Lessons from my time at a vegan animal sanctuary
By H.e. Haugenes
I took an internship at a vegan animal sanctuary, thinking I could learn to raise animals in harmony with the land, without the production focus I’d get at a livestock operation. However, after just two weeks, I cut my commitment short. I had never done something like that before, but this so-called “sanctuary” didn’t feel like the sacred place of refuge I hoped it would. It left me longing for the regenerative farming community.
Before going to the sanctuary, I had this dream that my future vegetable farm would be home to a small number of rescued sheep, cows, chickens and goats that would serve ecological functions on the farm, be fun companions, and help our compost thrive. I had been vegan for seven years and wasn’t interested in breeding animals or raising them for meat. I set out to the sanctuary full of hope that I’d find the ecological paradise I sought and found my dreams quickly crushed.
I studied ecology in college, and am constantly awed by the way all creatures play a role in nature’s harmony. However, I was overwhelmed by how ecologically disconnected the sanctuary was. More than anything else, the place reminded me of a zoo - overgrazed permanent enclosures, caged-in waterfowl with no more than a mucky shared 50-gallon trough to swim in, huge amounts of hay, straw, and food trucked in, and huge amounts of shit scooped out. As I walked around the dusty lifeless yard, I should have taken the lack of any plants as my first sign that it wasn’t right for me. The land was warning me.
Prior to starting the internship, I had been working at a biodynamic farm in a vibrant regenerative cattle grazing community. The land was luscious, and I learned about the many benefits of the hard work these farmers did with their herds, not only to turn a profit but also to steward the land. At the sanctuary, I kept finding myself thinking back to the methods used in those livestock operations, and wondering if the vegans running the sanctuary even dared to engage with such concepts.
At the sanctuary they completely neglected ecology. The staff seemed to be constantly stressed to provide care, juggling disease and frankly too many animals. I was stunned to hear that the general opinion of the community there was that it is exploitative for people to use manure for soil health (even from the sanctuary). They dumped roughly 1,500 cubic feet of manure and soiled straw in an unmanaged pile weekly, which came from not only sheds and coops but also from the pastures! Daily, I was told to go into pastures, strapped up with buckets and shovels, to hunt down cow patties and horse dung (which I’ll be honest, I refused to do). This struck me as a grave disrespect to the animals and the land. Manure serves a function to the soil, but I found that the vegans at this sanctuary considered animals serving any function, even an ecological one, to be exploitation!
I saw things differently. To me, rejecting the benefits of manure was a disrespect to both the animal and the earth. While of course chicken coops and animal sheds need to be cleaned, manure should not need to be picked out of pastures so religiously. It should integrate into pastures, providing microbial abundance and nourishing the earth.
Rather than overcrowding ever-growing numbers of animals into fixed pens for the sake of saviourism, sanctuaries should center ecological harmony. They can start by taking note of the work of regenerative livestock operations. Through rotational grazing, animals can continually have fresh and diverse plants to forage, the earth can sequester carbon, biodiversity is bolstered, inputs are reduced, and disease is lowered, amongst other benefits. Different species rotating through the same pastures also reduces disease. For example, chickens eat maggots laid in cow patties, limiting parasites. Ecology benefits everyone.
Humans have removed themselves so much from the natural world; to do the same to animals is not freedom as animal rights advocates seem to suggest. Looking around the sanctuary, I found myself wondering, Do these animals fear their own deaths as much as these humans do? Do they want to be in these tiny enclosures? Do they want to be kept alive into old age by the pharmaceutical industry? Why do these humans seem so unhappy? Imposing the human obsession with longevity on animals is not freedom. Rather it means honoring that each animal belongs to the earth, and will return to the soil.
I believe vegan animal sanctuaries can intentionally shift to ecologically-minded models and honor relationships between different animal species and the land. I wonder, can we build true sanctuaries for animals that look more like ecological landscapes than glorified zoos?
H.e. Haugenes is a vegetable farming apprentice at Glynwood Farm in Cold Spring, NY, and is also a multidisciplinary artist who can be found @waterb.ug.