A barn full of animals that have nothing to fear is the most peaceful and holy place that humans can create. Surrounded by the quiet of chewing hay and slow breathing, among sheep and cows, perhaps the most enlightened species that live, a peaceful barn is as close as we can get to heaven and still be inside. A barn is the perfect setting for holiness.
A perfect setting for a lot of things, really. I love this barn. It feels vast, roomy, and open. Light and sacred, like a cathedral. It fills me with gratitude every time I think of it. I am so blessed to offer this beautiful, comfortable space to our beloved cows and sheep. Soon, the horses will join them, as well.
The setting is perfect, too. It is on a hillside, amidst rolling pastures, with a constant chorus of songbirds. PennyLove, Johnny, and I spent many an evening gazing out from that barn, watching the sun melt into a red-orange orb and drip into the purple and blue horizon. Years ago, I had a similar ritual with her mother, Penny Power. We used to walk along the meadow, shoulder to shoulder, slowing our breathing as the sun set, bowing our heads in gratitude for the day.
PennyLove wasn’t very much like her mother in any of the obvious ways, though. Penny Power was cuddly and nurturing. She loved being given baths and brushed and hugged. PennyLove was a bit more like a cat. She let you know when and how and for how long you could pet her. If you wanted to give her a hug and she didn’t want one, she’d swing her head at you as if she had horns and wasn’t shy about using them. Healthy boundaries, I’d laugh.
But something about her reminded me of her mother. I felt her mother in her, in some inexpressible way, and I found it such a comfort to have a tiny spark of Penny Power back.
I loved watching her.
I loved how the sheep revered and trusted her. I loved how her cow friends, Gus and Houdini in particular, would come to her new “retirement” quarters to visit with her. I loved her dignity and the clarity with which she let us know exactly what she wanted and needed.
I loved seeing the sun shining on her red coat. Loved the thickness and warmth of her fur. Loved her slow, careful lumbering gait.
We knew, when she needed more and more help every time she wanted to stand up, that she wouldn’t be with us much longer. For a while we had a nice system going. She’d moo a specific moo when she wanted to get up. Johnny would warm up the tractor while I got straps under her. We’d work together to shimmy the straps into the right spot, then I would attach them to the tractor, and he would raise her slowly.
PennyLove would work with us helpfully and patiently through the whole process and push her front legs up as the tractor lifted her hips. The three of us got so good at it that we could get her up in just a few minutes. And then once she was up, on the nice flat ground of her pasture and barn, she got around really well. She was slow and methodical, and it worked. She was happy. So, so happy. Contentment radiated from every pore. I was feeling optimistic. Maybe we could keep her going long enough to enjoy sweet spring grass and milder temperatures…
A barn is a great place to face the truth of things. Harsh realities seem cushioned by the soft gaze of gentle creatures that love you. One day, we raised PennyLove with the tractor, but her front legs wouldn’t hold her anymore. As I lay in a fragrant bed of hay with my beloved PennyLove, and looked into her eyes, I understood that she would never rise again.
She was content with that. Her life was complete, and it was beautiful.
PennyLove rested then. Slept with her head near mine on that huge pile of hay. Her eyes were closed. Her breathing even. The sheep sniffed gently around us, calmly knowing things that remain a mystery to me.
Our beautiful PennyLove’s life force flowed, like a great orb of red-orange light, and melted into the indigo horizon. Gently, slowly, gracefully. Achingly serene. A barn is a great place to die.
I was prepared for the stench of suffering and hopelessness in that barn. I was prepared for manure-encrusted floors and walls, for cows chained in misery, suffering silently while large eyes followed my movements. Every time I walk into a place of suffering such as this one, I leave a piece of my soul with the ones I can’t save, offering deep prayers and salty tears in exchange for a lifetime of brutality.
I was there to rescue one baby boy calf, who had been born two days before and was slated to be shipped to a veal farm later that day. But I was in for a surprise. Another calf, Ogie, had been born in the night, and the farmer was willing to allow me to take both babies home.
Ogie was born into bloodshed and death on that cold March morning, in that dark, dirty barn heated only by the manure and breath of hundreds of cows chained in stanchions. Unbeknownst to me until several days later, his mother hemorrhaged after giving birth to him, but she didn’t die right away. The farmer kept her alive, milking her for two more days while she lay covered in manure on a cold concrete floor, bleeding to death. This is not meant to be an indictment. I know the farmer was desperate. But still, it caused the cows great pain.
Ogie and Nandi would have been sold to a veal farm. This farmer told me repeatedly that he didn’t like taking babies from their mothers, and that he hated selling them for veal. He also shared with me how overwhelming his work was, and that he hated the poor conditions of the cows. He said the work was too much for him, and that he couldn’t afford help to take better care of the cows. Competing against industrial dairies, this farmer suffered almost as much as his cows. I implored him to leave the industry. Working 16-hour days and hovering just above poverty-level for his efforts, he remained convinced that there was no other way for him to survive. Family farmers, too, suffer at the hands of corporate farming. Very few people win in the harsh and strange economy of the modern “food system”.
But I don’t want to tell you about facts and figures. Those, you can find everywhere with a simple internet search.
I want to tell you how I felt when two days later I returned at the moment of Ogie’s mother’s death.
I had come hoping for milk for the babies, not knowing that Ogie’s mother had been down since giving birth. When I found her moaning in pain, covered in manure, I could see that she was fighting to stay alive. Instinctively, I knew why. Her baby. She was staying alive for her baby. I wiped the manure from her face and looked her in the eye. “Your baby is safe. I took him to Indraloka, where cows are free. I’ll care for him every day of his life, I promise you.”
