We are delighted to welcome writer Justin Van Kleeck back to Our Hen House today, to give us his thoughts on using “microsanctuary” as a form of advocacy.
The Sanctuary in Your Backyard: A New Model for Rescuing Farmed Animals
by Justin Van Kleeck
It was sometime in the late summer or early fall of 2010 that I started pondering the possibility of starting a sanctuary for farmed animals one day. I had been vegan for over eleven years at that point, but I was a fairly quiet vegan and limited my advocacy and activism to occasional scribbling for a blog.
I should also mention that I was living by myself at the time, in a suburban neighborhood, with no animals of any kind and few resources to my name. So “one day” was about as precise a timeframe as I could put together, at first and even for months after the seed started to stir in my brain. It just seemed to be too big of a project to think seriously about, all things considered.
After all (I believed then) it would take hundreds of thousands of dollars to even begin work on starting and running a sanctuary. How could I afford the twenty or more acres I would need (at an absolute minimum), along with the inevitable construction of and repairs to buildings and fences, not to mention the costs for food and medical care for the animals? I would have to start playing the lottery or discover a heretofore unknown rich relative to make this idea happen. Obviously, “the plan” was not much of a plan.
The model of a farm sanctuary I was using, as do many people, has been fashioned by organizations like Farm Sanctuary and Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary, two of the better-known sanctuary organizations, as well as Animal Place, Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary, and Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary. All are on large tracts of land (sometimes hundreds of acres) and have huge operating budgets. With examples like these, it is understandable that I would build my own sanctuary in the air with similar specifications. It also makes sense that I, like most people, would see sanctuaries as possessing these basic details: a very large property (mostly pastures speckled with barns, a farmhouse, and lots of fences) out in the country somewhere, with a sizable staff and a hefty balance sheet ….
There is nothing wrong with this model of an animal sanctuary. These larger sanctuaries provide homes to, and adopt out, thousands of animals who would otherwise still be stuck on the agricultural assembly line, or already dead.
But there are other ways to provide sanctuary, too.
Remodeling the model of sanctuary
Fast forward from my phase of solitary sanctuary musings to today. My wife, Rosemary, and I recently started an organization called Triangle Chance for All. As ethical vegans and animal rescuers, we and our wonderful board members (who are also friends and ethical vegans) began an effort to rescue farmed animals who had somehow gotten off that assembly line, be it by being picked up as strays by animal control, or by being given away by someone who no longer wanted them. Along with that effort, we wanted to educate the public about a vegan lifestyle and how everyone could help end the exploitation of non-human animals by going vegan.
Faced with the dire, almost suffocating reality of animal exploitation while staring into the eyes of a rescued hen, rooster, or goat, Rosemary and I began to reconsider – and to deconstruct – the ideal of an animal sanctuary. We had recently moved to a three-acre property outside of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where our view is a wall of trees instead of rolling pastures. Nevertheless, we decided that we could scale the model down and get creative with what we have, not what we think we need, in order to provide permanent shelter and care to our rescues. We began to see ourselves as building a “microsanctuary.”
Microsanctuary defined … sort of
There is no hard and fast definition or set of guidelines for a microsanctuary. Of course, speaking in purely quantitative terms, a microsanctuary has a comparatively small footprint when juxtaposed with a large sanctuary or even a large farm. And the number of sanctuary residents would be much lower as well.
But I think that microsanctuary is as much a state of mind, a perspective on the world and our place as rescuers and caregivers, as it is about property lines and resident numbers.
Our microsanctuary starts from the premise that our space and our resources, though limited, are still sufficient for us to provide sanctuary to individual farmed animals in order to prevent them from ever again being used as commodities. It is (and will be as we grow) utilizing a major portion of our three acres – with a large area for several flocks of chickens (hens and roosters), and eventually one or two enclosures for all-rooster flocks and an area in the woods for goats and a few pigs. We realize that our property is not conducive to sheep, cows, or horses, given our lack of grazing land, but we are not letting that stop us from rescuing the many individuals whom we can accommodate.
And we can do quite a lot with what we have. So far at our microsanctuary, we have nine permanent residents, all chickens who were picked up by animal control as strays or were surrendered to a shelter. Three of them are roosters – a perpetual challenge thanks to the growing popularity of backyard chicken-keeping and the “unfortunate” inability of roosters to lay eggs. One of our roosters, Jason, is a beautiful Australorp who was surrendered to animal control because he was becoming a “nuisance” in the small-town neighborhood where someone was keeping backyard chickens for eggs. (Fortunately, a few days later this person surrendered Jason’s bonded hen, whom we named Jewel, so they could stay together.) Another rooster, Orion, spent a week in a shelter after being picked up as a stray, but now he plays the role of gallant gentleman rooster to our first rescues, Clementine and Amandine, who also were picked up as strays after spending an unknown amount of time in the freezing winter cold. We also have rescued and placed animals like Nestor, a partially blind baby goat who came from a small goat dairy farm and now lives at Full Circle Farm Sanctuary outside of Asheville, NC, and Lola, a pig who outgrew “teacup” status and was living in a tiny pen, but now has room to roam and pigs to play with at PIGS Animal Sanctuary in Shepherdstown, WV.
Along with providing rescue and care to farmed animals like these, we want to provide an alternative model of sanctuary to people who, like we once did, only think of sanctuaries according to the “big and far away” model. The beauty and the power of the microsanctuary model is that by giving people a more realistic scale for creating sanctuary, it can inspire more people to utilize what space and resources they have for rescuing farmed animals. One might choose to build a microsanctuary on several acres and create a non-profit organization around it, thereby to provide education and solicit some support from the community. We have taken that approach with Triangle Chance for All, and our friends Ren and Brandy Hurst-Setzer are doing something similar in California to provide sanctuary to horses and other rescued animals.
