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Howdy: a potbellied pig.

To Animals, With Love

 

Six years after cofounding Catskill Animal Sanctuary, a haven for farm animals, Kathy Stevens has turned her life-changing experiences into a book

By Shawn Stone

Photos by Shannon Decelle

If a goat can be described as “fresh-faced,” then young Zen Sunshine is that goat. His white fur is downy, and there doesn’t seem to be a speck of dirt or mud on him. Leaping on and around a series of benches by a fenced-in area for older goats and pigs, he’s full of joyous mischief as a Catskill Animal Sanctuary staff member coaxes him toward an adjacent fenced-in field. He’s not big enough to be in with the big goats, playing “king of the mountain” with his brother (and sister) goats on their own rock pile, so Zen Sunshine spends most of his time hanging out with ducks.

These fields are not far from the entrance to CAS, which is located just a couple of miles off Route 9W, south of downtown Saugerties. Zen Sunshine is just one of over 1,000 abused, neglected or abandoned farm animals (and their offspring) who have found a home, permanent or temporary, on these gently rolling acres, which look so quintessentially bucolic on an early summer day.

From this vantage point, one can see the main barn, a pond, another special area for pigs, a row of giant willows and a bunny house (identifiable from the handsome bunny portrait on the structure’s side). There are fields beyond for horses and cows.

Good friends: Stevens with Murphy, the dog; Buddy, a blind horse; and a CAS volunteer.

Zen Sunshine isn’t noticing any of this, however; he wants to play. Lorraine Roscino, the staffer, is indulging him while being careful to avoid being thigh-butted by the little goat and his budding horns. This is for a very good reason. Kathy Stevens, director and founder of Catskill Animal Sanctuary, smiles and points to a large, purplish bruise on her leg which resulted from Zen Sunshine’s playful nature. (To borrow a line from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “though [he] is but little, he is fierce!”) He’s only a few months old, but, in goat-years, that means Zen Sunshine “is in his ‘terrible twos,’ ” explains Stevens.

The goat will soon be less “terrible,” however. Stevens sees another dedicated CAS regular, Walt Batycki, walking out of the barn, and asks when the young goat is being neutered.

“July 13,” Batycki says, and adds, chuckling, “Friday the 13th isn’t his lucky day!”

It can be argued, however, that every day is a lucky day for the critters who wind up at Catskill Animal Sanctuary. Watching Stevens, a few staff members and a phalanx of volunteers come and go on this warm-and-getting-warmer morning, it’s easy to appreciate the dedication required to do this kind of work. (Not to mention thousands of members, nearly 100 volunteers and a $250,000 annual budget.) After all, this is, essentially, a working animal farm, except that the animals get more than food and care—they are genuinely loved. And they don’t end up on a plate or on someone’s back. They live out their days in peace.

The interactions between Stevens, the other folks and the animals is immediately striking. Of course the people are kind and solicitous of the animals; every animal is greeted with an endearment and given a hug or rub. They’re kind with each other, too. The overall vibe is (at the risk of sounding like a hippie) one of peace and harmony.

It’s this sense of respect and love that Stevens wants to convey with her recently published memoir of life at CAS, Where the Blind Horse Sings.

The book details the origins of the sanctuary: Stevens, who had grown up on a farm and had, as an adult, spent many rewarding years as a public-school teacher, was looking for a new direction. She decided she wanted to work with animals, and she concluded that the best way was through an animal sanctuary.

The book tells the six-year chronology of CAS through the stories of its animals. There is “ancient” Dino, a small, 40- something horse who escaped a Brooklyn barn fire that clamed the lives of 23 stable mates. While he suffered permanent damage to his lungs and one eye, Dino hangs in there, befriended by Big Ted, a former workhorse who towers over him, and Rambo, a horned sheep who is “in charge” of the animals who live in the main barn. Stevens devotes a great deal of space to Rambo, too, and for good reason—his transformation from raging, angry alpha sheep to the “elder statesman” is one of the most remarkable in the book.

Deftly, Stevens also uses the stories of these creatures as a way to raise issues about modern agribusiness, and the factory farms that produce almost all of the meat and dairy we consume. Sitting on one of those benches near the goat-and-pig field, Stevens says that “my job is to get the wheels turning” in people’s minds.

“A lot of people fall back on ‘it’s just a chicken’ or whatever,” she says.

Be nice: Stevens with frisky Zen Sunshine.

It’s not “just a chicken” to Stevens; one thing she has come to know through this experience is that animals have feelings. And the way we treat them—cramming chickens and pigs into tight enclosures until “harvest” time, with no quality of life, or working horses (like Big Ted) until they’re worn out, and then selling them to a slaughterhouse to end up “on a plate in France”—does grievous injury to both farm animals and us.

Through CAS’ weekend tours and educational outreach programs, Stevens hopes to spread the consciousness that “every life has merit. . . . For people to see animals as something other than a burger on a plate”

“A lot of animal-rights people just talk about the suffering,” Stevens notes, but the other part of the equation is just as important: recognizing that animals have a capacity for social interaction. That pigs and goats and ducks aren’t ‘dumb animals’, but experience trust and joy.

While Stevens is explaining all this, a potbellied pig edges near her and this reporter. She greets him with a warm “hi, Claude.”

“He’s our most abused potbellied pig,” she says. “He was repeatedly kicked [by his former owners]. . . . It took him months to trust that no one would kick him. He’s just now coming around people he doesn’t know.”

Claude, it seems, is near the end of a journey that is common among the animals at Catskill Animal Sanctuary.

“They go from being absolutely terrified of all of us,” Stevens says, “to figuring out that none of the staff or volunteers will hurt them, to knowing they’ll always be safe.”

They realize that no one—not even the parade of strangers on weekends, or the odd reporter—is going to hurt them.

“It’s wonderful work,” Stevens smiles.

sstone@metroland.net

Tours of Catskill Animal Sanctuary, which is located at 316 Old Stage Road in Saugerties, are offered every Saturday and Sunday from 11 AM to 4 PM through Oct. 31. Stevens’ book, Where the Blind Horse Sings, is available at www.casanctuary.org and www.blind horsesings.com.


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