For over a year now I’ve been volunteering at Animal Acres, which is an animal sanctuary in Southern California. In addition to helping out at public events, I also volunteer with their humane education department. School and youth groups come during the week to visit with the animals and learn how the same love and compassion children have for their companion animals at home is what we feel for the chickens, sheep, goats, cows, pigs, ducks, geese, turkeys, and burros who live at the sanctuary.
Before the children arrive, I enjoy walking out to visit with the sheep and goats. Several often meet me at the gate, bleating and baa-ing excitedly. They beg for my attention in a way that’s reminiscent of dogs that we know, nudging at hands until they’re petted. I love to pet their soft fur and enjoy their quiet affection before a busload of boisterous little beings arrive, setting the sanctuary abuzz. Once the bus pulls in, we show the kids a slideshow about the animals, and depending on the age level and openness of the group, we talk to them about factory farming and the animals who live, toil, and die within the system. Then we take the children around the sanctuary and introduce them to the animals who live there.
They meet the geese, ducks, and chickens. I teach them to crouch down low when visiting them, because to them we’re the size of skyscrapers. We feed alfalfa to the cows, who eagerly come over for a nibble and to get their noses rubbed. We introduce them to the turkeys, who love to be petted. Some of the turkeys are ticklish, and if you scratch them in the right spot, they’ll laugh. The pigs are often snuggled against each other, and the children venture in to give them belly rubs.
Sometimes baby animals will arrive at the sanctuary, and that’s always a special treat. Of course, Animal Acres never purposely “mates” the animals, but sometimes animals that are rescued will arrive pregnant and will give birth there, or the sanctuary will have an opportunity to rescue a baby animal. A few months ago, they rescued Casanova, whose picture is up on other places around my blog. His mother was a dairy cow and had he not been saved, he would have been veal. Casanova was still so young that as I’d pet him, he’d want to suckle on my thumbs and shirt. It was heartbreaking and sweet at the same time. They also rescued a young piglet recently, Jumper, who was saved from a factory farm situation. Even though she was only weeks old, she was terrified of humans, because of what she’d lived in her short life. She’s a little bundle of energy and loves to run.
In spending time with the animals and hearing about their painful pasts, I’ve also discovered their unique personalities–who is social and who is solitary, who is impish and who is cuddly. The children learn that just as dogs and cats show emotion, have likes and dislikes and their own distinctive personalities, so do all other animals.
After bonding with these animals, it is very difficult to then go out to dinner and watch other people eat meat. It would be akin to meeting up at a restaurant and seeing your friend eat thinly sliced Doberman. Another volunteer and friend from Animal Acres told me about a weekend she spent helping with chickens who had been rescued. Without food or water, a person had been planning on shipping a couple hundred chickens in a box to another part the country. Someone intervened and took the chickens to Animal Acres. They were all ravenously hungry and thirsty, and they moved en masse from the food to the water, squeaking all the while. The chickens were large, but their little squeaks sounded like chicks. Of course, within factory farming, chickens are bred to fatten quickly, so that they can be killed at six weeks old. They were still babies, despite their size. She said she helped out with the chicks all weekend, and then Monday morning had lunch at her office across from a woman eating a chicken’s leg. To see that leg after spending all weekend helping chickens, my friend had to reconsider whether having a lunch in the office lunchroom was worth it.
For myself, I have the benefit of having a vegan husband, which means that it’s very rare that I see people eat animals at all. When we go out to restaurants, and I overhear people ordering lamb, it feels so foreign and sad. I think of Ponchito and Mary and Violet, lamb & sheep friends of mine, and I marvel that people are still doing that. I know, of course, that I ate animals too for many years, and it wasn’t personal. But now that I know the animals personally, it is. It used to just be a lunch, and now it’s a life.
To get a glimpse into Animal Acres and the work that they do, check out the episode of 30 Days with Morgan Spurlock, in which they’re featured.