Alternatively, a microsanctuary can be as simple as a vegan family rescuing a rooster and some hens and providing them a safe coop and run in the backyard while never using, or allowing others to use, their eggs. A microsanctuary can spring up on an acre of land or less, as our friend Amy Dye is doing in Maine, where her two rescued sheep live out their days while being cared for with respect and love – but never being used for fiber, meat, or any other purpose.
Although large sanctuaries can and do provide similar inspiration, it is a complicated affair to cram a hundred-plus acre farm sanctuary into a quarter-acre suburban lot. Without having some other model of sanctuary to use, many potential sanctuaries likely will remain in the heads of those interested in building them. After just a few months, we already have seen how the idea and model of a microsanctuary can change people’s perceptions about themselves and their abilities to care for farmed animals.
We recently had a visit from some vegan friends and enjoyed a peaceful yet invigorating afternoon of discussion, set against the backdrop of trees and chickens. At the end of the visit, one of our guests told us how our microsanctury had inspired her to think about ways she might one day rescue some chickens herself. Being around chickens will do that.
Changing perceptions of farmed animals
Another important task for us and our microsanctuary is to demystify farmed animals. Part of the prevailing mindset that feeds into the dominant model of farm sanctuaries is the notion that farmed animals are “other.” Most of us see cats or dogs as a normal part of your average household. Farmed animals, however, are often viewed as completely different and utterly foreign, even by vegans: they live on farms somewhere out in the country and are owned by farmers … unless they are extremely lucky and go to a big farm sanctuary that is also out in the country and run by a different sort of farmers. When we advocate for them, we most often talk in terms of aggregates and astronomical numbers: for example, around ten billion farmed animals are killed for food every year in the United States. What do you do with ten billion?
We often forget that those aggregates, those abstractions, are comprised completely of individual living beings. Those billions and billions of chickens, turkeys, cows, and pigs are, each and every one, unique creatures with personalities and experiences and social bonds more complex than we can ever hope to understand.
Advocating for the animals and helping people transition to a vegan lifestyle are both crucial ways to respond to a system of suffering. But what if we took a more active approach to help individual farmed animals? What if more vegans began to see themselves as caretakers of their own microsanctuary, be it on half an acre or a dozen acres? How much good could we vegans, the ones who already care about the well-being of farmed animals, do for individuals who have been bred only to suffer and die for human ends?
While saying this, I should emphasize that even a microsanctuary requires serious planning and research. It is important to be responsible in our rescuing and do our research before taking in species of animals we may not have experience with, each one having its own particular needs and issues. Rosemary and I had to learn a lot, from medical concerns to food to proper handling and housing, when we rescued our first chickens – and the learning never stops.
It is also important to be honest about our own abilities as potential caregivers before undertaking rescue missions. If we are committed to rescuing animals for their well-being, as we should be, it is always crucial to think as much about quality of life as quantity of lives rescued. Anyone who endeavors to take in animals should understand the need for sufficient finances, time, and energy to provide true sanctuary to animals who have already endured so much hardship and should not be forced to endure more. This means sometimes saying no, or sometimes facilitating a placement instead of taking an animal in. There is no end to the number of animals who need our help, but we must be realistic about what we can do, while always trying to find ways to do more.
If vegans who were able and properly prepared chose to create their own microsanctuaries, so many animals would be saved from going back into the agricultural system or being killed outright. But beyond that, microsanctuaries can provide perfect opportunities to tell people the stories of individual farmed animals, which research (discussed in Nick Cooney’s book Change of Heart, for example) shows is one of the most effective tools for helping people change their lifestyle. Esther the Wonder Pig is a perfect example of how transformative an interaction with just one farmed animal can be – not only did she inspire her dads to go vegan, but she has helped tens of thousands of people think about pigs in a new way.
We have tried to tell the stories of all our rescues at Triangle Chance for All by having active social media channels (primarily Facebook), which help people get to know them as individuals at the microsanctuary through pictures, videos, anecdotes, and other media. We also encourage people to visit or attend events so that they might meet the animals in person. Other microsanctuaries, if open to the public, have a vast number of tools to reach a community of local supporters, as well as a wider audience thanks to the internet. Being relatively small in size, our microsanctuary (and others like us) can give ample “airtime” to each rescue, allowing us to tell a more detailed story of them all.
The characters in these stories can and do transform the lives of humans in so many ways. I know this from firsthand experience, as a caregiver and as one of the resident animals at the microsanctuary. Every evening, Rosemary and I bring the chickens a snack of fresh vegetables and fruits, along with scratch grains and any eggs the hens laid that day, before putting them to bed. Inevitably, Amandine the hen flies up to the glass in the coop door. She knows well that we have yummy food, and we know well that she will fly up to greet us.
We have a rhythm in our relationships here, an understanding and a connection, which make it clearer to me than ever before that the lives of farmed animals are worth cherishing. And so it is by creating a microsanctuary and forging these relationships that I have come to truly understand why it is that I am vegan.
Justin Van Kleeck has a Ph.D. in English but left academia in part to work on veganism, the environment, and other social issues. He is a freelance writer and editor, and has previously appeared on the Our Hen House podcast and features page. He has experience with education and community organizing, including the annual event Vegan Night Out that started in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He and his wife, Rosemary, also ran a vegan baking business, Sunberry Baking Company, for a short time; they went on to start Triangle Chance for All in early 2014 in order to provide rescue and sanctuary to farmed animals, along with vegan education to the public. All of Justin’s work, as does his life, centers on and starts with veganism and animal rights, and from there extends to environmentalism, sustainable and local food production, individual empowerment, education, and economic and social justice, to name a few. Despite all of that, Justin is an extreme and unapologetic introvert.