She laid her head on my lap and exhaled for the last time, and in that sacred moment, I was changed. It was as if she imbued in me all of her motherly love and strength when I made that vow.
I kept my promise. I did everything I could, every day of my life from then until now, not only to keep Ogie safe but also to protect the hundreds of other mothers’ babies for whom I now care. I think of her every night and pray that I can be half the nurturer and protector she was.
Ogie was named after a close friend of mine who died just around the time of his birth. Ogema was an Anishinaabe Medicine Man from whom I learned a great deal, although probably not enough.
So, Ogie was born into bloodshed and death, but also great hope. Nandi, the calf born the day before Ogie, saved his life by leading me to him. Those two little calfs were so tiny that I was able to take them home in the back of my small SUV.
At first, Ogie was very sick and used to sleep for hours on my lap while Nandi frolicked quietly nearby. Have you ever experienced another being placing all of their trust in you? Do you know the feeling of innocent eyes looking at yours as if they are sure there is no problem in the world that you can’t solve? Have you ever breathed in the scent of a newborn, and in that breath, recognized the prayer for peace and safety that simply wafts from all innocent young beings? It made me a better person, his faith. Happily, we were able to get him the veterinary care he needed, and he soon grew strong and healthy.
For months, my days were punctuated with the big eyes and sweet moos of calfs awaiting warm milk. I had to bottle feed them at the same time, or they would jostle in an attempt at both getting their bottle first. By the time they had been with me a week, they were both the same size as me, and much, much stronger. After two weeks, they were both significantly larger than me. And of course, they just kept growing. So, I devised a system of bracing myself against the barn wall, a bottle in each hand, also braced against the wall. I was able to use the wall to hold me and the bottles steady, no matter how the calfs pushed and jostled as they nursed.
Holsteins are bred to be unnaturally large so that they can produce more milk. However, outside of a sanctuary setting, males rarely live past a few weeks. A few bulls are kept for breeding, but frozen semen is usually shipped far and wide. As a result, rarely do any of us see a full-grown Holstein male.
I knew from the day he was born that his size would probably kill him. I knew every time I fed him and scratched him and marveled at how healthy and strong he was that someday his big body would betray him.
Ogie grew to be larger than a full grown male moose, with horns. Often visitors, seeing him tower above us, feared him despite his gentle nature. All I could see were those same big baby eyes. I didn’t care how big he got, he would always be that same, sweet calf that I loved so much, and I believe that to him, I would always be the woman who tried so hard to make up for the loss of his mother. He trusted me and I would do anything for him.
So, of course, I understood that someday, he’d grow so large that his legs would no longer hold him. I just kept hoping that someday would be many, many days and years from now.
But it wasn’t.
It was a Friday morning in 2018. We found him down in the icy pasture and unable to rise. We worked for hours in the cold, trying every single way we knew how to get him up. His herd– cows, horses, a goat, and a cat– watched us anxiously, comforting him with kisses and cheering us on with looks and moos of encouragement. His eyes held fear, but also that same faith he had in me since he was a sick, little, orphaned calf. I would have given anything to get him up. A small army of humans worked alongside me, and every one of us would have gladly given all that was in us if we could have spared him this pain, or given him another day of joy.
We called experts near and far. We consulted with multiple vets. We pulled out every piece of lifesaving equipment available for cows. We used every ounce of ingenuity we could muster, and every bit of strength our pathetic little human bodies had to offer.
Finally, we were able to get equipment large enough to lift him, but his legs wouldn’t hold him up. He collapsed in a heap, moaning in pain, imploring me with his big baby eyes. Ogie wanted to live, but his body couldn’t comply. It was clear, from his attempts to stand when lifted, that one of his back hips was broken. There was nothing more we could do.
I called the vet, and together we waited. Humans, cows, horses, a goat, and cats gathered around him, all of us crying into his thick, lustrous fur. If you have never seen a cow cry, you should know that tears actually stream down their faces, just like ours. Several of our young calfs, with whom Ogie used to play so gently, sobbed aloud. The adult cows cried silently, as did I.
“Someday I’ll wish upon a star and wake up where the clouds are far behind me,” my voice broke as I tried to sing his favorite lullaby. His eyes never left mine. “Away above the chimney tops, where troubles melt like lemon drops, that’s where you’ll find me.”
I called on his mother’s spirit to take him home.
Together, we took one last gulp of delicious air. As one, we expelled it. The light faded from his eyes. The rest of us breathed on as his mother’s spirit came to gather him up and take him home.
“Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue,” I promised him, “and the dreams that we dare to dream really do come true.”
Please share your memories of Ogie, or another cow you have loved and lost, in the comments below. We love reading them!
His eyes told his whole story.
They were filled with fear and pain, but beyond all of that, just at the back, was a barely noticeable glimmer of who he used to be. Although his body was weak now, his spirit awaited an opportunity to soar once again.
His pen was covered with rusty metal farm implements, dangerous nails and glass. There was no soft or clean place for him to lay. His water tub sat empty in the harsh sunlight. His spine, ribs, and hips stood out in sharp relief. There was nothing to him but his pain. The ghost of the warrior he had once been.
The female pig with him was not as skinny or as weak. He had sacrificed himself, allowing her to take what little food was available so that she could survive.
A spark of hope seemed to awaken in him as I sang softly. Together with rescue workers from the SPCA and Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary, we were removing all of the animals from this sad, sad place.
