Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary hosts “Veg-Curious?” on June 2

Photo of Mike, Jr. (Andrea Barrist Stern)

Veganism seems to have sprouted out of brown rice and tofu obscurity and into the mainstream. In recent years the likes of Bill Clinton, Ellen DeGeneres, publisher Mort Zuckerman, Las Vegas mogul Steve Wynn, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone and Mike Tyson claim to have given up meat and animal products for good (yes, Mike Tyson). And as they have done so, an increasing number of major media outlets have begun touting veganism’s health and environmental benefits, and are even starting to discuss the ethical issues of factory farming.

Now, Hudson Valley residents can decide for themselves whether to join these members of the power elite during a day of thought-provoking discussions on veganism, cooking demos and the chance to get up-close-and-personal with what, under other circumstances, might well have been the meat on your plate. The Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary – now known simply as the Woodstock Sanctuary – is presenting a “Veg-Curious?” event at its property at 35 Van Wagner Road in the Willow hamlet of Woodstock on Saturday, June 2 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. For a $65 ticket ($30 for students), guests can sample vegan cuisine from a dozen or so area restaurants, eating under the tent, on haybales strewn around the property, at picnic tables or under a shady tree. They will also get to meet more than 200 rescued farm animals living at the Sanctuary, watch cooking demonstrations by Woodstock Garden Café owner Pam Brown and listen to presentations by four of the Who’s Who in the vegan world: Woodstock resident Kris Carr, author of Crazy Sexy Diet, who has turned her Crazy Sexy concept of veganism and the importance of an anti-inflammatory diet into a national brand; Will Tuttle, a renowned social activist and author of The World Peace Diet; Sharon Gannon, co-creator of the Jivamukti Yoga method and author of Yoga and Vegetarianism; and the Woodstock Sanctuary’s own co-founder and director Jenny Brown, author with local poet Gretchen Primack of the upcoming The Lucky Ones, due out from Penguin in August.

“Farm animals are so out of sight and out of mind,” says Brown, noting that some 10 billion farm animals are slaughtered for food annually in the US. “These industries exist behind closed doors, and it is easy to forget the meat on our plates was once a living, feeling being capable of a wide range of emotions.”

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Consider the tale of Mike, Jr. A little over a month ago, the calf made a break from a slaughterhouse in Patterson, New Jersey. Eluding capture for hours, he waded into the Passaic River and was rammed by police vehicles in the effort to corral him until a tranquilizer gun could be obtained. Eventually, he was returned to the slaughterhouse, whose owner promised to turn the animal over to a farm when the network news picked up the story.

Suspicious of the kind of farm that he might end up at, Woodstock Farm Sanctuary volunteer Mike Stura (whence the name) pursued the matter, driving his trailer to the new slaughterhouse to which the calf had been moved. It was hardly the farm promised by the original facility’s owner. Stura was able to convince the owner to release the animal, who was taken to a local vet to have his wounds treated and be cleared to cross state lines. Then Mike, Jr. headed upstate to recuperate and roam the pastures of the local 23-acre Woodstock Sanctuary with other rescued cows and steer, each with its own story to tell, assured that he will never end up at the end of a fork.

In fact, it was undercover work at a Texas stockyard as a filmmaker on behalf of Watkins Glen-based Farm Sanctuary (the granddaddy of the farm animal sanctuary movement) in 2002 that launched Brown on a mission to educate the public that animals are conscious, feeling beings worthy of respect and care. At the stockyard, Brown documented downed animals lingering for days until trucks could bulldoze, forklift and drag them by chains to the trucks that would carry them to slaughterhouses while still alive so that they could be sold.

“Aside from the cruelty issues, no vets are there checking to determine why these animals are sick,” says Brown of the practice that continues today, in spite of watered-down federal legislation. “Diseased animals do make their way into food production.”

What Brown saw that week “scarred” her, causing her to give up her work as an independent filmmaker for the Discovery Channel, and head to the Farm Sanctuary for training. In 2004, she and her husband Doug Abel, a film editor, purchased the Woodstock property “and started creating a dream.” Many of the animals that they rescue never even reach the farm because they are fostered or adopted elsewhere to good homes, where they will live out their normal lifespans.

Brown’s story is told in her forthcoming memoir, which came about after a 2008 New York Times story on Albie, a rescued three-legged goat at the Sanctuary, propelled the local farm to national prominence. Brown, too, is an amputee, having lost a leg to cancer at the age of 10. Book agents immediately began courting her, once the story appeared.

Growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, Brown had a Southern Baptist upbringing and was taught that animals do not have souls. Following her amputation, she was given a cat that she named Boogie. “It was apparent to me there was no way she didn’t have a soul,” says Brown. “She was a sentient being and made me question my relationship with animals.” Paraphrasing Paul McCartney and his late wife Linda, she adds, “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, there would be a bigger outcry.”

From its humble roots, the Woodstock Sanctuary has become one of the foremost voices for veganism in the nation. The 200 animals there include pigs, cows, sheep, goats, turkeys, chickens, ducks, geese and even a few rabbits. “Rabbits should be the poster children for veganism, because they are used for food, fur and animal experiments,” she notes.

After Rolling Stone editor-at-large Jason Fine and his wife, the alternative rock musician Tracy Bonham, became supporters, the Woodstock Sanctuary launched a series of rock concerts in recent years that brought Bonham, Nellie McKay, Elvis Perkins, Mercury Rev, Chrissie Hynde, Sean Lennon, Moby and the late Levon Helm’s daughter Amy Helm to the grounds for fundraising concerts. The events were not without their complications, however, as some neighbors complained about the noise. Future fundraising concerts are now being held at the Bearsville Theater and other local venues, and Brown says that she is currently working on “a big one” that she is not yet free to discuss publicly.

For those who want a room with a view (albeit a particular point of view), The Sanctuary operates a guesthouse, a charming pre-Civil War farmhouse at the front of the property has been turned into a bed-and-breakfast thanks to a generous supporter who purchased it for the farm. The profits go directly to the Sanctuary’s animals and advocacy work. The B & B currently has two bedrooms available, and two more are likely to be approved by the Town in the near future, according to Brown. Rates range from $145 to $195 per night, depending on the season and amenities.

In the future, the Sanctuary is planning a series of vegan cooking retreat weekends. The first will be with Kevin Archer, the former chef at the Catskill Animal Sanctuary in Saugerties, another prominent voice in the farm sanctuary movement. Archer is currently the café manager at Jivamuktea, the café at the Jivamukti Yoga Studio in New York City. A date has not yet been announced. For this and other upcoming events, like the annual July Jamboree at the farm on Saturday, July 7, visit the Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary’s website at ulsterpub.staging.wpenginesanctuary.org.

Area residents who would like to attend the sanctuary’s June 2 “Veg-Curious?” event need not worry about heavy-handed proselytizing. “This will be a really positive day when we look at all of the positive benefits of veganism,” says Brown. “It’s a day of exploration, and we intend to keep it light. We want people to stop thinking about veganism as a diet of denial; it is a diet of abundance and a major step toward conscious eating and living. There are a lot of misconceptions about veganism, that it is extreme, but we are just extremely compassionate.”

For more information on the “Veg-Curious?” event, visit ulsterpub.staging.wpenginesanctuary.com or call (845) 679-5955.

Andrea Barrist Stern

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