Right Down to the Shoes

It was the shoes. Mine were giving me away. Everyone else at the Catskill Animal Sanctuary today was wearing, well, not leather. I had slipped into my Justin boots because I was going to a farm, never thinking of whom I would be among. As I stood with my feet concealed behind a bench waiting for the tour to start, I ruefully remembered Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. He wrote that the people investigating merry prankster Ken Kesey and his acid-head fellows around their magic bus:

still don’t know about the shoes. The heads have a thing about shoes. The worst are shiny black shoes with shoelaces in them.

CAS StevensToday, the heads had been replaced by vegans, the black shoes by leather. But Kathy Stevens, CAS co-founder and our tour leader, faced the situation directly, asking if anyone wasn’t vegan. A hand or two went up (I was already too embarrassed to raise mine). Stevens said, “Good. You’re the heroes here, for you are on your way.”

I felt a little like I was back in an AA meeting where the newly sober get the loudest applause. I wanted to hang my head and slink away.

I needn’t have worried. The heart of Stevens’ philosophy about animals applies to people, too: Each and every one deserves to be treated with respect. CAS takes in all sorts of abused animals from more types of places than you can imagine, from blind horses to turkeys who somehow managed to avoid the Thanksgiving table. It’s mission is to rescue farm animals and to ignite “social change to end their exploitation” while championing “vegan living.”

And Stevens is nothing if not a believer in her cause.

CAS BarnThe movement CAS is part of is becoming an important force in many lives, as was evidenced by the percentage of vegans who were visiting the farm to participate in the special ‘Break All the Rules’ tour led by Stevens, who has cut back such duties as farm management and related activities have expanded. This tour was much like the one Jan and I took over a decade ago when the place was much smaller and more rustic (it has only been around for 17 years), a tour also led by Stevens. The tour we went on last year, headed by one of the many volunteer leaders, hadn’t been nearly as intense, disappointing us a bit—though we recognized it wouldn’t have, had we not had the earlier experience. The volunteers are limited—necessarily—in what they can show us and take us.

Stevens, who remains the heart of the place, has no such restrictions. Today’s tour was supposed to last an hour and forty-five minutes. It ended over half-an-hour after it should have. Stevens took us into barns normally off limits and tailored the tour to the interests of the group rather than simply hitting the ordained high spots.

Throughout, I thought of little but meat.

CAS GoatsJan has been a vegetarian for decades. As for me, well, I gave up meat a mere three years ago. She wants to move towards a vegan profile and I, especially after today, am also moving in that direction, too—though my motivation is somewhat different from hers.

Let me explain.

At one point, Stevens stopped in front of a pair of confinement pens of the sort used for sows when pregnant and then nursing. I knew them well. Forty years ago, when I taught at Scattergood Friends School, I led the crews at the farrowing barn on weekends. I don’t remember how many of the pens we had (eight, I think), but there could be hundreds of piglets of different sizes in different pens at any one time. We had to check their feed and water and clean the pens. Each time we would enter one, the piglets would panic, piling in the far corner, leaving at least one or two dead, suffocated by the mass. We would throw the bodies into the piles of refuse we cleaned from the stalls.

Stevens, with her kind but accurate description of the situations of the sows, brought back my memories, a slight wave of nausea, and reminded me of why I had stopped eating meat.

CAS ChickenYes, hog waste can start to smell sweet once you get used to it—by virtue of the corn within it. But that does not make it any less damaging. I was born in North Carolina and love the state dearly, and know what pig feces are doing to the state. I worked with oxen in Peace Corps in Africa, so have kept up a little with the cattle industry. And we had bantam chickens as pets in Atlanta even before I learned what cleaning a hen house really means (think you know what ammonia smells like? Ha!) as a student at the Arthur Morgan School. I’ve never minded killing animals for food but I’ve grown to hate the cattle, hog and chicken industries for what they are doing to the environment and, quite frankly, for what they are doing to the animals.

It’s unconscionable. It used to be that farm animals lived reasonably good lives. I know, that sounds contradictory, for they did end up in the soup and on the table. But, in the meantime, they were well taken care of—compared, at least, to how they are treated today. It’s not just the sows who are abused, but milk cows and their calves are treated abominably—as are chickens and beef cattle, for that matter. Not to mention turkeys. The goal is to produce meat in the fastest way possible; concern for the animals isn’t even minimal. It doesn’t exist at all.

Ethical treatment of animals has become so rare that I can’t eat them any longer. And I have come to support places like CAS and their mission of rescuing animals and promoting ethical vegan lifestyles. So have many others: The number of such sanctuaries, especially of the more ethical sort, continues to grow—and they are having an impact beyond the lives of the animals they rescue from living hell.

Want proof? Driving back to Brooklyn, I turned to Jan.

“No more leather shoes,” said I.

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