When we offered him food and asked him to come with us, he followed gingerly and climbed into the car with no hesitation. He was very weak, and moved slowly, tentatively, but even so, he moved. We had filled the back of the SUV with soft, fragrant hay and had the air conditioning running. He lay down and sighed before launching in on the food and fresh water.
Then he slept, heavily and deeply.
On the way home, I reached back to offer him a Pink Lady apple. As he crunched into it, juice spurted from his mouth, and he threw his head back to move his floppy ears from his eyes. Looking directly into my soul, he conveyed such gratitude, such hope, such joy…I will never, ever taste an apple the same way again.
Gavin, we named him, after a very brave, strong young boy. The name Gavin comes from the Celtic “Gawain” and refers to the White Hawk of Battle, a being of such fantastic ability and skill that most fall before him in awe. An eminently suitable name for two Gavins courageously facing tremendous battles for their own lives, and doing so with great strength and Grace.
He was the sickest, the skinniest, and the saddest of all the animals we removed that day. Gavin probably would have died within days, had the humane police not gotten the warrant to seize him and the others.
And yet, less than a week after being rescued, he has learned to flop over for a belly rub. He rejoices as we humans approach, no longer cowering in fear. Unlike other recently starved animals, Gavin eats very slowly, savoring each bite. He listens in wonder as I tell him stories of Gavin the boy, or sing his special song to him (“Oh, oh, oh, he’s magic, I know… Gavin the pig he is so, so magic, I know…Never believe it’s not soo…”)
He may look like a skinny, sickly pig– one of billions left to suffer at the hands of humans. But just like each one of those billions, Gavin is a precious, sacred individual. His spirit, like that of the White Hawk, is indomitable. He will fly again in glory. Until then, we will nurse him and love him and support him and give thanks everyday for the honor of caring for him.
Please, never forget that it is because of you– your support, prayers, and kindness– that we are able to take precious beings like Gavin to safe sanctuary. He still faces tremendous odds. Gavin requires round-the-clock care and veterinary expertise. We would be so very grateful if you would help us care for him in any way that you can– share his story, donate towards his care, send him love, light and prayers.
Today is Jake’s day of glory. It’s Thanksgiving day and his spirit is flying free.
It is a good day to die.
Jake came to me with a flock of poults (baby turkeys) that were destined to be killed for Thanksgiving in 2003. I remember being spellbound by the little birds, who grew so fast that every hour they looked different. I had never known a turkey personally, and never even imagined the complex, fascinating, sensitive, curious beings I discovered them to be.
Jake never liked humans. I always took it as a great compliment that he felt free enough to eschew human company, including my own. He knew we respected him enough to understand he was his own being, free to make his own choices. We never tried to meld him into who we wanted him to be.
Jake was one of a kind. He could be a bit of a hothead at times, quick to defend when he perceived the slightest threat to his dominion. He protected his flock valiantly. Jake cherished his freedom, and enjoyed each day to its fullest. Even on the day before he died, Jake dozed in the sunshine, sought tasty delicacies in the grass, and hung out with his pig and turkey buddies.
Jake’s best friends were Tom (another Turkey), and Selick, a blind, elderly pig. Years ago, when Selick first came to us, we tried to have him live with other pigs, but each night, Selick broke out of the pig enclosure and into Jake and Tom’s pen. So, Jake and Tom got a new roommate.
Early this Thanksgiving morning, Jake succumbed to a heart attack. He died quickly, with his best friends, Tom and Selick, by his side.
Jake was one of very few free turkeys on this earth. He was much beloved and tenderly cared for every day of his life. Among the oldest turkeys alive, it is nothing short of a miracle that he died a beautiful, peaceful death in the company of family and friends on Thanksgiving Day.
Today, I give thanks for the blessing of having had Jake in my life. I pray that all turkeys will someday be free to live as the sacred beings that they are. I pray that every human will someday know the joy of nurturing, encouraging, and protecting life in all of its varied and beautiful forms.
Today is your day of glory, my precious Jake. My heart soars with your spirit. You lived free and died free. I am deeply, deeply grateful to you for walking with me for this brief time.
Hoka hey, my beloved familiar. It is a good day to die.
They lay helplessly before us, innocent babies. It was clear that they had suffered greatly in their short lives. Covered in open wounds and excrement, malnourished, with misery in their eyes, they were too weak to stand.
The tiniest of the three cried in pain. Instinctively, I scooped her up and cradled her close to my heart. Her panicked heartbeat slowed to match my own. I tried to convey, with my eyes, that she was safe now—that she was loved. She turned her head to mine, her gentle brown eyes filled with wonderment. This might have been the first loving touch she experienced in her life. Harika, we named her- Sanskrit for “beloved of Indra”.
Gently, I touched the huge wound on this tiny girl’s neck. She cocked her head to the left ever so slightly, seeming to be aware that I was sorry for her pain. I moved my hands slowly over her body, assessing the damage. At each wound or bruise I stopped and said a silent prayer. Her eyes held mine and she nodded her head minutely each time. I felt gently along the splayed legs that would not hold her. I touched her yellowed skin, most likely jaundiced due to blood loss. I felt her keel bone through her skinny little frame.
Then I just hugged her close to my heart again, feeling her tiny heart beat against mine while I prayed for all those beautiful babies that never make it out… all those turkeys who suffer each day of their short lives. Forty-five million innocent babies, every Thanksgiving, are raised in unspeakable conditions, never to hear a kind word or feel a gentle touch… never to experience sunlight on their feathers, fresh air, or grass and soil beneath them.
