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Photo courtesy of Farm Sanctuary

She’s been called a “farm animal whisperer” and “the heart” of Farm Sanctuary. As the National Shelter Director of the organization―which rescues, rehabilitates, and houses abused and neglected animals in California and New York―Susie Coston oversees a staff of caregivers, feeders, cleaners, and project workers to ensure that the hundreds of farmed animals at the sanctuary receive the best possible care at every stage of their lives. It’s an enormous responsibility, and Susie is constantly in demand, yet she is always happy to offer support and counsel to other advocates working on behalf of animals.

Since joining the Farm Sanctuary team in 2000, Susie has assisted in rescuing countless cows, pigs, chickens, and other animals most people eat, and she has become a leading authority on animal care and behavior. Based at Farm Sanctuary’s Watkins Glen, NY, location, she may be one of the busiest people in the movement, but she is very generous with her time, and I am extremely grateful she paused long enough to offer her insights about sanctuary work and advice for other activists.

For anyone thinking of working, interning, or volunteering at a sanctuary for farmed animals, can you talk a little about the emotional highlights and struggles of this work?

The animals we care for are animals from the food industry, many who have been changed through selective breeding and genetics to live shorter lives, grow faster, produce more eggs or milk, etc., so because of this we are already up against these changes when we are attempting to have them live long, happy lives. Also, there are not solutions for all their conditions. Since they are culled [by the animal ag industry] when they get certain viral diseases, so many of the conditions they arrive with are not treatable but instead are managed. Bottom line is that euthanasia and death are part of farm animal rescue. We do everything you can possibly do, and luckily we have the best school in the country for our animals: Cornell. We have brought animals from California to Cornell since they are so much more advanced with the type of procedures we do. When these animals were bred for fast growth, short lives based on slaughter age, etc., the thing that did not change is that they are loving, amazing, sentient beings, so the loss is incredibly hard. It is the hardest part of the position. There is a sense of guilt that comes from not being able to fix the unfixable.

The second hardest is that these animals need a lot of work, especially when they come in and when they are older. The work is physically exhausting, which makes the emotional a lot worse and harder to handle. Many of these animals are huge and you can get physically hurt, but the biggest issue is the work is backbreaking. It is also not pretty. You never come home without being covered in feces, blood, mud, etc. Part of the job.

The good outweighs the bad in my opinion, of course, because there is nothing on Earth like seeing happy, confident, healthy animals. Nothing can compare.

What do you mean when you say “not being able to fix the unfixable,” and how should sanctuary workers cope with it?

We are fighting a battle that is not going to be easily won, and we’re rescuing animals who have been genetically changed to grow bigger breasts, lay more eggs, produce more muscle, and are designed to live just 36 to 40 days or six months. We want them to live forever because we see them as an individual. Sadly, they are not built to live forever. So instead of taking it all on yourself―“I could have done more,” etc.―recognize that not all of their issues are fixable. Recognize that you may fail to save an animal who arrives in a condition that is not fixable, a condition that in many cases is manmade. And even more important, recognize that you cannot save them all. We have to be able to let go of those things out of our control, so we can function in our role as educators and care providers.

You doubtless have countless examples of how an animal affected you personally. Can you share one?  

Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur

It happens daily―seriously, it does. One that affected me was with Sebastian pig, who was well known as the bad boy of the pig barn. He has done some serious damage to caregivers’ pants, but also has really bit and chased a lot of people. He just doesn’t really like when he feels people are invading his space―like if they are squeezing past him or trying to get in the barn when he is at the gate. And sometimes, it is completely unprovoked.

I met him, as did others, as a tiny little piglet who was mouthy, but many are. I just never had a problem with him―we seem to get each other. Well, we had a video crew visit the farm, and they were interviewing me about my own life, and during the discussion I started crying. And Sebastian got up from his own bed across the barn and walked right up to me and plopped down beside me. No aggression, which is usually the response with new people like the camera crew, but instead he just stayed with me, and oddly I felt really safe. I think we give each other those feelings: safety, love, friendship.

In a one-on-one conversation, what do you say when you’re trying to convince someone to go vegan?

Most of my one-on-one conversations are about my relationships with these animals and where they came from. What I have seen personally when we do the rescue and then when they are finally happy, is how incredible it is that these animals who were once terrified now trust you, bond with another animal, etc. I try, not always successfully, to be as positive as I can and not make people feel attacked; I try to really get attached to the animals―cell phone photos help―and then give people very basic info.

At conferences, I’ve heard you say activists should not push themselves to view graphic images. Can you explain why you feel that way?

I think unless you are a police officer who needs to go through videos to make arrests, most people working on the ground are not watching video after video of death, rape, and violence against the beings they are attempting to protect. Because those acts are illegal, of course, they cannot be shown publicly. The videos that animal activists watch generally depict completely legal acts—because animals are considered property and have few protections—but we seem to almost thrive on watching these videos, which I think leads to burnout. On social media, I unfriend those people who only post pictures of cats being skinned, for example, or videos of an animal being tortured. It causes you to shut down. I also think it leads to more violent responses—and deep anger, which is not going to effect the changes we are hoping to see.

You said earlier that the good outweighs the bad. What else keeps you going?

There are so many times when it seems like there is no way you can deal with what you see, but while you are at a case, you have to work: help get animals loaded, assess what they need to survive a trip, etc. You go into work mode. Same with stockyard visits. High adrenaline keeps you going, but later it crashes in on you. But even when it does, in most cases we have the animals who came from these places. They are safe, we are working with them, they start to trust us and again, in most cases, they turn around. Some are so scared they throw themselves into walls or fences, and to see them join a herd or a flock and watch them finally feel safe, it just motivates you to keep going. Because there is hope. I see it not just with the animals, but when people are visiting and seeing a pig or a chicken for the first time and learning about them and touching them for the first time. And hearing them say, “I can never eat pork again” or “I had no idea that milk was cruel.” We cannot save them all, but we can help some and tell their stories. Those few can reach thousands or millions of people, and maybe they will stop eating the billions.

Finally, can you talk a little about the importance of activists visiting sanctuaries for self-care?

I do think that activists should visit sanctuaries because they can see the happiness of animals that they are fighting for every day. Seeing an animal even at a small farm is so different than seeing animals who are thriving and feel secure at a sanctuary. It gives some semblance of hope and also shows that even after the abuse, these animals can recover mentally and physically. I find it makes me stronger knowing that they can live through some of the most egregious acts, and come from the most horrific conditions, and forgive and live life fully and happily.

 

You will find more information about animal sanctuary work in the new, expanded edition of Striking at the Roots: A Practical Guide to Animal Activism, to be published in November.

 

 

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