Our Hen House’s “Picturing Animals” columnist, Dr. Keri Cronin, recently left her home in Niagara, Ontario, to intern on the shelter at Farm Sanctuary. Keri, an art history professor at Brock University, was in between semesters and decided to take advantage of her time off in order to work hands-on with rescued animals. In what will be a three-part series, Keri will let us in on her experiences interning at Farm Sanctuary, alongside some very special animal ambassadors. I don’t know about you, but I hope to live vicariously through her stories and experiences.
Compassion in Action: My Internship at Farm Sanctuary (Part I)
This December, while friends and colleagues were packing for warm-weather holiday destinations, I decided to spend my semester break in upstate New York, at the Watkins Glen location of Farm Sanctuary. Instead of packing flip-flops and sundresses, I was throwing long underwear, thick socks, work gloves, and coveralls into my suitcase. I won’t lie – as I was packing I asked myself more than once “what the heck am I doing?” I’m not a person who thrives in cold weather. Before I left, I wondered whether my desire to be warm and comfortable might win out over my commitment to helping make the world a better place for farmed animals. Once I arrived at Farm Sanctuary, however, I knew that I had made the right choice, and that in spite of the winter weather, I was in for one of the best experiences of my life.
I suppose it goes without saying that an internship at Farm Sanctuary is a lot of work, but I’m going to say it anyhow. Even though the staff at Farm Sanctuary are explicitly clear about the fact that as a shelter intern you will be working long days and that the work you do can be heavy, messy, difficult, and, at times, smelly, not all interns arrive prepared for this reality. Through this work you get a small glimpse of what life is like for the caregivers who work at sanctuaries year round, and you can’t help but develop an even deeper appreciation for their efforts. So many vegans and animal rights activists share a dream of opening their own sanctuary for farmed animals. This is a wonderful dream (and one that I certainly admit to having), but I think it is absolutely critical that every person who hopes to start a sanctuary spends time volunteering or interning at a place like Farm Sanctuary first.
As a shelter intern, I had the opportunity to participate in many aspects of the day-to-day operations. I fed the animals who are housed in the Melrose Small Animal Hospital, made up “mash” (dry feed pellets mixed with specific proportions of water) for some of the animals who required special diets, moved many bags of feed, washed and disinfected syringes used by caregivers to give medication to sick animals, and cleaned cages. I also mopped floors, took out the recycling, washed feed and water bowls, and ran errands as needed. One day I drove a cooler full of “fecal samples” to Cornell’s Diagnostic lab, on another I went to the local grocery store to stock up on things like bread and nut butters. (The bread and nut butters are a staple at Farm Sanctuary as any pig who is on medication is given his or her pills hidden in a peanut butter sandwich, although during the time I was interning, we switched to cashew and almond butter because of my pesky peanut allergy!) At any given moment I had chicken poop on my clothes and a fine layer of dust from the pig pellet silo in my hair, but I couldn’t have been any happier!
One of the best things about my time at Farm Sanctuary is that I got to know some of the animals whom I hadn’t had the opportunity to meet before. Each of them has their own individual story of rescue, most coming to Farm Sanctuary from horrific situations. However, when I was interacting with them I didn’t see them as “victims.” In fact, I usually didn’t find out their story until after I’d made their acquaintance and spent some time getting to know them as individuals. While the rescue of these animals is one of the central aspects of Farm Sanctuary’s operations, these animals are so much more than rescued victims. They are strong, silly, quirky, curious, moody, social beings whom I had the privilege of spending quite a bit of time with. For example, during my internship I met Baba Ganoush, a handsome, inquisitive white rooster who is always on the lookout for more food. One day I watched him stealthily stake out one of the pig’s sandwiches stashed in a caregiver’s kit. I also met Ginger, a beautiful rusty-colored rooster who squawks whenever someone sneezes or coughs near him. One of the funniest things about Ginger is that he can distinguish between a fake cough or sneeze and the “real deal,” and is not easily fooled. Each day I looked forward to feeding breakfast to Pearl, a blind turkey, and delighted in sitting with her as she pecked at her mash. The soft trilling sounds she made as I guided her to her bowl will forever be in my memory. I fell in love with a tiny little cat named Tilly who buries herself in her blankets on cold days (clearly she has the right approach to winter!), and I also had my knees head-butted by Gloria the goat on a daily basis.
I spent a lot of time hugging Ari, a beautiful black and white calf who wears a stylish pink winter coat and who playfully kicks up his heels while frolicking with his pal Michael. We were there when Nik was rescued, and I look forward to returning to Farm Sanctuary in the near future to see him join Ari and Michael in the pasture and to watch all three of these boys grow up in the coming months and years.
There were some difficult moments too, of course. On one particularly cold morning, I let a gate get the best of me. My gloves were wet from cleaning feed bowls and were sticking to the metal latch, making it impossible to undo. In frustration, I threw off my gloves and opened the latch with my bare hands just as I watched a gust of wind blow my discarded gloves across the pasture and deposit them in to a snow bank. Fortunately, a herd of sheep were the only witnesses to the string of expletives that escaped from my mouth at that moment!
And then there is one of the most difficult realities that people who work at sanctuaries face – on any given day there are animals who are sick, injured, or dying. Several animals died during the time I was at Farm Sanctuary, some of natural causes, while others were euthanized because they were in so much discomfort. As sad as this aspect of my experience was, I took comfort in the fact that they had known peace and love at Farm Sanctuary, that for a portion of their lives they were treated with dignity and respect. Unfortunately, most farmed animals never have the chance to experience kindness and compassion like this.
In addition to helping out on the farm and spending time with the animals, there are educational opportunities built in to the Farm Sanctuary internship experience. For example, each week there is an “ed lunch” for the interns. This is an opportunity to learn more about different aspects of Farm Sanctuary and to discuss broader issues relating to activism while enjoying a delicious vegan meal prepared by the Internship Coordinator. Interns are also taken on a “field trip” to a nearby stockyard so we can witness first-hand the ways in which animals who are not at the Sanctuary are routinely treated. (I will have more to say about this stockyard visit in my next part of this series.)
Farm Sanctuary is a beautiful place, and is situated in a peaceful, tranquil location in the Finger Lakes region of New York State. The scenery is breathtaking, and even though I was working hard I made sure I took moments to stop, look around, and appreciate my surroundings. Interns at the New York shelter live at “Vegan House,” a house that is located just across the road from the main farm, so you are truly immersed in the Sanctuary experience when you are there. The Sanctuary staff are incredible people, and I appreciated their patience with me as I got up to speed on my internship duties. No matter how busy they were, they always took the time to answer my questions and explain things to me.
I have been to Farm Sanctuary before, but will never see it quite the same way again after this experience. It was an absolute privilege to have this opportunity, and I highly recommend that anyone who is interested in farm animal advocacy do an internship at a place like Farm Sanctuary. While the summer months tend to be the most popular choices for interns, Farm Sanctuary operates 365 days a year, so interns are needed year-round. I know all too well how challenging it can be to arrange one’s life in order to be away from home for such an extended period of time, but I promise you, it is absolutely worth it!