Daisy the turkey is in her element. Surrounded by 20 visitors on Sunday’s first tour at Catskill Animal Sanctuary, she blinks slowly, over and over, that languid blink that those who have cats know well. “It’s her ‘I love you’ blink,” I say to the crowd, but particularly to four-year-old Alexander, who has settled in my lap and is working up the nerve to touch this animal who, sadly, weighs at least as much as he does.
“Why does she love us?” Alexander whispers.
“Well, turkeys love being around people — kinda like dogs,” I say. As if to illustrate the point, Daisy hobbles even closer.
“I think she wants to sit in my lap,” Alexander says. And he’s exactly right. I don’t tell him that precious Daisy, joint pain notwithstanding, will accompany us on our entire tour. I don’t want to spoil the secret.
I could sit far longer with these two innocent beings, but in order not to lose the crowd, I begin. “Welcome to Catskill Animal Sanctuary, and thank you so much for being here on this beautiful Easter Sunday.” I talk about our dual mission of emergency rescue and vegan advocacy, and summarize our ten-year history on Old Stage Rd. I mention our new property on Rt. 32, just south of Ulster Landing Rd., whose history dates to 1798 when it was leased by Sampson Davis II from the Kingston Corporation for four bushels of wheat per year.
“Our goal is to complete that project in 2016,” I explain. And then, lest I lose the children, I say, “Come on, guys… it’s time to kiss pigs.”
Tours at Catskill Animal Sanctuary proceed organically: there’s no prescribed route, no animals on the “must visit” list. Rather, devoted guides weave through all the activity of a normal day on the farm towards whichever animals are most eager for a visit. As much as we want open-hearted guests to better understand why we promote plant-based living, the real teachers are the animals, and pointing at a cow lying under a shade tree doesn’t pack the punch of a 2,000-pound steer licking a man’s face with his scratchy tongue. We go for the latter.
Visitors are often profoundly disturbed by what they learn about the food industry, its treatment of living beings, and its utter disregard of our precious planet. When Chef Linda, director of our Compassionate Cuisine program, works her magic, they are delighted that vegan food tastes so good.
But the animals themselves are often the biggest surprise: Nadine, the 800-pound pig who loves it when I stretch out over her prone body to give her a hug. Moses, the young pig who races to us with abandon when we call his name and smothers us with snout kisses. Arthur and Stencil, the goats who accompany the humans on an entire 90-minute tour. Daisy the lap turkey. Sheep Zeke, Scout, Atticus, and Marla who mob visitors to their pasture, wanting only love. Tucker, the 2,000-pound steer who gives wonderful facials with his scratchy tongue. Animals who are deeply loved become deeply loving. Actually, it’s more that their loving natures are allowed to emerge. And when that happens, human hearts open.
Today, the sheep are in rare form. They were seized two years ago from an illegal slaughter operation in the western part of the state. Initially, they were terrified; today, half of them would ride around in the farm truck with us if we allowed it. We sit down on the hillside; half of them run over. Zeke, a beautiful sheep with eyes the color of wheat, chooses a girl of about ten, looks here in the eye, gives her a sniff, then drapes his head over her shoulder.
“Is he giving me a hug?” she asks. I smile. There’s no need to answer.
What struck me so powerfully on this Easter Sunday was the extent to which we are all a family working towards a kinder world. Farm staff. Chef. Volunteers. Program staff. Tour guides. Arthur the Goat. Zeke the Sheep. Emmett the rooster. Nadine the pig. Tucker the steer. And you. Catskill Animal Sanctuary has been part of this cherished community for a decade. By now, you know that we are not a petting zoo. We are profoundly grateful that you want to understand our point of view and help to heal a world in desperate need of our collective support.
Onward, friends. We’ve got pigs to kiss and a planet to rescue.
This column originally appeared in the April 24, 2014 edition of Saugerties Times.