But this one, this one made it out. How or why, I don’t know. Fairly often, we get these rescues, lucky ones who somehow escape and wind up where good, caring people find them and bring them to us. I imagined she fell off of a truck- it would explain her splayed legs- but who knows? Maybe she was dropped as she was being packed into a crate for transport. Maybe she was asleep and, looking as she does, was mistaken for dead and thrown in the trash.
It didn’t matter. All that mattered in that moment were those eyes looking into mine with what I can only describe as trust, and that little heartbeat against mine. I can never explain this feeling in words- this moment when everything disappears and all that is left is me and a little life depending on me.
What could I ever have done to receive such blessings? Such a miracle as this perfect, perfect little child gifting me with her trust, when nothing and no one in her short life ever gave her reason to feel anything but fear?
I began to spin dreams for her, speaking to her of a long life ahead. Days of lolling in the sunshine and playing with other turkeys. Years of healthy meals and a clean, warm place to sleep. Of humans who would hold her in their laps and pet her as we do a beloved cat, listening to her soft purrs and smiling at her joy. Together, we dreamed of the beautiful life before her. Her eyes never left mine. I believed she was spellbound, and as hopeful as I.
Only a day or two in, we noticed that her leg was getting worse instead of better. She seemed to be in more pain when we tried to give her physical therapy, or even place her in a sling. The pain medication may have helped a bit, but it was clear that she was far from pain-free. Her brother, Habibah (Swahili for beloved), was also faring poorly. We decided to consult with the avian experts at an esteemed veterinary hospital. The third baby, Hadaaya (beloved in Arabic), seemed to be doing better, happily, so we decided to leave her at home at the sanctuary.
Their appointment was on Wednesday, the sixth day we had them. So, on Tuesday, despite the strict quarantine under which we place all new residents, we took the three babies outside, in an area far from any other birds. One by one, I felt them relax in my arms as they felt sunlight on their backs, most likely for the first time. I set them on the grass and smiled, listening to their delighted coos and purrs. The color on their heads and necks turned red and blue- a visible way for them to express their joy (sort of like a human smiling).
With me was a woman with a huge heart. She was new to farm animal rescue, and she was appalled. “Who would do this to them?” she kept asking. Everyone, I explained, just about everyone– everyone who ever eats turkey, everyone who knows what they go through and does not demand that it stop, everyone who says, “I can’t think about that,” and turns away from suffering. I told her about how most animals used by the food industry are routinely raised. She was shocked, and kept repeating, “People need to know. If they knew, they’d make it illegal. They wouldn’t support it.”
So here I am, telling all who will listen. This is happening, and no one will stop it if we don’t. Please, please, please, for the babies’ sake, please help us stop this. This is wrong. No one should suffer like this.
It was such a miracle that these three got out alive, somehow, and were in the sunshine with people who loved them, their whole lives stretched out before them. They were happy. They were free. They were beloved and they felt it.
If only for that moment.
At the hospital, we learned that Harika and Habibah were too far gone. Their pain would only grow, and there was no hope of fixing their legs. Given that theses types of turkeys grow to be very large, we knew their problems would only become worse. I have often thought that the heart of sanctuary work is to be selfless enough to give them a good death. So, although it pained us greatly, we made the choice that was best for them.
Hadaaya, the third baby bird, is continuing her recovery at the sanctuary, with lots of TLC. In the absence of her siblings, she has lots of toys and human attention. Just as soon as her quarantine is complete, she will join another flock of baby birds we rescued recently. Her days will be filled with all of the freedoms and pleasures Harika and I dreamed of together, and Harika and Habibah’s spirits will live on through her, and in our hearts.
One day of sunshine was all I could give them- my beloved Harika and her sweet brother Habibah.
Six days of love and one day of sunshine. And I trust that was enough.
It was the perfect weather to fall in love. Sun shone from a deep blue sky, while the wind played gently with my hair. Sunflowers reached towards the light, wildflowers bloomed in the meadows, and there she was, standing before me.
Her chocolate eyes were soft and playful. Her red coat gleamed in the sun. Muscles rippled as she walked. Gently, the giant warmblood reached down to place her nose against my heart, resting there for several breaths.
I met Catera on early on the morning of September 11, 2001. By the time the planes had crashed into the buildings, I was already in love—and horrified to hear the news on the barn radio. How could anything so vicious happen on such a beautiful day?
People told me, repeatedly, that I was too inexperienced to adopt a “green” horse. At the time, I had not yet given up riding horses. I hired trainer after trainer, and gave all that I had to learn to ride this giant of a being, but instead I broke many bones.
The first time, she broke into a gallop in an open field. I lost my seat, catapulted over her head, and landed on my head in front of her. She tried so hard to avoid stepping on me that she injured herself. I broke my occipital bone, cracked a rib, broke my shoulder, and tore my rotator cuff. Another fall from her back fractured my neck.
There was not a single person in my life that did not advocate for me to either euthanize Catera or to return her to the rescue she had come from. But I couldn’t do it. I had given her “Indra’s Lifetime Guarantee”. From the time I was a child, this is what I called it when I committed to an animal. My lifetime guarantee was that I would never give up on them, that I would love them no matter what, and that I would lay down my life in defense of theirs. She had my word. If I lost every person in my life, or every bone in my body, so be it.
I did not do this to be a martyr. I did it because I believed that we can only be redeemed – I can only be redeemed– through a pure, selfless love. Catera was giving me the opportunity to redeem myself.
Over time, spending hours and hours with her, I began to understand her better, and learned to adjust my behavior to meet her needs. She did not like being ridden—especially in a ring.
