Champion of the underdog

Photo by David M. Sax Photography

Born and raised in Queens, Michelle Alvarez did undergrad studies at NYU and then attended law school in Boston, but she always knew that she wasn’t headed for the corporate life. She wanted to serve the people of low-income communities, she says, “the people who didn’t have a voice. It came from my vision of the way I wanted the world to be: a more fair and just place.”

Alvarez practiced law for over a decade, litigating on cases of public health and environmental issues. When her firm handled a case that involved the impact of environmental pollutants on a farm, she found herself wondering about the animals affected. “Here are these other beings,” she says, “suffering too, and they have no voice.” Burnt out on litigating by this time, she knew she’d found her second career.

She attended an animal rights conference in the city, and met a board member of the Catskill Animal Sanctuary who encouraged her to come up to Saugerties to volunteer for a day. That day turned into a year and a half, and that led to leaving environmental law behind and becoming the director of outreach and communications at the sanctuary, a position she’s held for two years now.


She can’t pick a favorite animal. ‘Goats are playful and mischievous, and pigs are hilarious and endearing drama-queens.’

Alvarez splits her time between the city and Saugerties, living in a farmhouse overlooking the sanctuary when she’s here. She manages CAS’s online and printed communications, recruits new supporters and volunteers, plans special events, and works to increase public awareness of the sanctuary’s work. In her off-time, she practices martial arts (samurai sword fighting and kickboxing) and spends time with her partner and their four rescued cats: Scout, Oliver, Sir Edmond, and Mausen.

What makes Saugerties unique?

It’s got the qualities that I love about both small towns (a laid-back, down-to-earth vibe and beautiful countryside) and bigger cities (great restaurants, a cultural and entertainment scene, and diversity of people).

What is your favorite virtue?

If I have to pick one, it’s compassion, but also generosity, kindness, empathy, and humility.

What profession, other than your own, would you like to attempt?

I’d be a professional mixed-martial artist.

What are your favorite color, flower and animal?

Sunflower yellow; the sunflower; and goats and pigs! I can’t choose one animal – goats are playful and mischievous, and pigs are hilarious and endearing drama-queens. They can be quite stubborn, and if they don’t get what they want immediately, they throw a fit.

What do you like about this community?

Strolling down Partition Street, stopping in here and there for a snack, a book, a coffee.

Who is the most interesting person you’ve met here?

Kathy Stevens, the founder and director of Catskill Animal Sanctuary, my boss and hero. She has a huge heart, and has devoted her life to making the world a kinder place for sentient beings that many people view as merely food or products or entertainment. She is also one of the most courageous people I know. She built the sanctuary from nothing, taking what was literally a derelict junkyard and turning it into a leading animal sanctuary. It’s difficult to go against the big industries that exploit animals, and the problems can seem overwhelming, but she stays focused and perseveres.

What is your idea of a perfect Saturday?

Kickboxing first thing in the morning, then a leisurely brunch reading the paper, then catching some rays with my animal buddies at CAS.

What qualities do you admire most in others?

Compassion, kindness, empathy, generosity, and courage in the face of adversity.

What is your idea of happiness?

Doing farm chores at CAS, with the animals by my side – animals who have endured horrific abuse and neglect, but have healed physically, learned to trust and love again. Also, seeing people discover how farm animals feel a wide range of emotions just like humans do, and then those folks deciding that they’re going to make changes in their daily lives that reduce animal suffering.

What is your idea of misery?

Animal cruelty, and not being able to practice the martial arts.

What talent do you wish you had been given?

Musical talent! I’d love to be able to carry around a guitar, sax, or violin and just start playing when the moment is right.

What is your main fault?

I can be incredibly stubborn when I think I’m right.

For which fault do you have the most tolerance?

The same! I’m tolerant of other people being stubborn because I know how they feel when they think they’re right.

What is your favorite motto?

It’s by Alice Walker: “We do not know what Life has in mind for us, or how many lifetimes we are going to have. . .avoid acts of cruelty and violence. . .put (y)our trust and effort into consideration of all others with whom we share the planet. . .and extend, uphold and honor all acts of universal kindness.” I love her writing – she speaks to the oppression and exploitation of all beings in a very poignant, compelling, and beautiful way.

Do you have any heroes?

Alice Walker, Kathy Stevens, and Jane Goodall.

What character in history do you most dislike?

Anyone who exploited and oppressed others for selfish gain.

What is your present state of mind?

Nervous about this interview!

If heaven exists, what would you like to hear Saint Peter say when he greets you?

“You did good, kid.”