa Cruz sheep remain essentially feral, they must be treated differently from our domestic sheep, who are inured to human interaction (and in many cases quite enjoy it). In order to minimize our time spent handling them, and thus minimize their stress, we administer their care very efficiently.

The Santa Cruz sheep live together in a special-needs pasture, where we can easily visit them for care. Despite their infirmities, most still prefer to spend all day outside. When nighttime temperatures drop too low, we bring them into the barn to keep them safe from exposure.

Flock Strong

When the flock has slept in the barn at night, it’s always Karana who leads the charge back out to pasture the next morning. The last of the female sheep rescued from the island, Karana is an important figure in the herd. She has arthritis in her shoulders, for which she receives daily pain medication, but that doesn’t slow her down or prevent her from making sure the guys know who’s in charge. She’s also a comforting influence in the group. In stressful situations, many of the others will flock to her for reassurance.
Another flock leader is Riccardo, the most active of the group. He is one of the few who shows little sign of arthritis. He has his teeth, and his sight remains normal. When it’s time for health checks, he still has plenty of vigor to give caregivers the runaround, dashing and jumping out of their grasp. With his flock mates, meanwhile, he is something of a caregiver himself: The blind sheep will call out if they get separated from the flock, and it is always Riccardo who calls back to help them find their friends again.

Keeping the Light

Today, 15 Santa Cruz sheep remain at the shelter. Sheep are considered old around 12 years of age, but these sheep are all at least 18, making them some of the oldest sheep we have ever heard of. They have spent all their lives in the sunshine and fresh air, with the earth beneath their hooves and the smell of grass in their nostrils, heeding their instincts, finding comfort and strength in their flock. They have lived as they wished, experiencing the full arc of life. And now, as they come to the end of that arc, they have us to keep their final days contented, peaceful, and full of dignity. It is a privilege.

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