On the other hand, she loved taking me for a ride in the woods—and by that I mean she made the choices about when and where we would go. We used to disappear together for hours. When I relaxed and gave up control about where we would go, and at what speed, she began to trust and take care of me.
On our adventures, we got close to many, many wild animals that never would have trusted me to approach them on foot.
Once, she stepped on a ground wasp nest, and we both were stung multiple times. Even then, she did not bolt or rear or throw me. She calmly walked away from the bees. We had twin swollen faces for weeks.
Another time, when crossing a creek, we wound up in a tar pit. Instead of moving forward with each stroke of her powerful legs, we were sinking downwards. I swam around to her face and asked her not to move, and to wait until I could get help. She stayed still, patiently waiting, and then allowed herself to be tied with ropes and pulled out.
She used to love to open gates and barn doors. One of her favorite activities was to roll in the mud and then let herself into the barn where she would roll in pine shavings. I would find her in the barn covered in pine shavings with a goofy grin on her face.
She used to put her head against my chest and fall asleep while I rubbed her ears and called her “pretty girl”. Her head was the size of my entire torso.
Almost 15 years went by, and our trust and friendship deepened. Catera grew into the role of benevolent alpha mare and gentle giant.
Early one morning just a few weeks ago, I saw that something was not right with Catera. Her heart was racing, she appeared weak and in tremendous pain. I called the vet and began to run a wash cloth soaked in cold water along her body, trying to soothe her and bring her temperature down. It was nearly 100 degrees that day, and her body temperature continued to rise dangerously, along with her heart rate.
I stood her, soaking wet, in front of a powerful fan and tried to keep her calm while we waited for the vet. After a thorough exam, he diagnosed an impaction of the large intestine. He gave her medication for the pain, and threaded a tube through her nose, pumping mineral oil and water through her GI tract, in the hopes that it would help resolve the impaction.
And then the waiting began. Either the impaction would resolve and she would get better, or she would need surgery to keep her alive. Until a few years ago, Catera experienced similar impactions at least once annually, and it always resolved on its own. So, the vet and I thought her chances were decent.
Per the doctor’s order, I left her in a stall with lots of water to drink, and instructions for everyone to check on her frequently, while I led a tour. The people were lovely, as they always are, and despite the heat, I hoped they and the animals enjoyed each other’s company.
As soon as they got in their cars, I was back in the barn to check on my girl. What I saw will never leave my mind. My beautiful, strong, kind girl was belly up, with her feet too close to the wall to be able to move, breathing rapidly. The whites of her eyes revealed the extent of her fear.
Even then, she trusted me enough to wait while I got help and materials to get her back on her feet. With our heroic team assembled, we tied ropes around her legs and rolled her over.
She was a big girl, well over 1500 pounds. Her powerful back legs were too heavy for me to roll, even using all of my body weight. However, I did not want to place anyone else in the corner of a stall rolling a big, potentially flailing horse. Finally, we decided to have someone else stand behind me. Between an intern at her front end, the two of us at the rear, and two more caregivers pushing from the other side, we were able to roll her over. As she attempted to get her feet back under her, our intern and I jumped out of the way as planned. However, the young man who was standing behind me was not quick enough. One of her back feet grazed his chest and slammed into his chin.
His t-shirt ripped, he stood panting beside the panting horse. I wasn’t sure who to take care of first. “Are you ok? Can you breathe? Do you need an ambulance?” Miraculously, he was ok, but we did arrange for him to rest for the remainder of the day and ice his injuries.
Catera, on the other hand, was no better. We took her into the paddock, thinking in the larger space she would be safer. Every 20 minutes, we hosed her down. She refused all offers of water, and food was out of the question.
At 5pm, she went down again, this time with her feet stuck in the gate.
All but one team member had left. I couldn’t imagine how the two of us alone would have the strength to roll her again, but we had to try. I tied the ropes around her legs, and miraculously, our strongest volunteer (who was not scheduled to be here) appeared. A power lifter with a deep love for all of the animals, she was easily able to roll Catera’s back end, while I rolled her front end. We called the vet again, and this time his examination revealed that her large intestine was displaced, a life threatening situation.
The vet called the hospital to provide background to the doctors and our heroic volunteer kindly agreed to come along with me. Catera was terrified, but once again, chose to trust me. She followed me into the trailer and we were off on the three-hour drive to save her life.
Forty-five minutes away from the hospital, Catera could be heard trembling and flailing in the trailer. We pulled over and found her shaking uncontrollably. A call to the vet confirmed the dire nature of her condition. We were instructed to give her more pain medication and get to the hospital as fast as we could. The valiant trailer driver drove the trailer safely and confidently, in a lightning storm, in the dark, on winding roads, faster than I dared drive in my little, easy to manage vehicle.
On arrival, a team of earnest and caring veterinary professionals was ready for her. She fell as she made her way off of the trailer. By then, she was clearly incoherent, and barely able to stand at all. They worked valiantly to keep her on her feet long enough to start her on IV fluids.
But it was too late.
Her huge body crashed to the ground as she began to seize right there in the hospital’s entrance hallway. The kind vet asked for permission to euthanize her. If we did not, she would die painfully. I agreed.
With my hands on her head, my beautiful girl’s huge spirit gathered into her eyes, and with a last look, she was gone.
The trembling calf hid in the brush, peering out fearfully. Finally, lured out with the promise of a bottle, he sucked hungrily. He was less than half the size he should have been, stunted from malnourishment and trauma. His red coat was lackluster, with big patches of hair missing along his bony spine. Fleas and lice crawled over him, while flies painfully bit at his exposed wounds. Manure encrusted his tail. He was little more than a skeleton, every bone clearly visible.
