North Carolina’s ag-gag law is an affront to human decency

By Gene Baur, Farm Sanctuary President & Co-Founder


In 1986, while investigating Lancaster Stockyards in Pennsylvania, I found a living sheep collapsed among the carcasses of the stockyard’s “dead pile.” She was a “downer,” an animal too sick or weak to stand, and she had been left there to die. She was the first animal rescued by Farm Sanctuary, then a fledgling advocacy organization. We named her Hilda, and we shared her story, illustrated by a photograph of her lying on that dead pile.

Hilda inspired us to intensify our investigations of Lancaster Stockyards, where we discovered that the mistreatment and neglect of downers was business as usual. We organized a protest, which garnered media attention and exposed the stockyard’s disregard for animal welfare. The public was outraged, and Lancaster Stockyards was compelled to announce that it would humanely euthanize downed animals instead of leaving them to suffer on its premises. By documenting and publicizing conditions at this facility, we were able to bring about necessary reforms.

Were I to advocate in the same way for an animal like Hilda today in North Carolina, I would be committing a criminal act.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


Sheep Make Good CEOs and 5 More Fascinating Facts in Honor of the “Year of the Sheep”

According to the Chinese lunar calendar, Feb. 19, 2015, launches the Year of the Sheep, celebrating the animal considered to be most emblematic of kindness. What better time to share our love of these remarkable animals? Though many people eat lamb and wear wool, far fewer have actually interacted with the animals exploited for these products and know what they are really like. So this year we’re inviting everyone to celebrate sheep with us, in the hope that a deeper understanding of these complex creatures will change the way they are viewed and treated.


1. Sheep are notoriously friendly
At Farm Sanctuary’s shelters in New York and California, our sheep wag their tails like dogs, they know their names, and they form strong bonds with other sheep, goats, and with people (unless they come to us traumatized, as some do).


2. Sheep experience emotion similarly to humans
A study published in Animal Welfare showed that sheep experience emotion in ways similar to humans. The authors concluded that “sheep are able to experience emotions such as fear, anger, rage, despair, boredom, disgust, and happiness, because they use the same checks involved in such emotions as humans. For instance, despair is triggered by situations that are evaluated as sudden, unfamiliar, unpredictable, discrepant from expectations, and uncontrollable, whereas boredom results from an overly predictable environment, and all these checks have been found to affect emotional responses in sheep.”


3. Sheep have panoramic vision
Thanks to their cool rectangular pupils, sheep can see almost 360 degrees, including directly behind themselves!

4. Sheep know how you feel
Another study from Cambridge University found that sheep — like humans and some primates — can pick up emotional cues in both humans and other sheep. Not surprisingly, they strongly preferred smiling and relaxed expressions over angry ones.


5. Sheep never forget a face
Researchers in the United Kingdom, writing for Nature, found that sheep have the same “specialized neural mechanisms for visual recognition” that humans do, which allows them to remember the faces of at least 50 individual humans and other sheep for more than two years, “and that the specialized neural circuits involved maintain selective encoding of individual sheep and human faces even after long periods of separation.”

6. Sheep are the CEOs of the barnyard
Sheep can learn how to solve puzzles, remember what they’ve learned, and adapt to changed circumstances — all much more quickly than monkeys. The researchers note what they call the “impressive cognitive abilities of sheep” and find that “sheep can perform ‘executive’ cognitive tasks that are an important part of the primate behavioral repertoire, but that have never been shown previously to exist in any other large animal” other than humans and some other primates.