His eyes, though. Oh! His eyes! Big, round, deep brown eyes gazed through achingly beautiful long lashes. Even as he sucked at the bottle, he watched warily, ready to bolt. This calf had already learned, in his short, painful month on earth, not to trust.
In the car on the way home, he leaned into my touch despite his misgivings. Soon, his desperate need for affection overcame his fear, and he laid his head on my lap, sighing with relief. We named him Moksha, which means liberation. I smiled to myself, knowing that soon, he’d be with Penny.
Penny is a wise, wonderful, elderly cow whose nurturing instincts extend to the young of every species. She had been raised on a beef farm, bred yearly. Each time, she loved her babies, and each time they were taken from her. She came to us in 2007 and is now in her mid-twenties. Of course, we would still bottle feed the baby, but she could provide motherly love. Finally, Penny would have a baby she could keep. And Mookie would have all of the love he so needed.
When we introduced them, tears rolled down Penny’s face, and her udders became enlarged, despite the fact that she had not given birth for at least seven years. We could see that something was wrong, and were glad we already had the vet scheduled to come out the next morning.
In the meantime, Mookie was refusing his bottle and having trouble settling in. All he wanted was affection from Penny, but Penny just cried and turned away. By morning, Mookie was nursing on Penny, clearly causing her tremendous pain. But Penny, being Penny, withstood the pain and treated him kindly.
Her eyes seemed glassy. She clearly wasn’t well. A closer look made it clear that Penny had rapidly developed mastitis, an infection of the teats which can be life threatening.
We separated the two and awaited the vet anxiously.
When Dr. Elena arrived, she was all business. Penny’s condition was advancing far too aggressively and we had to act fast. I sighed as life-saving medication was administered intravenously– not knowing that the worst was yet to come.
We moved on to treat the calf, whose numerous health problems also required urgent care. Crouched beside him on the ground, we conferred on the best course of treatment, discussing the pros and cons of our options. Suddenly, Penny was looming above us, unsteady on her feet, eyes unfocused, and saliva pouring from her mouth.
She was about to fall on the calf, all 2,000 plus pounds of her. And Mookie was too weak to get up. We tried to lift him, but he struggled and fell back to the ground. Penny took an unsteady step closer. At any second, she would fall and crush us all.
Two strong volunteers who had been hovering nearby came to our aid, and carried Mookie out of harm’s way just before Penny collapsed. Rushing to her side, we found her heart pounding, her fever skyrocketing, and her udders strangely, excessively, expanding.
Dr. Elena acted fast, giving Penny a steroid to help her body fight the lethal infection coursing through her blood. I do not like pharmaceuticals, and avoid using them with the animals at all costs. Yet at this point, I had to trust in the doctor’s wisdom. This was our beloved Penny. The beautiful, wise, grand dame who acts as the heartbeat of the sanctuary, whose compassion and calm have comforted so many humans and other animals, who gives and teaches and loves unstintingly. And it seemed that she was dying.
She leaned her massive head against my chest and cried in pain, her chest heaving. Her eyes rolled back in her head. All I could do was hold her and pray. Mookie looked on, distraught. Would the poor baby lose a second mother in his short life?
Silence descended on the farm, even the songbirds stopped chirping. Time stood still and the universe collapsed into the pained eyes of this one, marvelous, blessed, perfect being. This cow. This Divine Mother.
We waited an eternity in those few moments.
And then slowly, Penny’s eyes rolled back into place and focused on mine. Her breathing slowed. “Thirsty,” she weakly mooed.
We brought her water and she drank deeply, sat back, and sighed.
Penny lived. Mookie lived. Both are still fighting to recover as I write this, but their hearts are still beating, pumping blood through their veins. They are both breathing, giving their all to beat the odds. And together, they face the unimaginable task of recovering from the physical and emotional traumas that humanity routinely inflicts on cows.
The vet will return tomorrow. We will continue to bottle feed, nurse, medicate, and comfort. And we pray that Penny and Mookie survive to help one another heal their wounded souls.
Words escape. Words are wispy, vague, slippery. A thousand– even a million– of them cannot paint a picture of a life and a love and a death and a joy, a being full of rich complexity and glorious simplicity. The wonder and the grief and the gratitude and the billion hallowed moments that make up a life are so essentially related, so fully interconnected, it renders that life unutterable. One wordless love.
Nearly fifteen years ago, I set out to change the world with two goats by my side. One was all sweetness and harmony, the other was all impishness and shenanigans. Both had eyes that glimmered with mischief and senses of humor that were subtle, complex, and silly.
These little goats were my family, my friends, my confidants, my loved ones, my little devils. Truer than any human loved one has ever been– could ever be. These goats were my home.
And now they are my past. My memories. My spirit friends.
My goats are gone.
Ruckus and Hootenanny were young when their first family decided, after only a few months, that having goats wasn’t such a good idea after all. They had tried to keep these intelligent, rowdy, energetic, mischievous little rascals in a tiny pen. As a result, they broke out constantly to wreak havoc on the garden. Finally, the people found a way to lock them in the pen so they could not escape. And the little goats just cried and cried, not understanding what they had done to cause them to be held prisoner in this way.
Finally in frustration, the people gave up the goats. And I was lucky enough to get them. I gave them a huge pasture, an airy barn, a jungle gym, and we played constantly. What fun those little devils were! It was impossible not to laugh in their presence, so full of comedy was their every move.
But the days wore on. I became much less carefree and no longer played with them. And they went from being two of my only farm animals to be two of nearly 200. They kept having fun. I never tried to fence them in– they free ranged over the whole farm, and yet never left the property, taking great joy in their liberty.
Months have passed since I wrote these words, since I set Ruckus’ spirit free. And still words escape me.
It is not that I mourn him; it is that I cannot describe, with mere words, who he was to me– who he was to the world, who he still is and ever will be.
His death was beautiful and peaceful. He faced it fearlessly, with his two closest two-leggeds at his side. He knew he was loved; he knew it was his time. My dear, sweet Ruckus had no regrets and neither do I. I did what I set out to do. I gave him– and beloved Hootenanny, who crossed over a year before him— a good life and a good death.
This is my job and I do it quite well. And yet…
My goats are gone.
Ruckus believed in me. He had faith in me. He stood by me lovingly, unwaveringly, through the dark times, times when I struggled to care for my growing flock of orphans, when it was just me and the animals, alone on the mountain. And he remained steadfast even as he watched the light come back into our lives– as he watched the sanctuary– and me– bloom.
I remember one day, very early on, when I despaired of ever succeeding in this mad experiment of plucking as many lives as possible from hopeless pits and giving them the freedom to experience a joyful, natural life. It was the deepest part of winter– when the sky darkens in these mountains as early at 3:00 pm.
One of my beloved goats, Hullabaloo, had been killed by predators. Her blood stained the snow and ice. I locked them in every night for safety, but she had found a way out in search of mischief. If I had been more adept at fixing things, I could have created an escape-proof pen, and she would have lived. Further, I had not even heard her being attacked. I had vowed to protect her, and instead, she was eaten alive.
I fell to the icy ground, wind howling around me, and sobbed. I was unfit for this task. I couldn’t go on. After I was all cried out, I made my way heavily into the barn to finish my chores.
And there was Ruckus, gazing at me steadily, faithfully. He trusted me to care for him– to care for all of them. He believed in me, and I could not let him down. In order to live up to the trust of that little goat, I found the strength and help I needed, and banished the darkness.
Through the years, I often found Ruckus’ calm eyes on me. His faith never wavered. There is something that happens to you– or at least it did to me– when someone places their faith in you so wholeheartedly. You find inner power you never knew you had. You draw on all of your reserves and you find a way to live up to that trust.
I set out to save him, and he set me up to save hundreds more. That one little goat has changed so many lives. And I have realized, as I write this, that he knew I was ready. He wouldn’t have left if he did not know, for certain, that I was strong enough to go on. That I have the faith I need, and know who I am.
Beautiful spirit. Beautiful goat. Treasure of my heart, my gratitude will never cease.
This song of mine will wind its music around you, my child, like
the fond arms of love.
This song of mine will touch your forehead like a kiss of
When you are alone it will sit by your side and whisper in
your ear, when you are in the crowd it will fence you about with
My song will be like a pair of wings to your dreams, it will
transport your heart to the verge of the unknown.
It will be like the faithful star overhead when dark night is
over your road.
My song will sit in the pupils of your eyes, and will carry
your sight into the heart of things.
And when my voice is silent in death, my song will speak in
your living heart.
– Rabindranath Tagore
That’s how long it has been since every pig I have ever known was killed or left behind to be killed another day. Not a single one will survive, save me. It’s hard to explain all that is happening in my heart right now.
The outpouring of love and care for me has been overwhelming and humbling. But I am just one, among so many. Why me? At moments, the grief and guilt are nearly crippling. At other moments, I am exhilarated to be alive and free.
I need to make this life count. I need to speak for all of the other pigs still held in cages, living in misery as they await death. So, I am going to tell my story to all who will listen. I want to make it clear: my story is their story. I am not special or different or somehow smarter than the others. We pigs all think and feel and love and dream. And if you think that I deserve safe sanctuary just because I took a leap of faith, I am here to say that every other pig deserves the same.
The thing is, it is you that needs to take a leap of faith now. It is up to you to free them by leaping into the unknown and creating a world in which we can all coexist.
Look into my eyes, I am the same as you.
I am you.
A week ago Thursday was moving day. A long day, but a wonderful one! The angel who stayed with me on the highway and protected me after I jumped off of the truck was here to greet me. I liked him so much that they named me after him. Eddie Traffic. It sounds cool, doesn’t it? I am no longer a number.
Since then my life has shifted dramatically from the way it was before I leapt! I am no longer caged, nor even kept in a small pen. I make my own choices about going inside and out. I am no longer fed “slops”, and I have learned to eat lots of healthy fresh veggies with whole grain and fruit. I must say the fruit is my favorite– the juicier the better!
At first when they told me I could just go in and out on my own whenever I wanted, I was a bit confused. I was never allowed to move around and make my own choices before, so I was even scared of the step from the barn into the paddock.
But leaps of faith are my specialty. Now I jump in and out of the barn dozens of times a day. What fun to make my own choices! What fun to be free, and loved, and alive! This gratitude– this grace– fills me up and spills out of me and all I can do is run and jump — something I also was never able to do before– until I am panting and exhausted. And then guess what happens? I go back to my soft, warm bed and rest while someone kind strokes my back and sings lullabies. All the while Sherman, the valiant rooster, watches over me as if I were his own piglet.
Beloved. This is what it feels like to be beloved.
The mailbox and the Facebook page are flooded with love letters daily, and they read every one to me. People from around the world write to tell me how much my freedom means to them. So many of them feel caged and stuck in their own lives. Somehow, my story has touched them and brought them hope. I am humbled and overwhelmed, and most of all so very thankful that hearing of my struggles and victory can help others overcome their own challenges.
I’ve made several new friends here already. Sherman has taken it upon himself to precede me wherever I go inside the barn and the pasture, heralding my arrival to everyone in hearing range. It’s a bit over the top, really, but much nicer than how I used to be treated.
Nunzi, the grumpy, old pig next door tried to bite my nose a few times. I didn’t care, but Sherman was fairly put off by the whole exchange. In my old life, I never even got to touch another pig, so I just think of these as love bites.
I think my favorite new pig friend is Magdie. She is a she is soft and gentle and patient and reminds me of what my mother would probably have been like as an old woman. She sings, too.
I like the people here. Every once in a while if someone moves too quickly, it brings up bad memories and startles me, but I really do love all of the attention they give me.
One more really important thing happened since I got here! I took the tag out of my ear. It hurt because my ear was infected, but it is out now and they keep cleaning my ear and putting soothing stuff on it. I kind of like being pampered this way.
Beloved. I am not only free, but also beloved!
So here I am, this is my path. This is my journey. This is our journey. You and I are both survivors, and our job now is to speak for all the others.
Your job now is to take your own leap of faith. What will it be?
It has been seven days since I took a leap of faith and found myself, just a simple pig from New Jersey, the center of international attention.
People keep asking me what my name is, which is funny because in my old life no one but my mother ever showed interest in calling me by name. They tell me that the tag in my ear says 303, but I know that is not who I am.
The people here are calling me Porky, and I know from the way that they say it that they mean it affectionately, but that is not my name, either. My mother had a wonderful name for me, but it has been so long since I have seen her that I can’t quite remember it. It slides onto the tip of my tongue every once in a while, but before I can get it out, it dashes back into the corners of my mind, just beyond where I can reach it. I know it will come back soon, though. And as soon as it does, you will be the first to know.
The other thing everyone keeps asking is, “What happened, how did you find yourself on a busy highway in the middle of rush hour traffic?”
Simple. I jumped.
The place I came from was dark, and life was hard there. Those days are over and I do not intend to relive them, but I do want to tell you about the light and smell that kept me going. We pigs lived in a dark and dank barn, but everyday, when the farmers came in to feed us, I saw a light beyond the briefly opened door, and I smelled wonderful adventures wafting in with the fresh air.
Somehow I knew, I just knew, that light and those smells were the freedom we pigs all longed for. And I knew beyond a doubt that someday I would be a free pig.
Most of the other pigs had given up hope, but I remembered my mother singing to me when I was a baby, “Sometimes, I feel like an eagle in flight…” Her song floated through the stillness of the dark barn where we piglets nursed and settled on us as softly as a feather. “Sometimes, I feel like an eagle in flight. Sometimes, I feel like an eagle in flight, spread my wings and fly, spread my wings and fly.” In her rich alto voice, hope mingled with tender mother love and the calm wisdom that sometimes comes from long-suffering.
My mother told us piglets about eagles who fly farther than we could see, about sunlight, grass, and best of all, mud. She told us that pigs at our farm used to live like that– outside– free to feel sunshine on our skin, to dig up delicious roots with our noses, and to roll around in grass and mud, enjoying all that the beautiful world outside had to offer. My mother told us that if we kept those images deep in our hearts, we could be free in our spirits.
That was a long time ago. I was still just a baby when the farmers loaded her up onto a truck and took her away. We never heard from her again, but I have never stopped imagining her a free pig. I just knew that someday I would gain my freedom as well.
My opportunity came last week. The farmers loaded me onto a truck with several others. I was grown up enough by now to know that they were not taking us to our freedom. And yet, through the wooden slats in the back of the truck, I saw light and smelled that air. I started working on the wooden slats with my nose. After awhile, I pushed several loose– enough for me to squeeze through.
“Hey guys,” I yelled to the other pigs, “now is our chance. Let’s jump!”
But the other pigs were too scared. I squeezed through the slats and half fell, half leapt all alone. The truck was going pretty fast, and I tumbled hard on the cold, wet highway. Cars were speeding by. The noise was deafening. I was beginning to regret my decision to jump and didn’t know what to do next.
That’s when he came along– I never did catch his name and I still think that maybe he was an angel and not a human at all. He maneuvered a huge truck around me to shield me from the traffic and most of the noise. He spoke to me gently. He told me that I was safe, that help was coming to take me someplace dry and warm. He told me no one would ever hurt me again. For hours we sat like that, the cold December rain sluicing down our faces, cars whizzing around us, and him talking to me in a soft voice, spinning dreams of freedom. I could almost feel my mother smiling down on us.
The next thing I knew, a whole lot of people were there. They loaded me onto another truck and took me to the barn where I am now. This barn is lighter than the one I used to live in, and I have been given a pen filled with soft, warm straw. Lots of people came to look at and admire me when I arrived.
At first, I had a hard time understanding what it was they admired about a lost little pig, but as the hubbub died down, humans came to talk to me one by one. In the quiet of the barn with only us farm animals to hear, they poured out their thoughts, feelings, and dreams. I began to understand.
The human heart is so similar to my own.
So here I am. I am told that soon I will be moving to a new place, called Indraloka Animal Sanctuary. It is a place where pigs, sheep, cows, and all kinds of farm animals live free. Where humans are our friends and we all have a chance to enjoy life’s wonderful adventures, like wallowing in soft mud and lolling in sweet pasture grass.
Before I go there, I am told I need more doctor’s visits and tests. They plan to move me around the middle of next week, and in the meantime the people here are very nice and are keeping me safe and warm.
Freedom is just around the next corner, and I just know I will remember my name when I get there!